NHL’s Gary Bettman On Outdoor Game At Dodger Stadium: “When You Look At Hockey In Southern California, It Works”
September 27, 2013 14 Comments
NHL STADIUM SERIES MEDIA DAY COVERAGE: Frozen Royalty’s comprehensive coverage of the NHL Stadium Series Media Day at Dodger Stadium begins with remarks from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Stan Kasten from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Luc Robitaille from the Los Angeles Kings, and Bruce Boudreau from the Anaheim Ducks. Next up: comments from Kings and Ducks players on the outdoor game in January 2014.
LOS ANGELES — Nearly three years ago, not long after the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic was held at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was in Los Angeles, and he took some time to meet with the media.
At that time, yours truly asked Bettman why the NHL had not considered Los Angeles as a venue for an outdoor game, noting that the Kings had already set a precedent for successfully playing such a game in a warm climate when they faced the New York Rangers in a pre-season game at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas back in September 1991.
Bettman was taken aback by my question.
“I don’t think it’s fair for you to compare a pre-season game in Las Vegas under conditions where the consequences of the game aren’t as important as they are during the regular season,” he complained.
“[The Winter Classic] games are important games,” he added. “Every game matters during the regular season, and we need to make sure we’re doing everything possible to be as predictable as we can be with respect to the outdoor games.”
As I wrote back then, Bettman’s words rang hollow, given the evidence that such a game could be played here—Las Vegas is in the middle of a hot, arid desert, after all. But on September 26, when the NHL was at Dodger Stadium for a press conference about the upcoming Stadium Series game on January 25, 2014, I decided to follow-up with the Commissioner, asking what changed his mind.
“With the evolution of the outdoor games, our expert on ice making, Dan Craig, believes that, with the technology available, and with what he’s learned, he can make the ice,” Bettman explained. “When I made those comments, we weren’t sure that could be done. In fact, I spoke to Dan again a few minutes ago, and he’s confident that, whatever the weather is, he will be able to put down a sheet of ice that will provide for a competitive game.”
“He has more experience doing it, he’s seen a variety of conditions that we’ve played in, and like any of us, the more you do something, the more you’re able to extend what you can do,” Bettman elaborated.
Craig, the NHL’s Senior Director of Facility Operations, explained that after a 40-person crew installs the ice sheet, another twelve-person crew will construct a reflective thermal cover that will be placed onto the ice to protect it from sunlight.
“This is a very unique setting and for us,” Craig told NHL.com. “It’s knowing 100 percent that your real work is [during] the day.”
“Everybody that’s coming on the crew knows they’re working from 6:00 or 7:00 at night, through until 6:00 the next morning,” added Craig.
It’s Not Just The IceEnhanced capabilities to put down and maintain a quality sheet of ice, as alluded to earlier in this story, is an important reason the NHL will bring one of the outdoor Stadium Series games to Los Angeles. But as mentioned previously, it is difficult to believe that they could not have done this years ago. As such, it seems clear that there are more important reasons, one of which is the explosive growth of hockey in Southern California, and this is not even considering the growth of the fan bases of the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks.
“When you look at hockey in Southern California, it works,” said Bettman. “It’s been twenty years of Ducks hockey, 47 years of Kings hockey, two Stanley Cups, one for each team in the last few years, great fans, and hockey, at all levels, has never been stronger. We’re here because if you look at USA Hockey’s figures, the State of California has the seventh-highest number of people playing hockey in the country, and registration is at an all-time high.”
“In 2010, at Staples Center, we had the draft, and two California-born players, [Pittsburgh Penguins right wing] Beau Bennett, and the Ducks’ own Emerson Etem, were claimed in the first round—two players from Southern California in the first round of the NHL Draft,” added Bettman. “Tonight, in the USA Hockey Prospects All-American Game, twelve states will be represented on the rosters of the teams, and only three states, Minnesota, New York and Michigan, will have more players than California, so I don’t think California is a non-traditional hockey market. It has a very rich tradition, and bringing the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series [to Dodger Stadium] reflects that belief.”
Bettman further stressed the growth of hockey in Southern California as a factor.
“Hockey is very strong in Southern California, on all levels,” he noted. “[The Ducks’] youth program—high school teams—doubled from 14 [teams] to 28. There is a great fan base for the teams, and the fact is, more people are playing hockey than ever before in Southern California. There’s a tremendous amount of interest here, and it’s gratifying to see. It’s also why this stadium is going to be filled, rather easily.”
“What convinced us is that we know what’s happening with hockey in Southern California, in terms of the support the teams have, and the number of people playing the game at all levels, not to mention that we have an opportunity to play at this iconic stadium,” he added. “Dodger Stadium is great. This is going to be a lot of fun for all our fans.”
Indeed, the opportunity to play at what many consider to be one of the most beautiful, historic and, as it was so often used during the press conference, “iconic” stadiums in all of sports, was too good to pass up.
“I come to California on a regular basis for meetings, but normally without enough time to take in another sport,” said Bettman, who was at Dodger Stadium for the first time. “But I love this stadium. It’s great. Clearly, [original Dodgers owner] Walter O’Malley was a visionary.”
“It’s magnificent,” added Bettman. “When you’re up on the ninth level, and you see the view? It’s off the charts.”
Dodger Stadium Was The Only ChoiceWhen the Kings began to push hard on the idea of playing an outdoor game in the Los Angeles area, they had only one venue in mind: Dodger Stadium.
