Matt Nieto grew up in Long Beach. So it should come as no shock that Matt Nieto has never played in an outdoor ice hockey game.
"First time will be tomorrow," he said, still with smudged eye black on his face from an earlier skate session on the Levi’s Stadium ice. "I’ve played on a pond in minor hockey when I was in Quebec one time but that was just sort of fooling around, wasn’t serious, just shinny hockey."
The former Junior Duck standout and current San Jose Sharks winger will be the sole California-born player in Saturday’s Stadium Series game against the Los Angeles Kings. He’s played lots of outdoor roller hockey at the Los Altos Family YMCA on Bellflower Blvd, playing most of that with current Ducks winger Emerson Etem.
And most of his teammates are just as inexperienced in large scale outdoor games like this. Only two current Sharks players have ever played in an NHL outdoor game. There’s a considerable buzz in their locker room, and it’s not just the humming from the state-of-the-art electronics installed in the 49ers locker room.
"That’s probably the most fun a lot of us have had in a long time at a practice," Nieto said. "It’s just pretty crazy. Everyone is going to have fun, the fans will enjoy it. But at the same time, it’s a big game. We have to pull it together tomorrow and find a way to get two points."
Aside from being the most technologically-advanced stadiums in the world, Levi’s Stadium is also the biggest facility any of the players or coaches from both teams have ever played in. A crowd of 69,000 is anticipated on Saturday night and Nieto is trying to block out the shock value.
"I was just in awe," he said. "Thousands of seats, it’s a nice stadium, those HD screens, it’s a really nice arena and we’ve got a nice setup here in the locker room and stuff."
The Sharks want the two points in order to hold off the Kings in the Pacific Division, but Nieto still sees it as a win for his home state.
"It’s pretty crazy. I would have never imagined as a kid that I would be playing in an outdoor game here," he said. "It’s going to be a good experience for me and a lot of other guys here. There’s going to be a ton of fans here, (69,000), so I just can’t wait for tomorrow."
Darryl is on the bandwagon
The crowd is nothing shocking for Kings coach Darryl Sutter. As a kid playing pond hockey in Canada, he imagined playing for a much larger one.
"I think there were a million fans," he said. "You say 70,000, but it’s probably more than that. From my standpoint if you think about it, if you had said 40 years ago to me that we could have played a game in Chavez Ravine and played one in the Bay Area, that was not (possible). We were used to black and white TV and we did play outdoors."
Sutter is a notoriously big baseball fan and still says the opportunity to play at Dodger Stadium last season was an honor. He’s not quite as familiar with football anymore, but when he was playing in Chicago as a Blackhawk, he was a big Bears fan.
"I was a frontrunner," he said.
Darryl Sutter and his Sutterisms are primed for a primetime outdoor hockey game.
Kings’ McNabb on Stadium Series: ‘It’s a must-win for us’
After playing in the league for a few years, you get used to a few things. You know the good food spots in each city and you know the quirks and oddities of the ice.
The Sharks might be the hosts at Levi’s Stadium this week, but the new venue didn’t feel too much like home. From the palatial 49ers locker room to the two HD screens large enough to fill a few city blocks, it took a little getting used to.
For San Jose defenseman Justin Braun, there was something else he had a hard time finding.
"Finding the bathroom is a little difficult," he said. "It’s way over there. I walked through about seven doors before I found it. You’re just not in the same routine, but this day is good. You kind of get used to everything."