In 2014, the NHL decided to go all-in on the outdoor game experience. That season, there were six outdoor games, four of them under the then-new Stadium Series brand. While every outdoor game to that point had been held in cold-weather cities, the league decided to try something new in 2014.
Los Angeles was chosen to host the very first Stadium Series game, which would see the Los Angeles Kings play at the historic Dodger Stadium against their crosstown rival Anaheim Ducks. The setting of this game makes it one of the most unique outdoor games the NHL has ever held, but has faded into the background of history since. This is a game that deserves to be revisited.
Kings Not Exactly Strangers to the Outdoors
The Kings played in one of the first outdoor games ever held in modern NHL history, when they faced the New York Rangers in the parking lot of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 21, 1991. The game was infamous for having terrible ice conditions due to temperatures reaching the mid-80s.
Former Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey described the horrendous conditions in his book Calling The Shots. “Suddenly a swarm of locusts, each one about the size of a baby crow, came flying at us. Apparently, they were attracted to the ice because they thought it was water.” While the NHL didn’t hold an outdoor game again until the 2003 Heritage Classic in Edmonton, the 1991 game planted the seed that it was feasible to attempt again in the future.
The Stadium Series
The first Winter Classic was held in Buffalo in 2008. That game led to a yearly event, with the Heritage Classic being revived in Calgary for 2011. However, the demand to host outdoor games was high enough that the league created the Stadium Series for 2014, announcing games in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. (from ‘N.H.L. Stadium Series Announces Date in Chicago,’ New York Times, 05/02/2013)
The Kings-Ducks matchup was the first held under the Stadium Series banner on Jan. 25, 2014. According to then President of Business Operations Luc Robitaille, the Kings lobbied the NHL for years to host an outdoor game. They finally got their wish when LA was included in the inaugural Stadium Series.
An Atmosphere Unlike Any Other
This game marked the first regular season outdoor game in the U.S. held west of the Mississippi. It was also the first regular season outdoor game held in a warm climate.
The temperature was very different from what you would expect a January hockey game to be. Andrew Kleinhans is a longtime Kings fan who now resides in Phoenix, Arizona. He attended the game at Chavez Ravine, and said that the temperature in the afternoon was warm, but cooled off significantly by puck drop. “The warm weather really only affected the ice quality and not the experience,” said Kleinhans.
Former Kings broadcaster Bob Miller said of the whole experience, “Rather than just a game, it was an event.” (from ‘Novelty of outdoor games does not wear thin with Kings,’ LA Times, 02/14/2020)
Former The Hockey Writers contributor Walter McLaughlin wrote about the scene, calling it “Pure California.” He added, “A stage set up in right field, a beach volleyball court in left, a roller hockey rink placed between the foul lines, the pitcher’s mound and home plate, and — oh yes — the hockey rink in the middle of the diamond, appropriately placed at center stage.”
Kleinhans found the volleyball to be campy, but noted that “to be at Dodger Stadium in essentially the winter was very cool and felt like a great representation of what Southern California is.”
The game was star-studded off the ice too. Legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully announced the pre-game ceremonies with Miller, which Kleinhans referred to as “stand out.” Wayne Gretzky did the ceremonial puck drop, and the intermission entertainment was headlined by a performance from Kiss.
Kings vs Ducks
While the scene going on around the ice attracted attention, most people were there to watch a hockey game. The Kings and Ducks both wore special uniforms for the event, as all teams that participate in outdoor games do.
For Kings fans, the on-ice performance left much to be desired. Corey Perry and Matt Belesky scored early in the first to put the Ducks up 2-0. From there, all Anaheim had to do was hold on until the end, where Andrew Cogliano scored the empty netter to put the game away. With the final score 3-0, the Kings were shut out on what was supposed to be their special night.
The game is a part of an overall trend for NHL outdoor games, where the visiting team seems to have the upper hand. Of the 30 outdoor games played since 2003, the visitors have won 17 of those matchups.
While the game that was played on the ice that night might not have been the best experience for Kings fans, overall the experience was positive. The Kings COO Kelly Cheeseman stated that outdoor games have “a huge impact on the local market,” which is why the NHL keeps hosting them as a way to attract new fans.
For Kleinhans, the game was a big moment for the impact of hockey in the Sunshine State. “Hockey in California has grown significantly over the last few decades and it felt like an acknowledgement of those efforts.” The game was such a positive experience that Kleinhans went to the Kings’ next outdoor game the following year against the San Jose Sharks in Santa Clara, California.
Klenhans ranks the games among the best he’s been too, despite the loss. “As a Kings fan it doesn’t rate nearly as highly as someone who wants to see hockey succeed. From that standpoint it was a great night for everyone.”