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NY Post
New York Post
17 Feb 2024

NextImg:‘Locusts,’ Wayne Gretzky and a Las Vegas parking lot: Inside NHL’s first modern foray into outdoor hockey

Jim Fox was hanging around the rink a handful of hours before the Rangers were scheduled to play the Kings at Caesars Palace more than 30 years ago when a near calamity occurred.

A tarp had been hung a few inches above the outdoor rink to stop the sun from melting the ice.

But when the crew started to take it down, the molten-hot tarp fell right onto the rink.

After they got the tarp off and did some repairs to the ice, they asked Fox, a former player who was broadcasting the preseason game for Prime Ticket in Los Angeles, to lace up his skates and take a few laps around.

Scenes from an outdoor NHL exhibition game between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 27, 1991 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. A temporary ice rink was built on the casino’s parking lot. Las Vegas Review-Journal

“I thought it was fine,” Fox told The Post. “It was certainly a little bumpy in areas. Even when I was skating around, I stayed away from a few areas which they were still fixing. But that became a huge concern of cancellation. Are we gonna cancel the game?”

Technically, the NHL had gone outdoors before this, when the Red Wings played a group of prisoners in Marquette, Michigan in 1954, then a second time two years later when the Bruins played a local team in Bay Roberts, Newfoundland in an exhibition.

But for all intents and purposes, Sept. 27, 1991, was the NHL’s first foray into outdoor hockey — a preseason game in a Las Vegas parking lot, an idea cooked up to help promote hockey, with Wayne Gretzky at the forefront.

So outlandish was the thought that Kings owner Bruce McNall said on the game broadcast that when his people brought him the idea, he asked what they had been drinking.

But the folks at Caesars — with ample experience of outdoor boxing matches, Evel Knievel stunt shows and Formula 1 racing — managed to put a rink together, capacity 13,007.

It sold out.

Such was the power of Gretzky.

“If not for Wayne, that game would not take place, nor would they get [13,000] people,” then-Kings netminder Kelly Hrudey told The Post. “That would not happen. And we were all aware of it.”

The temperature at puck-drop was a cool 85 degrees, which would rise to 95 during the game. And once things got started, a swarm of locusts descended upon the match, instantly dying whenever one touched the ice.

Wayne Gretzky takes part in an outdoor NHL exhibition game between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 27, 1991 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Las Vegas Review-Journal
The Rangers lost the exhibition game to the Kings. Las Vegas Review-Journal

Outdoor games have become an annual part of the NHL calendar — with the Rangers, Islanders, Devils and Flyers all taking part at MetLife Stadium this weekend — and the league has gotten it down to a science.

Back then, the whole thing was still in an experimental phase.

“There was so many things that happened in that game,” Louie DeBrusk, who was traded from New York to Edmonton a couple of weeks later in the Mark Messier deal, told The Post. “Giant locusts flying around, like grasshoppers and insects in the air. They were all drawn to the lights. You’d run into them on the ice.

“The ice was horrendous. And I’m not trying to downplay — this was their first attempt at doing it, they’ve gotten so much better at it. … Wayne Gretzky, I don’t think, he wouldn’t come out for the third period. He wouldn’t come out and play because it was such bad conditions in an exhibition game.

“They more or less told us to pretty much play pond hockey. They didn’t want us to be too physical, run around and hit people because the conditions were pretty bad. … It was an incredible experience, though.”

The ice conditions for an outdoor NHL exhibition game between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 27, 1991 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas were described as “horrendous.” Las Vegas Review-Journal
Scenes from an outdoor NHL exhibition game between the New York Rangers and the Los Angeles Kings on Sept. 27, 1991 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. A temporary ice rink was built on the casino’s parking lot. Las Vegas Review-Journal

Recollections of how smoothly the night went are mixed. Adam Graves recalled the game being “very physical,” while Hrudey said the ice was “surprisingly good” despite stoppages throughout.

Gretzky, whatever his protestations, not only came out for the third but scored.

Conditions aside, the spectacle of the whole thing is remembered fondly by everyone involved.

“It was one of those, if you ask anyone that was lucky enough to play in that game, they would tell you it was a special game,” Graves told The Post. “They all remembered and certainly enjoyed it.”

An outdoor game at the time was distinctly new, and the event itself was distinctly Vegas — with a Zamboni driver dressed in a USC band outfit, an anthem singer dressed as Cleopatra and the Caesars Palace sign helping illuminate the scene.

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“The feeling that you have on an outdoor rink is special,” Graves said. “Takes you back to your childhood days, whether it’s during the day and the sun is shining or snowing or it happens to be at night and you have the light from the back of the house on the outdoor rink. It just brings back memories of when you’re a kid and those special times, being able to play hockey outside.”

OK, maybe the temporary sportsbook adjacent to the rink didn’t quite fit the nostalgia theme.

But the players didn’t need to be concerned with that.

“The wagering on it certainly added to it,” said Vinny Magliulo, currently the sportsbook director for Gaughan Gaming and at the time in the same role for Caesars. “There weren’t too many people in the crowd, even though it was an exhibition game, who didn’t have a bet slip.”

The Rangers and Kings took part in the NHL’s first true outdoor game in 1991. Las Vegas Review-Journal

Though Las Vegas at the time was far from being considered an option to host a professional sports team, no one remembered any kind of taboo about having an exhibition there.

As bumpy as the execution of the game was, in that sense as well as being outdoors, it was years ahead of its time.

There was even innovation on the TV broadcast, with Hrudey wearing a camera during the game.

Hrudey said he was also mic’d up, but the microphone didn’t work during the game.

“I had a huge heavy and hot battery pack taped to the back of my pants,” Hrudey said. “Of course that powered the camera, but the camera was super cool. … I even offered the television channel at the time to wear a camera and a mic for regular-season games.”

It would be another 12 years before the NHL tried to play outdoors again, this time for a regular-season Oilers-Canadiens game in Edmonton.

DeBrusk, who currently does color commentary for the Oilers, was there for both.

“I was a little surprised it took that long,” he said. “It was also cool because I remember sitting in the stands at Commonwealth Stadium, where the game was held in Edmonton, and thinking to myself, what a completely different atmosphere, but amazing.”

Even after that, it took another five years for the NHL to inaugurate the Winter Classic, with the next outdoor game in a warm-weather climate coming in 2014.

The Golden Knights have yet to host a game outdoors.

But if they do, the NHL will know it can work, even in the heat of September.

MetLife Stadium will host this year’s Winter Classic games. AP

“We made it an event,” Magliulo said. “And that’s another aspect of what Las Vegas has become now. We are an event-driven destination and when you look at everything we do now, so much of what we do really had its roots in the multiple events that took place at Caesars Palace back in the late 1970s through the ’80s and ’90s. There’s really nothing we can’t put on.”

By the way, the Kings won that game over the Rangers, 5-2, coming back after the Blueshirts took an early two-goal lead.

But it would be hard to find another game where the result mattered less.

“It wasn’t a preseason game. It was a spectacle,” Hrudey said. “You had to be there to appreciate it. I still think some people, they’ve heard of it, but they don’t understand what it did and how it impacted the game of hockey.”