LOS ANGLES -- "Why do you think I'm working today, man?" I had asked a suited security agent if he'd ever seen anything like this before. Ice hockey outdoors in Southern California. It was a bit of a loaded question. Nobody had ever seen anything like this before. As we were repeatedly reminded, this was the first outdoor NHL hockey game ever played in Southern California. That includes the Spanish, the dinosaurs, everybody. "I gotta see this," the security agent said. I felt the same way. Could they really make an outdoor ice rink in Southern California? Could it hold up to the rigors of an NHL game?
Following the tremendous success of the Winter Classic, the once yearly outdoor hockey game, the NHL decided to expand its franchise. It made sense. People love outdoor hockey games, so why not play more of them? How about a game in Calgary? Or Quebec? Or even Yankee Stadium? "Yeah," someone probably joked, "how about Los Angeles?" The idea's journey from boardroom humor to reality is a different story. And in fact, it's not a particularly complicated one, at least not by the standards of today's NHL.
Hockey outdoors in Southern California sounds crazy, and watching it definitely is crazy, but the outdoor temperature at game time was not that different than the ambient air temperature inside Staples Center when the Kings play their home games. Once the sun went down, the temperature dropped even further. So the two biggest impediments to a game here -- the sun and the air temperature -- wouldn't be a problem.
That doesn't solve the problem of the rink though. So how does one build a hockey rink in short center field of Dodger Stadium? It's a simple matter of pumping ethylene glycol through pipes. Ethylene glycol is the liquid used in antifreeze. Want to make a hockey rink in your Southern California backyard? All you need is a giant truck engine, a bunch of ethylene glycol, some pipes, and an aluminum under-pinning to support layers of ice, and you're all set. The temperature of the glycol is regulated and that cools the aluminum, which keeps the ice on top at a steady temperature of 22 degrees. So as it turns out, the idea wasn't as farfetched as it sounds. An outdoor hockey game in Los Angeles was possible.
This wasn't just a hockey game though. This was an event, a spectacle, a torch to light up the LA night as much as it was a regular season hockey game. The torch wasn't just metaphorical either. KISS made sure of that. With each chorus, fireworks shot out of metal tubes surrounding the stage. Oh, I didn't mention KISS was playing on a stage in right field? Sorry. KISS was playing on a stage in right field. There were fireworks. It was on the other side of the outfield from the beach volleyball court. A guy went by on a skateboard, and another guy went by on rollerblades (the dream of the 90s is alive in Los Angeles). There were fans (or maybe friends and families of the players) playing Frisbee on along the left field line. And also there was a fountain in center field. This was the Los Angelesification of hockey, and it was beautiful.
KISS played a few gentle tunes (it turns out volume does go up to 11) and was followed by the USC Trojans marching band. I assume they were playing their instruments but after KISS they might have had them just for show, I'm honestly not sure. It was hard to see through the smoke too. That's how I missed Wayne Gretzky. He walked in from center field but the effect was like teleportation. First Wayne Gretzky was in center field then Wayne Gretzky was at center ice dropping the ceremonial puck, which looked very much like a regular puck. Then it was time for, as Vin Scully said, NHL hockey. Smoke from KISS's set hung over the Stadium as the first (real) puck was dropped. By this point NHL hockey felt like a letdown.
I was to watch the game down the left field line, from where I could see the rink but very little of the play. That hardly mattered, as it seemed the game was almost a secondary concern. Celebrities roamed the seats. A man in a bear costume hit a drum. All manner of music blared from the speakers, and that was when nothing was happening on the ice. The game itself was a respite from the crazed surroundings.
Make no mistake, this was a big event. I was seated on the same isle as representatives from California Rubber Magazine, CNBC, Young Hollywood, and Swiss TV. I made one of those up. I made up CNBC. California Rubber Magazine is real. Truly this was to be an important game and it would be covered by as many press outlets as could reasonably be shoehorned into an elevator, and if you've ever ridden the elevator at Dodger Stadium you know that's an uncountable amount because there is no way you can see past the person shoved into your nose to do so.
There was hockey to be played though and it was exciting. The crowd certainly thought so. It took Corey Perry just two minutes 45 seconds to score the game's first goal. The ice worked! Success! Seven minutes later the Ducks scored again. That was the high point of the on-ice action.
Perhaps the biggest cheer from then on happened after a puck went over the glass and ended up in left field. Had it been a baseball it would have been a double. Since it was a puck, it was a foul ball and everyone started yelling at the security guard who had picked it up to give it to them. After ambling around for a bit to pull the crowd's chain, he tossed it to a young fan, an act that garnered a roar from the fans in attendance. I asked him if he had ever been cheered by 50,000 people before. He smiled. "All the time," he said.
With 3.8 seconds left in the first period, the players decided they'd had enough and headed for the dressing rooms. The refs looked around, shrugged, and quickly burned off the last bit of time. Four seconds? Nah, we don't need it! Remember that the next time someone scores a goal 0.1 seconds after the game ends.
The first period ended and the NHL took the opportunity to alert us that new NHL Stadium Series uniforms were on sale. The PA announcer told us to buy now because the jerseys are only available while supplies last. That means the jerseys are only available as long as they're available. "Do you have any Ducks jerseys left?" "No, we're out." "Excellent. I'll take two." There were many confused literalist hockey fans in Southern California Saturday night.
Then it was time for more KISS! Gene Simmons sure has a big tongue! Also my ears are bleeding! The rest of the game rolled along with neither team achieving much. A scoring opportunity here, a missed penalty shot there, a fight, a few killed power plays, and you got yourself an NHL hockey game. The final score was 3-0, with the third goal coming after the Kings pulled the goalie late in the third period. There's a pulling the goalie joke to be made but it's late and my brain has pulled the goalie.
If deja vu is the phenomenon of having seen something before, an ice hockey game in Los Angeles on a cloudless 80-degree day is the opposite of that. Sitting in short-sleeves, palm trees waiving in the breeze, watching men in pads and helmets skate down a sheet of ice is incongruous, bizarre. The players existed on a sliver of Canada in downtown Los Angeles. But the NHL pulled it off. There were scattered moments where the puck would catch on the ice, or bounce over a stick, but mostly the ice held up well. The players echoed those sentiments during between-period interviews. Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf said the ice was better than he'd thought it would be and Kings center Jarret Stoll said the ice was good. Maybe you wouldn't expect players to be overly critical of the conditions during such a high profile event, but they seemed genuinely thrilled to be there whether the ice was of the highest quality or not. The fans were loud, the PA was louder, and the smoke from KISS's rocking gently lifted to reveal a cool southern California evening. There was a hockey game in Los Angeles. Pretty cool, right?