SBJ/January 2-8, 2012/Marketing and Sponsorship

Odds are you don’t recall this high-stakes game in the desert

Terry Lefton
By the time you read this, the outdoor NHL game at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park has come and gone. It will have been the fifth Winter Classic outdoor game since 2008. But wait. Before these annual outdoor tests of will become routine, we wanted to share memories of the first outdoor game of the modern era involving NHL teams. However, even the most graybeard of NHL historians provide different answers when asked about the original outdoor game.

Since it was the NHL’s first regular-season game in the elements, many hark back to a November 2003 game at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium between the hometown Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens in front of 57,000 fans, despite temperatures well below zero. Montreal’s Jose Theodore minted an indelible image of the game’s frigid conditions by wearing a Canadiens ski cap over his goalie mask.

The 1991 exhibition was a financial success, playing to 14,000 fans, but the Vegas heat kept the ice soft and the bugs swirling.
Photo by: ANDREW BERNSTEIN / LOS ANGELES KINGS
Others cite a February 1954 contest between the Detroit Red Wings and inmates from Marquette Branch Prison, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where it was 21 degrees. They stopped keeping score after a first period in which Gordie Howe’s Red Wings netted 18 goals. After the game, the victorious Wings were rewarded with a shiny bucket of the type inmates used as bedpans, which was held aloft, a harbinger of the Stanley Cups the Wings would win that season and the next.

The outdoor game few remember was a September 1991 exhibition game between the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers played on the Las Vegas Strip in the parking lot of a hotel/casino that had served as a boxing venue. Game time temperature was 85 degrees. Caesars Palace was the lead sponsor, so the Zamboni driver was dressed as a Roman centurion — certainly a sight that will never again be seen at an NHL contest.

Native New Yorker Rich Rose, the former president and chief operating officer of Caesars World Sports, had pushed the idea of outdoor hockey in Vegas since he came to the casino in 1988, even though “the only ice they cared about in Vegas at that time was the kind in a glass.”

Rose called the NHL league offices in vain for two years, before his umpteenth call was routed to Steve Flatow, then a sponsorship marketer at the league.

“I saw the vision right away, and while this became a Kings project and not a league production, like it is now, I gave Rich a road map,” Flatow recalled. That road map led to the Kings, where Rose’s call was returned the same day and soon he was sitting down with Kings owner Bruce McNall and Roy Mlakar, the NHL business veteran who was at that time a top executive with the Kings. Initially, both men laughed at the idea of desert hockey, but both bought in — once they heard Rose’s plan and Caesars’ guarantee.

At that time, Wayne Gretzky’s popularity made touring the Kings in preseason more than just a sideline business for the team. “Wayne’s fame allowed us to go out and get big guarantees for him and the team to play everywhere during the preseason, and we did,” recalled former Kings executive Scott Carmichael, now president of Prodigy Sports. Carmichael still has a photo from the game in his office. “We set the bar, sold out a 14,000-seat venue,” he said. “So when I hear the league say now that the Winter Classic should be in cold-weather or original six markets, I’m thinking we already showed it could be done anywhere and that was 20 years ago.”

The Vegas heat did cause some problems. Ice-making experts were imported from upstate New York at a cost of $135,000 and the surface was ready Tuesday for a Friday game. A Kings skate and player clinic the night before went smoothly, but when a superheated tarp over the ice was cut down around noon on game day and left on the ice for 30 minutes to an hour, disaster ensued in the form of three inches of water on top of the ice. As a result, there was no pregame skate, but the surface was good enough for the game to be played. While the ice was not perfect, the game is better remembered because of some nonpaying spectators, in the form of grasshoppers and moths, attracted by the outdoor lighting. Spectators remember players swatting bugs before faceoffs.

“Two things I remember well,” said Adam Graves, who played in the Vegas game for the Rangers and who is now in hockey and business operations for the team. “Coming out and seeing that skyline and the stars over the rink. The other thing was [former Ranger] Tie Domi falling down on a clear breakaway. He claimed forever it was because he tripped over one of those grasshoppers frozen in the ice and we just all laughed.’’

The game, won by the Kings 5-2, was a financial, if not artistic success. “McNall couldn’t believe how much money we made from that one game,” said Greg McElroy, now senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Dallas Cowboys, then vice president of sales and marketing for the Kings. “We did well enough in sponsorship that we brought a whole 727 of sponsors there to wine and dine them for the weekend. It makes you wonder why it took another 10 years or so to play outdoors again.’’

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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