Believe it or not, Cleveland has never had an outdoor professional hockey game in the city’s nearly 90-year history with the sport. Considering how many teams have called Cleveland home (Barons, Indians, Falcons, Crusaders, Barons again, Lumberjacks and Monsters), that’s surprising – especially when the city’s history has footnotes in the AHL, the IHL, the WHA and the NHL.
Thankfully, for Cleveland’s sake, it didn’t take 100 years to see professional hockey in the great outdoors. On Saturday afternoon, the Cleveland Monsters, the AHL affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets, hosted the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, along the shores of Lake Erie at FirstEnergy Stadium for the inaugural Cleveland Monsters Outdoor Classic.
Granted, took a little later than originally planned due to the sunny conditions throwing a wrench in things. But, eventually, both teams took the ice and things were underway. Fortunately, for the Cleveland fans in attendance, their Monsters were able to pull off the comeback, defeating the Penguins 3-2 in overtime. For the better part of the game, Cleveland was down 2-0 to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Penguins scored two goals in the opening period from Peter DiLiberatore at 5:42 and Raivis Ansons shorthanded at 15:06 sending the Monsters to the first intermission trailing 2-0.
Justin Richards cut the lead in half late in the middle frame with a power-play goal at 19:28 assisted by Owen Sillinger and Carson Meyer bringing the score to 2-1 after 40 minutes. Marcus Bjork tied the game at 1:25 of the third period with helpers from Trey Fix-Wolansky and Jake Christiansen forcing overtime. Bjork struck again 31 seconds into the extra frame off a feed from Josh Dunne securing the 3-2 win for the Monsters all while winning Cleveland’s first-ever outdoor professsional hockey game for the fans that stuck around for the later start.
“I’ve had a number of delays so, for me, it was status quo,” joked Cleveland defenceman Dillon Simpson to the media postgame. “For the guys who stuck around, they had to keep their minds sharp. You can do what you can to keep your body relaxed but ready to go and I think everyone did a good job staying mentally sharp and just rolling with the punches.”
Simpson also shared, like the fans, because of the delay some stuck around while others left FirstEnergy stadium to find a way to kill some of the down time. But, despite the late start and a bit of uncertainty, the Monsters had their fans backing them in the end. In total, 22,875 were in attendance alongside the lakefront for the outdoor event, and the third-most attended game in AHL history. For the Monsters, it’s a shade above the 19,665 people that attended Cleveland’s Calder Cup-clinching game in 2016. Typically, Cleveladn draws 9,533 fans on average to see them this season. So, with an even larger fifth line than normal, Cleveland was able to ride their electricity to victory.
“Huge shoutout to the fans,” said Simpson. “I mean, we talk about it all the time: they show up good times or bad times. Today, that’s a long one for them. I’m sure they had a heckuva day but to see that many people in the stands and to be that loud was great for us.”
“Just going back out there for the game and to see all the fans back out there, it’s my first outdoor game and it’s just a surreal moment,” said forward Josh Dunne. “It’s something every kid has ever dreamed about.”
With the win, the Monsters were 23-24-4-2 on the season but, unfortunately fell to the Penguins on Sunday night 6-4 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mind you, Cleveland is still in seventh place in the AHL’s North Division despite the loss and are still very much in the mix for a playoff appearance. Sure, the focus always has been the postseason for everyone on the Monsters. But, as Dunne said, they were able to enjoy some Lake Erie magic on Saturday night and found an electric way to kick off what surely will be an outdoor staple for years to come.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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