LOS ANGELES – The temperature was 85 degrees. The humidity was near 30 percent. Black flies and grasshoppers swarmed the ice, perishing around the players’ skates as they carefully avoided them on the rink.
It might sound like something out of Sci-Fi Original Movie about the NHL (we’ll go with “HELL-key” or “Mutant Locusts vs. Canadians With Sticks”) but it was actually the scene in Las Vegas for the Sept. 1991 exhibition game between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings, marking the last time (and the first time) the Kings played an outdoor game until Saturday’s Dodger Stadium tilt with the Anaheim Ducks.
Reception for the Sept. 27, 1991, exhibition game was, at the time, somewhere between serious doubts and outright ridicule. There weren't many believers. But those who organized it believed in the game, and it was ultimately a success – with some, shall we say, unusual obstacles.
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It was the brain child of Rich Rose, president of Caesars World Sports and a Rangers fan, who had previously held an ice skating exhibition outdoors in the Vegas weather. His vision: Stage an NHL game in the parking lot of the casino, using a temporary rink and the best ice technology available at the time.
"When I went to [Caesars] with the idea, the only thing they said was, 'Can it be done?' Around here, they don't say, 'No.' They say, 'Yes, find a way to make it happen,’” he told the LA Times in 1991. "I went to the NHL, once they got over the shock and asked me if I really wanted to do this, they gave their approval."
His next visit was to the one man crazy enough to go all-in on the idea of ice hockey in the desert, because he was crazy enough to chase down the dream of bringing Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles: Bruce McNall, owner of the Kings.
Who, naturally, said yes without much protest.
“I happened to be with a really good group of people that really wanted to sell the sport. So Bruce and the entire team was a part of that,” Gretzky told Yahoo Sports.
"McNall had a vision that like Southern Nevada and Las Vegas was Kings territory," said Steve Carp, who covered the game for the Las Vegas Sun, to MyNews3. "And he wanted to grow the game here and bring in the Original Six teams like the Rangers to Las Vegas where there's a lot of transplanted New Yorkers. Made a lot of sense."
From that aspect, yes it did.
From the aspect of playing hockey in the desert … not so much.
But that’s why Rose brought in the best ice men in America to build him a rink.
The first step was laying down inch-think Styrofoam insulation on the concrete, followed by plastic and then 300 tons of sand. The refrigeration tubing for the event stretched for 22 miles and weighed 300 tons – three times what it would normally weigh for a typical indoor rink. They would use 25,000 gallons of water to make the ice.
From the Chicago Tribune, on the process of creating ice:
Working often well past midnight, they were able to build ice three times thicker than that on a normal hockey rink. The first application sealed all cracks and openings along the sides of the rink, and that froze in two hours. The next coating laid on top of the parking lot surface like a hard-shell finish and was frozen solid in 90 minutes. Both chemicals contain a special sun reflectant. Once the event is over, the chemicals melt, turn to a biodegradable powder that can be safely recycled into the environment.
As the game approached, things looked good: The ice held at 11 degrees under a protective tarp during the week.
And then disaster struck.
According to the Tribune, the tarp over the ice was lifted on Friday afternoon. The mesh hanging above the ice was supposed to protect it from the sun, which it did, absorbing much of the heat.
Which made it hot. Which means it shouldn’t have ever touched the ice.
But it did, when someone gave the order to drop it onto the rink.
The tarp was about 110 degrees and immediately melted the ice, turning it into what Krolak called “a lake" when he saw it.
The Vegas gamble looked like a bust … until the Zamboni driver arrived.
“A Zamboni driver saved the day,” Krolak said to the Tribune. “He was like a surgeon performing a delicate operation. He took the water off without damaging any lines, and we could rebuild the ice again.”
Rain also affected the ice conditions during the week, but the crew was able to sustain it by turning the temperatures down.
Alas, this led to another problem before the game on Friday night: The ice was too cold. The ice began to crack, so the techs raised the temperature from 8 degrees to 11 degrees.
But there would be another ice issue: While so many of the rink's details were covered, how to actually draw the lines on the ice was an overlooked one.
The rink builders used fabric to create the lines, burying them under the ice. When the ice receded a bit, the fabric on the blue line poked through, leading to the utter hilarity of a guy in a T-shirt with what resembled a fire extinguisher tried to freeze over the blue line fabric while Wayne Gretzky stood and waited.
During the game, however, the problems reached biblical proportions.
Think "plague of locusts."
Grasshoppers swarmed the ice, thinking it was water, not understanding the concept of “frozen.”
“They built the rink in the Caesars Palace Stadium where there was grass surrounding the stadium. And these grasshoppers were attracted by the light. And when they managed to find themselves on the ice, they froze to death,” Carp told MyNews3.com.
Said Gretzky, to the LA Daily News:
“The only issue was the last four minutes the black flies were diving into the ice thinking it was water. You had to be careful because you could skate on a fly and get hurt. ... As long as it was slippery, it was fine with me, though. I was OK.”
The game itself saw the Kings rally from a 2-0 deficit with five unanswered goals, winning the exhibition 5-2.
The play was spirited. Goalie Kelly Hrudey wore a helmet cam that captured some of the action, which was as advanced at the time as an outdoor game in Vegas.
Hey, there was even a fight between Rod Buskas and Kris King!
“It was really … not that different,” Gretzky told us. “The only difference was that at 4 o’clock, when we get ready to play the game, it was 103 degrees and we’re going to play outside. The actual game itself, and the atmosphere, wasn’t pretty much the same.”
The New York Times said the game was a gamble that worked, although “the exhibition game seemed more an engineering feat than an athletic achievement.”
You can watch an MSG Network special on the game here:
The game didn’t lead to an NHL team in Las Vegas – though that’s still in the expansion conversation – or a spate of outdoor hockey games around the U.S., which would come about 17 year later thanks to NBC and John Collins.
It also didn’t lead to great things for Ice Systems of America, which filed for bankruptcy in 1999 with liabilities north of $1.67 million.
The game remains a curiosity, infamous for its obstacles as much as for its success.
But its most famous participant believes Saturday night’s game in Los Angeles between the Kings and the Anaheim Ducks won’t have the same complications.
“I always say when people ask how we’re going to play a game in Dodger Stadium this weekend, that we played a game in 103 degrees in September,” said Gretzky. “This game is going to be so unique because it’s not going to be cold. The players are going to be able to feel their fingers, their ears and their toes. It’s going to be exciting for the players.”
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