On the album Chavez Ravine, his 2005 ode to one of Los Angeles’s most venerable old neighbourhoods, Ry Cooder includes a wonderful, wistful track called 3rd Base, Dodger Stadium, which lyrically goes around the horn of that famous ballpark and conjures up a time in the 1950s when it was just a playground: “All the fellows choosing up their teams / hand over hand on that Louisville / crowning the top, kind of the hill / mound to home, 60 feet.”
Over time, Dodger Stadium has played host to Pope John Paul II and the Beatles, Real Madrid and Juventus soccer. Fleetwood Mac recorded there and movies from Transformers to Rock of Ages were filmed there.
But on Jan. 25, Dodger Stadium will go back to being a playground of sorts when it plays host to perhaps the most unusual event in its history: an outdoor ice hockey game between the L.A. Kings and Anaheim Ducks.
Last Monday, after the world’s largest mobile refrigeration truck had pulled into the parking lot, 3rd Base, Dodger Stadium had already been converted from baseball’s hot corner to the boundary of an elevated, highly engineered floor that will eventually form the base of the rink where the Ducks and Kings will play the 782nd game of the NHL season against a backdrop of palm trees and the San Gabriel Mountains.
There is some thought the NHL might be killing the golden goose by scheduling six outdoor games this season instead of just the one or two, but it is hard to dispute the appeal of this one – a warm-weather game played in California, which is suddenly the new state of hockey south of the Canadian border.
“How many times are you going to see two hockey teams brought in on golf carts?” Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said. “Honest to goodness, they’re bringing both teams in from the bullpen on golf carts because it’s too far to walk.”
Sutter grew up playing hockey outdoors on the sloughs near his Viking, Alta., home and is a complete, unabashed supporter of this event. Normally, Sutter dislikes anything that disrupts the normal rhythm of the NHL season, but the charm and novelty of the event has him so excited he has even coaxed his 78-year-old mother, Grace, to fly in for the game.
“I called her to see if she was interested in coming. She asked, ‘Is there a direct flight?’ I said, ‘Mom, you drove us all over the place when it was 40 below. Come and watch us play when it’s 65 F outside.’”
Of course, the expected 18 C temperature is on everybody’s mind, along with the one overriding question: How can they make a viable ice surface in a place where even the overnight temperatures do not drop below the freezing point?
The answer, according to Dan Craig, the NHL’s senior director of facilities operations, is it can be done and the technology has been in place for some time now. All that was needed was means and opportunity – and that came, thanks to an aggressive push from Luc Robitaille, the Kings’ president of business operations, who’s had the idea in his head since the team played an outdoor exhibition game in Las Vegas in 1991.
“If we could do it back in 1991, I knew with the technologies we have today that it’s doable,” Robitaille said. “So for years, I was always bugging Bill [Daly, the NHL deputy commissioner] and Gary [Bettman, the NHL commissioner], saying we should do it in L.A., it would make a difference.
“As for Dodger Stadium, for us, it felt like a no-brainer; that it should be there. It’s just an iconic stadium. There’s something really special at it. We took a peek at the Coliseum, but we didn’t really look any place else.
“We talked with [L.A. Dodgers president] Stan Kasten and [team co-owner] Magic Johnson – and they were all on board, too. There was not even a hesitation. Stan said, ‘Yep, we’re in.’ Ned Colletti [the Dodgers’ general manager] said: ‘Can I play?’”