Published Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 10:46 pm
HOCKEY
Shatel: It's a party as Omaha, literally, warms to its latest ballpark venture

Just after 1 p.m., North Dakota fans tailgated in Lot B. In short sleeves. Welcome to sunny Omaha.

A few blocks away, across the street from the Tip Top building, a group of UNO fans had a game of black-top hockey going in a parking lot. Including a net.

The revelers took to the streets in Lancers orange, Lincoln Stars blue, North Dakota green and Maverick red and black. Gorgeous winter's day. Life all around TD Ameritrade Park. A College World Series on skates. Game on. Party on.

Hey, did anyone bring any ice?

The Mutual of Omaha “Battles on Ice” doubleheader had everything a hockey fan and event organizer could want, with one small glitch. Baseball weather.

The combination of the sun and the unseasonably warm temperatures (50 degrees) made it a terrific day for a hockey party. It would have been perfect if they didn't have to play hockey.

The ice rink was perfectly fine when the Lancers and Stars dropped the USHL puck at noon. But the sun threw a cross-check into the event.

By the second period of the first game, the blue lines and colored logos were blue and red slushies. Workers had to come out during stoppages and use fire extinguishers on the lines.

Players had to jump over the blue lines rather than skate across the ruts.

At least there wasn't any icing. The puck couldn't slide that far.

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The second game was delayed two hours and 35 minutes. There were thoughts of postponing it until Sunday. There were fingers crossed that ice outside on Feb. 9, in Omaha, Nebraska, wouldn't melt when the sun went down.

The second game started at 6:35 p.m. North Dakota scored three goals in the first 10:32. By then it was too late for UNO fans to ask the sun to come back out.

Then there was another delay, this time because a green fluid was overflowing one goal area, as if Jed Clampett had taken a shot at it. Actually, it was antifreeze from a pipe that burst below the ice.

There were hockey fans and big-event fans who were rolling their eyes and officials smiling sheepishly. Battles on Ice? Yes. In more ways than one.

“Who would have thought the sun would be shining in Omaha in February?” said Harold Cliff, president of the Omaha Sports Commission.

Well, it wasn't that big of a reach. This isn't Siberia. The sun has been known to shine throughout February. What we don't usually get is golf weather before Valentine's Day. The fans who sat outside for the evening game were treated to comfortable temps. I've been colder at Nebraska-Creighton baseball games.

Mostly, there was no shortage of people calling this event a disaster, a bomb, a waste of time.

I loved it.

It was fascinating and surreal to sit outside and watch a hockey game in a large stadium. The action was far away. The sight lines were different, not necessarily bad. The rink went from third base to first base. One puck flew into right field.

Meanwhile, they were playing hockey with the Omaha skyline lit up brilliantly in the backdrop.

It was absolutely different.

It was downright cool.

INTERACTIVE PANORAMA
Check out the interactive panoramic photo from Saturday's Battles on Ice opener. Were you at the historic event?

I'm glad they did this. I don't know if they'll do it again. I don't know if they accomplished their purpose, which was to throw a huge party and hope a casual fan stumbled in and liked what he saw and decided to come back.

As Lancers owner Ben Robert said: “Our game is on the outside of the sports world. This was our chance to highlight our sport.”

Chances are, any new hockey fans there may have left saying, “You've got to be kidding. What a mess.”

But any newcomers should know that what they saw on display was pure hockey, everything the sport is about. That's what I liked about it.

There were hearty fans who stuck it out for the love of the sport (hockey fans know how to fill a two-hour delay). There were players, wide-eyed and bubbly over the chance to play in an outside spectacle. And there were coaches, officials and players who shrugged off the delays because hockey is the most no-nonsense, no-excuse, no-whining sport of all.

So it got a little warm in sunny Omaha. That was never the problem in sunny International Falls, Minn., back in the day.

“I grew up on outdoor ice,” said UNO coach Dean Blais, from International Falls. “We played high school hockey outside until 1969. We had four months of outdoor ice, November through February. During deer season, we would skate across the lake with our guns.

“The sun was out, but it never got to be 50 degrees. The warmest it ever got was 20. Most of the time, it was 10 below.”

I ran into Rick Jeffries, sergeant at arms for the UNO Red Army of hardcore fans. Jeffries has been a Mav hockey fan since the first season, 1997. From his seat in section 231, in the upper deck, the day was anything but a disaster.

“I loved the idea and I still do,” Jeffries said before the UNO game. “This is a game that grew up outdoors. It deserves to have this spectacle, it deserves to have this attention, it deserves to have a big party. Some people are going to complain. But some people don't want to do anything.”

That's exactly right, and exactly the best part about this day. Sure, this was unorthodox, it clashed up against the evening's Creighton game, it looked forced and awkward at times.

But at least Omaha is trying things. The Sports Commission and MECA are willing to fall on the mushy ice, get back up and try again. We have big-time facilities, but the imagination to fill them is equally important.

Will this happen again? The Lancers' Robert said no, this was it for him. But Blais said he's in favor of another outdoor event. Presumably, when UNO's new on-campus arena would serve as Plan B. You know, in case the sun comes out.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

* * *

>> Video: Game highlights from Saturday's UNO-North Dakota outdoor hockey game:



>> Video: Thawing ice delays Battles on Ice:



>> 360-degrees: This virtual reality look at TD Ameritrade Park as Jim Cornelison sings the National Anthem before the University of Nebraska at Omaha hockey game against North Dakota during The Mutual of Omaha Battles on Ice event was made by stitching several images together. To look around click your mouse anywhere in the image and drag it to the direction you wish to see. You can also use the arrow keys to move around. To zoom use the "control" and "shift" keys.


Note: QuickTime 7 software required

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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