As a hockey impresario, once you have retired the jersey of a fictitious character, held an elaborate ceremony honoring an old basketball team and nearly signed a 69-year-old Hall of Famer to play in a game, what is left to do?
If you are Howard Dolgon of East Meadow, entrepreneur and owner of the Syracuse Crunch, you shoot for an even higher goal. You think outside the ice box. You plan the first outdoor game in American Hockey League history.
Dolgon is getting more excited by the day over the Mirabito Outdoor Classic, which will match the Crunch and Binghamton Senators at the New York State Fairgrounds on Saturday. This week, the rink is taking shape on the spot where dirt track auto races are held during the summer. The 15,000 permanent seats weren't enough to meet the demand, so Dolgon has rented bleachers that will fit at least 5,000 more people-accommodating a massive turnout for a franchise that can fit only 6,500 in its regular indoor rink.
"This is David achieving what Goliath does," the Long Islander said. "We're not the NHL. We're putting this game on ourselves."
He is enthusiastic about the Calgary-based company that is installing the ice, after having leveled the surface with tons of granite. He is pumped up about the corporate sponsors who are helping foot the bill (Mirabito is opening convenience stores in central New York and wants to establish its brand) and he is psyched that local cable will carry it and that the NHL Network will show it, too, on that Saturday afternoon at 1.
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The inspiration, of course, was the National Hockey League's successful Winter Classic outdoor game each New Year's Day (the Crunch is affiliated with the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets). The idea also sprung from Dolgon's imagination, which never runs dry. He always has had a flair for promotion, having been a longtime partner at Alan Taylor Communications in Manhattan.
Dolgon and his staff once dreamed up a tribute to the old NBA Syracuse Nationals. After the death of Paul Newman, they raised the Charlestown Chiefs jersey of Reg Dunlop, the legendary player/coach portrayed by Newman in "Slap Shot." They once almost coaxed Gordie Howe out of retirement for one game, before scrapping the idea because the Crunch absolutely needed a win to make the playoffs.
Why not an outdoor game?
The reasons why not started piling up once Dolgon's plan started getting strangled in red tape. Out of the blue, he received a call from Sen. Charles Schumer, who was interested in the project, interceded with Gov. David Paterson and emboldened Dolgon to schedule the game for Dec. 5. But that fell through in the fall.
"It was one of the most frustrating experiences," Dolgon said. "My wife said, 'Why don't you go golfing?' " So he rounded up a foursome at his club, Middle Bay in Oceanside, and purposely shut off his cell phone. When he got back to the clubhouse, he was flooded with texts and voice mail from Schumer's staff. Dolgon returned the call and heard the senator say, "Howard, you're doing the game."
That got Dolgon's heart racing more than watching the Crunch does. "My blood pressure is fine, 120 over 80, when I go to a Ranger-Islander game," said the man who held Rangers season tickets for 35 years. "But when I go to a Crunch game, that's another story. My wife is a nervous wreck, not watching the game, but watching me."
He is more proud than anxious that the hockey world will be watching the Crunch in a few weeks. "What I've tried to explain to people is we'll never have a Super Bowl up here and we'll never have a Final Four," he said. "This will be the single biggest sporting event in Central New York."
Syracuse University basketball fans might quibble with that, but take it from the guy who has hired a sky diver to drop the puck, this is a big undertaking. "It has been exciting," Dolgon said, "but it's a bear."