Spectacle-acular

What’s that saying—why did Hilary climb Mt. Everest? Because it was there. Why did the NHL put a hockey game in Dodger Stadium? Because it is there. Because technology and the ice wizardry of Dan Craig allow it to be possible. Because it’s fun to witness a spectacle, and the Stadium Series game out in LA on Saturday night was nothing if not that.

After all, if Hollywood can’t produce an over-the-top show, then who can? And this was that. There were pyrotechnics (what KISS show could do without them? and the band played both before the game and at the first intermission). There were people rollerblading, skateboarding, playing Frisbee, and jogging around on the infield, paid actors, apparently, being compensated to display the California lifestyle. There was a beach volleyball court, and a roller rink also. And there was the temperature, 61 degrees at the coldest part of the night.

It was spectacular, and it took place on the very spot that Kirk Gibson hit his World Series game-winning home run 25 years ago last fall. And, if we’re talking anniversaries, not that far from where the world (of hockey, and more) welcomed Wayne Gretzky to his new team in August of 1988, just as the Dodgers were heading towards that World Series showdown with Oakland.

The one thing about the game presentation that didn’t work was the introduction of the Kings. In any spectacular event, there’s a moment that galvanizes your attention and creates that lump in the throat that makes you say, “I’m glad I’ll be able to remember this.” When I went up to Winnipeg for the Jets’ first game, they played the Foo Fighters’ song “Time and Time Again,” and from the first note, it was electric. I looked down the row of press people, and it was obvious that most were faking that they weren’t about to cry.

So given that this was a Kings’ home game, I was waiting for Dave Joseph to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, your Los Angeles Kings.” The partisan LA crowd would have roared. Instead, the USC Trojan marching band came out and the players of both teams were introduced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.” And they walked in in pairs. It was a letdown.

But in truth, not much about the spectacle could be faulted, and nothing about the conditions offered to the players and coaches who got the chance to be a part of it. To a man, they praised the situation. Ryan Getzlaf of the Ducks said that he was appreciative of all the work everyone did, but particularly of the team personnel who invisibly made things ready so that “all we had to do was get out there and play.”

His coach, Bruce Boudreau, commented that he’d found the noise intense, in a good way. “I can hardly talk now, because players couldn’t hear five feet from me. I had to shout so loud to let guys know who was up,” he said at the podium after the game. “Near the end, it started to settle down a little bit.”

Teemu Selanne was ecstatic about the whole experience, noting that even the ice was not to be faulted. Selanne said, “In the third period, it got a little bit sluggish, but that happens in our building too.” He also said that no matter what happens in the outdoor games in the East this week, “It can’t be as good as it was here. The environment, every aspect. Unbelievable.”

Friday during his press conference, Daryl Sutter mentioned a fast start as the key. His team got that, taking it to the Ducks in the first shift, but they quickly fell behind, Anaheim scoring two goals in just over eight minutes.

Sutter described the three periods the Kings played as having a fast start, with a lag in the middle period due to his team’s schedule of late having fatigued them and then a burst toward the end, more energy just to push through than anything. But he said the ice was a bit bouncy late, with the puck also bouncing on them along the boards. He was not criticizing, but describing. To have blamed the conditions for his team not being able to finish would have been unfair and inaccurate, and he’s aware of that.

To build on what Sutter said, the NHL might have set things right for the teams, but that doesn’t mean that the Kings and Ducks staged was a particularly good a hockey game. It wasn’t a stinker. But the Kings let Anaheim get up 2-0 and then could not close it. They had their chances, but they were stoned a few times by Jonas Hiller. Coach Sutter credited the other side’s goalie with, “He played a strong game,” and then said, “we’re not scoring.” It’s a refrain Kings’ fans have heard before.

His coach said of Hiller’s play, “I realized after two period that Hillsy was saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what they throw at me tonight, they’re not going to beat me.’” He kind of backpedaled and said he’s said that of opposing goalies many times, but then added, “I said that no matter how many good looks they had in the last ten minutes, they weren’t going to beat him tonight.” Hiller had been pulled the other night, Boudreau said, which might have motivated him.

The shots on goal were 21 for Anaheim and 36 for the Kings, and there were some tough chances, mostly on Hiller. Early in the third period, Williams had a shot and a rebound, one of which was counted as an official SOG. Midway through the period, Jeff Carter had a clever shot where he waited for a screen to develop and fired a wrister through the legs. No luck. A puck bounced past Carter and then Dwight King also with five minutes left on what might have been LA’s last good chance. With about 1:45 to go, they pulled Quick for the extra man, but there were scored on 15 seconds later.

To add some excitement, Anze Kopitar had a penalty shot denied, and Andrew Cogliano missed on a breakaway, so each side had a tense and memorable moment to feed their energy for the yells that went, “Go Kings Go!” and “Let’s Go Ducks!” back and forth.

One question which has been debated, or actually simply pronounced upon, over the weeks leading up to the game is what this means for hockey, and what it means for hockey in Southern California. Everyone has adopted the line that says that this is a symbol, a declaration that hockey matters in LaLaLand.

On the one had, you can read the game as meaning that the game is here to stay. Just the fact that 54,000 people were willing to shell out ungodly amounts of money for tickets is proof enough that there’s a dollar base amongst the 10 million people in the region that will continue to support the two local teams.

On the other, there’s still an “it is what it is” kind of thing going on with hockey in Los Angeles. The game was 2-0, and the crowd was probably about two-thirds Kings fans. Looking up to the outfield stands with twelve minutes left to go in the third, it was apparent to me that maybe twenty percent of the seats had been vacated. A couple of minutes later, it was more like a third.

My thought? It’s just two goals. Sure, the Kings aren’t scoring, but you never know. They pop one and then it’s one to go, and that could come with six seconds left or whatever. You might miss overtime, a shootout under the stars. Is that worth the risk?

Someone said jokingly after the game, “That’s Dodger fans for you,” referring to the habit of bailing that is, apparently, ubiquitous amongst them. But those weren’t Dodger fans. They were Kings fans, or perhaps Ducks fans. Either way, it doesn’t matter.

By leaving, they showed that they love their team more than the game. But even setting aside the hope for a thrilling finish as described above, it’s not about whether your team is going to win or lose on a night like this. If the common rhetoric of the area is true, it’s about “history.” And that, to me at least, means that you suck it up, take the loss, and stick around to congratulate your side, and the other one, for having the moxie to convince the New York-centric league and its executives that you get it—that you get that this game means more than two points. That you’re OK with losing, because of the enormity of what you saw. That you get that this isn’t a Kings’ game. It’s the game of hockey you’re watching.

Put it this way—amongst this fan base, there’s still some growing up to do, and quite honestly, those empty stands were an embarrassment. But to say it another way, the league has now said that there’s nothing to worry about in this part of the world. The chance to watch hockey on ice, indoors or out, is going to be a part of people’s lives in the region forever.

Maybe next time, the exits won’t seem so magnetic so early.

Notes
When asked why he wore a suit rather than the varsity-style jacket that he had the choice of (and which Sutter wore), Boudreau said, “I don’t know. I look bad in anything.”

Boudreau said also, “I don’t care what the gap [between Anaheim and LA is], if you want to get through the West, you’ve got to beat LA. And every game is a battle.” Sutter, by the way, had on a purple sportshirt after the game. Short sleeves, if memory serves.

Like outdoor hockey? My novel, Pond Hockey, is the book for you.

Twitter your thing? I’m @growinguphockey

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