Bob Miller is still nostalgic about the day hockey was played at Dodger Stadium.
The former Kings broadcaster remembers the weather, mid-80s when he arrived that clear afternoon for the 2014 Stadium Series game between the Kings and Ducks and mid-70s by puck drop.
He remembers the setting, complete with palm trees and a beach volleyball court surrounding a rink built on top of the infield.
Most of all, he remembers the scene of more than 54,000 fans packed into an historic venue for an historic experience.
“Rather than just a game, it was an event,” Miller said. “With all the ceremonies beforehand, and even the day before when all the Kings players and their families could go out on the ice and skate around and have their families and their kids with them. It was a whole different atmosphere. A whole different day before and day of the game.”
The Kings will make similar memories Saturday, when they play the Colorado Avalanche in this season’s Stadium Series game at the Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colo. It will be the franchise’s fourth all-time outdoor game, and its third since 2014. Still, those in the club are excited to participate again.
“It’s always a special time when you’re playing outdoors and in those big stadiums like that,” forward Trevor Lewis said. “It’s cool to change it up. A lot of guys — I know I did — grew up playing on outdoor rinks. We used to have outdoor tournaments all the time. It brings you back to those days when you’re just going out there and having fun.”
The novelty of outdoor NHL games isn’t what it once was. The matchup Saturday will be the league’s 30th regular-season contest held outdoors, 29 of which have been held in the last 12 seasons. All but six NHL teams have participated in at least one game. The Kings are among the 15 clubs who have made multiple appearances.
“I’d be lying if I said, yes, we’re equally excited about this as playing at Dodger Stadium in your home town,” said Kelly Cheeseman, the Kings’ and AEG Sports’ chief operating officer. “But, looking at the stories and the interviews the last couple of days, hearing the younger guys talk about playing in this game is what makes it meaningful, for me.”
Even as outdoor games have become more routine, the events continually prove themselves as unique. This season’s Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas received rave reviews for its Texas twists (which included pig races and cowboy-hat-wearing coaches) despite drawing the smallest U.S. TV audience (1.96 million viewers) in the game’s 12-year history. The game at the Air Force Academy will be the second time the Stadium Series is staged at a U.S. service academy and will include a fighter jet parked beside the rink.
“The festival part is what stands out,” said Kings coach Todd McLellan, who was involved in outdoor games in his previous coaching jobs with the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers. “For the fans, even for the players, it’s a different vibe. A different feel. Maybe it’s because of the stadium, a little football-like tailgating and that type of stuff. You don’t get that in hockey as much.”
The Kings’ first outdoor game, a 1991 preseason meeting with the New York Rangers, was held at a makeshift rink outside of the Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and nearly beset by a series of pregame logistical problems. That afternoon, as Miller recalled, rain threatened to ruin the playing surface.
Before puck drop, a tarp-like shield designed to protect the ice from the elements was accidentally dropped onto the sheet, creating deep grooves and ridges that had to be repaired by game time. Throughout the night, a swarm of locusts descended on the game, buzzing around the players and getting buried beneath the snow.
But by the end of the Kings’ 5-2 win, the game’s pleasant memories won out. In a non-traditional hockey market, a new wave of fans was born.
“There were 13,000 people [in the stands] and so many different hockey jerseys,” Miller said. “Not only the Kings and Rangers, but from all the NHL teams and even European teams. … It was just perfect.”
The Kings’ two outdoor games in the 2010s created similar impacts. A year after their Dodger Stadium appearance, a 3-0 loss to the Ducks on Jan. 25, the Kings beat the Sharks 2-1 on Feb. 21 in front of 70,205 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the fifth-largest attendance for an NHL outdoor game.
The team expects to help the Colorado hockey community in the same way this weekend.
“It has a huge impact on the local market,” Cheeseman said. “We’re constantly talking among the NHL and NHLPA about how we’re going to grow the game, grow the revenue streams. Growing new fans is impactful.”
That remains one of the key reasons the NHL keeps playing outside. After 12 years of consistently staging such events, it has learned there are few better vehicles through which to package its product.
“It’s different enough, it takes you away from what you’re normally used to,” Miller said. “A whole different setting, the fans are excited about it. … It’s going to be quite a setting in Colorado Springs.”