“We knew that if you’re going to do an outdoor game, it needed to be big,” said Kings President/Business Operations Luc Robitaille. “We never looked at another stadium.”
“Dodger Stadium is the place to be,” added Robitaille. “It’s an iconic stadium. It’s special. If we were going to do this, it had to be here.”
To Robitaille’s surprise, when he approached Dodgers President and Chief Executive Officer Stan Kasten, he discovered that Kasten might have been more excited about the idea than he was.
“I just said to him, ‘what do you think about playing an outdoor game [at Dodger Stadium],’” Robitaille noted. “He said (excitedly), ‘that would be great!’ I was like, ‘it’s that easy?’ I couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘get with my guy. We’ll get it done.’”
“We want to thank the Dodgers,” Robitaille added. “It’s truly amazing to have the opportunity to play in this great stadium. We know it’s going to be an iconic event, and we’re really excited to be part of it.”
Kasten talked about why he was so excited about bringing the Kings and Ducks to Dodger Stadium.
“Since we came in to take over the Dodgers, about a year-and-a-half ago now, we’ve worked very hard to restore the brand, and maybe polish it up a little, and then, get on with the all-important work of extending our brand,” he said. “That’s why, whenever we can have unique events brought to historic, iconic, one-of-a-kind-in-the-whole-world Dodger Stadium, we are very excited to do that.”
Kasten was so excited, he may have launched into a bit of hyperbole.
“I learned something new today when I walked into the ball park, and I looked around at the configuration,” said Kasten. “You heard Gary talk about the foresight of Walter O’Malley, and we all know that he built [what is], possibly, the all-time, most closely perfect (sic) baseball venue with the greatest possible sight lines to watch a baseball game.”
“But until today, we didn’t know [that] he also invented a stadium that has absolutely the best possible sight lines to watch a hockey game,” added Kasten. “We now know, from looking at the configuration on our field, it’s going to be a great event, with great sight lines, and what will distinguish this event from all the other events in the Stadium Series is that no one’s going to have the [view] that we’re going to have.”
“No one’s going to have the shot of that great NHL sheet of ice in front of our bleachers, our Palm trees, and our San Gabriel Mountains,” Kasten noted. “That’s going to be one-of-a-kind, and I cannot wait. As someone who loves the NHL, as someone who loves hockey, it’s something I’m really looking forward to, it’s something the entire Dodger family is looking forward to.”
Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau coached the Washington Capitals when they faced the Penguins in that 2011 Winter Classic game mentioned earlier. But as memorable as that game was, he emphasized that this game will top that one.
“As a guy who’s [coached] in one of these games in Pittsburgh, I didn’t think there could be anything better than the experience that I had with the Washington Capitals,” he said. “But when the opportunity was here, and we were told that we that were going to be playing in an outdoor game on January 25 [at Dodger Stadium], I couldn’t think of anything, other than this, to be able to top it.”
“The first one was still one of the greatest memories that I’ve ever had in the sport,” he added. “But to think about playing in Southern California—when you grow up as a hockey player in Toronto in the Sixties, and you’re thinking that there’s hockey in California—the growth has been so tremendous—you couldn’t comprehend it back in those days. But now it’s here, and this venue—we were upstairs, looking over the stadium. It’s going to be a tremendous place to watch a game.”
“I can imagine how the rest of the hockey world, from Europe to Canada to the United States, is probably going to be more excited about watching this game than any other game, I think, just to see how it turns out. It’s going to be marvelous.”
Despite Ticket Prices, Demand Is High
Reports indicate that the Stadium Series game in Los Angeles is out-selling the five other Stadium Series games, which may come as a surprise to many.
Just don’t tell that to Luc Robitaille.
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “I’ve always believed in L.A. I’ve always believed in this market, and probably more than most people, because I was here when Wayne Gretzky came, and I saw what happened. Then, you see what happened with our team the last couple of years. Before we won the Cup, we made the playoffs a couple of years, and we sold out almost every game. Now, we’re going to sell-out every game this year.”
“I believe in this market,” he added. “I know we have a lot of great hockey fans, but in this town, you’ve got to compete. You’ve got to win. You’ve got to be [one of] the top teams. [If you do that], people will follow you. This town wants winners.”
What about the potential for watering down the impact and novelty of the outdoor games by playing six games, as opposed to two (Winter Classic and Heritage Classic)?
“We play 1,230 regular season games,” said Bettman. “Six [outdoor] games isn’t that many. What’s determining the numbers are the logistical ability to put them on, because they’re complicated and involved, and we’re doing the number of games that we’re doing because our fans, our teams, and the places we play tell us that they can’t get enough of it.”
“For teams that have participated in one, they don’t want to wait five or ten years to do it again,” added Bettman. “For teams that haven’t participated in one, they want to know when they can do it, and we’re hearing from fans that they want to have the experience of going to one of these games.”
“You may say there are six games, but there’s only one in Los Angeles. There’s only one in Chicago. There’s two in New York, but that’s because there are three teams there. The point of the matter is, for the people who’ve attended these games, it’s a unique and exciting experience.”
As the press conference wound down, as the media began to head back upstairs to exit the stadium, Bettman gave the media his own bottom line.
“Quite frankly, we’re here because hockey is doing great, and we just want to have some fun.”
Frozen Royalty’s 2014 Stadium Series: Los Angeles Coverage
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