“Here’s your boarding pass and visa back,” the customs agent said as she stamped my passport. “Have a safe and pleasant trip to Los Angeles, and enjoy your time at the outdoor game. And as a friendly reminder, if you don’t mercilessly trash the entire event, you will be denied access back into Canada.”
OK, she didn’t say that last part in so many words, or really any words at all. But it was implied. It was in the tone of her voice and an almost imperceptible furrowing of her brow. She knew what was up. Message received, customs lady.
I am a Canadian, and I had been sent to California to watch an outdoor hockey game. This was not right. This was a mockery of what outdoor hockey should be. There would be no softly falling snowflakes, though a smog advisory was possible. There would be no hot cocoa. There would probably be toques, but they would be worn ironically.
And I would be there. But so help me, hockey gods, I would not like it.
When reports first surfaced that the NHL would expand its slate of outdoor games from one or two per year to a remarkable six in 2014, one matchup stood out: the L.A. Kings hosting the Anaheim Ducks.
Canadians are predisposed to not like the outdoor concept in the first place, no matter how much the games seem designed to appeal to us. Outdoor games are new. We don’t do new. In our ideal NHL, nothing changes, ever. Not the teams, not the uniforms, not the rules. Hockey was just fine before Gary Bettman and friends showed up, and we don’t trust them to go making improvements.
But we’ve come to grudgingly enjoy the occasional outdoor game, and the rest of this year’s matchups were at least in standard hockey markets: Vancouver, Michigan, New York, and Chicago. There were too many, sure, but at least the league got the basics right. Cold weather. Traditional teams.
Los Angeles, though? Los Angeles got to host an outdoor game before Montreal? Or Toronto? Or even Minnesota? Put aside the question of how you manage to make decent ice when temperatures are pushing 80 degrees.1 This is not a hockey town. I mean, can they even spell hockey in Los Angeles? [Checks.] No. No, they cannot.
My flight touched down Thursday night, and on the drive to my hotel from LAX, I noticed a sign indicating we were on the Glenn Anderson Freeway. Really, L.A.? You try to impress hockey fans with an obviously fake freeway sign featuring a former NHL player, and Glenn Anderson is the guy you pick? Sure, he’s a Hall of Famer, but Anderson never even played for the Kings. He helped win them a playoff series once, but nobody’s going to buy that this city went and named a freeway after him just for that.
Honestly, it was like Los Angeles wasn’t even trying.
This was going to be a disaster.
Real hockey fans, by which I mean Canadians, have always had a complicated relationship with Los Angeles. The Kings joined the league in 1967 as part of the first wave of expansion that transformed the Original Six into a league of 12, and for their first 20 or so years of existence, the Kings knew their place. They had Rogie Vachon, and Marcel Dionne, and the Triple Crown line, and later, Luc Robitaille. They were fun, but you never had to take them too seriously. How could you, when they looked like this?
They were part of a remade Smythe Division, which made them the lone American team among four Canadian opponents: the Oilers, Flames, Jets, and Canucks. They didn’t stand a chance. In the new division’s first six years, the Kings won a grand total of two playoff games. That was as it should have been. The occasional miracle aside, the Kings were a nonthreatening novelty, the lovable but ultimately harmless kid brother of the league’s real teams.
And then came August 9, 1988. They call it The Trade, but that’s not really accurate. The Kings didn’t trade for Wayne Gretzky. They bought him. Hell, they practically stole him.
And while they never won a Cup with Gretzky, they did make a deep playoff run in 1993, costing the rest of us a Leafs-Habs Stanley Cup final in the process. Gretzky’s time in L.A. paved the way for a decade of expansion and relocation that remade the NHL’s North American map. Hockey wasn’t just a game for the diehards in the North anymore. Suddenly, they were handing out Stanley Cups in places like Dallas and Colorado and Carolina.
And you could trace it all back to the Kings, and how they forgot where they belonged. No real fan has ever forgiven them.
Saturday’s game was held at historic Dodger Stadium, an L.A. landmark for more than half a century.
It wasn’t the first time the NHL played a game in a ballpark; Wrigley and Fenway have both hosted the Winter Classic, and Yankee Stadium has two games this year.2 And those events have all worked, because even the foul poles and bleachers couldn’t disguise the fact that you were watching hockey. They had snow and slush and crisp skies, and you could see everyone’s breath through their balaclavas. That’s hockey.
But Dodger Stadium? With its mountains and palm trees and picturesque pregame sunset?
Dodger Stadium is all wrong.
Dodger Stadium is beautiful.
I’m sorry, but if that’s not your first impression upon entering the building, then there’s something wrong with you.
You can wander the concourse and find shrines to past Dodgers greats, or take in the view from the upper deck and drink in the history of the place, or spend time among the oversize baseballs celebrating Dodgers legends like Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela when your cab driver abandons you outside the right-field stands after somehow getting lost in a parking lot that’s arranged alphabetically.3 It’s that Southern California beauty mixed with a dash of old-time baseball whimsy that gives the place its charm.
But when the NHL moved in, it became something else entirely. Mixed in with the Dodger Dogs and life-size bobbleheads were beach volleyball, and yoga, and a rock concert. The game’s organizers didn’t even try to copy the classic hockey tropes that have become the trademarks of the other outdoor games. There was no pond hockey; instead, there was ball hockey, played on a small rink at home plate. In right field, a pyro-packed stage hosted a pair of Kiss performances.
