The NHL sure knows how to throw a party. A-listers like Will Ferrell and Jon Hamm, Los Angeles Dodgers legends Tommy Lasorda and Vin Scully, and master of the spun wheel, Pat Sajak walked the red carpet. KISS rocked 'n' rolled all night (or for about twenty minutes split between two sets), and the pyrotechnics display was both blinding and deafening. Wayne Gretzky was in the house on the eve of his 53rd birthday. Jordin Sparks sang a rendition of the National Anthem, and a throng of 54,099 braved the hellscape that is Dodgers Stadium parking. Oh, and there was a hockey game thrown in the middle there, too.
To repeat: there was a hockey game at Dodgers Stadium last night–the first-ever outdoor game held in Southern California, in fact. That such an event could even be possible must be considered a minor engineering miracle in and of itself; but despite the hiccups and minor annoyances–and there were a few (see our adjoining list of ten observations)–the bigger miracle was the sheer volume–both in terms of quantity and loudness–of people gathered in Chavez Ravine to take in the rivalry game between the NHL-best Anaheim Ducks and their Northern neighbors, Los Angeles Kings.
That Anaheim would eventually win the game 3-0 to improve on their league-leading 83 points seemed almost trivial when compared to the spectacle of the night itself.
Upon arrival, fans were herded into Spectator Plaza – a carnival-like stand-in for the lack of permitted tailgating (which, don't even get me started…). The Paul Charles Band played a dependable set of popular cover songs while fans lined up to get into other lines to eventually, a long while later, take pictures and buy beer and deplete their retirement funds on merchandise ($100 for a hoodie, $45 for a plastic mini-stick). The sheer mass of humanity was overwhelming, but it was an apt primer for the steerage-on-the-Titanic feel to the concourses and hallways in the Stadium proper.
The rink itself, situated over where second base should have been, was flanked by a performance stage, a miniature street hockey rink where kids ran around and played ball hockey, and giant Ducks and Kings logos planted in pools of water and sand respectively. A beach volleyball pit and adjacent lawn area in left field proved an unfortunate distraction that, before the game and during intermissions, was populated by background extras straight out of central casting, tossing Frisbees and footballs, and indeed looked more like a modern take on "Beach Blanket Bingo" than the intended "Venice Beach-feel" (a distinct lack of hemp and hippies didn't help matters).
Nothing, however, could take away from the main purpose of all this show – to celebrate how far hockey has come in Southern California. What was once a decidedly niche sport, has matured quite nicely since Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles in 1988. Once The Great One arrived, he lent his considerable star power in helping to build the foundation for the NHL's Sunbelt expansion in the early-to-mid 90s. The League has been stronger for it ever since. The Kings and Ducks have both won the Stanley Cup in the last decade, and more importantly, consistently remain contenders, while more and more California-born players are being drafted and playing in the NHL today.
Matt Beleskey, Anze Kopitar, and Jonas Hiller may have been named the Three Stars of the game, but truth be told, the real stars of the night were the Fifty-Four Thousand plus hockey-crazed humans that made the experience truly memorable. The sightlines were bad and left many having to watch the action from the Jumbotrons, but the atmosphere was undeniably electric throughout the game, and that's a credit to the incredibly passionate type of fandom that hockey breeds.
Words can't accurately describe the awe-inspiring view of a cavernous, filled-to-capacity baseball stadium, buzzing with energy, most fans standing, equally full of awe, cell phones held aloft to take pictures and video of the spectacle below. Bright stadium lights necessitated the players' use of black-out under their eyes and made for a fun collision of sports. An in-arena organist gave the game an appropriately classic feel (and major bonus points for playing "Right Back Where We Started" – a sure homage to classic hockey film, "Slap Shot").
Last night, Dodgers Stadium felt and looked like a sold-out World Series game. The sport in the middle of the action wasn't baseball and the fans in the seats weren't wearing Dodgers blue, but the energy and excitement that permeated the crowd all night was damn-near explosive – and that, despite the game actually being kind of a stinker. The Ducks scored the only goals they'd need in the first ten minutes of the game and mustered only thirteen shots through the first two periods. The Kings couldn't solve Jonas Hiller, and though he made a handful of acrobatic saves, most of the rubber he saw came from the perimeter and couldn't rightly be classified as "dangerous" shots.
The quality of play and outcome of the game itself won't be what's remembered long from now, though. What will be remembered is the – here comes that word again – spectacle of it all. Southern California hockey had its proverbial day in the sun last night under the clear skies of Los Angeles, and what a night it was. The late, legendary hockey coach "Badger" Bob Johnson used to famously say, "It's a great day for hockey," and last night, truer words have never been spoken.