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While July temperatures heat up the baseball pennant races, Walleye officials can envision light snow falling over an outdoor hockey rink at Fifth Third Field.
Preparations for a 10-day winter extravaganza in downtown Toledo are beginning to snowball. The momentum has been steadily building for more than two years. Now that the Winterfest event is a mere 150 days away, the excitement is palpable.
Fifth Third Field will be the site of the ECHL’s first outdoor hockey game. A full-size hockey rink will be the centerpiece for two Toledo Walleye games.
Mike Keedy, special events manager for the Walleye, said a tremendous amount of work has put the organization in great position to make history.
“It's starting to feel more and more real. This will be the most exciting thing that has ever happened in Toledo hockey and at Fifth Third Field,” Keedy said. “This is the biggest sports event Toledo has ever hosted. It will be 10 days of nonstop entertainment.”
The event, which will be held from Dec. 26 to Jan. 4, will include college, high school, and youth hockey games.
Keedy said one of the main goals was to make Winterfest a true “community event.”
“The cornerstone will be the Walleye games. But first and foremost it's open to the community,” Keedy said.
The Walleye will play Kalamazoo on Dec. 27 and then Fort Wayne on Jan. 3
The event also will include a college game between Bowling Green State University and Robert Morris University and more than 100 youth, high school, and adult games. An alumni game featuring former Toledo pro players against Fort Wayne players also will be held.
The U.S. National U-18 Team will play Adrian College, while a youth tournament also will take place. A Brewfest, featuring more than 250 beers from over 50 breweries, has been planned.
The rink will be available for the general public to use and Keedy said people have even signed up for a midnight open skate.
“I'm looking forward to the sheer amount of people that will be able to skate on the rink,” Keedy said. “And team after team will play on the outdoor rink. That's one of the coolest things. There will be hundreds of people.”
Brian Perkins, the team's director of ticket sales, said more than 12,000 tickets have already been sold for the Walleye games.
“The goal is to hit 10,000 for each game,” Perkins said. “We have about 60 percent of that sold. So we're thrilled and we still have five months to go. Each passing day we get more and more excited. As we get closer to the event more and more people are interested in game plans.”
Perkins said there are three ways to get tickets to the Winterfest events. The premium seats will go to fans who have game plans for Walleye or Mud Hens games. A package ranging from $75 to $95 (club seats) includes a ticket to both Walleye games, the opening day fan fest, an open skate pass, and a ticket to a college game.
“You get a lot for that package,” Perkins said. “A lot of the tickets for other outdoor games were over $100 for just one game.”
Individual ticket packages, priced at $85 for both games, also are on sale now. Single game tickets also are available for $25 for seats with limited viewing.
The event follows a national trend of outdoor hockey games. The NHL and college games have increased in frequency since the University of Michigan played Michigan State University at Spartan Stadium in 2001. The NHL now holds an annual outdoor game on New Year's Day.
Keedy said Walleye officials attended outdoor games at Comerica Park in Detroit and at Soldier Field in Chicago.
“Every time I go to the event, the atmosphere and excitement is unparalleled,” Keedy said. “It's just a different kind of feel.”
Keedy said the games provided insight into the logistics of hosting such an event. He said it helped determine where the rink would be best positioned and which company would be hired to install it.
“There were countless conference calls and meetings about things like where the Zamboni will enter the ice and where it will dump the snow after the ice is cleaned,” he said. “We had to determine where the chiller will be located and how to power it.”
A 430-ton chiller system will be used to keep the ice frozen during the event.
Rink Specialists Inc., which is based in North Carolina, has been awarded the contract to construct the temporary outdoor rink. It will take three weeks to build the 200-foot long by 100-foot-wide rink, which will stretch from first base to third base. Center ice will be where second base is anchored at Fifth Third. The nets would be roughly in shallow left field and shallow right field.
“We're excited to bring outdoor hockey to Toledo and the ECHL for the very first time,” said Rich Cubin, the owner of Rink Specialists, Inc. “Toledo is the No. 1 minor league sports market in America and a perfect fit for our next outdoor hockey production.”
Walleye coach Derek Lalonde said momentum is building for the outdoor games.
“Our organization wants to be that premiere organization,” he said. “We want to do things grandiose like this.”
The cost of the event is expected to be around $1 million.
Perkins said putting the event together has been akin to planning a huge wedding.
“There are a lot of i's to to dot and t's to cross,“ he said.
For info about the event call 419-725-9255 or go to toledowalleye.com/winterfest.
“This is not something we could possibly put together in a year,” Keedy said. “It's been such a large project. Collectively with the ticketing, marketing, corporate partners, fanwear, and all the parties involved, we've been dedicated to this. We've put ourselves in great position with it just five months away.”