Field of Dreams to Frozen Pond

Phillies glad to help bring hockey history to Philly

You know that old guy who used to kick you off his lawn?

Well, imagine being David Montgomery, the Phillies president and CEO.

Imagine walking out of your office every day and watching trucks and plywood and cables upon cables driven, pushed and rolled over your beautiful baseball diamond. Imagine watching all those workers, their Wawa coffees in hand, schlepping non-stop, daylight, nighttime, 24 hours, all around your well-manicured infield.

"I knew that the toughest message would be going down to tell Mike Boekholder that we were going to have ice," Montgomery said.

Boekholder is the head groundskeeper of Citizens Bank Park. Under normal circumstances, he and his crew would have begun repairing the playing field immediately upon the conclusion of the baseball season, get the grass and sod down by Nov. 1, so it could have all of the winter and early spring to root and grow. But when the Phillies agreed last summer to rent out their stadium for Monday's Winter Classic outdoor hockey game between the Flyers and New York Rangers, those plans had to be put on hold. The NHL started constructing its outdoor event here on Dec. 19, so it made no sense for Boekholder and his crew to lay new sod, only to see it ripped to pieces by the massive undertaking required to turn his field of dreams into a, well, pond.

"That is one of the things you worry about, no question," Montgomery said before surveying the operation the other day.

Poll

What do you think of the Phillies' offseason moves?

"The reality is we knew we were going to have to sacrifice our field. That's a price we will pay. It's going to be a little bit of a challenge, because when you redo the field here, normally you do it in the fall, and the growing season goes from Nov. 1 right straight through. So this will be a little shorter. But we've studied that substantially and are confident that come April, our field conditions will be fine for baseball."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said it is the NHL's preference to play in football stadiums, because they can sell more seats and line up the rink in a more fan-friendly way. Hard to argue either point, but here's what the league is learning along the way. A baseball park somehow brings more of the feel they were looking for when this event was conjured up. The grandstands of Wrigley, Fenway and now Citizens Bank Park give a more pond-hockey feel to it, more of the connection to its pond-hockey roots that the league was seeking when it first tried this amid the snow in Buffalo in 2008.

"There were a lot of uh-oh moments to that game," said Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner and an attorney. "All of which we were able to overcome, so the players felt good about that game. It was all positive that year, but there were things that happened that year that will, knock on wood, never happen again. Including the ice surface wasn't great. It was cracking in areas, causing delays. It was very wet temperaturewise. But it all came together."

"We wound up after that buying our own portable rink for seven figures," Bettman said.

That rink, housed in a Toronto warehouse and dusted off each year at this time, now lies across the Phillies infield.

"We learned a lot from that game," Bettman said. "And each year the game has gotten bigger and better, on and off the ice. We had something to build on and we used each experience to build it each year."

Here's what else they learned: Baseball parks have no scheduling conflicts. Which makes the NHL's desire to make this game an event much easier. The league came in early, and, in this case, the rink will remain for nearly a week after the Winter Classic, allowing high school teams, college teams and AHL teams to experience an outdoor game.

And allowing more people from the Delaware Valley to at least see what it looks like from inside. Montgomery beamed when he spoke of anticipated sellouts for both today's alumni game and next week's Phantoms game.

"It showcases our city," he said. "I'm born in Philadelphia and lived here my entire life, and I'm very proud of this city in so many ways. And I think one of the real sources of pride that we all should have is the vitality of the sports community and the way we support each other."

Opened in 2004, Citizens Bank Park already has built quite a resumé. A world championship, five consecutive postseason appearances, Roy Halladay's postseason no-no, the heroics of Jimmy Rollins and Cliff Lee, Billy Joel . . . 

"And now guys like Bobby Clarke and Billy Barber will have played at Citizens Bank Park," Montgomery said. "Pretty special for somebody who's been here following Philadelphia sports for a long, long time. If the South Philadelphia sports complexes have a bucket list of events of what you'd like to have, this is going to be pretty special, to check off the Bridgestone Winter Classic."

Send email to donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.