Saku Koivu was there, more than 10 years ago, for the NHL’s first regular-season outdoor game.
It was just a curiosity, hatched almost entirely by the Edmonton Oilers brain trust of the era, a concept the league went along with but didn’t exactly embrace. It was played at Commonwealth Stadium on a freezing November day, beginning with an afternoon alumni game between the former greats of two great organizations, the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens.
Then, came the actual NHL game, with two points on the line, between Koivu’s Habs and the Oilers of Jarret Stoll, Ales Hemsky and others.
Montreal won 4-3, with tuque-wearing goalie José Théodore the most riveting figure on the ice. The position players could get to the benches and the heaters, but the goalies had to endure every blessed moment. No wonder Edmonton opted to play Ty Conklin, who grew up in Alaska, in net that night.
“The weather conditions were so extreme,” Koivu said this week, after his Anaheim Ducks defeated the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 in the prelude to the next part of the NHL’s outdoor saga: Saturday’s warm-weather game between the same two teams at Dodger Stadium. “We wore this really thick long underwear and they had these heaters on the bench that actually made it too hot.
“So you’re sitting there on the bench, thinking ‘I gotta get out there,’ but as soon as you stepped on the ice, it was like, ‘Geez, is this cold.’ As a centreman, you play down low in the zone and you’d start skating with the puck, but you had to make a play before you hit the blueline because the wind was so bad, your eyes would water and you couldn’t see,” he said.
“Back then, if somebody had said, ‘One day we’ll be playing outdoors in California and it’s going to be plus-25 C compared to minus-35 C, plus the wind, it would have been hard to believe.’
“We’re really going from one extreme to the other.”
Ultimately, the NHL embraced the idea of outdoor games, and they have become a big money maker for the league. Saturday’s date at Dodger Stadium will be followed by a Sunday matinee at Yankee Stadium – and maybe the greatest irony of all is this past week weather conditions proved more problematic for the crew setting up the cold-weather game in New York than for the one making ice in sunny California.
Perhaps no one is more eager to play than Ducks defenceman Ben Lovejoy, who was a rookie with the Pittsburgh Penguins when they played outdoors at Heinz Field in 2011 against the Washington Capitals – and was a healthy scratch.
“It definitely killed me to not play in the last game,” Lovejoy said. “It was a difficult thing. I was a rookie. I was battling for my position in the lineup. I understood the decision, but when this game was announced, this was a game I circled on my calendar. … This is a huge moment for hockey and everybody wants to be a part of it.”
The teams didn’t actually see the ice first hand until Friday afternoon, when the Kings and then the Ducks were scheduled for short practices, followed by skating parties for their families.
Koivu spent part of last Wednesday shopping for new skates for his daughter. Kings head coach Darryl Sutter’s mother, Grace, 78, travelled from Viking, Alta., for the event.
Sutter and Ducks counterpart Bruce Boudreau (who was behind the Caps bench at the 2011 outdoor game) both grew up playing hockey outdoors, so this is a return to their roots, with a slight twist.
“As a boy, the only time we played indoors was Saturday, when we got to play our weekly game,” Sutter said. “It was mites, pee wees, bantam, midget and then seniors, and it was all day. And we were one of the few small towns that had a covered arena.
“Everywhere you went, you played outside. We laugh about it now. When you played outdoors, you played on the slough,” he said. “Usually, with us, it was at night, so there had to be moonlight. I still remember vividly doing that – and the ice was always so good and so clear and so damn cold. We took our boots off and they were our goalposts.
“The other thing I remember is how good you slept after you played – you’d just be gassed, with the combination of the fresh air and playing. It gives me shivers to think about that stuff.”
Now in in his sixth season with the Kings, Stoll’s lasting impression of the 2003 game in Edmonton (apart from the weather) was sneaking a peek at all the legends in town to play the alumni game, from Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier to Guy Lafleur.
“It was a special moment and a unique game,” Stoll said. “This one here will be a little different, with the California way, but it’ll be fun, too.”
As for Koivu, who played a lot of his hockey outdoors growing up in Finland, he can’t wait either.
“Obviously, Dodger Stadium is a legendary and historic place,” he said. “We’ll probably be overwhelmed when we first step on the ice there.
“It’s different than Edmonton. Edmonton was all about hockey. Having the beach volleyball set up [in the outfield], having [rock band] KISS play, this is going to be more of a Hollywood show.”
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