Sitting by the glass at the start of the game between the Ducks and the Kings at Dodger Stadium last Saturday night, even Wayne Gretzky was impressed by the scene that went along with the NHL's first attempt at outdoor hockey in a warm-weather climate. "Do you really think [original L.A. owner] Jack Kent Cooke would have imagined 40 years ago that we'd have hockey in front of 50,000 people at Dodger Stadium with fans arriving early and going crazy like this?" he asked. "Our game is really blessed these days."
This is an article from the Feb. 3, 2014 issue
Is it ever. And not just because the second outdoor game of 2013--14 marked the Great One's first public appearance on behalf of the NHL since he and the league reached a nearly $8 million settlement in December to end a four-year dispute over money Gretzky was owed from his days with the Coyotes. One year removed from a bitter lockout, the NHL has rallied with a stellar 2013 postseason, a $5.2 billion deal in November with Rogers Communications for Canadian broadcast rights and a slate of six outdoor games this season that it predicts will gross a healthy nine figures. "There are challenges in taking our game [from] its closed environment and exposing it to the elements," says commissioner Gary Bettman, "but ... we feel the risks are outweighed by enormous benefits."
The NHL likes to tout al fresco hockey as a way to connect with the game's origins, but romantic notions aside, outdoor hockey is a marketing powerhouse, one that's wildly popular with fans. "This game has generated more interest over five, six days for us than when we won the Stanley Cup [in 2012]," says Luc Robitaille, the Kings president of business operations. The Dodger Stadium game—a sellout, with 54,009 fans in the stands—included a red carpet for celebrities, Olympians playing beach volleyball in leftfield and Kiss playing "Rock and Roll All Night" on a stage in right. It also featured some decent hockey. The game-time temperature was 63°, and by almost all accounts, the ice wasn't bad for Anaheim's 3--0 victory. "We felt like rock stars," said Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy. "We're not. We're simple hockey players. But for one night that was so cool."
Contrast that with the game the Rangers and the Devils played 15 hours later at Yankee Stadium, where the windchill was in single digits, the cracking ice drew scorn from both teams and the contest was delayed for an hour because of the glare of the sun (though the sold-out crowd of 50,105 didn't seem to mind). Originally told the delay would be two hours, New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist lay down for a nap. Roused from his slumber, he promptly gave up three first-period goals. The Rangers nevertheless scored four in a snowy second period for a 7--3 victory.
Despite the hiccups, outdoor games have been embraced by players. Lovejoy was a healthy scratch on New Year's Day 2011, when his former team, the Penguins, hosted the Capitals at Heinz Field. "Missing that game just killed me," he recalls. His grizzled teammate Teemu Selanne, 43, said, "It was a great career highlight.... Not too many times you catch yourself just looking around during a game."
Including the Maple Leafs' 3--2 shootout victory over the Red Wings in the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium on New Year's Day, the first three outdoor games this season have drawn close to 210,000 fans. Now the challenge for the NHL is to pull up short of the saturation point at which the novelty of outdoor hockey could dissolve. The league says that it will not have six outdoor games every season—but there's a good chance that it will put on more than just the traditional Winter Classic in future years. Says Bettman, "There is no shortage of interest from teams that want to be a part of this."