LOS ANGELES — Heinz Field in Pittsburgh has long since been converted back into a football stadium after the National Hockey League’s 2011 Winter Classic, played on January 1. But, since then, there has been a lot of talk about other NHL cities that want to host the annual outdoor game.
To be sure, a lot of NHL cities, especially in colder regions of the United States, are already lined up, waiting for their chance to host the annual spectacle, and, if you listen to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, only cities with cold weather will host the Winter Classic.
“I think, for the foreseeable future, it’s more likely than not we’ll continue to do it in climates that we hope will be more hospitable, and we saw what happened in Pittsburgh this year,” said Bettman, noting that the NHL had to deal with unseasonably warm temperatures and rain, forcing them to turn a day game into an evening contest, starting at 5:00 PM Eastern time.
Bettman added the league would be open to having teams located in warmer climates participate in the Winter Classic as the visitors.
“I wouldn’t rule out the so-called ‘Sun Belt’ teams from participating in an outdoor game as a visiting team,” he said. “But I think we’re more focused, in the shorter term, on markets that, at least from a weather standpoint, would seem to be more predictable because this game counts. We want conditions [that are] as good as possible.”
“You see how tight the races are, particularly in the West,” he added. “The points matter. We don’t want to subject the players to anything that could result in an injury or that’s an inappropriate environment for them. Obviously, it would present a whole lot of challenges to be in a climate that you know, starting off, is on the edge of being warm.”
Really, Mr. Commissioner? Really?
The game was played successfully, but, as one might guess, given that Las Vegas is smack dab in the middle of a desert, there were challenges.
“With the ice making capabilities nowadays, and even back then, you could have a game at just about any temperature,” said Jim Fox, Kings television color commentator who played ten seasons on right wing for the Kings from 1980-90, and is ranked eighth on their all-time scoring list. “But you don’t want the sun shining directly on the ice. So, what they did was that they came up with this system where they had a tarp draped about ten feet above the ice.”
“That was a good idea because the game was going to be at night, so, once the sun goes down, you don’t have to worry,” added Fox.
The tarp was a great idea…until the time came to remove it.
“They were preventing the sun from hitting the ice, so they were doing a good job,” Fox noted. “But around 4:00 PM, someone, I’m sure inadvertently, decided that they needed to take the tarp down, but they let it fall onto the ice.”
“The tarp was probably around 120 degrees at that point,” Fox added. “That fell to the ice and started to melt it unevenly in a whole bunch of different areas.”
With uneven ice, melted in some areas, there were serious questions about whether the game could go on as scheduled.
“I was [broadcasting] the game that night with Bob [Miller]—I think it was only my second year,” Fox reminisced. “Around 5:30, I went down early, and they asked to me go out onto the ice. I took a pair of skates from the locker room—they asked me to go and see if there was any way possible that we can do this game.”
“I skated around and went back to the guy who was handling the ice and, not that it was my decision, but I said, ‘yeah, we can do this,’” Fox continued. “They got the Zamboni out there a couple of times, and it was really uneven. There were pockets where the tarp ended up touching—that’s where it melted, In other areas, it wasn’t melted. But, by game time, the ice condition was fine. It was smooth. Probably not perfect conditions, but they got it back to where there were not too many problems with the ice.”
But Mother Nature had one more thing up her sleeve.
“There were these big, giant grasshoppers jumping on the ice,” said Kings President, Business Operations and former Kings left wing Luc Robitaille, who played in the game. “They would land on the ice and freeze right there, so by the end of the second period they were everywhere on the ice and it was kind of funny.”
“There were all these grasshoppers on the ice,” said retired Kings head athletic trainer Pete Demers. “It was very hot. They had to put a curtain up to keep the sun from cooking the ice. The ice was pretty watery and then, before the game, all these grasshoppers showed up because of the lights.”
“They were on the ice, and they’d get caught in a guy’s skate, guys were flicking them with their sticks,” Demers added, chuckling. “It was fun.”
Even with the grasshoppers, the game was played in front of a crowd of 13,000 fans. With temperatures in the mid 80’s, many spectators were oddly dressed for a hockey game…in short sleeve shirts and shorts.
“It was hot during the day,” said Fox. “It was a regular desert day in the Fall, in September, and, as we know here in Southern California, that’s one of the hottest months. But it wasn’t too hot. It wasn’t stifling. Once you get that sun away and it’s not beating on you, the players could play comfortably.”
