L.A. outdoor circus: NHL’s Dodger Stadium showcase was astounding and outstanding

L.A. outdoor circus: NHL’s Dodger Stadium showcase was astounding and outstanding

LOS ANGELES – The players put on their skate guards in the baseball clubhouses Saturday night, then made the long walk around Dodger Stadium – through the basement, behind the bullpens, underneath the outfield grandstands.

The Los Angeles Kings came from one side, the Anaheim Ducks from the other, listening to the roar of the crowd and the music of KISS. “I … wanna rock ’n’ roll all niiight … and party ev-er-y day.”

They met in the middle and sat down on benches directly across from each other. Some sneaked peeks at their opponents. Others looked down, trying to stay focused. Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy said it felt like the movie “Gladiator,” when the men wait in the shadows of the thundering coliseum, unsure of exactly what awaits them.

And then it was time. The USC band marched out. Legendary Dodgers voice Vin Scully introduced the teams as the crowd roared louder. The players walked between palm trees, side by side, down the middle of centerfield. A beach volleyball court was on their right, the KISS stage on their left. The ice was dead ahead.

“We felt like rock stars,” Lovejoy said. “We’re not. We’re simple hockey players. But for one night, that was so cool.”

If you’re high and mighty about The Game, this wasn’t for you. The sightlines were bad, as they are in baseball stadiums. The surroundings were more of a circus than ever before. A red carpet with celebrities? An inline skating rink? Extras riding skateboards, peddling bikes and playing with beach balls between periods? It was hokey, not hockey.

But if you take this for what it was – show business, Hollywood, entertainment in Tinseltown, a celebration of the growth of hockey in Southern California – it was astounding and outstanding. It was what a circus is supposed to be: fun. The stands were packed. The NHL announced a sellout crowd of 54,099 – a not-so-subtle nod to Wayne Gretzky, the man who helped make hockey hot in L.A. No. 99 dropped the ceremonial first puck.

And you know what? For all the worry about holding the first outdoor regular-season game in a warm-weather venue, the ice was pretty good, and so was the game – a 3-0 victory for Anaheim, the top team in the league. Though the ice was a little slow and the players were a little hot at times with the temperature about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, there was skating and passing. There was a penalty shot. There was a fight.

It would have been a beautiful night for baseball. It turned out to be a great night for hockey – frankly far better from a quality of play and comfort standpoint than the cold, snowy, but more romantic Winter Classic outside Detroit on New Year’s Day.

“I don’t know how those games have been when it’s below 30 or 20, but this was so much fun,” said Ducks star Teemu Selanne. “There’s not one negative thing you can say about this. It was unbelievable.”

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We say it every outdoor game: That was surreal. We say it so often that surreal doesn’t feel surreal anymore. A hockey game in an iconic football or baseball stadium? Been there, done that. If not here, then somewhere.

But this was surreal in its own way. This was L.A. The NHL laid out a red carpet in a VIP club area before the game, and out walked one of the most bizarre mixes of movie stars, TV stars and sports stars you’ve ever seen.

Here came KISS in full makeup and regalia, Gene Simmons sticking out his tongue for the cameras and boasting: “We’re as excited for this as you are to see us.” Here came former Dodgers shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. “I didn’t bring my KISS stuff,” said Garciaparra, dressed in street clothes. “Sorry.”

Here came Dodgers pitcher Brian Wilson, with a black beard better than Shea Weber’s in the playoffs, and legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. “We’ve had the pope here,” Lasorda said. “We’ve had the Beatles here. And now we have ice hockey here. I never thought I’d see it.”

Here came Pat Sajak in his L.A. Kings jacket, Jon Hamm in his St. Louis Blues hat. Here came Lisa Ling and Alyssa Milano. “I think L.A. hockey fans always get a bum rap; I think we’re super loyal,” said Milano, a Kings fan since Tony Danza took her to games as a teenager, a Kings season-ticket holder since the pre-Gretzky days. “Games like this are so important because hopefully it will grow that fan base.”

Gretzky shared the red carpet with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman … and, um, Tom Arnold? They took a picture together. They even joked around together like they were old buddies or something. And it sounds like that wasn’t the weirdest interaction of the night.

“There’ll probably be a number of pictures that go viral with me and the guys from KISS,” Bettman said.

Gary Bettman. The guys from KISS.

See? Now that’s surreal.

Gretzky said he had been looking forward to this for a long time, ever since he had skated in the freezing cold in the alumni game of the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton, the NHL’s first modern outdoor game.

“The game is meant to be played outdoors in the cold and snow, but this is a great city, too,” Gretzky said. “I wanted people to see that you can play hockey when it’s 50 degrees and it’s beautiful weather and the players are enjoying it and the fans are sitting there in T-shirts and shorts. This is going to show a different side of our sport, and one we’ll be very proud of.”

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The high temperature Saturday was actually 77 degrees. But the ice is laid atop an aluminum floor, which transfers heat efficiently, and NHL ice guru Dan Craig can tune the ice temp to within a half-degree. Craig also has learned a thing or two after years of making ice indoors and out. His crew laid insulated blankets on the ice during the day to keep it cold.

The sun was off the ice by 3:30 p.m. PT, and the temperature was already down to 71. The blankets came off at about 4:45 p.m. PT, when the temperature had dipped to 66. Though faceoff was officially scheduled for 6:30 PT, the hockey didn’t start until 7:17 p.m. PT thanks to the hoopla. The temperature was 62 degrees by then.

“And now it’s time for … NHL hockey!” Scully told the crowd.

Kings fans far outnumbered Ducks fans. It didn’t matter. Corey Perry and Matt Beleskey gave Anaheim a 2-0 lead in the first period. Goaltender Jonas Hiller was outstanding all night long, and the Kings couldn’t score – just as they have struggled to score indoors. Andrew Cogliano put the game away with an empty-netter. As the Kings trudged off the ice, fireworks shot into the air.

“I tried not to look up,” Lovejoy said. “I think all of us were focused on the task at hand. But after the game, when the fireworks exploded, that was really cool. I’m glad we could salute the crowd and soak it all in for one more minute.”

You can say the NHL has gone too far. You can say this is too much of a good thing – six outdoor games in one season. Maybe this game didn’t translate on television in other parts of North America, and the NHL deserves criticism for overpricing some tickets and even for running out of Coors Light – the brand of beer that is the title sponsor of its new Stadium Series.

Maybe some of the games to come won’t go as well. The NHL has another outdoor game at New York’s Yankee Stadium on Sunday, then another at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night, then another at Chicago’s Soldier Field on March 1, then another at Vancouver’s B.C. Place on March 2.

But if you were at Dodger Stadium on Saturday night, it was easy to see why the NHL is doing this. It was hard to argue against it. Officially, this game was just No. 782 of 1,230 on the NHL schedule. Normally, this game would have been played at Staples Center before 18,000 fans. Instead, it was an over-the-top event that drew three times that and generated a buzz that will linger.

Selanne, a 43-year-old, five-time Olympian in his final season, said this was one of the best single-game experiences of his career. He said the league should have a game in Anaheim. He said the league should have a game in San Jose.

“I can’t see any reason why they don’t do this more,” Selanne said. “The whole package was outstanding. The atmosphere was unbelievable. You don’t have many chances to play in front of 55,000 people in California outdoors under the stars in the sky. It was awesome.”

Selanne smiled, a beer in his hand.

“It’s hard to describe,” he said. “I’m going to remember this.”