It’s a little after 7 p.m and the cold wind is blowing. The Hall of Fame Club level of Citizens Bank Park is full to capacity as the players walk out of the tunnel, through the dugout and onto the field, finally making their way onto the ice rink located in shallow center field. The ice is soft as the temperature hovers slightly above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, with the ice crew constantly working before the puck is to be dropped.
Each team knows the other well, having played against one another countless times. Some might say the two teams are bitter rivals. After the official announcement, the two teams waited anxiously as they took more than a month off in preparation for this once-in-a-lifetime event.
The event in most of your minds could and should be the National Hockey League Winter Classic, which took place at Citizens Bank Park Jan. 2 as the New York Rangers topped the hometown Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 after falling behind by two goals early in the game. But no, that is not the focus of this piece.
This is about the Crosstown Classic, featuring the likes of two of Philadelphia’s premier universities, Villanova and Drexel.
“We usually play each other twice a year. It’s always heated with how close the schools are. Some of their guys know some of our guys, and they go back and forth; the competition level is always very high when we play these guys,” Drexel head coach Gregg Marinari said. “[Villanova is a] very good team, and with the way we’re in the league together, they weren’t going to let us just walk away very easily.”
The Dragons came into the exhibition matchup between the two opponents as the home team, garnering the honor of gracing the Phillies’ locker room with their presence.
“It was a completely surreal experience,” alternate captain and goalie Dan Pyne said. “From the moment we got here today, I’ve had the chills the whole time. It’s been unbelievable. I couldn’t really ask for anything else. You got to go into Phillies’ stadium, where most people don’t get to go, and play hockey with 25 of your best friends — can’t beat it.”
So back to the setting — the puck would eventually drop at 7:15 p.m. with the two teams starting off slow, shaking off the obvious rust stemming from the aforementioned monthlong sabbatical. In addition, although it was cooler outside than it was for the NHL’s Winter Classic, the ice can only stay in good condition for so long when essentially playing glorified pond hockey.
“It was pretty warm outside, but the ice conditions — it was a little choppy after a few minutes,” Pyne said. “The ice was really soft, so after a few minutes it got really torn up. A lot of pucks were bouncing everywhere. I had a few that almost went past me, that were coming right at me and just popped up.”
Once the puck started to bounce around, that’s when the game took off. A few minutes into the game, Drexel was called for cross checking but was able to recover quickly. About six seconds after the Dragons got back to full strength, alternate captain Ross Denczi capitalized on a steal by captain Kyle Zoldy as he broke lose on a breakaway, beating the Wildcats’ goalie on the backhand deke to put Drexel up 1-0.
Villanova did not recover. In fact, four minutes later the Dragons had a 5-on-3 power play after the Wildcats had two players put in the box for interference and hooking, respectively. Thirty seconds later, Denczi struck goal at the top of the left circle, finding himself open for the one-timer from Zoldy — 2-0 Dragons.
The Dragons held the lead for almost all of the first period, but the Wildcats were able to capitalize on a 4-on-4 breakaway with just over two minutes remaining to bring the lead to one. Then, with just under 14 seconds remaining in the first, Pyne was being pelted with shots on the penalty kill when he let a rebound get astray, turning into a golden opportunity for Villanova, which evened the game at two apiece right before the whistle.
After one period it was literally all even — 11 shots, six penalty minutes and two goals apiece.
The second period was all Drexel as they put two more past the Nova goaltender, one on the power play, and the other on a 2-on-2 rush that went the Dragons’ way. With just under a minute remaining in the second, each team would take a penalty, paving the way for just over a minute of 4-on-4 play to start the final period as the Dragons led 4-2 at the break.
There would be no action in the third — other than five penalties — until just over 12 minutes into the period when the Dragons scored yet another power-play goal, their third of the game. Less than two minutes later, the Dragons would blow the game open as Denczi put his third of the game past the Wildcats’ goalie for the first Crosstown Classic hat trick in history.
“Most of the goals I had were pretty straightforward. I mean the puck was just right on my stick. I didn’t really have to do much work,” Denczi said. “Obviously it’s a dream come true, [to score a hat trick] in front of my friends and family. I couldn’t really have planned it much better.”
Villanova would manage one more goal, which the Dragons would match with just under two minutes remaining in the game. Despite being outshot 42-31 by the Wildcats, Pyne’s performance kept the Dragons in a spot where they did not trail once the entire contest.
The contest would finish with the Dragons as the victors, winning the inaugural Crosstown Classic 7-3 in front of a crowd that was mostly made up of Drexel fans.
“Drexel University as a whole thought this was just an unbelievable opportunity to celebrate sports and celebrate our university and celebrate our student-athletes, and we got support for the academic side of university, from board of trustees members, the department of athletics, from alumni,” Dan Simmons, Drexel’s senior associate athletics director of recreation, said. “It really was a real tribute to how, when people come together and try to do something special and really showcase the power of sports, and that’s what tonight was.”
Somehow, the Dragons were able to get everything to fall in their favor, as they managed not only to win the game and fill the stands with fans but also to occupy the Phillies’ locker room.
“It was very cool to be a part of that and provide an opportunity for the students to be able to participate in something like that,” Sarah Shouvlin, Drexel’s assistant director of recreation of club sports and intramurals, said. “It took some hard work, but it’s all worth it, and we had a quick turnaround in terms of when we got approval for the game … so it was nice to see it all come together.
“Everybody was smiling, so that’s the most important part, right? We all walk away with a great memory.”