Sun, surf, sand … and ice? Outdoor hockey coming to SoCal
When it comes to thinking outside the box, the NHL is in a league of its own.
How else to explain the phenomenon that is outdoor hockey? Or that, for the first time in its history, the league will play a regular-season game in a city that boats year-round sunshine?
It’s not just an outdoor game the NHL is bringing to Los Angeles this month. It’s Dodger Stadium, on the same field where Yasiel Puig runs the bases at warp speed and where Clayton Kershaw has established himself as the best pitcher in baseball.
Now think ice. Right there on the dirt, on a balmy Southern California night, with palm trees blowing in the breeze and enough sand to cover a Santa Monica beach.
It sounds unlikely, perhaps even implausible. But on Jan. 25, the LA Kings and Anaheim Ducks will drop the puck in a regular-season game at Dodger Stadium with 55,000 spectators and a national TV audience watching.
The league has staged outdoor games in the past, but never in a city where moderate temperatures are the norm. Snow and frigid weather are commonplace during outdoor games — the New Year’s Day contest between Detroit and Toronto in Ann Arbor, Mich., was played in 13-degree weather — but clear skies?
"Maybe I’ll come out in board shots and sunglasses," Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr told NHL.com. "Who knows what the weather is going to be like?"
Frankly, it doesn’t matter. The NHL is prepared for any conditions, knowing it can lay down the ice in the days leading up to the game and keep it frozen, thanks to insulated blankets that will shield the surface from the sun.
"When the sun is out, the blankets are on," said Dan Craig, the league’s senior director of facilities operations. "We’re going to be in good shape."
It won’t happen overnight. The refrigeration truck that was used for the Red Wings-Maple Leafs game is scheduled to arrive at Dodger Stadium at the end of the week, and the process of putting down 200 layers of ice using a fine spray will begin on the same night.
Craig’s crew will work nonstop for several nights to prepare the surface. In the daytime, when the sun comes out, the blankets will cover the surface to keep it cold.
We’re doing something I don’t think any other major sport has done.
-- Don Renzulli, executive vice president of events for the NHL
The rink will be covered from about 4 a.m. until 3 or 3:30 p.m., when the sun has moved off the field, Craig said. That’s when spraying resumes.
The rink is expected to be ready for play five days before the game. The reason, Craig said, is "because you never know what Mother Nature is going to do. You always have to have a buffer — always."
Because this is Hollywood, it’s as much a spectacle as it is a game. KISS has already been signed on to entertain during pregame and after the first intermission, and there are plans to give the game a true Southern California feel.
"We come out here and say, ‘What the hell is LA?’" said Don Renzulli, executive vice president of events for the NHL. "Well, we haven’t been to a place with palm trees, so that’s a pretty simple one. Then you’ve got water and sand and Venice Beach. That’s what people back east think California is. So we said that’s what we should try to build out the stadium with."
And sand. Renzulli said the plan is to create a beach volleyball court with players taking part in an exhibition game. Bikinis, anyone?
"We’re doing something I don’t think any other major sport has done," he said. "We’re doing something way out of the ordinary."
It’s an idea the Kings have had for some time. They initially approached the league several years ago, hoping to play a game at an outdoor venue in Southern California. But the time wasn’t right for the league.
"I think I had numerous conversations with (NHL chief operating officer) John Collins," said Luc Robitaille, Kings president, business operations. "At one point, I remember calling and saying, ‘We’re ready,’ and he said, ‘For what?’
"He never said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but I do remember (commissioner) Gary Bettman telling me, ‘We’ve got to wait and make sure the technology is good enough.’ "
The time has come, and whether it’s warm or cold, the game will go on.
You think of an outdoor game, you’re thinking snow…this is going to be different.
-- Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell
"Even if it’s a heat wave, it doesn’t matter," Robitaille said. "All that matters, I know and you know, the minute the sun goes down in California, we’re fine."
The average nighttime low in Los Angeles in January is 48 degrees. That’s good enough for a game, even though most players grew up playing in much colder weather.
"It’s going to be a different outdoor game for sure," Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell told NHL.com. "You think of an outdoor game, you’re thinking snow because typically they’ve been on the east coast where all the snow’s been, and colder temperatures. This is going to be different."
Almost everything is going to be different, but it’s still hockey. That’s what fans will come to see.
"It’s as close to being grassroots hockey as you can get," Craig said. "It’s how we used to play."