Ducks and Kings get their turn to shine outdoors
LOS ANGELES -- Jealousy and envy used to be the emotions that Corey Perry and Anze Kopitar experienced when they would turn on an NHL outdoor game. They'd see the spectacle of the event, the volume of media coverage, the grassroots appeal and have thoughts such as, "Good for them, but that'll never be us."
Saturday night at Dodger Stadium it will be them -- minus the snow and frigid temperatures.
The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are ready to play the NHL's first warm-weather outdoor game to kick off the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS2). The teams practiced at Dodger Stadium on Friday to get a taste of what they will be walking into Saturday night.
For Perry, Kopitar and others like Dustin Brown, Ryan Getzlaf, Teemu Selanne and Jonas Hiller, guys who have been in this market since the NHL's outdoor game explosion started in 2008, getting the chance to play in this game gives them the opportunity to check an item off the bucket list they have for their hockey careers.
Players want to play in these outdoor games. Now the Kings and Ducks get to play in a regular-season game that should make other players around the League jealous.
"It's one of those things you're hoping you're going to be a part of one, but usually you've got better odds playing in the east to participate in one," Kopitar said. "I guess there's a slight hope in your system where you want to play even here, and it's nice that this dream, I guess, comes true."
But for these guys, it hasn't really been a dream based in reality. How could it be? Outdoor hockey in L.A.? You must be joking, right?
"If you think about playing hockey in California, that's already crazy, and then people telling you [that] you should play outside, that's another step," Hiller said. "I think it's really cool and I'm really excited to be part of it."
Perry said the possibility of playing outdoors in Southern California never even crossed his mind.
He was drafted by the Ducks in 2003 and has been in Anaheim since 2005. He signed an eight-year contract extension last season; at the time, he figured he was signing away his chance to ever play in an NHL outdoor game.
"You never thought it would ever happen here in California," Perry said. "How are they going to build ice outside in Southern California with the sun beating down on the ice? You'd think it would melt. But it's cool. It's exciting. It brings you back to your roots."
Even guys who used to play in this market, like former Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey, are still sort of befuddled that this is happening in L.A.
"I'm overwhelmed by how exciting this is," Hrudey said. "You go back to our days in L.A. and Wayne [Gretzky] was traded in the summer of '88 and I came in the February of '89, and there was virtually, what I saw anyway, no recreational hockey being played. There was a lot of buzz because of Wayne, but for the kids it seemed like programs were non-existent. I can't imagine back then thinking that you could ever pull off a game at Dodger Stadium, that it'd be sold out and you'd have media here like this.
"For all of us that love hockey and grew up in a different environment, it's really cool to see."
Brown, though, hinted that he's not totally surprised the NHL has brought its outdoor experience to SoCal.
He noted in his mind the improvements in the science of making ice and how Dan Craig, the NHL's Senior Director of Facilities Operations, could create a playable NHL rink no matter the wind, snow, rain and unusually warm temperatures -- especially in Philadelphia in 2012 -- that he would have to battle against.
The refrigeration truck came. It all clicked with Brown.
"Early on you probably didn't think about [it being possible to play an outdoor game in Southern California], but each year you start to see them dialed in a little bit more," Brown said. "You start thinking they're getting pretty good at the outdoor ice and they can make it work."
But John Collins, the NHL's chief operating officer, said it wasn't until 2012, when the League witnessed how the L.A. market embraced the Kings during their run to the Stanley Cup championship, that the idea to bring outdoor hockey here came about.
The idea was to try to do something that is beyond anyone's wildest imagination.
"When we came here during the Stanley Cup run and you saw how much energy there was and the following for the Kings, and the Stanley Cup in Anaheim [in 2007] as well," Collins said. "You looked at it and said, 'Let's try and see if we can recreate that.' "
But as Collins noted, the League isn't here to prove that it can be done, that it can put on a quality regular-season outdoor game in Southern California. The idea now is to showcase the spectacle of these must-see events to a different market.
This is a national game being marketed on a local scale, exactly the way the NHL wants the Stadium Series to come off.
"I think if there is anything to prove it's to prove that hockey can be a lot bigger," Collins said. "The business of hockey and the brand of hockey can be a lot bigger. It's about exposing fans to just how great the sport is and how special these athletes are."
The event here in Southern California is so unique that Selanne said it's one of the reasons he decided to come back for another season.
Similarly, Anaheim forward Dustin Penner, the only player to have won the Stanley Cup with both Southern California teams, said the chance to play at Dodger Stadium was one of the reasons he signed with the Ducks after it was concluded that the shrinking salary cap for this season would prevent him from re-signing with the Kings.
"I was like, 'Well, it would be nice to go back to Anaheim just to be part of that outdoor game,' " Penner said. "I mean, it's not a big slice of the pie, but it factors into it. It's just a life experience."