And play they did, with the Kings winning, 5-2.
“We were a little bit in awe and I’m sure [the Rangers] were too,” said Kings center Wayne Gretzky. “We kept looking at each other and couldn’t believe we were playing hockey in 80-degree weather. But it was real nice.”
If you ask Bettman, pointing to the 1991 game as proof that the game could be played in a city with such hot weather is unfair.
“[The 1991 game in] Las Vegas was a pre-season game,” he emphasized. “[The Winter Classic] games are important games. 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.”
“I don’t think it’s fair for you to compare a pre-season game, playing in Las Vegas under conditions where the consequences of the game aren’t as important as they are during the regular season,” he complained.
Despite Bettman’s claims, it does not take a genius to know that ice making techniques and technologies have improved since 1991. Moreover, anyone who has watched a game played at Staples Center in Los Angeles or Honda Center in Anaheim, California knows that many fans are often wearing t-shirts or other light garments because those buildings are often not cold at all.
Yet the games go on, even though one often hears players complain about how bad the ice is at both venues.
Indeed, both Staples Center and Honda Center host 41 NHL regular season games each year. No games have been cancelled due to poor ice conditions. As such, one could logically conclude that if the sun can be kept off an outdoor hockey rink, a game could be played here in Southern California during the winter months.
“There’s no question whatsoever that a game could be played outdoors in Southern California,” Fox stressed. “You would run into the issue of sunlight again, depending on the temperature. But if you wanted to play it in the winter and you’re getting a 65 degree day, if you have an apparatus set up where you’re preventing the sun from hitting the ice, once you drop that puck for a night game, I don’t think you’d have any trouble.”
“With what they can do nowadays, even more so than back then, they could have perfect ice conditions,” Fox added. “I don’t think that would be an issue whatsoever. Here, you’d have to worry more about rain, like they did in Pittsburgh, than you would about snow. Rain is not good at all. Snow you could live with. But if everything was normal, without the rain, there’s no question they could hold a game here.”
Indeed, Mr. Commissioner, you’re wrong. Dead wrong, and, once again, you come off looking and sounding rather foolish.
That said, it is quite clear that the Winter Classic will be played in cold climate cities for the foreseeable future. But Southern California hockey fans should not get discouraged because even Bettman is not foolish enough to ignore the fact that a Winter Classic played in warmer areas, especially Southern California, would be huge for the game and the NHL.
“I think [the NHL] will get around to it,” said Fox. “I think they’re doing the right thing. If it’s about heritage, the game of hockey did start outside, on frozen ponds. You don’t see those here in Southern California.”
“If you’re going to stay within the feeling of the event, it should be in cold weather,” added Fox. “But they will break from that sooner or later. They’re going to start looking for ways to change it up.”
A Southern California Winter Classic would be quite the change, no question.
“I think they’re going out of their way to make sure that the cold climate cities get that opportunity to host it,” Fox noted. “There will be a time when they look elsewhere. There will be a time when they look to Southern California. I truly believe there will be a time when they do it here in California.”
Fox said that the league is bowing to the demands of the cold climate cities, as they should be, given the origins of the game.
“[Playing the Winter Classic in Southern California is] something that’s on their radar,” said Fox. “I don’t blame them for trying to take care of as many cold climate cities as possible. I think there is a pecking order. But we’ll get to that at some point and it will be special.”
“It’s a big market here, and it [would be] a chance to draw attention to our game in a very special way,” added Fox. “They’ve already proven, with the success so far of the Winter Classics they’ve been putting on and the Heritage Classics they’ve put on in Canada, that it’s going to be successful.”
The only question would then be…where in Southern California?
“I’ve half-jokingly said in the past that they should do it on the beach, or the pier in Manhattan Beach,” Fox said. “Figure out a way. The stands could be built…all that stuff.”
“The reason being, if you just held it in a football stadium in Los Angeles—I want to see palm trees,” Fox added. “I want to see something near the ice that points out to me immediately, ‘that’s in Southern California.’ But whatever way it happens, it will happen.”
“There’s no reason it won’t be successful here. It’ll be even more special.”
Raw audio interview with Jim Fox
(6:16; edited to remove extraneous material and dead air)
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