If Wayne Gretzky hadn't been traded to the Kings in 1988, hockey in Southern California would still be the pursuit of a passionate few.
The Ducks wouldn't exist if not for the enthusiasm generated by Gretzky's unprecedented scoring feats and knack for glamorizing a sometimes brutal sport. Kids here probably wouldn't have imagined giving up soccer or baseball for hockey. Those kids wouldn't now be hotly recruited by Canadian junior leagues, American colleges and elite development programs, and they wouldn't be reaching the NHL in growing numbers.
Because all of this has happened, and because the Kings and Ducks are about to participate in a historic hockey event, this is the perfect moment for Gretzky to embrace — and be embraced by — the sport he elevated.
Gretzky will be honored during the outdoor game between the Kings and Ducks at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 25, ending a four-year, self-imposed exile that stemmed from a dispute over money the NHL owed him from the Phoenix Coyotes' financial mess. A rendering provided to The Times shows many wondrous sights that will be constructed on the field — an avenue of palm trees separating a beach volleyball court in left field from a performance stage in right field, an inline skating rink near home plate, and the rink stretching across the infield — but having Gretzky in the house might be the most splendid vision of all.
"In many respects Wayne got it all going," said John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer and an ardent supporter of the league's first outdoor game west of the Mississippi River.
"Twenty-five years ago, who would have thought you'd be playing an outdoor game in Dodger Stadium? Who would have thought that you'd have two Stanley Cup-winning teams in recent history? Who would have thought you'd have the success of the young players coming up and getting drafted and making the kind of impact that they are in hockey around the world?
"Wayne started it all, and in many respects not to have Wayne at this event would be almost unimaginable. It's almost a valentine to him and everything that he accomplished."
On the theory that one great icon deserves another, plans call for Hall of Fame Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully to be involved. It's only right. Can't you just hear the crowd roar as he says "It's time for NHL hockey" before the puck drops?
Gretzky is scheduled to be at Dodger Stadium on Monday for the arrival of the "ice truck" carrying the refrigeration equipment that will make the game possible. The work behind the magic will begin, the process of assembling the pipes and infrastructure that will keep the ice the right temperature and consistency to safely host a game that will start about 6:30 p.m. The ice will be made and groomed at night and covered during the day to avoid sunlight.
Dodger Stadium has played host to eight World Series, the Olympics, the Beatles, the Harlem Globetrotters, boxing and ski jumping, but it has never been home to a hockey game. The science to do this has existed for years, but NHL executives preferred the "snow-globe" atmosphere of traditional wintry climates, with drifting snowflakes and rosy-cheeked players bundled up against the cold.
This setting will be very California, distinct from the Winter Classic on New Year's Day in Ann Arbor, Mich., or Stadium Series outdoor games at New York's Yankee Stadium on Jan. 26 and 29, Chicago's Soldier Field on March 1, and in Vancouver on March 2.
"I think that's part of the fun, that the New York, L.A., Chicago games have their own sort of flavor," Collins said. "New York is all about the rivalry between the three teams. L.A.'s about the rivalry, but it's also about the incredible success story that is 25 years of hockey in Southern California. Also, particularly as we sit here in 6-degree weather, it's the fantasy of everyone on the East Coast."
Their fantasy is our beach volleyball-playing, inline-skating, sandy reality.
"It's our valentine to reflect the energy and excitement and feel of California and showcase that within the game," Collins said.
Gretzky helped make hockey as much a part of California's sports culture as sand, sea and surfing are to our larger culture. Without him, this game would never have been more than a wild dream. Long after his career ended, Gretzky is still the Great One.