Dodger Stadium was bathed in warm sunlight Thursday when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stood on the top deck, looking up at the San Gabriel Mountains and down at the palm trees ringing the iconic baseball field.
Game on, Bettman thought.
The NHL is confident the ice won’t melt on its plan to play outdoor hockey in sunny Southern California this winter. The Los Angeles Kings will take on the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 25 at the famed stadium in a city known for year-round sun, surf and sand.
”This is going to be a different experience, but it’s going to be very Southern California,” Bettman said. ”That’s going to make its own tradition, its own fun and its own excitement for people here.”
After playing seven outdoor games in the past decade no farther south than Philadelphia, the NHL is experimenting with its first outdoor game in a warm-weather city. Bettman said he was sold on the game only after the league’s ice-making technicians promised they can build a viable rink in Los Angeles’ balmy temperatures.
Bettman joined players and executives from both teams at the stadium Thursday, previewing the sight lines and imagining the setup. The players are thrilled about the prospect of making a bit of hockey history, with Anaheim forward Dustin Penner jokingly suggesting the teams should wear tank tops while bikini-clad fans watch from rinkside.
”The venue will be bigger than the game itself,” Penner said. ”We’ll just have to take it in, because being part of the first one here is going to be pretty special.”
The whole unlikely endeavor rests on the crew assembled by Dan Craig, the NHL’s ice guru and senior director of facilities operations. They’ll work through the night for two weeks, with an ice-making plant beyond the center field fence.
”There’s many tricks we’ve learned through the whole system,” Craig said. ”We’re confident in it.”
The Kings and Ducks also will play under the Dodger Stadium lights, with the puck not dropping before 7 p.m. Pacific time. That’s the only way the ice will work, according to NHL chief operating officer John Collins.
”We wouldn’t be doing it in the middle of the day,” Collins said. ”It never would work, but to be able to play a night game changed it and created the window. We said, `Now, maybe we’ve got something that can work.’ And now that everyone is here, everybody is saying, `Hey, this could be pretty cool.”’
The Dodgers are still in the thick of their season, but they’ll be long gone for the winter by the time the NHL’s refrigeration truck and Craig’s 12-person crew roll up in mid-January.
The rink will be built on top of the infield, with the end boards near the foul lines and center ice close to second base. About 40 people will work on assembling the boards and the rest of the setup for a game.
And unlike in cold-weather cities, most of the work will be done at night, when Los Angeles’ temperatures drop to something approaching winter weather. The ice will be covered during the day with reflective, insulated blankets, protecting Craig’s work from the sun.
”Everybody that’s coming on the crew knows they’re working from 6 or 7 at night until 6 o’clock the next morning,” Craig said. ”We cover the (ice) sheet up, and we’ll go to bed and come back the next day and do it all over again.”
Craig’s crew already dealt with 60-degree temperatures at the outdoor game in Philadelphia, so he’s confident the plan will work in similar nighttime temperatures in Los Angeles. As for the possibility of rain during Los Angeles’ wettest part of the year, Craig and Bettman both paraphrased the classic song ”It Never Rains in Southern California.”
The players and coaches are eager to see the quality of the ice, and they’ll get a practice session the day before the game. Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau, who already coached the Washington Capitals in a Winter Classic three years ago, thinks the unlikely venture is worth the risk.
”People are going to watch to see if it’s possible,” Boudreau said. ”`How did Daniel Craig do this?’ is going to be the curiosity factor. And then the people that don’t watch the Western Conference are going to get to see how two really good teams play.”
The NHL is playing six outdoor games this season, introducing the so-called Stadium Series of games after receiving widespread positive reviews of the extravaganzas in recent years.
The New York Rangers will play two games at Yankee Stadium during Super Bowl week, and the league will stage the annual Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium on New Year’s Day. Chicago and Vancouver also will get outdoor games, but none will have more novelty value than the NHL’s outdoor adventure in Los Angeles.
And if the NHL is successful in Dodger Stadium, Bettman realizes other warm-weather teams will be clamoring for their own outdoor games. While the league doesn’t acknowledge any concrete plans, fans throughout the Sun Belt could get a taste of the Stadium Series – as long as the California ice doesn’t melt.
”I’ll tell you on January 26th,” Bettman said with a laugh.