Stadium Series Weekend: Chavez Ravine to House Ruth Built in 24 Hours

Dodger Stadium and Yankee Stadium played host to two very different outdoor games as part of the 2014 Stadium Series.

A big deal is made about the differences between New York and Los Angeles water.

Undeniably, New York H2O is superior for making bagels and pizza — try a lox and cream cheese sandwich from Murray’s on 6th Ave., or almost any corner in the city for that matter, and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Still, Los Angeles makes up for its water shortcomings at the faucet by sporting one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. Surfers are likely okay with the trade — and there are still Lily’s breakfast burritos in Malibu, after all.

But argue all you want about who’s got it better. All that matters this weekend is one common trait: When water molecules reach 32 degrees, they start to freeze.

The night before last weekend’s Stadium Series — which featured the LA Kings playing host to the Anaheim Ducks at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine and the New Jersey Devils welcoming the New York Rangers to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx — Bruce Boudreau understood as much about water’s most important characteristic when hockey’s involved.

Walking off the ice as the Ducks wrapped up their family skate on Friday on the field of the Dodgers, Anaheim’s coach said: “It’s ice right now. It’s still ice.”

After all the questions about the quality of the sheet and the fear of the surface melting, the most important aspect of the liquid remained: Thanks to the hard work of ice guru Dan Craig and Co., Dodger Stadium hosted the city’s newest ice rink. Sheltered in by the powder blue-and-pale yellow seats pulled from the dreams of a westward-looking Walter O’Malley, there was a brand new sheet of ice being broken in. And the sound of blades gently carving the ice was as comforting as hearing Randy Newman’s “We Love L.A.” after a Dodgers’ win.

While the audio for calling penalties and the all-important goal horn is tested out, the Ducks players interviewed by a pack of media members against the visiting dugout, the realization comes: The NHL’s first outdoor hockey game in California is actually going to happen.

The ice rink at Dodger Stadium the night before the Ducks-Kings game.

PREGAME PREPARATIONS

Saturday, game day, 4:30 p.m. PT. An inconspicuous bar that sits a few blocks west of Dodger Stadium is our venue. Our Stadium Series Weekend story beings in a divey watering hole in Echo Park. Why? It’s a local Dodgers fan hangout.

Trying to make sense of a hockey game being played in Southern California, when the weather is comfortably in the 60s, I start from the familiar and move towards the unknown: If I were a Dodgers fan on game day, where would I go?

The Short Stop.

The dimly lit establishment with red candles distributed throughout features a short bar, a dance room with large Chinese lanterns, a pool room and a collection of old beer cans behind glass panes in the rear. In few words, the place makes little sense.

But what it lacks in feng shui it more than makes up for in loyal baseball fans on game day. I wondered if Kings fans would follow suit.

Sure enough, a place that is usually packed with blue and white is filled with the local hockey colors of purple, black and white, plus some Ducks sweaters too.

The Short Stop features a back alley largely used by smokers that runs parallel to Sunset Boulevard. This is where I catch up with a pair of fans stopping over at the bar before trekking up the hill to the stadium

“It’s my first NHL game,” Greg Byrd, visiting from Cleveland, said. “I’m a new fan the past couple years and it’s going to be my first game — Southern California, can’t get any better than that right? . . . I think the outdoor hockey’s going to be good because for me it’s exciting, being a new hockey fan, I think it’s reaching out beyond the normal hockey circles.”

Out on Sunset, fans are making the walk up to the game. Among the trickling crowd are John Taxter and his son, Sean. John has been watching the Kings since the ‘70s, and Sean bought him tickets for Christmas. Before the first one in California gets started, I ask whether they think there should be more outdoor hockey games or if it’s more of a spectacle.

“Well, I think the spectacle will bring fans,” John said. “To me it seems natural if they can keep that ice at 22 degrees like they say they’re going to. I think it will be a great thing for LA and for hockey, too.”

Game day in January at Dodger Stadium.

INSIDE THE BLUE GATES OF DODGER STADIUM

With 5:30 quickly approaching, it’s time to move on and get through the gates of Dodger Stadium. I park and walk through a lot lined with palm trees — the setting could fit a baseball playoff game.

