ATLANTIC CITY, NJ — Scott Hartnell stood at center ice with a collection of teammates and rivals, NHL players locked out by the League's owners.
Nearly 11,000 fans crammed Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ, on Saturday night, to watch them compete for three periods of exhibition hockey, raising money to help those who lost everything in Hurricane Sandy.
The fans' chant near the end of the game?
"WE WANT HOC-KEY."
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't get choked up a little bit with 11,000 people chanting that they want hockey back," said Hartnell, who helped organize the Operation Hat Trick event and captained a team that lost to one captained by Brad Richards of the New York Rangers, 10-6.
"We want to be playing. It's unfortunate that we're not playing right now," said Hartnell.
The event, organized in a matter of weeks, saw fans paying upwards of $100 for tickets while game gear and jerseys were auctioned off by Steiner Sports. The game raised money for the Empire State Relief Fund, the New Jersey Hurricane Relief Fund and the American Red Cross, benefiting New York and New Jersey families affected by Sandy.
Another group the NHL all-star event undeniably benefited: The jersey-clad, beer-swilling hockey fanatics that have been deprived of the NHL this season. The Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils fans (among others) that filled the rink cheered and chanted, leaving the players appreciating the atmosphere.
Devils goalie Marty Brodeur, for example, was booed during introductions, as Rangers and Flyers fans found common ground. (They would later join together for a bellowing "Crosby Sucks" chant, despite the Pittsburgh Penguins star not being a part of the event.) Brodeur was also mocked with the sing-song "Marrrt-y" chants when he struggled in the first period.
"It was like playoff hockey out there, even though it was lollygag hockey with a lot of fancy plays. But the fans were really into it," said Brodeur.
It was a chance for the fans to live the NHL game-night experience for the first time in months. But it was also a chance for them to register their anger towards the lockout, the NHL — and Gary Bettman in particular.
Operation Hat Trick was the brainchild of Joe Watson, senior vice president of national marketing for Caesars Entertainment's Eastern Division. He suggested the idea of a charity game to Hartnell while they watched the Philadelphia Eagles several weeks ago.
It became apparent that Boardwalk Hall would be an ideal location, given the damage Hurricane Sandy had done to Atlantic City … and, well, given the fact that it's about a three minute walk from Caesars.
Before the game, the casino at Caesars Atlantic City looked like it was being invaded by puckheads. Interspersed with well dressed patrons playing card games were bright orange Flyers sweaters, dark blue Rangers jerseys and other fans wearing NHL swag.
Larry Flood, a Flyers fan wearing a Dave Schultz sweater, stood in the Roman columned atrium of Caesars an hour before the game. "I think it's great. A good way to get players playing during the lockout, while raising money for a great cause," he said.
Like many hockey fans, Flood's been trying to feed his hockey addiction during the prolonged lockout. "I have plenty of DVDs. Been watching them to get my fill," he said.
But along with helping the victims of Sandy, he saw the Operation Hat Trick game as a way to reconnect with the game — and the game-going experience.
"Looking for a little bit of something to hold onto," said Flood.
Flood shared that desire for NHL normalcy with many others in attendance. The fans that proudly wore their colors around Atlantic City on game day. The fans that chanted for the Flyers or Rangers, or razzed Brodeur. The fans that hugged after goals like their favorite player was chasing the Art Ross.
And, of course, the fans that were pounding beer.
In the parking garage of Caesars. On the boardwalk. And in the arena, where Bill from Atlantic City was sipping suds before the game, in the last row of the lower bowl.
Was it surreal to be back in an arena with a beer, getting ready to watch NHL players despite the League being locked out?
"I looked at my season tickets this morning, and I can't explain it," said the Flyers fan. "The awkward feeling of all of these hockey fans in the same room. I can't explain it."
How much does he miss the NHL?
"I don't want to talk about it."
"LET'S GO HOC-KEY!"
Matt Angelucci and his brother Mike started the chant on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, as thousands of fans lined up to enter the hall. The Philadelphians soon added a coda to their chant:
Matt Angelucci admitted that "it's been a pretty love/hate relationship" with hockey for the last few months during the lockout.
"I still love the sport, but I gotta say if hockey ever comes back I might put up a lockout of my own," he said. "It's just upsetting what they're doing. They're tearing away the fans from this sport again."
His brother said the constant highs and lows of the lockout have been exhausting.
"They've been on and off giving us hope and then shutting it down. They've been giving us good news, and then giving us awful news, going nowhere," said Mike Angelucci.
While the good vibes of charity, and witnessing NHL players back on the ice. prevailed at Boardwalk Hall, the lockout was a looming shadow over the evening.
There was a voluminous "FIRE BETTMAN" chant before the game, and fans would randomly echo the chant through the game. A girl in a Flyers jersey carried a sign proclaiming that Bettman was on Santa's "Naughty List." Every chant of "WE LOVE HOCKEY" was drenched in fan angst over the work stoppage.
It all ran the risk of politicizing a charity event, but NHLPA boss Donald Fehr had already embraced the risk — speaking with the media after updating the players in the game on the CBA talks earlier in the day.
While it's callous to suggest the public relations aspects of the game outweighed its charity aims, having the NHLPA's chief negotiator on site to speak, without an NHL rebuttal, seemed awkwardly calculated for what should have been a non-partisan evening.
The "BETTMAN SUCKS" chants were no doubt ear candy for Donald Fehr.
• • •
Ariella Campolla of Belmar stood by the glass during warm-ups with a message to Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos:
"As soon as I heard he was coming, I knew I had to have a sign. I absolutely love him," said Campolla, wearing a Flyers Max Talbot jersey.
As the skate for Team Hartnell came to an end, Stamkos skated over to the glass. Campolla tossed a puck over with a pen. Stamkos signed the puck, and tossed it back.
"I think it's great. It's my fix of hockey," she said.
Later, P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens skated over to the same area, acknowledging his own sign from a fan. He autographed a few rally towels — they were handed out to fans as they entered the rink — including one for Tommy Franks, 13, of Cedar Run.
"It's pretty cool," said Franks of the charity game, "and it supports the people of Hurricane Sandy."
Does he miss the NHL?
"A lot … mad at the owners."
When the game was over, Hartnell and the players raised their sticks at center ice to salute the fans before taking a team picture.
It's uncertain when they'd perform in front of NHL fans again. But they heard the fans' desires loud and clear that night:
"WE WANT HOCKEY"
"The fans are very passionate. They want some hockey. Hopefully we gave them a little show tonight, and they can hold onto that," said Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi.
"I think everyone wants hockey. Owners, players … everyone wants hockey."