10:09 PM CDT, September 26, 2013
Just picture it.
Palm trees sway and dusk darkens the San Gabriel Mountains as officials prepare to drop the puck for the first outdoor NHL game in California. The Kings and Ducks line up for the historic moment while fans at Dodger Stadium and a national TV audience admire the gorgeous backdrop and marvel at the technology that allows a hockey rink to be plunked down across the infield.
Fans in shorts and tank tops roar their approval. It's a triumph for the league and Commissioner Gary Bettman, who has ditched his corporate pinstriped suit for a colorful Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops to fit the relaxed atmosphere.
Weather permitting, all of that will come to pass shortly after 7 p.m. on Jan. 25 — except the part about Bettman going casual.
"You'll probably see me dressed the way you always see me," a typically buttoned-up Bettman said Thursday, "but it will be great to be here and it will be very exciting. This is going to be a very different experience but it's going to be very Southern California and that's going to make its own tradition, its own fun, and its own enjoyment for the people that live here."
Bettman led a group of league and team executives to Dodger Stadium on Thursday to promote the event, the NHL's first outdoor game scheduled outside a cold climate. The NHL owns two portable rinks that can be set up almost anywhere; the key difference here is the ice will be covered during daylight hours and workers will do the necessary grooming from 6 or 7 p.m. until 6 or 7 a.m., when temperatures are coolest. Evening temperatures in Los Angeles in January are usually in the high 40s and low 50s.
"Every day is a new challenge," said Dan Craig, the NHL's ice guru. "You walk in here and see what Mother Nature hands us."
Portable barriers were set out Thursday to approximate what the scene will look like. It was startling to see a hockey rink in the middle of a baseball field, an image the brain needed a few seconds to process on a day of warm breezes and Dodger-blue skies.
"Dodger Stadium is beautiful," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said, "and to have the first hockey game and be a part of that game here will be an amazing experience for me."
The teams will get to practice there the day before. There will be only one rink — no auxiliary rink, as has been built for other outdoor games. If conditions make the ice unsafe — unlikely because outdoor games have been played elsewhere in rain and in 60-degree temperatures — the game would be played on Jan. 26.
Stan Kasten, the Dodgers' president and chief executive officer and a former executive of the Atlanta Thrashers, was immediately on board the outdoor-game bandwagon when he had been approached by Luc Robitaille, the Kings' president of business operations.
"I couldn't say yes fast enough," said Kasten, who said he'd wanted to bring an outdoor game to Washington while he was president of baseball's Nationals.
Kasten joked that in seeing the configuration of the rink Thursday, he realized how great a visionary former Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley had been.
"We all know that he built possibly the most closely perfect baseball venue with the greatest possible sightlines to watch a baseball game," Kasten said. "Until today we didn't know he also invented a stadium that had absolutely the best possible sightlines to watch a hockey game."
Kasten also said he had no fears the field might be damaged by the rink or the pipes required to keep the ice frozen. It's not like having the field torn up by a monster truck rally.
"We've had those," Kasten said, "so I know we can have a hockey game."
This won't be just any hockey game. It will be a spectacle and marketing event too, with references to California culture and the growth of hockey here on the youth and professional levels.
"It's going to be great. It's going to be so different," said John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer. "We typically have done the cold and the little rinks and sort of the iconic look of a winter festival. We've got the guys already laying out some ideas on how to fit this game into Southern California."
Which means no sledding or NHL-branded hats and mittens. "But you may see sand and you may see some other Southern California touches," Collins said.
Like flip-flops? But not on Bettman. Asked if warm-weather games are the wave of the future, he smiled. "I'll let you know," he said, "on Jan. 26."
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