NHL great Wayne Gretzky smiles during the singing of the National Anthem… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The bizarre mingled with the familiar Saturday night, when the sensory overload of seeing beach volleyball, street hockey and Frisbee tossing taking place amid Dodger Stadium's greenery was balanced by seven concise words that set a sellout crowd to roaring.
"And now it's time," Vin Scully said, his voice vibrating as he paused for dramatic effect, "for NHL hockey!"
And so it was, with Wayne Gretzky dropping the puck between the Kings and Ducks for the first NHL regular-season outdoor game played in California. Game-time temperature: 63 degrees, within the 60-to-64 degree temperature maintained in NHL rinks, no wind, and far more people in seats for the 7:17 opening faceoff than are in their seats for the first pitch at Dodgers games.
The three-ring circus before the game was often excessive, like the league-mandated ticket prices that had to be scaled back to sell more seats, and the exorbitant parking fees set by the NHL. But so much about this Stadium Series game was just right, making the Ducks' 3-0 victory a triumph of the spirit as much as a product of refrigeration and technology.
The shared pregame introduction from Scully and Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Miller of the Kings hit all the appropriate notes. "Here at Dodger Stadium, we welcome you with open arms," Scully said, and how true the fans made that.
Most welcome of all was the sight of Gretzky entering through the center-field fence, walking down an avenue of palm trees and to center ice, where he belongs.
Gretzky's arrival from Edmonton is the reason the Kings became more than a minor presence here, and his knack for popularizing the game is the reason the Ducks and other Sunbelt teams exist. But he pulled back from promoting the game or the league after he became embroiled in a dispute with the NHL over money owed him from the Phoenix Coyotes' bankruptcy. He and the league reached a financial settlement in December, and in publicizing this event he put his toe in to test the frozen water.
"I'm not sure he ever left the fold. People have their own lives to live," Commissioner Gary Bettman said during the game. "But having him as a more frequent presence is very special to us.
"On a personal level I'm a fan of his. His accomplishments are unbelievable in the annals of any sport. And he's just such a great ambassador for the game. We wouldn't be here tonight doing this if it wasn't for him."
Bettman said Gretzky's future involvement with the NHL "is a matter for him of personal choice and what he wants to spend his time doing." Judging by the standing ovation Gretzky received, the fans want him back.
They seem to want more outdoor games too.
This was the second of six the NHL will stage this season but the only one in a warm-weather climate. The league had long resisted leaving the picturesque, snowy scenery that comes across so well on TV, but its reward was a success on a different level. Fans strolled in board shorts and hockey jerseys, more Kings fans than orange-wearing Ducks fans but a lively crowd that filled the upper deck and outfield pavilions and seemed to enjoy the real show on the rink.
Bettman said that if the apparent early success of Saturday's game holds up, "then we're going to have more opportunities to consider. And we're going to have more warm-climate clubs that are going to want the opportunity, which goes to the point of why we needed to do more games than the one or two we did initially. Teams are demanding these games, and after tonight more teams are going to be wanting them."
He didn't rule out a return to Southern California without a long wait between games.
"We're having a great time. Why wouldn't we want to?" he said. "It's the
wait-your-turn idea that necessitated and motivated us to start doing more games because teams that have already hosted are saying, 'We don't want to wait 10 years to get it back.'
"What makes this so special is what it does for our fans in terms of giving them a fun, unique, special way of connecting with the game. and you see the reaction. I'm told Southern California is notorious for late-arriving crowds. The parking lots here were filled two hours before the game and the fan fest was packed."
It was bizarre. It was wonderful. Let's do it again soon.