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?’”
It helped Robitaille’s appeal there is a strong hockey culture in the Dodgers organization. Kasten previously ran the Atlanta Thrashers and the Washington Capitals. Colletti grew up in Chicago as a fanatical Blackhawks fan and before becoming a baseball executive, was a former newspaper reporter who covered the Philadelphia Flyers in the early 1980s.
Kasten called it a “natural fit.”
“First of all, Dodger Stadium is such a fantastic venue. We can do everything here and I think we’re proving it,” he said. “When I was in Washington, we planned to do an outdoor game and now I see that they’re going to be getting one [in 2015]. It’ll be great to have it here and I’m really excited about the very real prospect of coming to a hockey game in T-shirt and shorts and seeing palm trees in the background. That’s just as cool as can be.”
“For me to look out my window and see an ice-skating rink go up, I love it,” Colletti added. “Growing up in Chicago, baseball was my spring and summer passion and hockey was my fall and winter passion. I’ve always followed it. As my career grew and changed, I found myself in a lot of different circles with people who do what I do – a peer group in a number of different sports.
“When Luc asked me, ‘What do you think about having an outdoor game at Dodger Stadium?’ I said, ‘Oh, my gawd, you’re asking the wrong guy, I’d say yes in a heartbeat.’”
The man in charge of making it work is Craig, who is used to working in traditional hockey markets, with traditional winter temperatures, to enhance the ice-making process.
“I’ve got guys who’ve been on this crew since 2005-06,” Craig said, “and every time we do another event, we look at each other and say, ‘One more chapter.’ Nobody would ever dream we were doing this.”
With one or two exceptions, the NHL usually tries to schedule the outdoor games during the day, but that wouldn’t work here, where they’re counting on the significant temperature drop once the sun goes down to keep the ice in place.
Craig’s crew works a graveyard shift and once the sun rises in the morning, they cover the ice with a reflective, insulated tarpaulin. Craig’s crew started putting the ice in last Thursday and needed five days to get it down. By Friday morning, they had the boards up and roughly 0.5 centimetres of ice down.
Weather permitting, they have tentatively scheduled a celebrity/media game to test it out Wednesday, and then the Ducks and Kings get to practise on it just once – next Friday, after the sun goes down.
Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau spent most of his childhood making ice in the backyard the traditional way – spraying water with a hose and then waiting for it to freeze. He, too, is flabbergasted at what is possible nowadays.
“They explained it to me … and I said, ‘Well, that’s cool. I’m glad you know what you’re doing,’” Boudreau said. “There’s no chance I could see how you could do it, on a day like today, when it’s [27 C] and sunny out. It’s not like it’s a windy, cold dreary day, where you could come out here and say, ‘See, that’s what it’s like here in January.’”
“Everywhere I go, people ask me all the time: ‘How can they have ice when it’s so warm?’” added Wayne Gretzky, the former Kings star who helped put hockey on the map in California. “I always say, people don’t realize it’s about [18 C] inside a hockey rink. It’s not that cold. These ice people know what they’re doing. They do a great job. The ice will be wonderful.”
Last September, when the game was first announced, Ducks forward Dustin Penner predicted the venue would be bigger than the game itself – and that could well be.
There is a carnival midway feel to it, with a beach volleyball court in left field, a sound stage in right and a roller rink down in the home plate area. There will be lots of attractions and distractions beyond the actual NHL game, which is a deliberate part of the strategy, according to Robitaille. He believes both the Kings and the Ducks could get a good marketing bump from the event because of its curiosity appeal – and the chance to attract new fans that might not normally tune in or turn up to watch hockey.
“In L.A., the first step was, we wanted to fix our business and we wanted to make sure we were sold out,” Robitaille said. “Now that we’re there, we’re trying to get to the next level and grow the base of fans that we have. We know there are roughly 2.5-million hockey fans in L.A. out of about 16 million people. Playing that game on Jan. 25 there, we think we’ll be able to create a little bit of a buzz – and that people who wouldn’t see a hockey game will watch it because it’s at Dodger Stadium.
“Besides going to the Stanley Cup final, it could be one of the top four or five moments for hockey in Southern California. … I think it’s great for both organizations.”
Boudreau was part of the 2011 Winter Classic as coach of the Capitals and predicted: “This is going to be an event. One of the big things I took out of that game – the build-up that HBO does is tremendous, no doubt. When we got in the bus from our hotel to go to Heinz Field [in Pittsburgh], they were all lined up along the streets, either booing us or cheering us.
“I thought that was the coolest thing. You were either a Penguins fan or a Caps fan. That’s what the Super Bowl reminds me of.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen here, because there’s not going to be the month-long build-up of HBO, but it’s not going to be like a typical outdoor game either. … We’re going to be pretty excited to play the thing.”
So, for that matter, are the Kings.
“What I’m looking forward to is the night before,” Sutter said. “Neither team can practise until Friday afternoon. I think we go on at 4:30 [p.m. local time] and then we have family time. Then, the Ducks practise at six and they have their family time. So it’s the only time to get everybody together.
“We’re going to have buses to take all the families up there. I want to get a picture of everybody on the ice together, because some of the little ones might not remember,” he said. “That whole ambience of Dodger Stadium, that’s the other reason I want mom to come down. I’ll think about dad for sure – because he loved baseball. He loved all the old ballparks.
“I’m so looking forward to it. It’ll be awesome.”
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