LOS ANGELES — The scene at Dodger Stadium was quintessentially Californian, Monday afternoon. Palm trees, 80-degree weather in January, guys in backwards caps and wayfarer sunglasses wearing shorts and t-shirts.
Is it quintessentially hockey? Maybe not, but it’s going to be next Saturday when the NHL Stadium Series comes to Dodger Stadium. And it wasn’t always hockey for Wayne Gretzky either, but once The Great One set down roots in Southern California, he helped create and foster a hockey culture in the area.
Gretzky is back this week to see the culmination of that work. Gretzky, along with former King and the team’s president of business operations Luc Robitaille and Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau welcomed the ice truck, as the NHL’s team begins the process of rink construction.
"I was a piece of the group that was part of putting hockey and stamping hockey in this area," Gretzky said. "I say this all of the time to people, it was the right group of guys. Each and every guy understood that this was a different market than other markets in the NHL and we always went above and beyond the call of duty to help out and promote the sport."
It’s something Gretzky had always envisioned. A mix of Los Angeles pride and irony, Gretzky said he has watched the snowy Winter Classic year after year thinking about how he would like to see fans wearing shorts at the game.
At its core, outdoor hockey or pond hockey is the most traditional venue for the sport. Taking the game outdoors in Los Angeles provides a sort of charming contrast.
"From the age of three to the age of 12, I could easily be out there 8-10 hours a day. I would head out and get on the ice before school," Gretzky said. "For me, that’s what I enjoyed the most: To get on the ice and pretend you were Gordy Howe, pretend you’re winning Game 7, playing for the Stanley Cup."
For Gretzky, it’s fitting that the game is being played at a baseball stadium as opposed to the Rose Bowl or the L.A. Coliseum. Baseball was Gretzky’s other passion growing up. In 1980, he filled in at shortstop for the Senior level Brantford Red Sox. His son Trevor was a standout baseball player at nearby Oaks Christian High School and plays in the Chicago Cubs organization.
"I think that it’s probably fair to say that I enjoyed baseball as much as I enjoyed hockey," Gretzky said. "It’s unfortunate I wasn’t quite as good at baseball."
His presence in the game was a no-brainer for his former teammate Robitaille. The former face of Southern California hockey continues to be a huge influence on the game outside of the Southland.
The Great One is promoting what he hopes is the next great event in hockey.
"Because of him and what he did in those days is the reason that Ducks are even in this league," Robitaille said. "He elevated this game to another level that no one has ever been able to do…
"You ask anyone, even if you don’t know the game, they know the name Gretzky."