Los Angeles -- What started out as a hard-to-believe concept -- an outdoor hockey game at sunny Dodger Stadium -- became a reality Monday when the NHL's "ice truck" rolled into Chavez Ravine following its long journey from another outdoor game at "The Big House" in Michigan.
On hand was no less than hockey royalty, as "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky, was there to kickstart the event.
"People don't realize it's like 65 degrees in a hockey arena," said Gretzky, refuting the notion that warm weather is problematic for outdoor games. "It's kind of warm. It's not that cold."
For Gretzky, the appearance marked a thaw in his recent icy relationship with the NHL, which is a shame considering he is by far the sport's best ambassador. Gretzky had been involved in a monetary dispute with the league for several years.
When Gretzky came to the Los Angeles Kings via a trade in 1988, he galvanized and grew the local fanbase to the point that today California has three NHL franchises, and has even become a producer of young talent to the professional ranks.
So it was fitting to have The Great One witness the fruition of his impact in a contest that will pit two Southern California rivals with winning records facing off in a historic battle inside one of the City's most beloved arenas.
As the work crew began the process of putting the outdoor rink together, Gretzky, along with his former teammate, Luc Robitaille, spent much of the warm afternoon reminiscing about their past experiences playing outdoors, while also excitedly looking forward to the upcoming January 25 game.
Gretzky laughingly recalled playing outside as a kid and desperately trying to find a way to keep his feet warm.
"Bobby Orr was one of the first guys in those days that didn't wear socks in the skates," Gretzky said. "We all came up with the bright idea maybe that will be the way to go out in 30 degree weather with no socks. That wasn't the right thing to do."
Robitaille remembered playing for the Kings in an outdoor exhibition game in Las Vegas in the 1990's and having to dodge grasshoppers that had jumped onto the ice.
Unlike that game in Vegas, the contest at Dodger Stadium between the two rivals will be a much more intense regular season clash.
"This is a league game," Gretzky noted. "These guys are going to play for real. It's a different atmosphere they are going to have. They are going to be obviously way more aggressive than we were for an exhibition game."
The NHL's Stadium Series has been a rousing success, as the recent game in Michigan featured seasonally-appropriate snowy weather, a packed house, and a thrilling finish.
Because such weather conditions are impossible to duplicate in Los Angeles, the NHL has embraced the local flavor and adapted accordingly.
Although the Kings and Ducks will face-off on the NHL-regulation size ice rink located in the infield, local beach volleyball players will play before the game and during the first and second intermissions on a beach volleyball sand court located in left field. Centerfield will feature palm trees in a nod to the game’s Southern California setting.
Participants from the Ducks and Kings’ NHL Street hockey programs will scrimmage on a street hockey rink adjacent to the NHL rink.
The Ducks and Kings logos will share the spotlight in centerfield. A sand sculpture of the Kings logo will be embedded in the beach volleyball sand court while the Ducks logo will be featured in the bottom of a pond in center right field.
The league is also throwing in a bit of Hollywood star power as well. Jordin Sparks will sing the U.S. national anthem while John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting will perform during the second intermission on the stage located at home plate. That stage will feature a special design created by Los Angeles art legend Mister Cartoon and children from the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, Para Los Niños.
The stage in right field will feature special pre-game and first intermission performances from legendary rock band and 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees KISS.
Adjacent to the stadium is 2014 NHL Spectator Plaza, a free outdoor hockey and entertainment festival in the left field parking lot. Fans of all ages will be treated to live musical performances, interactive hockey-themed attractions, prizing and giveaways, and food and beverages.
The Los Angeles event will be the first outdoor NHL game in California and the first in the 51-year history of Dodger Stadium.
Having Gretzky involved and back in the fold is a wise move by the NHL, and is the right thing to do for this LA-based event.
"Wayne Gretzky is probably like our Babe Ruth and we need him around," Robitaille said. "He’s the guy that had the most impact in this game. When he left Canada it meant so much to everybody there in a negative way. But when he came in L.A., it changed the game in the United States forever."
By Mike Elliott
Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com