Those who feel that the NHL has gone too heavy on outdoor games in recent seasons may want to brace themselves for what’s to come. According to TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, at least six NHL franchises have explored the viability of hosting multiple outdoor games this season as a means of safely hosting fans.
While outdoor hockey games at the NHL level only became truly commonplace with the introduction of the Heritage Classic in 2003 and, later, the Winter Classic in 2008, the concept was entirely unheard of until 1991, when Caesar’s World Sports President and COO Rich Rose had a wild idea: host an NHL exhibition at the iconic Caesars Palace.
Unconventional as it may have been, the idea was embraced almost instantly. The league loved the exposure opportunity that the game presented and Caesars Palace proudly operated by the motto of “We can do anything,” not to mention realizing how much it could get the sportsbooks buzzing. The legendary hotel and casino constructed an NHL-sized rink over the area now known as Neptune’s Pool, making room for about 13,000 spectators.
On the NHL side of things, the league arranged for the Los Angeles Kings, the nearest ‘local’ team at less than 300 miles away, and the New York Rangers to take part in the preseason exhibition. The Rangers would trade for Mark Messier one week later and go on to win the Presidents’ Trophy, while the Kings had a guy by the name of Wayne Gretzky.
The involvement of Gretzky – and, by extension, the Kings – was essential to the exhibition. Having “The Great One” attached not only drew eyes to the event, but it prompted Vegas hot shots to take notice and added a buzz to the Strip. Gretzky was among a handful of Kings players to arrive well before the Sept. 27 game for promotional purposes and, appropriately enough, got the Hollywood treatment.
Fittingly, Gretzky scored the final goal of the game – putting the finishing touches on a 5-2 Kings win that also featured goals from fellow Hall of Famer Jari Kurri and former NHL greats like Doug Weight and Tony Amonte. It was his star power, coupled with the uniqueness of the surroundings, that got the game broadcasted live on Prime Ticket, a rarity for an NHL exhibition game in the US.
The Game Almost Didn’t Happen
While most players involved suggested that, predictably, the ice was nothing to write home about, the fact that it was playable at all was something of a minor miracle. As if a game-time temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit didn’t present enough of a challenge, a heat-absorbing tarp hovering above the ice surface was accidentally brought down onto it a few hours before the game was set to begin.
The ice makers scrambled to get the tarp removed and try to prevent further thawing. It was thought that the game would need to be postponed or cancelled. However, the teams agreed to go ahead with the game, playing with a decidedly exhibition-level intensity as the ice crew sprayed down any rough spots with cans of dry ice.
So no, it probably isn’t accurate to suggest that the exhibition went off without a hitch. Still, the aftermath of the game has made it clear that Rose’s vision, the first outdoor game contested between NHL teams, came to successful fruition. For one thing, there were no reported player injuries of note, nor participants who spoke particularly negatively about the experience. But more importantly, it forged a relationship between the league and the city that remains all these years later.
The 1991 outdoor game spawned an NHL annual exhibition series known as “Frozen Fury,” which lasted from 1997 all the way through to 2016. The area has also hosted the annual NHL Awards ceremony on numerous occasions. Of course, the league has a greater presence than ever in the Las Vegas market, thanks to the Vegas Golden Knights, the 31st NHL club who also double as the city’s first ‘Big Four’ professional sports franchise (they’ve since added the relocated Las Vegas Raiders of the NFL).
The 1991 outdoor game may not live on as one of the great moments in league history, but it was flashy and unique, with a surprisingly successful legacy. That it will be replayed occasionally on the NHL Network speaks to the spectacle of the event. Now, the outdoor game concept has been diluted to the point of losing much of its allure, but there was a time when it was not only fresh but also a whole lot of fun.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.