The times around Northeastern Pennsylvania are changing.
And it's starting to change the minds of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton hockey executives about the feasibility of hosting an outdoor game.
It's something that, if possible, we would like to do, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins CEO Jeff Barrett said. We do have to do a lot of research before we do that leap of faith.
It doesn't take much investigation to discover where Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's reinvigorated interest in hosting and outdoor hockey game stems from.
The Penguins spent last weekend in Hershey playing the AHL's fifth Outdoor Classic, which attracted more than 32,000 fans over two days to Hersheypark Stadium for an alumni game and regular season AHL contest.
Despite temperatures that dipped into the low 20s last Sunday, more than 17,000 fans not only showed up, but most of them stuck around through overtime to watch the Penguins upend Hershey, 2-1.
From the feedback we got, we had an awful lot of fans in Hershey, Barrett said.
Maybe next time, they won't have to travel as far to watch their Penguins play on an outside rink.
The idea of hosting an outdoor game has intrigued Penguins officials since the AHL approved its first Outdoor Classic between Syracuse and Binghamton, held at the New York State Fairgrounds in 2010.
Since then, outdoor AHL hockey games have been held yearly, at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn., in 2011; one Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and another at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton, Ont., last year; and last Sunday's showdown at Hersheypark Stadium.
We've investigated, we've looked into it, said Barrett, who expressed a desire to host an outdoor event the night back in March when the Hershey game was announced.
Part of the problem in the past, Barrett said, was the Penguins couldn't really find a viable venue to host an outdoor game in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Pocono Raceway, once thought to be an ideal destination for such an outdoor hockey endeavor, was quickly ruled out because the racetrack doesn't have lights.
There are two big weather-related threats to the game, Barrett said. Rain would be number one. Sunshine is number two. That's why you try to play the game at 5 o'clock.
A couple of other area venues were also put out of play.
The original PNC Field had too many structural problems to host a cold-weather hockey game.
It wasn't winterized, Barrett said. All the pipes could break because they weren't ready for winter time.
And Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs was more focused on adding a hotel to its property than hashing through hockey talk.
But the Penguins could make a case for playing in either venue now.
The remodeled PNC Field, which drew rave reviews Saturday during its first public showing since refurbishing began in the fall, could be an attractive outdoor hockey site. And with a new hotel currently being constructed at Mohegan Sun Casino, it may not be such a gamble to listen to a proposal from the Penguins – who would target hosting an outdoor game on the Pocono Downs race track..
Barrett makes it clear the Penguins haven't yet approached either place about the possibility playing hockey there.
We're beginning that process now, Barrett said. With the new PNC Field, they've got a beautiful new ballpark that would be a great fit. Same thing with the casino, with their hotel and convention center.
From when we looked at it in the past, things have changed.
Whether these new options will transform this vision of an outdoor hockey game around here into reality remains to be seen.
Both places would need some work to make the game work.
With the scaled-down seating at PNC Field, which is expected to hold about 10,000 fans, and at Pocono Downs race track, portable seats would likely have to be installed at either site.
And if Pocono Downs turned out to be the destination, a temporary raised foundation would have to be built before an ice rink was installed.
That's very doable, Barrett said. Syracuse did something very similar (at the New York State Fairgrounds). (But) it's an expensive venture.
And Barrett says any such foray into the outdoors would have to be inexpensive to fans.
I don't want to charge $100 a ticket, Barrett said. I want to make it as affordable as I can for the people here.
To do that, he needs numbers.
Barrett said when the final figures come in from last weekend's game in Hershey, he'll have a better idea of how financially viable such an event would be, and what it would take to bring one to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area.
He suspects it would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars, and profits would be marginal, at best.
We'd need a ton of sponsors, Barrett said. It's almost like putting on an All-Star game, which we've done. But it's a little more complicated. It would have to be a winter carnival-type atmosphere for the community, with things like a public skate, youth hockey games.
The Penguins would have to receive permission from the AHL, something Barrett believes wouldn't be an issue.
Obviously we'd have to have our ducks in a row before we go to the league and ask permission, Barrett said.
This is something we can't do unless we're not going to lose a ton of money, he continued. It's something you don't go into thinking you're going to make a windfall on. We'd look at it as trying to promote the game, promote our team.
And if the Penguins make a serious push for outdoor ice time, it may not be long before the Penguins are hosting an Outdoor Classic instead of traveling to one.
Could it be next year? Possibly, Barrett said. Everything's up in the air. Most likely, it'll be a couple years down the road. I absolutely think it's feasible.
And it's something we'd like to do.