After all the build-up and hype, after the volleyball games had been played, after KISS had cranked out a spirited version of Rock And Roll All Night, it finally came down to a hockey game. Yes, it was Dodger Stadium, yes the game time temperature was a balmy 16.7C, and yes, the hockey world – some of it anyway – was watching to see how it would all come off. It didn't have the snow globe feel of the annual Jan. 1 Winter Classics or the deep chill of the two previous Heritage Classics, but it did feature decent ice, two early goals that stood up and a predictable result – another victory by the Anaheim Ducks, the NHL's No. 1 team, this one by a 3-0 final score.
The players generally agreed that the family skating parties Friday afternoon and evening helped them get past the awe and the wonder of playing in a venue with palm trees as a back-drop. Long-time Dodger announcer Vin Scully offered a welcome message on behalf of the home team. By the time they dropped the puck – officially 7:16 PST, just after Wayne Gretzky did the honours for the ceremonial face-off – they were all business. The Kings entered play 17 points behind the Ducks in the Pacific Division standings. Far more desperate for the points, they were also far less inclined to ponder the historical significance of the first-ever outdoor game in California, or the possibility of future games in warm-weather climates.
But there were few complaints from ice level.
"It was better than the ice in some NHL arenas," said Ducks' defenceman Francois Beauchemin. "It wasn't an issue out there."
Teemu Selanne, a veteran of five Olympic Games and a Stanley Cup championship in 2007, said he ranked the event "high on his bucket list" of career achievements.
"The whole package was outstanding," said Selanne. "The atmosphere was unbelievable. You don't have many chances to play in front of 55,000 people in California, outdoors, when you can see the stars. It was awesome. I'm going to remember this … and I can't see any reason why we shouldn't do this more.
"We were most worried about the ice and they did a great, unbelievable job. It was a great surprise that the ice was as good as it was – because obviously, the quality of the hockey, it can even be dangerous if the ice is not so good. Those guys, they were pros. It was maybe a little slower than normal rinks, but it was nice and smooth. In the third period, it got a little more sluggish, but that's how every building is. I have no complaints."
The game's first star was a toss-up. It was either Ducks' goaltender Jonas Hiller, who had a 36-save shutout in a game where the Kings held a territorial edge for the final 50 minutes, or Dan Craig, the NHL's ice-making guru, who did what few thought possible and produced a thoroughly playable ice surface.
Because the NHL is playing a second outdoor game Sunday at Yankee Stadium, Craig had to divide his crew in half – bring some with him to the West Coast and leave others behind to deal with the more traditional challenges of making ice when the weather is actually too cold and the snow continues to fall. Craig needed to make hard choices, since most everybody on his team wanted to be part of the L.A. experience, and no one wanted to stay behind in New York. It was challenging duty, despite the above-average January temperatures. The crew worked overnight, from dusk to dawn and on Saturday, at about 4:30, just as the sun disappeared behind the San Gabriel Mountains, they pulled the protective tarpaulin off the ice and put the final, finishing touches on the ice.
The fact that the game went off without any major hitches suggests that this will not be a one-off event either – but that other warm weather cities will be lining for further Stadium Series games. Hockey Night In Canada featured the Ducks-Kings game as the second half of its Saturday double header, a rare event because usually one or both of the teams playing are Canadian-based. Ultimately, the ratings will determine if they do that again.
Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said the hardest part of playing outside was "you can lose the puck pretty easily in the glass. Anytime it goes up in the air, you don't know where it is. You're looking up at a blank sky."
According to Beauchemin, player communication was also a challenge.
"We couldn't hear really well out there, because of the open areas," said Beauchemin. "The changes, we really had to scream out loud and make sure we had our match-ups. But other than that, it was good."
There will always be some debate about the value of these exercises. Some complained that the game was played at a slightly slower pace and thus wasn't worth the time, the effort and energy required to pull it off. Certainly, anyone sitting in the lower bowl – or what would be the best seats for major-league baseball – could barely see the tops of the heads of the players as they skated by. Others see a 1,230-game regular-season schedule and believe in the value of something – anything – to break up the monotony.
"What I'll probably remember most is the skate with my kids yesterday," said Getzlaf. "It was a pretty cool experience for me and my family and to get my son out on skates the first time."
This being Hollywood, or very near Hollywood, there were shows before and between periods – rock bands, marching bands, lots of possible distractions.
"These games are fun to play but they're never easy to get ready for," said Ducks' centre Saku Koivu. "Sometimes, you forget that there are two points involved. The humidity, you felt it early in the game, but then it cooled down a bit towards the end. Yesterday, when we skated, it felt like it was going to be a real hard one, but when the sun went down and the wind picked up a little, it wasn't that bad."
The Ducks and Kings are two of the best teams in the NHL – big, strong, fast and defensively sound, which doesn't always translate into a game with a lot of flow. Anaheim pumped two past Kings' goaltender Jonathan Quick in the first 8:12 of play – goals from Corey Perry and Matt Beleskey – and that was all they needed. The Kings were awarded a penalty shot at the 9:46 mark of the first when Anze Kopitar was pulled down on a breakaway, but Hiller stopped him, one of his 36 saves. The Ducks put it away with an empty-net goal by Andrew Cogliano with 1:29 to go in regulation.
"Stanley Cup playoffs are always going to be Stanley Cup playoffs," said Beauchemin, "but this was a great moment, playing out here, in that stadium, with all its history."
"Everything that you could hope for, it happened today," said Perry.
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