Wayne Gretzky was instrumental in the growth of hockey in California, even forseeing the Stadium Series. (Robert Beck/SI)
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
When Jeremy Roenick interviewed Wayne Gretzky before the puck dropped at Dodger Stadium, he revealed that Gretzky considered this idea about 20 years ago: What could an outdoor game do for hockey’s popularity in L.A.? The Kings had history, but no one had really ignited the city's passion for the sport until The Great One arrived in 1988. Five years later, the NHL formed the Anaheim Mighty Ducks (now just the Ducks) -- an expansion team across the 5 freeway with a Disney-inspired name.
Southern California had two NHL teams, but the wrong kind of weather and limited access to ice. Growing the sport would be no easy task in that sun-drenched environment.
Two decades later, Gretzky’s vision came together at Los Angeles’s most iconic stadium. Dodger Stadium wasn’t merely hosting the Ducks and the Kings, it was the site of a regular season game between two of the league’s best franchises in front of 54,099 fans. By the end of the season, either the Kings or Ducks could feasibly hoist their second Stanley Cup in a decade. The Ducks now have the best record in the NHL and it will be a shock if the Kings don’t make the playoffs. As legendary broadcaster Vin Scully helped emphasize before the game, Dodger Stadium had hosted the World Series, the Pope, the Harlem Globetrotters, Real Madrid and The Beatles. Now, it was hosting hockey.
GALLERY: NHL outdoor games through the years | NEWCOMB: The making of stadium hockey
The Ducks topped the Kings, 3-0, in a mostly lifeless game highlighted by goalie Jonas Hiller's 36 saves. While Kings' fans didn't get a chance to roar after a goal, the setting, the crowd and the excitement that lingered over three periods demonstrated that hockey’s growth has taken hold in Los Angeles. Participation of registered players in the state has almost doubled since 2004. Players raised in Gretzky’s hockey rinks throughout Southern California -- like the Ducks’ Emerson Etem and former Penguins’ first-round pick Beau Bennett -- are now playing in the NHL. The Kings estimate that 35-percent of their fans are Latino and more than 2.5 million hockey fans live in Southern California. Saturday’s turnout -- a full house after initially sluggish ticket sales -- and a media frenzy only further proves that the influence is still growing.
The event wasn’t perfect -- a geriatric KISS had visible wrinkles through their facepaint and bore a frightening resemblance to Spinal Tap -- but the weather was ideal and, heck, KISS’s performance was at least inspired and packed with pyrotechnics.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famers KISS strut their stuff. (Debora Robinson/Getty Images)
Gretzky, Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, who now serves as the Kings' president of business operations, the Ducks’ executive VP Tim Ryan and NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins didn’t envision this event having the same atmosphere that has made the Winter Classic so popular. This one had to be more On Golden Pond, less On Frozen Pond for it to succeed. So the field would not only support a rink guzzling 3,000 links of glycol coolant, it would also have a sand volleyball court and palm trees to compliment the 65-degree temperature at the opening face-off. Several fans arrived in t-shirts and shorts. Some tried some more creative outdoor activities.
Even as California endures a historic drought, the NHL estimated that the traditionally cold-weather event would gross $20 million.
Right in the center of Los Angeles’s Elysian Park neighborhood, Dodger Stadium may not be a hockey player’s paradise, but it was a serene, even overwhelming experience for those who were close to the ice. Roenick and sideline reporter Brian Engblom gawked at the fans towering above them, and only had to don windbreakers. (The temperature at game time was 65-degrees.) The Kings’ Dustin Brown couldn’t hide his gap-toothed smile when describing the enormous setting. And after the Ducks won, 21-year NHL veteran Teemu Selanne spoke of the glorious experience of not merely playing in such a historic game, but winning it as well.
On a January evening, with most of the country enduring a brutal cold snap, hockey people in LA weren't clamoring for snow to be falling on the rink. The ice never needed to be shoveled and scarves and beanies weren’t needed, but that didn’t take away from the authenticity of the event.
In The Odyssey, Homer wrote that the Elysian fields were “where life is easiest for me. No snow is there, nor heavy storm, nor ever rain.”
Thanks to Wayne Gretzky, Elysian Park was hockey heaven, even if it was for only one night.
Also on the bill: Five For Fighting's John Ondrasik, a devout Kings fan. (Valerie Macon/Getty Images)