6:15 and the concourse is buzzing. A line is forming outside the stadium shop, which is selling a mix of Kings, Ducks, and Dodgers gear, people are lined up for Dodger Dogs and peanuts. The inner aisles of the stadium never seemed so narrow, and breaking to a tunnel that leads the seats, I catch my first game-day glimpse of the layout. Everything from the ice rink, to the roller court, to the sand volleyball court has all come to fruition.

A couple of Ducks fans think the setup is pretty fitting for the geographic host.

“I think it’s just showing off that this is our culture, this is California, and yeah, we can play some hockey as well,” said Favio Sanchez, who said when he was playing out in the street growing up imagined he was current Duck Teemu Selanne or former forward Paul Kariya.

For others, it’s been a long time coming.

“I grew up in the South Bay so I’ve been a Kings fan since high school, going to the Forum, $5 student seats, so I never thought I’d see the Kings play in Dodger Stadium.” Chris Simonsen, who attended the game with his son, said. “It’s very cool. The Winter Classics on TV in the snow is one thing, but this is a unique thing that people on the East Coast can see what it’s like here in California when they’re freezing their butts off back east.”

A general view of Dodger Stadium before the Ducks and Kings faced off Saturday.

Let’s just say nothing is freezing at this game except for the ice rink and the beer. I take my seat in Section 24 minutes before game time. The ice, which is situated just past the pitcher’s mound, is a crisp white and marked with streaks of water from the Zamboni.

There’s a palpable, playoff energy as the teams take their warmup skate, and players are booed and cheered according to fan allegiances. KISS has finished putting together a face-melting set in right field and legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully and revered Kings play-by-play voice Bob Miller are standing behind home plate. Wayne Gretzky makes his way to the ice to drop the ceremonial first puck. If you had any doubt, Los Angeles and the NHL are proving they know how to put on a show.

Word finally comes.

“And now it’s time for NHL hockey!” Scully calls out, and soon team chants are ringing through the stadium.

Everyone’s ready for puck drop.

IT’S STILL A HOCKEY GAME

Just over 8 minutes into the opening period, the Ducks jump out to a 2-0 lead on a goal by Matt Beleskey, and it appears reality has set in. Despite the pregame festivities and novelty of California’s first outdoor NHL game, Anaheim is winning and LA is in an early hole against the NHL’s best team.

Kings forward Anze Kopitar gets held up and is awarded a penalty shot, bringing the majority of the fans to their feet in nervous anticipation, but fails to convert. Perhaps a little bit of frustration is beginning to set in on the Kings’ side, but everyone’s glued to the game.

“It’s very quiet, it’s weird,” a fan in the section said during the first.

From a neutral perspective, things appear to have turned for the more serious with two points on the line, but the big picture wasn’t lost on some.

“It’s still special,” Mike Woolf, a Kings season ticket-holder said after one. “Nothing’s worn off. It’s just great to be here honestly,” calling the game surreal and amazing.

On the other side of the 2-0 start was Sergeant Dan Figini, who planned his military leave around the Stadium Series game. He reiterated the importance of what the game means for hockey in the state, but also saw some differences to watching a game at the Honda Center: “It seems like it’s 50/50 as far as the fan bases go. We’re keeping it clean, but you’ve still got the friendly rivalry and everything.”

The left field foul pole looms in the background as the Kings and Ducks battle in California’s first outdoor NHL game.

His comments made me think back to something Woolf had mentioned earlier. “I think there’s something about being in the arena, there’s more camaraderie in your regular seats because you know everybody.”

With one period remaining, I try my best to soak in the atmosphere and remember as much as possible about this incredibly unique event. I take note of all the people I see in shorts and of how hockey sweaters are just that — sweaters — on a night like tonight when the weather is in the 60s and a clear black sky stretches into Elysian Park.

