Traditionally, the second half of December is an uneventful time of year for those who work in Minor League Baseball. With the Winter Meetings in the rearview mirror, the waning days of the calendar year often function as an extended fadeout into a well-deserved holiday respite.
But try telling that to the Rochester Red Wings, who, contrary to established industry operating protocol, are in the midst of what may just be their busiest stretch of the year. From Dec. 13-22, the team is hosting the "Frozen Frontier," a festival of ice hockey that serves as the offseason equivalent of a 10-game homestand.
The event, so named because it is taking place at the Triple-A Twins affiliate's home at Frontier Field, kicked off with an American Hockey League contest between the Buffalo Sabres-affiliated Rochester Americans (commonly referred to as the "Amerks") and the Lake Erie Monsters. Following that flagship affair, the Frozen Frontier has gone on to feature hockey matches at all levels of play as well as open skate sessions with mascots on ice and a guest appearances by Santa Claus.
The Red Wings were first approached with the idea of converting their home into a hockey arena during the 2012 baseball season. Or as general manager Dan Mason calls it, "the busiest summer ever." That year, Frontier Field played host not just to the Red Wings but also the bulk of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees home games. (Extensive stadium renovations had temporarily left the latter organization without a place to call home.)
"[Amerks VP of business operations] Rob Kopacz showed up at a Yankees game with Ted Black, president of the Sabres," recalled Mason. "Ted said, 'Listen, we have an idea, we'd like to see what you think.' And it was an intriguing idea, so we walked around the stadium, toured the clubhouses, and operationally, came to the conclusion that this was something we could do."
The idea was, of course, that the Red Wings host an outdoor AHL game at Frontier Field. But given all that the Red Wings were going through at the time, they, in a most apropos fashion, put the idea on ice.
"Given how busy we were, we put it on the back burner, but fired the discussions up again until we got to the point in January of 2013 where we were ready to say, 'Let's give it a shot,'" Mason said.
Using the Amerks-Monsters game as an anchor, Mason and his staff cobbled together a 10-day schedule of hockey matches, with highlights including a Rochester Institute of Technology doubleheader featuring both men's and women's teams as well as an alumni game between former Amerks and Sabres. Those events, combined with ample open skating sessions, have ensured that the Red Wings' on-field ice rink gets plenty of use.
"We've got time slots occupied by youth teams and three-on-three tournaments, and Santa has taken time out of his schedule for the open skates. The good kids are at center ice, while the bad kids pick up their coal in the penalty box," said Mason. "There aren't many open spots, where nothing is going on. We've been pretty much at full speed from 6:30 in the morning to 11 at night."
Being a baseball team, the Red Wings understandably know little about the installation and maintenance of temporary ice hockey rinks. A company with the apt name of Rink Specialists has been handling this end of the operation, having worked with baseball teams nationwide. (Concurrent with the Frozen Frontier, the company is running similar operations at Fenway Park in Boston and Comerica Park in Detroit.) Therefore, the day-to-day job duties of Mason and his staff remain constant.
"Our job is to fill seats, just like baseball, making sure that people have a good time," he said before applying one of Minor League Baseball's most frequently used clichés. "We're in the business of making memories, and this is just another opportunity for our staff to reach out to a different fan base, creating incredible memories for those who are watching and those who are playing."
With one weekend still to go, tens of thousands of people already have streamed into Frontier Field during what otherwise would have been a quiet time of year. The obvious highlight was Dec. 13's Amerks game -- a come-from-behind shootout win over Erie -- which drew over 11,000 fans. The next day, a crowd of 4,760 showed up for the Rochester Institute of Technology men's game, despite less than ideal weather. Mason noted in an email that "we filled eight 50-gallon garbage cans [with snow] every media timeout, which is every five minutes."
Despite the strong showing at the gate, Mason stops short of saying there will be a Frozen Frontier sequel.
"We'll have to take a step back and analyze the numbers, and see if it works financially," he said. "Part of the intrigue with this is its novelty, and we don't want to lose that. So while we probably won't do it next year, perhaps down the road, we'll consider it again. The response is what we hoped it would be."
Nonetheless, another summer of Red Wings baseball can't come soon enough.
"Over the last three days, we've shoveled enough to last three winters," said Mason. "If we don't shovel for a couple of years, I think we'd all be fine with that."