I’ve only been to Dodger Stadium a few times in my life.
That may sound odd coming from a California native who loves baseball. But as a lifelong Angels fan who lives only 15 minutes from the Big A, I just haven’t made that 40-mile drive up the 5 freeway very often.
But on a Saturday in January, I did. And it wasn’t to watch America’s pastime, but another sport that has more recently captured my heart and the hearts of residents all over the Golden State.
Yes, adjacent to downtown Los Angeles, in the middle of a baseball diamond, sat a hockey rink, as iconic Dodger Stadium played host to one of six 2014 NHL Stadium Series Outdoor Games. The nighttime tilt featured the Los Angeles Kings taking on the Anaheim Ducks. Two of the top teams in the Western Conference, and the league, both of whom have raised Lord Stanley’s Cup within the last seven years.
An outdoor hockey game. In California. For the first time. Ever. History was made. And it was incredible to witness.
Late in the afternoon while the sun was still bright and shadows began to creep over the infield, I stood on the top deck of this beloved LA landmark and took in that now familiar scene of an outdoor rink surrounded by palm trees and the San Gabriel Mountains. And I decided that it was perfect.
What made it perfect wasn’t the fact that it was exactly how the sport of hockey is typically experienced outdoors. For hockey purists, this scene was missing some important elements like gently falling snow, frigid temps, and teams from cities like New York, or Boston, or Toronto.
But what made it perfect was that it was exactly how the sport of hockey is experienced in California. With daily highs of 75 degrees, sunshine, clear, cool nights, and expansion teams with connections to Hollywood and Disneyland.
When it was first announced that Los Angeles was on the Stadium Series schedule, it wasn’t an idea that was readily accepted.
An outdoor game in LA? What about the ice? There was so much angst and hand-wringing by skeptics over what the ice conditions would be like in this setting that you would have thought the entire ice surface was going to melt into a huge puddle right underneath the players’ skates.
I was never worried. And neither were Dan Craig and his team of ice magicians, the crew assembled by the NHL to build an ice rink where few thought an ice rink could be built. It was 60 degrees at puck drop that night and according to the players, the ice surface wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t much different than the ice they typically play on indoors in this region.
As the sun set, I stood in that same spot on the top deck, perched high above all of the arriving fans in their respective jerseys, and watched as the crew slowly removed the insulated thermal blankets that covered the ice surface to reveal the familiar painted lines and circles. There was a hockey game to be played here. This was really going to happen.
The atmosphere created by the league that night went far beyond just an ice rink on the infield grass. There was a beach volleyball court in left field. There were fans throwing footballs and tossing Frisbees. The outfield was home to a group of women doing yoga. A smaller rink sat near home plate, where local kids played street hockey, the way most kids in this region are introduced to the game. There was a red carpet entrance. The rock band KISS was in right field with their face paint and pyrotechnics. There was even the USC Marching Band.
It was an absolute spectacle. And it was awesome.
Legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully welcomed the crowd and introduced the teams to a standing ovation from the crowd as the players walked through a palm tree lined entrance created in center field. It had to be Scully, as no other voice in that setting would have been appropriate other than his.
And then entered Wayne Gretzky, The Great One, the one person who has had the largest influence on the state of hockey in California. Kings fans and Ducks fans alike agree that without “The Trade”, there would not be, among other things, an outdoor hockey game happening in Los Angeles.
Gretzky stood between Kings captain Dustin Brown and Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf and dropped the ceremonial puck that represented the culmination of 25 years of unprecedented growth in the sport in California. This was clearly more than just a regular season game for this region, these teams and their fans. It was the recognition that California hockey has truly become a force to be reckoned with.
All of the production and flash aside, there was a game to be played and two points on the line. The Ducks entered this contest at the top of the league standings, having defeated the Kings at Honda Center just two nights before. The Kings came in trying to reverse their recent losing woes and find their scoring touch.
The Ducks got on the board early in the first period with a goal by Corey Perry and never looked back. They added a tally by Matt Beleskey and a late empty net goal by Andrew Cogliano as the boys in bright orange defeated the Kings 3-0. Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller was an absolute wall, pitching a shut out in front of the announced 54,099 in attendance (an obvious nod to 99 himself). The Ducks raised their sticks in salute to their fans as fireworks shot into the night sky.
After the game, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was peppered with questions about future outdoor games such as this, and while he was hesitant to give any insight into the league’s plans, it’s apparent that this format can work well, in most any region. While some feel that too much of a good thing could take away from the uniqueness of this type of event, I think that each market should get the chance to experience this in some form. The players loved it. The fans loved it. And no matter how many outdoor games were played prior to the one in Dodger Stadium, there was nothing that compared to seeing an outdoor game happen in our own SoCal backyard.
As I left the ballpark that night, I lingered a bit on the top deck, looking down again on the memorable night that was, grateful for the opportunity to be a part of history.
It was 25 years ago that I graduated high school, just a few months before Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles and changed the face of California hockey forever. Looking back, I never would have imagined that this is where hockey would be today in the state I call home. But it is a beautiful sight to see.
At every level, from youth to pro, the sport is the strongest it has ever been. And it’s continuing to grow. Kids from California are getting their start in hockey here and are not only going on to play in NCAA Div 1 programs, but are being drafted by NHL teams. The future of the sport here is bright.
I’m glad my home state finally got its moment in the hockey spotlight. Maybe this will put us one step closer to dropping the idea that California is “not a viable hockey market.” It most certainly is.
The history of hockey here may not be as storied or as celebrated or have as many years in the books as in some other regions. And that’s okay.
I think that hockey fans in California realize that while there’s something special about having history in the sport that you love, there may be something even more special about being a part of making history in that sport.
And those at Dodger Stadium that night got to do just that.
Well done, California. I’ve never been more proud to be a native, and a hockey fan, than I am today.
In case you missed Five for Fighting’s performance during the second intermission, you’ll want to check out this unique version of their song “100 Years” and the emotional tribute video that accompanied it. Be sure to listen for the shout out to Teemu. Awesome.