Pond hockey is something that sticks in the hearts and memories of everyone who has played it. The walk down to the banks of the frozen pond, the tapping of sticks to test the thickness of the ice. There is just something special about playing outside; everything from the clearing of last night’s snowfall to make the “boards” to calling it a night because it’s too dark to see the puck.
On January 1st, 2008, The National Hockey League (NHL) introduced the Winter Classic, which is basically an annual outdoor NHL game. Playing in front of 70,000+ rambunctious fans in New York, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Buffalo Sabres 2-1, in a game that went to a shootout. The first Winter Classic was a massive success; players and fans alike loved the atmosphere and feel of the outdoor game.
2008, however, was not the first year that the NHL held an outdoor game. In 2003, the Heritage Classic was played at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 and hockey was being brought back to its outdoor roots. The NHL has played 23 outdoor games since that 2003 game, with 23 of the (now) 31 NHL teams have competing.
However, a little known fact; there was an outdoor preseason game held before the current run of outdoor games. In 1991, an outdoor game, which would be the first outdoor game of the NHL’s modern era, featured the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers. While, at times, it felt like you were watching a giant advertisement, the game was full of surprises. Let’s look back, shall we, at a time before the salary cap came into existence, before a couple of lockouts, just before the comet puck was first dropped in an NHL game, at the time the NHL played it’s first modern outdoor game in a parking lot.
Wait, They Played an NHL Game in a Parking Lot?
That they did! It was held at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (yup, Las Vegas has had an outdoor game). Despite popular belief that a hockey game cannot be held outside in warm temperatures, the game itself wasn’t that bad. It was a nice cool summer’s day; the temperature at puck drop was 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with 28% humidity. The temperature, however, would rise to 95 degrees before the end of the game. How did the ice stay frozen, you may ask? Well, the lack of wind and humidity played a huge part. It wasn’t without issue, though; normally the lines on the ice surface are painted on. Instead, due to concerns over how the ice would hold up, fabric lines were placed down. This presented a problem early on, as the top layer of the ice surface deteriorated and the fabric started to poke through, requiring stoppages to add water and freeze it in place with liquid nitrogen. Three hundred tons of refrigeration equipment was used to keep the battlefield frozen (around one hundred tons is normally needed for regular rinks). The evening was filled with the sights and sounds of Vegas – from the Roman-soldier-dressed zamboni driver to the shots of Caesar’s palace, this night was definitely something special.
The Game Begins…
The ice surface looked damp at the start of play but, luckily, it didn’t seem to hinder play. Both teams adjusted quickly to the surface, and the scoring started when a young rookie named Tony Amonte beat LA Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey glove side (this was, unsurprisingly, the first official NHL goal scored in a parking lot!). Hrudey was actually outfitted with a camera in his helmet to shoot footage, albeit low resolution footage, of the game that would be part of the Prime Ticket Networks broadcast. It was a great look into the true speed of the game; playing a full-speed NHL game is not the same as sitting at home on the couch watching one.
After some technically difficulties from the broadcast hindered play for a bit, the scoring picked up with New York’s Doug Weight (who announcer Bob Miller incorrectly pronounces ‘Wright’ for a chunk of the broadcast) beating the Kings’ keeper to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead. Sloppy play lead to the Weight goal, as the Kings failed to clear the zone, resulting in a rebound landing on his stick. The Rangers would hold on to the 2-0 lead going into the second period.
The second period saw the Kings make some headway, as they tightened up their sloppy play. Just before the midpoint of the 2nd period, LA Kings foward Tony Granato managed to get a puck past goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who had not been very busy in the first period. With temperatures rising, the Kings continued to score with Brian Benning and Sylvain Couturier notching two more goals before the close of the 2nd. With the third goal late in the 2nd period, the LA Kings were, suddenly, outplaying the Rangers.
The third period saw grasshoppers invade the game. All throughout the first two periods, grasshoppers – who, it is speculated, were attracted to the makeshift arena’s lights – pestered the fans and players. The game had to be halted to clear the bugs off at the start of the 3rd period.
The Rangers, who were missing notable players such as Mike Richter and Mark Messier, needed to bounce back after being outplayed in the second period. The Kings, however, had other plans, as Jari Kurri buried the puck in the net, past Vanbiesbrouck, off a pass from ‘The Great One,’ Wayne Gretzky. Then, the fisticuffs started, as Rangers’ Kris King and Kings’ Rod Buskas fought, in what wouldn’t be the first fight in a parking lot.
Later in the third, Gretzky would get a breakaway attempt. A failed offensive zone keep saw the puck get knocked around by the two teams, with the Kings hitting a streaking Gretzky at center. Turning and barreling in on the Rangers’ goalie, it was make or break time for the Rangers. Luckily, Vanbiesbrouck was up to the task as he made the save, holding the Kings’ lead at 2; 4-2. Gretzky would eventually beat Vanbiesbrouck with less than 5 minutes to play in regulation, however, and the LA Kings took the Las Vegas Parking Lot Game, after scoring five unanswered goals.
Evolving the Spectacle
The first modern outdoor game in the NHL was most certainly a success. The glitz and glam of Vegas combined with the physical, fast-paced game of hockey was a winning bet. Two strong teams – each featuring Hall of Famers – battling in front of 13,000-plus fans in a parking lot was a risk for sure, but it worked out in the NHL’s favor.
That Parking Lot Game also served as a building block for the current system of outdoor games played in the NHL. Building off that legacy, the NHL has used the outdoor games to boost interest in the league and the sport as a whole. The game set the blueprint for future games with the right amount of hockey to satisfy the purists, and the right amount of spectacle to catch the eye of more casual fans. The NHL took a gamble that night in Las Vegas, and it paid off big-time.
Hopefully, the newly anointed Vegas Golden Knights can dig up some of the success from that night and build a franchise that will be a serious contender in a few years and, equally as important, draw crowds.
It’s nice to look back on games like this, see player’s names and know how things worked out for them. Whether they went on to have successful careers, or only played a few games, it brings back memories of watching them play. Seeing the magic that was Wayne Gretzky is one thing that I wish I did more often when I was younger. He was a wizard with his abilities and made good hockey players look like minor leaguers.
The NHL has clearly benefited from that night in Las Vegas, but it is good that the sport has been able to expand on the Parking Lot Game; it’s much more fun to watch meaningful games in football stadiums with 70,000+ fans present than a preseason game in a parking lot. Who knows: maybe one day a playoff game will be held outside. Here’s to hoping.