And yes, in left, there was the beach volleyball court. At first, the traditionalists wondered if it were some sort of joke. Beach volleyball during an NHL game? Was Los Angeles mocking us?
Maybe. Or maybe it was just accepting reality. Maybe it was a nod to the idea that L.A. will never be Montreal, and shouldn’t need to try.
An outdoor hockey game as something fun, instead of a quasi-religious experience?
I guessed that could work. Maybe.
The teams got their first outdoor practice in on Friday. I’m assuming it was the first NHL event to feature constant admonishments to stay off the grass.
While the Kings and Ducks skated, reporters and league partners and well-connected fans wandered around, snapping photos. The volleyball court remained empty, but the Kiss stage got in a pregame workout, with flashing lights and bursts of fireworks.
On the ball hockey rink, a group of kids were having a walk-through of their own. On Saturday, they’d take part in some shinny before the game and during intermissions. Friday was a chance for them to get familiar with the miniature setup and receive instructions for the next day.
They did their best to pay attention, but were clearly pretty excited. Most stuck around to watch the end of Kings practice, and strained for a glimpse of Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter and Jonathan Quick as they headed down the path to the dugout afterward. They really seemed to love hockey.
The league must have imported those kids from Canada. I didn’t know you could do that.
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim were born in 1993 and instantly became a punch line. They were named after a kids’ movie and wore ridiculous jerseys with a scary duck face mask; it was a team that represented everything that was wrong with NHL expansion.
They also weren’t very good, which was probably a blessing. Despite the presence of well-respected players like Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, the Mighty Ducks were easy enough to ignore. They won one playoff round in their first nine years.
Then came the 2002-03 season, when Anaheim rode the goaltending of Jean-Sebastien Giguere to within one game of a stunning championship. They fell just short, losing to the Devils, but were back in the final four years later. This time they won it all, the first California team ever to win the Stanley Cup.
In between those two trips to the final, they dropped the “Mighty” from their name and ditched the silly logo.4 In a way, you could say they grew up.
Five years after the Ducks brought the Cup to the West Coast, the Kings brought it back. If you’re keeping track, the state of California leads Canada 2-0 in Stanley Cups won over the last 20 years. And today, the Ducks and Kings are two of the best teams in the league.
On paper, this might have been the best matchup an NHL outdoor game has ever had.
An hour before game time, Dodger Stadium was already packed. This town’s sports fans have earned a reputation for showing up late and leaving early, but the hockey chapter must have missed the memo.
Many wore jerseys. There were a lot of iterations of the Kings and Ducks uniforms, including the fashion-challenged designs the two teams unveiled for this game.5 But there were also plenty of old-school looks, including some threadbare classic Mighty Ducks jerseys that may have been originals. This was a well-dressed crowd.
And it was loud. Not just for Kiss or the USC marching band or Wayne Gretzky, or when the PA guy told them to be. Fans spent most of the pregame alternately cheering and booing any mention of a player on the scoreboard. There’s no other way to put it: The atmosphere was fantastic. This was working.
But I was determined to hold strong. It would take more than that to break a cynic like me. Go ahead, Los Angeles. Hit me with your best shot.
Wait. A Vin Scully welcome? Playing that card was a low blow, but with it, L.A. won. I was on board, ready for them to bring on the game.
Oh right, the game. One downside of the NHL’s outdoor events is that the 60 minutes of actual hockey tend to be overshadowed. Sometimes it can even seem like the players are overwhelmed by the spectacle of it all, with the usual bad blood often missing.
That wasn’t the case in the first period Saturday. The Ducks opened the scoring just three minutes in and added a second about five minutes later. There were big hits and a handful of scrums. We even got a penalty shot, with Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller stoning Kings star Anze Kopitar.
The second period featured a rare outdoor fight6 and not much else, sucking some of the energy out of the festivities. Five for Fighting showed up during the second intermission to sing a depressing song, which I’d make fun of except that the Kings-Ducks highlights package playing on the scoreboard included a Wendel Clark fight. Nice touch, Los Angeles, but unnecessary. You had me at Vin Scully.
The intensity ramped back up for the third, and while the goalies stayed unbeatable, that didn’t do much to quiet the crowd. Neither did the reports of concessions stands running out of beer. At one point, some fans in the right-field upper deck tried to start the wave. It didn’t take.
A late empty-netter sealed a 3-0 Ducks win, increasing their cushion at the top of the league standings to seven points. The Kings controlled the play for long stretches, but couldn’t score, which, at this point, might as well be their team slogan. As hockey games go, this one was no classic, but it wasn’t bad. And despite the home team’s loss, the fans seemed to leave happy. Most of them didn’t even cut out early.
They killed the wave and drank all the beer in the stadium. I don’t know what says “real hockey fan” any more than that.
During his postgame press conference, commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about Kiss and the volleyball and the marching band, and whether just maybe the whole production had been too much. He hesitated for a second, then flashed his classic smarmy Bettman smile and chose his words carefully. “No, it was a lot of fun,” he said.
He was right. This wasn’t a traditional NHL outdoor game, or even a traditional hockey game at all. It was nothing we’d ever seen before, but it worked. And I hope they do it all again next year, because, just like Bettman said, it was a lot of fun.
California had me agreeing with Gary Bettman. May the Canadian border guards forgive me, and may the hockey gods have mercy on my soul.