Jan 18, 2024

By Warren Kosel

They say playing hockey outdoors takes you back to your roots. To a time when the game was most fun and being on the ice from sunup to sundown was all you cared about.


Quite simply, it’s hockey in its purest form.


A glimmering sheet of ice overlooked by the sun in the distance and just enough chill in the air to keep the ice at perfect condition.



And when the Rochester Americans arrived at Truist Field in Charlotte on Thursday afternoon for practice, all they could do was take in the mesmerizing view that greeted them following their long walk from the clubhouse and up the steps of the third base dugout.


The Amerks players instantaneously transformed from grown men to youthful, gleeful children upon seeing the perfectly positioned rink within the infield of what is traditionally home to the International League’s Charlotte Knights Triple-A baseball club with the city’s pristine skyline providing the picture-perfect backdrop.


The sun was shining bright, and the temperature was a more-than-comfortable 50 degrees, normal for a winter day in Charlotte.



The sight was truly one of a kind, almost overwhelming at times, especially considering many of the Amerks players never experienced playing in a setting like this before.


It was an all-new experience for Amerks head coach Seth Appert, too. Even with all the accolades and special events he’s been fortunate enough to be a part of in his coaching career, never before has the 49-year-old been behind the bench for an outdoor game.


Even Appert had to take a minute to soak it all in, bringing him back to his younger years skating on the Mississippi River with his brothers while growing up in Minnesota.



“Outdoor hockey, I think for all of us, even at my age, still brings back your best memories as a hockey player,” said Appert. “I grew up on an island on the Mississippi River and my brothers and I would be out there on the back channels of the Mississippi skating for hours. That’s where you fall in love with the game. That’s where you get a lot of your creativity and where a lot of your competitiveness stems from. Really great memories of playing outside.”


But while it was difficult to not get consumed by the ambiance and overall excitement of the weekend, this was a business trip after all for the Amerks with an important four points on the line.


The hoopla and anticipation surrounding the Queen City Outdoor Classic, the 12th outdoor game in the history of the American Hockey League, had to be put on hold temporarily as the Amerks couldn’t overlook Friday’s indoor matchup with the Checkers at Bojangles Coliseum.



Rochester emerged victorious on Friday on the strength of a pair of third-period goals, including the game-winner from Joseph Cecconi in the closing minutes of regulation. The 3-2 win guaranteed the Amerks at least a split of the weekend set and gave a modest Appert his 100th career win as Rochester’s head coach, a feat only six others in franchise history have done ahead of him.


But despite the milestone win for Appert, one which came with congratulatory video testimonials from several of his former players and colleagues, the attention, focus and excitement now shifted to Saturday’s highly anticipated event outdoors.


“This is a cool opportunity to be a part of and the guys are obviously really excited,” said Appert after Saturday’s morning skate. “The setting is gorgeous with the weather and the backdrop of the city.”



But with any outdoor game, the unpredictability of the weather and elements can undoubtedly have an impact, so getting the win the night before was paramount.


“It helps to win the one that was inside because today’s game is more of an event,” said Appert beforehand. “Yes, you want to win, but it’s going to be a little bit more random with the ice conditions, being outside, the bounciness of the boards, all of that stuff.”


The matchup started out well for Rochester, which opened the scoring in the final minutes of the first period when Linus Weissbach converted a one-time set-up from Kale Clague and Lukas Rousek. The Amerks and Checkers traded goals in the second period, sending the teams into the break tied at 2-2 after 40 minutes.



Charlotte then pulled away in the third period, relying on a three-goal run to come away with a 5-2 victory in front of a standing-room only crowd of 11,031.


While Appert admitted it was disappointing to not close out the weekend with two wins, the opportunity to participate in a marquee event such as the Queen City Outdoor Classic certainly lessened the sting of the loss.


“It was an awesome event and really cool to be a part of,” said Appert afterwards. “I think winning and losing is pretty random, after participating in it, with the bounces and the way the game plays out. We had them right where we wanted, it was 2-2 in the middle of the third period, and unfortunately, they made a couple plays and their goaltender had several big saves.”



But even trailing at that point in the game, Appert still found a way to overlook his team’s three-goal deficit and encourage his players to take in the experience and relish in the moment that was in front of them.


“Despite being down in the third period, I told the guys on the bench during a TV timeout just to look around and take it all in. These opportunities rarely come along, and you never know when they will again, so take a moment and appreciate what this game means to you and how far it’s taken you.”


“It’s a different style with the ice conditions being a little different than they would in an inside rink, but it was really fun, a great experience,” said Amerks captain Michael Mersch, who competed in an outdoor game in college with the University of Wisconsin. “We would have liked to come out on top, but it was a great experience, so you have to remember the good parts of it.”



The off-ice pageantry made the presentation of the event all the more extraordinary, from the pregame arrival at Fan Fest in Red Wings baseball attire, to the powerful, evocative on-field entrance accompanied by fireworks and a five-plane flyover at the conclusion of the national anthem.



And in even in defeat, the hundreds of Rochester faithful that showed up expressed their adoration as the Amerks players made the seemingly long and lonely walk back to the clubhouse.


“It was awesome that they came down here to support us, especially in such a cool event like this,” said Mersch. “To have the support from our home fans in Rochester, it just shows this team has a lot of history and a lot of fans who really care about our team, so it was really special.”



“We’ve talked it about before, playoffs last year, especially Game 5 at Syracuse,” added Appert, referring to the support of the Amerks fans in attendance. “Walking through the streets here and seeing the jerseys and coming into the game tonight, we’re just really fortunate enough to have the fan base that we do.”


This was certainly like no other game. For the players and coaches, the Queen City Outdoor Classic offered not only a chance to be a part of something special, but it was also an opportunity to revisit their youth when the game was most fun.



For one day, Truist Field in Charlotte was the gateway to the Field of Dreams for the Amerks, but the memories made will last a lifetime.

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