In a time when North American professional hockey news revolves solely around the work stoppage that is the ongoing National Hockey League lockout, positive stories have been few and far between.
But there was a bright positive Saturday night in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as members of the NHLPA got together for a game to benefit those affected by "super storm" Sandy.
Labeled "Operation Hat Trick", 10,792 hockey-starved fans got to witness some of their favorite heroes in an exhibition game that will benefit the families affected by the late-October storm that ravaged the eastern coast of the U.S.
Some of the hardest hit areas included the Jersey shore and New York City.
The event was the brain child of Joe Watson, Senior Vice President of National Marketing for Caesar's Entertainment's Eastern Division and friend Scott Hartnell, left wing for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Idle NHL players decided to lend their talents to help raise much needed funds, with all proceeds from the event going directly to the Empire Relief Fund, NJ Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund, and the American Red Cross.
Players to participate were split between New York and New Jersey, with a pair of number 19's serving as captains for their respective team:
Team Richards (New York)
Forwards -- Brad Richards (C), Ville Leino, Daniel Alfredsson, Corey Perry, Matt Martin, Jeff Halpern, Bobby Ryan, James Neal, Taylor Pyatt, Arron Asham,
Defensemen -- Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Brian Boyle, Steve Eminger, Mike Komisarek
Goaltender -- Henrik Lundqvist
Team Hartnell (New Jersey)
Forwards -- Scott Hartnell (C), David Clarkson, Jody Shelley, Wayne Simmonds, Simon Gagne, Steven Stamkos, Daniel Carcillo, Justin Williams, James van Riemsdyk, Steve Downie
Defensemen -- Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, PK Subban, John Carlson, Andy Greene
Goaltender -- Martin Brodeur
There was a very strong presence of Flyers fans in the stands, with each section being adorned with a distinct Orange-and-Black flavor. To that end, fan reaction during player introductions were really no surprise. Fans gave a huge ovation for Hartnell, Timonen, Simmonds, Team Hartnell head coach Rick Tocchet, and even former-Flyer Gagne. Conversely, traditional Philly rival Brodeur received a healthy number of boos. But the reaction was strongest for Neal and Asham, both members of last spring's Pittsburgh Penguins who were suspended for illegal hits against the Flyer during the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
After Edward Dickson, the Director of NJ Homeland Security, dropped the puck for the ceremonial opening faceoff, both Hartnell and Richards briefly addressed the crowd on the impact of the storm as well as how good it was to be on the ice again.
Despite being outshot in the opening period by a 23-10 count, Team Richards bolted to a 4-0 first period lead on the strength of two Neal tallies and one each from Komisarek and Ryan. Lundqvist was the difference early on, stopping at least five or six sure Team Hartnell goals.
The beginning of the second period saw ten-bell chances at both ends early, but Lundqvist got the glove up to rob Clarkson and Brodeur returned the favor in Alfredsson.
But Team Hartnell was finally able to break through Lundqvist off the stick of Gagne 2:04 into the period. The lead was suddenly trimmed to two when Simmonds trickled one past the Rangers netminder.
Van Riemsdyk, who earlier had snapped a shot high over an open net and into the netting above the glass, cut the lead in half after he beat Lundqvist to make it 4-3.
Following a spectacular Brodeur stop from the slot off Neal, the Pens sniper restored the two-goal lead by banking a bad-angle shot off the New Jersey goalkeeper to complete a hat trick and make it a 5-3 Team Richards lead.
Team Hartnell again got to within a goal when a Coburn-to-Williams-to Gagne tic-tac-toe passing play ended up in the net for the ex-Flyer's second of the period to make it 5-4.
By this point, Team Hartnell had already poured 40 shots on Lundqvist.
"He was making some kind of statement out there to all of us," van Riemsdyk said of Lundqvist's play.
The momentum gained by Team Hartnell seemed to be sapped when Alfredsson's centering pass deflected off the skate of Subban and past Brodeur to give Team Richards another two-goal lead, 6-4 at 16:57 of the middle frame.
Team Hartnell got close to pulling to within one again but Downie rang a backhander off the crossbar over a fallen Lundqvist, then Team Richards answered with a chance of their own and capitalized when Boyle beat Brodeur with just 25 seconds remaining in the period to make it a 7-4 game after two periods.
Leino and Neal (with his fourth of the evening) made it a runaway at 9-4, but something special happened shortly after when the sell-out attendance of 10.792 was announced over the public address system. The fans roared and began a heartfelt "We want hockey" chant, directly referencing the bitter feeling the hockey community has over the continuing NHL lockout.
After Gagne stickhandled around Lundqvist but hit the post on the short side, Halpern made it a 10-4 score with Team Richards' fifth unanswered goal.
Greene and Clarkson tallied late in the third to make it a 10-6 final in favor of Team Richards, but the big things on this night were the relief efforts for Sandy victims in the form of revenues generated through the contest and the love the players and fans had for the game they have missed for far too long. That genuine emotion poured out from both sides following the final horn, as the fans gave a standing ovation and the players raised their sticks skyward in appreciation.
"It was great," said Flyer Jody Shelley. "It was a great atmosphere, we had some great players, just great guys and a lot of fun. Couldn't solve Hank (Lundqvist), though!" Not many could for Team Hartnell.
As for the devastation left in the path of Sandy, Shelley said it hit close to home. "When you watch on TV it seems like it's on the other side of the world. But then you see the trucks going by with generators and gas cans and power supplies and it's happening right under your nose, you realize it's real. It's like an arm's length away and if you can help and this was a fun way of doing so."
Van Riemsdyk said he wasn't quite sure what to expect since this was the first time he skated in front of a crowd in the general Philadelphia-area since his trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs back in June.
"Yeah, I didn't really think about it too much until me and Hartsy were about to skate out before the game and he said 'I wonder if they're still going to love you?'" After a "decent applause was pretty nice and appreciated", JvR said he "wonders if it'll work like that once the season starts."
As for the fan reaction and chants of "We want hockey", Hartnell said it was great. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't get choked up a little bit," he said. "You have 11,000 people chanting they want hockey back. We want to be playing and it's unfortunate that we're not playing right now."
Hartnell's experience as to Sandy damage was to a place he rented in Avalon the past couple of summers. "The house we rented last summer on the beach block was filled up with water up to the second floor. The house was amazing and the memories that we had for a week, I can't imagine the family that lived there trying to pick up that house and trying to put it back together. And there's an ex-teammate -- Jeff Carter -- and Danny Briere that were effected."
With player's jerseys from the game being auctioned off, it's not yet known just how much money was raised for the relief efforts. But the game itself was a good start, and for just one night, fans had their NHL players back on the ice -- where they belong.