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Dan Mason has never been afraid to think outside the box-and that includes the batter's box and the penalty box. So it's not surprising that when officials from the Rochester Americans and Buffalo Sabres first broached the idea two summers ago of hosting an outdoor hockey game at Frontier Field, Mason was all ears.
It helped that the Rochester Red Wings general manager just so happens to be a baseball guy with deep hockey roots, having skated on a sectional championship team at McQuaid Jesuit High School in 1985. It also didn't hurt that Mason is a creative sort, always willing to try something new in hopes of luring people to the ballpark. He and his front office staff have come up with numerous memorable promotional ideas through the years, perhaps none more bizarre or popular than the pregame races between Wings players and the beloved Zippy Chippy, the losingest thoroughbred in North American horse racing history.
Mason was keenly aware of the success of the National Hockey League Winter Classic, staged in recent years at outdoor venues such as Ralph Wilson Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. There was no doubt in his mind that a minor-league version would work here.
"I've had the good fortune to attend World Series, Super Bowls, NCAA national championships and other major events, but that NHL Classic at the Ralph might just be the coolest sporting event I ever attended," he said. "It was a spectacle."
And that's how Mason hopes the Frozen Frontier will be regarded when the Amerks host the Lake Erie Monsters in an American Hockey League game before a packed house on Friday the 13th at 7 p.m. What separates the Frozen Frontier from the NHL Winter Classic is that it will be a 10-day outdoor hockey festival, not a one-game event.
More than 50 games will be played, showcasing teams from Rochester Institute of Technology (both men's and women's), local high schools, youth leagues, and men's and women's rec leagues. Businesses also have rented ice time for office skating parties. And the Wings and Amerks have set aside slots for public skates, including one with Santa Claus and team mascots Spikes and the Moose.
Besides the city's two iconic sports franchises, the sponsors are Rochester-area Honda dealers and Labatt Brewing.
"The response from the community has been phenomenal," Mason said. "The initial plan was to just host a game with the Amerks. And then we decided to get RIT and some of the high school teams involved. We originally had just a couple of high school games scheduled, but once the word got out, everybody wanted in, and now we have two full days devoted to nothing but high school games. That was really the turning point for us. That's when we knew this event was going to exceed all expectations."
One of the great appeals of outdoor hockey is that it takes the game back to its roots and strikes a nostalgic chord with anyone who ever laced up a pair of skates as a kid. Include Mason among those with fond recollections of playing hockey outside. He vividly remembers his dad flooding a 40-by-80-foot rink for him and his sister and their friends in the backyard of their Rochester home.
"I'd come home from school, do my homework, have dinner, then go out and skate for hours on end in the evening," he said. "Whenever we could, we'd be out there on that rink, playing hockey or just skating around. I really cherish those memories."
Mason jokes that the rink upkeep he learned from his father benefited him in his current career. "I think that's where my groundskeeping skills were developed," he said, laughing. "I did a lot of shoveling, and my dad taught me how to water the ice just right. It helped when it came time to pull tarps and put down the Diamond Dry at the ballpark. It gave me a great appreciation for everything that goes into prepping a sports venue."
A huge part of Mason's job as a baseball general manager is dealing with the weather. "That's a major reason my hair is all gray," he said. "It was brown until I had to start worrying about snow flurries on opening day or the threat of a thunderstorm on a Saturday night in August when we're expecting 10,000 people."
Now, as a hockey host, he's hoping Rochester's finicky weather doesn't throw him a curve during the Frozen Frontier. Unlike the backyard rink of his youth, the rink at the ballpark has refrigerated pipes underneath to keep the ice frozen and a Zamboni to keep it smooth. But keeping the surface at just the right hardness obviously will be a trickier proposition outdoors because of temperature fluctuations, sunshine and possibly precipitation.
"I've ordered 30-degree temperatures and no wind, snow or rain for all 10 days," he said. "Hopefully, Mother Nature received my request. Either way, we'll just roll with it, like we do during the baseball season. We'll adjust to whatever she throws our way."
Mason can't wait for the first game to commence. "This is going to give fans in our community an opportunity to come to a place they love and enjoy a different sport that they love," he said. "I think it's going to be a win-win for everybody."
For a week and a half, the puck stops here. A ballpark usually in hibernation this time of year will be transformed into a winter wonderland.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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