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Gretzky is a key insider of outdoor hockey game

January 14, 2014|HELENE ELLIOTT
  • Former NHL great Wayne Gretzky, right, speaks with Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau while at Dodger Stadium on Monday to promote a Jan. 25 Stadium Series game between the Kings and Ducks.
Former NHL great Wayne Gretzky, right, speaks with Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

When a young Wayne Gretzky skated eight or 10 hours a day on frozen Canadian ponds, his ears would freeze and his toes would become so numb that he'd have tears in his eyes when he came inside and his father rubbed his feet to warm them.

"Those are the things you never forget about being outside," he said.

His next outdoor skate will be slightly different.

One night soon, Gretzky will take a twirl on the rink that began to take shape Monday at Dodger Stadium for the Jan. 25 game between the Kings and the Ducks. Instead of snowbanks, he will be surrounded by palm trees, a beach volleyball court with the Kings' logo on a sand mat, a small pool in right-center field with the Ducks' logo, and the historic expanse of Dodger Stadium.

It's a uniquely California twist on Canada's hockey heritage, and Gretzky is eager to experience it.

"I don't skate very much anymore. I'll probably come down with a couple of my kids and a couple buddies," he said. "We'll probably sneak in at some point. I'd love to come down."

The doors to Dodger Stadium should be held open wide for him. If not for his record-setting feats with the Kings and his work in popularizing hockey in Southern California, the Kings would be a small blip on the radar and the Ducks and other NHL Sunbelt teams wouldn't exist.

Gretzky's appearance at a news conference Monday was significant beyond its basic promotional purposes, because it marked his return to the NHL family after deliberately stepping away for four years. His dispute with the league over money owed him from the Phoenix Coyotes' bankruptcy was resolved last month, in time for him to be honored by the teams and the fans who owe him so much.

"We can't have this game without having Wayne. It's so important he's here," said Luc Robitaille, the Kings' president of business operations.

"Wayne Gretzky is probably like our Babe Ruth and we need him around. He's the guy that had the most impact in this game. When he left Canada it meant so much to everybody there in a negative way. But when he came to L.A., it changed the game in the United States forever."

Gretzky, who will turn 53 on Jan. 26, said he never foresaw hockey would take root so strongly here to support two NHL teams. But after seeing its success on the pro and youth levels, he began to think the annual Winter Classic outdoor game -- traditionally played in cold-weather locations -- could be a success here if it could be transferred and translated with a California flair.

"One of the things I used to always say is, it would be so cool to see our game played outdoors in L.A. at Dodger Stadium in 55-, 60-degree weather, people in shorts and T-shirts enjoying our great sport," Gret- zky said on an unseasonably warm day suited to wearing summer clothes. "So that dream is going to come true for a lot of people. I hope everyone has a wonderful time."

Thanks to two powerful refrigeration units that arrived at Dodger Stadium on Monday -- and the labor of a crew that will work on the ice exclusively at night to protect it from even the warmest of days -- his vision will come to life, where it should.

"It's Dodger Stadium," Robitaille said when asked why this was his first choice of venue, his tone suggesting there could be no other proper home.

Dan Craig, the NHL's ice-making guru, acknowledged the idea of playing an outdoor game here, even when temperatures drop after sunset, is "a hard concept for anybody that's not in the field to understand."

But he and his bosses at the NHL are confident they can pull it off, and he said staffers fought to be part of the crew working here, instead of the two games to be played at Yankee Stadium.

"Our guys probably won't be getting a whole lot of sleep. I know I won't be getting a whole lot of sleep," Craig said. "But that's what we do."

The science is his department. The dreams are Gretzky's and ours, to be shared on a winter night that will be warmed by memories.

Slap shots

The city of Winnipeg's love affair with the second incarnation of the Jets had cooled considerably by the time General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff fired coach Claude Noel on Sunday -- after the team's fifth straight loss -- and replaced him with Paul Maurice. Jets management expected to make the playoffs this season, after missing in their first two seasons in Winnipeg, but the team was 19-23-5 and 10 points out of the last West berth when Noel was fired.

The Buffalo Sabres made a smart move last week when they hired Tim Murray to be their general manager. An assistant general manager of the Ottawa Senators for seven seasons, Murray has a strong background in scouting and development and a decisive manner. Those assets are what the Sabres most need as they try to recover from years of stagnation under former GM Darcy Regier. Team President Pat Lafontaine also hired Craig Patrick as an advisor. Patrick was general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins but is best remembered as the assistant coach and general manager of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.


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