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Ben's Biz: Knights host outdoor AHL game

Truist Field plays host to an American Hockey League matchup
(Laura Wolff/Charlotte Knights)
January 19, 2024

This is an excerpt from the latest edition of the Ben's Biz Beat Newsletter, bringing Minor League Baseball business and culture news to your inbox each and every Thursday. Check out the full newsletter HERE. Subscribe HERE.

This is an excerpt from the latest edition of the Ben's Biz Beat Newsletter, bringing Minor League Baseball business and culture news to your inbox each and every Thursday. Check out the full newsletter HERE. Subscribe HERE.

The start of the Minor League Baseball season is more than two months away, but the Charlotte Knights have already hosted their first sellout crowd. This past Saturday, the Triple-A Chicago White Sox affiliate drew over 11,000 fans to Truist Field for an American Hockey League game.

In the inaugural Queen City Outdoor Classic, the hometown Charlotte Checkers defeated the Rochester Americans, 5-2. This marked the third time an AHL Outdoor Classic had taken place in a Minor League ballpark, following 2015 (Sacramento’s Raley Field) and 2013 (Rochester’s Frontier Field, now called Innovative Field).

Dan Rajkowski, the Knights’ chief operating officer, said that hosting a hockey game at Truist Field was a long time coming. The seed was first planted during the 2014 Baseball Winter Meetings in San Diego, when he attended a winter-themed gala at Petco Park and, during the same trip, noticed that Coronado Island had its own ice rink.

“I said, if they can make ice in San Diego, we can sure make it in Charlotte,” he recalled. “It spurred that [idea], and then I let that thing sit for a while.”

In 2020, looking to generate revenue following a season lost to COVID, the Knights hosted their first “Light the Knights” holiday festival at Truist Field. It was a success and became an ever-expanding annual event, with an ice rink added to the attractions in 2022.

“That’s when we really began the discussions [with the Checkers],” said Rajkowski. “We’ve had a great relationship with them. You know, we’re in a Major League sports city, so sometimes us Minor League teams get overlooked a bit.”

So that fans could get a better view, the ice rink was moved in toward the infield for Jan. 13’s game between the Checkers and the Americans. The Knights were already planning to redo the infield prior to Opening Day, which was another factor regarding this being the right time for the club to host professional hockey.

“We did the outfield drainage last year -- irrigation -- and now we're just doing the infield,” said Rajkowski. “With the expense of it and the revenue opportunities it all just had to line up perfectly. And it really did. We drew 164,000 for Light the Knights and another 11,000 for the hockey game. 175,000 people for an offseason event.”

Charlotte was blessed with beautiful hockey weather for Saturday’s game, with temperatures for the contest dropping into the 40s. Checkers players arrived at the ballpark wearing Knights uniforms, an aesthetic mash-up that summed up the evening’s unique nature.

“The electricity was incredible in a way you don’t get in a baseball game. The crowd was very into it,” said Rajkowski. “Fireworks before the game, fireworks after the game, a 5-2 win. It was just a different feel, you know?

“Charlotte just works. Its people move here from all over the country. [The Checkers] were playing a [Buffalo] Sabres affiliate, Rochester, and I was amazed at the number of Americans jerseys I saw at the [pregame] Fan Fest. Charlotte is a hotbed for people who moved from the Northeast.”

The Charlotte Knights’ front office, and mascot Homer, pose on the ice.Gregg Forwerck/Charlotte Knights

The Queen City Outdoor Classic involves too many moving parts -- and outsized costs -- to become an annual event. But as is the case with most successful ventures, a sequel is possible.

“You don't want it to get old. I think the uniqueness of it was very special,” said Rajkowski. “We still plan on putting a rink in the outfield and doing that portion of it [for Light the Nights]. Whether hockey is involved in that, professional hockey, probably not. But I'm not going to say no at this point. It was so successful.”

Now it’s on to baseball season. The Knights play their home opener on April 2, taking on the Norfolk Tides.

Don't forget, if you have facts or opinions to share on any topic at least a tiny bit relevant to the world of Minor League Baseball, then get in touch. I enjoy and appreciate the correspondence: [email protected]

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.