SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Ever since being awarded an outdoor game back in August, the San Jose Sharks have been looking forward to the opportunity to play their biggest rival in front of 70,000 fans in a brand-new football stadium
The Sharks spent Friday afternoon enjoying the spectacle surrounding Saturday night’s outdoor game against the Los Angeles Kings at Levi’s Stadium. They conducted a light practice to get used to the new environment, skated on the ice with family and friends and toured the stadium.
”It was shock and awe about how cool this experience is going to be,” forward Tommy Wingels said. ”We’ve all watched and hoped to play in one of these. From the moment we were announced to host a game we had a lot of thoughts and countdowns to tomorrow. To go out here today and get all the jitters out and really get to enjoy the experience with friends and family was really cool.”
That feeling of novelty will wear off by the time the puck drops Saturday night because of the importance of this game. The Sharks entered Friday tied with Calgary for third place in the Pacific Division, just two points ahead of Los Angeles in the race for a playoff spot, giving neither team much margin for error down the stretch.
”It’s more than just a hockey game, it’s a massive hockey game for our team when it comes to making a push toward the playoffs,” Sharks forward Logan Couture said. ”We can enjoy the game but we have to realize this is a huge game in the standings for us.”
Playing outdoors is nothing new for most NHL players, many of whom grew up playing pond hockey or at other makeshift outdoor rinks in Canada and the northern United States.
Playing outdoors in the California sun is a different experience. This is the second time the NHL has staged an outdoor game in California with the Kings and Anaheim Ducks taking part last year at Dodger Stadium.
While the average temperature for the first 14 outdoor games was 30.3 degrees, the forecast for game night was for clear conditions and temperatures in the 50s.
”I’d like to play a game in the snow, too,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter, a native of chilly Alberta.
Much of the purpose of Friday’s practice for both teams was getting used to the ice conditions and surroundings. Players said the puck bounced a bit more than usual and the ice was a bit soft in the afternoon when San Jose practiced.
But with the game being played at night, the ice should be in better shape come Saturday.
”The conditions are always a little bit different,” said Sharks defenseman Scott Hannan, one of two San Jose players with outdoor experience in the NHL. ”You just have to be expecting a bad bounce. You have to expect the unexpected out there. Sometimes it’s a tough bounce that can make or break a game.”
The Kings have 16 players with outdoor experience, including 15 who played last year at Dodger Stadium and forward Marion Gaborik who played in the 2012 Winter Classic with the New York Rangers.
”We realize it will be a little bit different,” Kings center Anze Kopitar said. ”The game will have to be simplified a little bit. Throwing pucks on net, not trying to make too much because more often than not the puck is going to bounce. You have to adjust accordingly.”
The league brought in regulation boards and glass to be built around the ice rink that has taken more than a week to put in place. The ice will be kept at about 22 degrees by the 300-ton refrigeration unit that NHL ice specialist Dan Craig said is as powerful as about 300 home freezers. The ice will be about 1 3/4 inches thick, compared to 1-1 1/4 inches for an indoor rink.
Around the rink on the football field is a stage where John Fogerty, Melissa Etheridge, singer-songwriter Kris Allen, and Symphony Silicon Valley will perform.
There are also gardens and pools – including one with a shark fin – surrounding the ice, giving the setting a California feel more than the winter setting at many of the league’s other outdoor games.