I take my seat for one last period. In spite of all the in-game concerts and entertainment, only the hockey rink has existed for me since the initial faceoff — everything else, while special and important for the story of SoCal hockey, blurs out of focus when Anaheim’s Corey Perry or LA’s Jeff Carter is cutting full speed up the ice, or Ducks netminder Jonas Hiller makes a goal-line stand to preserve the shutout.

If it logistically worked, this would be an amazing place to watch hockey on a regular basis. Sure, it may not be as intimate as the Staples or Honda Center, but man is it pleasant being outside on a beautiful Southern California night instead of being cooped up inside an arena. Isn’t that half the fun of going to baseball games, after all — being outside?

I could sit here for another full hockey game, but time is tight and a red-eye flight waits at LAX. I check my watch religiously until I cave at the 3-minute mark and rush out of the stadium. As I rush to the car, a roar goes out from the crowd. The Ducks have added a third goal and another two points to their already enormous lead over their in-state rival.

NEW YORK BOUND

10:30 a.m. ET. Weather: 21 degrees.

Our car cuts across the Macomb’s Dam Bridge that connects Manhattan to the Bronx and pulls into the parking deck outside Yankee Stadium, which looms from the street above.

Inside the parking structure, a handful of guys in Rangers and Devils gear are blasting a yellow street hockey ball at a plastic net guarded by a goalie who is probably glad he’s got something extra to wear on a cold winter Sunday.

They’re in the middle of their inaugural hockey tailgating party, a suitable alternative to a more familiar football catch before Giants games. And with the temperature so drastically different, I feel compelled to ask if they think LA got off easy Saturday night.

Ranger fans walk to Yankee Stadium prior to the Stadium Series matchup between New Jersey and New York.

“This is real hockey weather,” says Del Alvarado in agreement with his friend, “but still the fact that they had it happen, people showed up, stadium was packed, broadcast was great,” he says they deserved some credit.

Exiting the parking lot, I climb the icy, unshoveled steps up to street level up to stadium. Compared to Saturday night, the setting is harsh and urban — New York City in winter, after all. The trees are bare and the 4 subway line cuts overhead on the east side of the building, under which Yankee banners hang against “The House that Ruth Built.”

Fans are wearing hats, multiple pairs of socks, gloves, long underwear, and winter boots, necessary items to maintain at least a reasonable level of comfort. They make their way into the stadium with vapor exhaling from their mouths and noses.

Inside, field level is also a stark contrast from the Ducks-Kings game. Whereas the grass at Dodger Stadium was still green and the dirt still marking a path along the home run wall, today there’s a whiteout on the field. Recent snowfall has covered the entire surface, creating a more traditional atmosphere for an outdoor game.

Down in Monument Park, where memorials of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris stand alongside other Yankee greats, Charlie Murphy and Barbara Sasso of Linden, NJ, are taking their first tour of the Yankee shrine. They frequent Yankee Stadium to watch baseball games but also went to the Pinstripe Bowl. Now, they’re back to cheer on the Devils. Since they’re willing to brave the cold, I decide to up the ante and ask if they’d go to, say, a handful of outdoor games being played in one season.

“Five games, probably not all of them,” Sasso says. “What makes this special is that it’s once a season.”

Murphy agrees: “Conceptually, the fans, they’re coming back for more. They just want to go in, be able to enjoy the game and not have worry about having 17 layers on.”

View of Yankee Stadium from Section 410.

Game temperature is marked at 24 degrees, and it’s time to find our seats. Section 410 is at the top of the stadium on the first-base line. I climb the stairs until I can climb no more. Top row, No. 14, is the one marked on my ticket. To my back is nothing but metal fencing through which the wind is already blustering up against my neck. The cement floor is covered in ice melt.  I’m beginning to feel for the first time how cold it truly is.

An announcement has been made that the game will be delayed by a half-hour because of sun glare. With little to do but wait, I only get colder and colder. By the time the protective tarp is rolled off the ice, I can barely feel my toes. Yet the opening faceoff hasn’t arrived.

MATTER OF SURVIVAL

Right about now, part of me is wishing I was watching the game in Los Angeles — especially my toes. One pair of wool socks is not enough, but we’re finally about to get under way.

