Outdoor hockey popular, even in Vegas

Before the NHL thought to put hockey rinks atop baseball fields, one man helped to make the unthinkable a reality — an outdoor hockey game in the desert.

The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers drop the puck Monday at Citizens Bank Park for the fifth installment of the NHL Winter Classic. But a little more than 20 years ago, Rich Rose pulled off his own miracle on ice by having an NHL game played in the searing heat of Las Vegas.

Rose was hired as the president and COO of Caesars World Sports in 1988 and immediately thought of the audacious project — bringing an exhibition hockey game to the parking lot of Caesars Palace.

“I grew up in New York. I played pond hockey, and I was a big Rangers fan,” Rose said. “When I took the job at Caesars, (I thought), ‘What could I do differently?’ ”

The concept was more than different — when Rose pitched the idea, he was met with naysayers.

But he was encouraged after speaking with Steve Flatow, the NHL’s director of marketing at the time. Flatow suggested Rose talk to the Los Angeles Kings — Wayne Gretzky’s team at the time — where he ultimately met with team executive vice president Roy Mlakar.

“He’s looking at me like I’m from Mars and I’ve got a hockey stick coming out of my head,” Rose recalled. “He looks at me and says, ‘You’re serious.’ Why not? I told him, what’s the big deal?”

Rose wasn’t going to be stopped. Eventually, he convinced Mlakar and got then-owner Bruce McNall on board.

There was still the matter of building a rink from scratch in the heat. But the temperature in the mid-80s wasn’t the problem. According to Bob Krolak, who helped Bob and Don May build the ice surface, it’s the warm wind blowing over the ice that was the problem.

“That was one of the great things about Caesars Palace in the heyday,” he said. “It wasn’t ‘We can’t do this.’ It’s, ‘We know we can do it, how long is it going to take?’ ”

It would take another year to put together the final touches, which included the Kings asking Rose’s favorite team, the Rangers, to participate in the event on Sept. 27, 1991.

“There was such a vibe around that game, it was amazing,” remembered Luc Robitaille, who played in the game for the Kings and is now the club’s president of business operations. “(We) knew we were going to be part of something.”

At the cost of $135,000, the ice was built by Wednesday morning, two days before the game took place. The Kings held a clinic, and the media skated to test it out. There were no problems reported as game night approached.

That is, until Friday afternoon, hours before the contest.

To prevent the sun from melting the ice, a tarp was hung over the rink for a number of days. Workers were supposed to cut the ropes and take it down slowly. But one of them decided to do it alone, and sawed them off one by one, allowing the sun-baked tarp to drop onto the surface of the ice.

“It’s as if you have a nice block of ice and took a hot iron and sat it on top,” Rose said. “Forty-five minutes later, there were three inches of standing water.”

Bookmakers had laid 5-1 odds the game wouldn’t happen.

Somehow the May brothers and Krolak salvaged the situation and re-built the surface. Amazingly, the game started less than 30 minutes late.

All of the problems ultimately didn’t matter. A sellout crowd of 13,000-plus watched hockey in the desert. The hockey diehards saw Gretzky score. The boxing aficionados witnessed Rangers enforcer Kris King fight Kings defenseman Rod Buskas. And everyone saw the Zamboni driver clad in Roman gladiator gear.

What some may have missed was another unexpected surprise.

“When they opened the door for the Zamboni to come out, mama grasshopper and the brood showed up,” Rose said.

If ice in the desert wasn’t considered a miracle, then the infestation of critters was a plague of Biblical proportions.

“Next thing you know, we were seeing hundreds of them,” Robitaille said. “They would hit the ice and literally freeze there. It was hysterical.”

After a 5-2 Kings victory, the outdoor game was viewed as a success, especially when another Kings-Rangers exhibition, indoors in a climate-controlled environment, was canceled because of ice troubles.

Whether the Vegas game ultimately inspired the NHL to create the Winter Classic is unknown. But it’s certain the league caught a glimpse of how thrilling outdoor hockey could be.

“My wife’s family isn’t necessarily huge hockey fans, but they want to see the outdoor game,” Robitaille said. “When people that aren’t your biggest fans want to see what you’ve got is when you know you have a special event.”

Vegas proved that ice rinks are portable, and it’s not out of the question that Robitaille’s Kings could host a Winter Classic in California, something he said the team has requested. Until then, everyone involved in the 1991 game remembers the exhilaration they experienced.

That’s what Krolak took away. After the game finished, he went to the highest seat in the stadium and fell asleep. When he awoke, he witnessed another odd event taking place.

“It was 5 in the morning. I looked out, there’s two people with buckets and jars,” Krolak said. He asked what they were doing standing on the melting ice.

“We’re taking this water back home,” they said. “We’re going to sell it. This is National Hockey League history.”