The Rangers are announced first as the visiting team. Even though they are the New York team, the New York Times suggests the reason may be that they would forfeit their Madison Square Garden tax exemption if they had played host. Guess $17.3 million is worth the awkward moment of letting the hated rival Devils run the show.

After the PA announcer calls for “Your New Jersey Devils,” the teams get underway under an overcast sky. From our perch in the last row of the sports cathedral, there’s a perfect view of the urban skyline of brick buildings, white seagulls swooping through the sky, and a smoking chimney somewhere in the distance.

As the action on the ice continues, people put on foot warmers in their seats and hand warmers in their gloves. I drink the best $4 cup of coffee in the world solely based on temperature. Through a frigid first period, the Devils and Rangers combine for five goals, which means at least people have reason to jump to their feet and get the blood pumping a bit. Devils lead, 3-2, after one.

“This is the way it’s supposed to be” Gary Ferguson, of upstate New York, said after seeing the first, recalling childhood memories playing hockey out on a pond. “I’d like to see the Rangers outside once or twice a year, if we could only maybe pick (a day) a little less cold than this.”

That’s the general feeling.

“I’m much more comfortable watching it within the arena,” said Tom Redburn, a Devils fan from Byram, N.J. “Plus it’s nice to do this once in a while but it’s not really a game that should be affected by the weather or anything like that. I would not want to see it become an outdoor (event) on a regular basis, but to do this a few times a year is terrific in my view for the fans, and I think the players enjoy it too.”

The second period is approaching and everyone’s ready for another freezing period of ice hockey. Even the guy who tells me he’s been handed two frozen beers by the vendor is in good spirits. But Mother Nature has something up her sleeve to make things a little more tolerable.

Snow falls at Yankee Stadium.

Slowly, gracefully, quietly, a snow starts to fall during the second, floating onto the rink. As the play continues, you get the feeling this game could actually be taking place on an alpine lake.

Unfortunately for New Jersey fans, as the snow falls, so do the Devils. The Rangers string together four unanswered goals in the middle frame. The scoreboard shows 6-3 after 40 minutes.

DEFROSTING AND REFLECTING

In the final 20 minutes, the sun comes out and the snow slows. The game is all but over, and Rangers fans sarcastically wave goodbye to a couple Devils supporters making an early exit from their seats. But people in the stands are still dancing, even those supporting the team down by four goals now after a converted penalty shot by the Rangers’ Derek Stephan.

The final horn blows and the teams meet at center ice for a handshake the way they’ve done numerous times before after hard-fought, bruising playoff series. Another familiar scene is the walk to the street, which after any Devils-Rangers game — no matter the venue — is filled with boisterous chants for one team and a walk of shame for the fans of the other.

“Let’s go Rangers!” echoes off the walls of Yankee Stadium, making it crystal clear Sunday is the Rangers’ day.

Like I imagine most are feeling by this point, I can’t wait to get back inside some place warm and defrost. The heat in the car is a welcome relief after six hours out in the cold.

The drive back to New Jersey provides time to reflect on witnessing two once-in-a-lifetime hockey games in less than 24 hours.

Starting out on the West Coast, seeing ice hockey surrounded by green grass, palms and a volleyball court in 60-degree weather made for one of the most unique of hockey experiences, and it would be a wonderful thing to watch the game outdoors on a regular basis. The game in New York, on the other hand, fit the traditional bill like a glove. It delivered everything you would expect of a cold-weather setting.

With the knack the NHL seems to have for aligning their outdoor games with snowfall, someone in the league has a second calling as a meteorologist. Still, I don’t envy the Rangers having to brave the cold again Wedneday night to take on the New York Islanders.

All in all, the weekend reinforced hockey belongs everywhere. The team sweaters and chants may be different depending on location. But at the end of the day the players hit just as hard on one coast as they do on the other, the fans shout the same when a puck finds its way to the back of the net, and everyone has the same ultimate prize: Lord Stanley’s Cup. As someone who watches hockey no matter which teams are playing, I’m now confident I’ll watch no matter where they play as well.