Vegas out of doors NHL recreation remembered for melted ice, bugs

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Wayne Gretzky said he had never seen anything like it.

He could have spoken of the NHL’s first outdoor game, Kings vs. Rangers, played on September 27, 1991 at Caesars Palace on the Strip. The maximum temperature that day was 92 degrees. When the puck fell it was 84.

Nobody in hockey had seen anything like it.

But Gretzky spoke of locusts bombing the ice surface. Only he called them black flies. Gretzky is from Brantford, Ontario, which doesn’t have many flying insects, probably because penguins eat them.

“The only problem was the last four minutes the black flies dipping into the ice thinking it was water,” said the big one, although an entomologist would probably say it was the bright lights that attracted the little guys.

Rich Rose, the former president of Caesars World Sports, was primarily responsible for bringing the NHL’s first ever outdoor game to Las Vegas (with great support from then-Kings owner Bruce McNall). He remembered that night on a phone call that week.

“Gretzky scored (in a 5-2 victory for the Kings) and then we had locusts. It came up in the press conference. Gretzky said he had skated the ponds of Canada since he was four, but saw something (that night) that he had never seen on the ice – locusts. “

Not frozen pond

Rose said that in the crowd of more than 13,000 sold out, most remember the locusts but forget that the game was almost never played.

Around noon, an ambitious worker reached the makeshift ice rink in the old outdoor boxing arena and cut the ropes into a tarpaulin that had been placed over the ice to protect it from the blazing sun.

There was three inches of water on the ice in 30 minutes.

“Can we fix this?” Rose said, remembering the hectic hours before the scheduled 7:30 p.m. play.

“We were told that the normal temperature for an NHL ice sheet is 19 degrees. They had set ours to 11 just in case. They turned it down to three degrees (after the high tide). And then, quite frankly, whatever your religion, you prayed. “

At 5 p.m. the ice was frozen solid again. The only problem was that the blue lines on the fabric tore through the first layer of ice after it melted, which required further repairs.

The pregame skate was canceled. The puck was dropped at 7:45 p.m., 15 minutes late. But the ice held.

Even when the locusts swarmed on it like the old Montreal Canadiens’ power game.

Warming the occasion

“The ice cream was perfect,” Gretzky recalled a few years ago as the Kings were preparing to play an outdoor game at Dodger Stadium.

Teammate Luc Robitaille added: “Let me tell you something, it was no worse than on the forum. We were used to bad ice cream. When we got to Vegas we thought that was great. “

Rich Rose and his team had done it when many ice hockey players said it wasn’t possible (and that was to say the least). In the game broadcast, Kings broadcasters Bob Miller and Jim Fox speculated that maybe one day the NHL would send a team to Las Vegas, although they giggled a bit when they said it.

“We were ahead of the curve,” said Rose as she paved, or at least ice, the way for the NHL Winter Classic and other outdoor games that would become so popular with players and fans.

But his ultimate satisfaction would come only two nights later.

The Kings and Rangers were scheduled to play their final preseason game in Charlotte, NC. When Rose turned on the television, an encore to the outdoor game at Caesars Palace was shown.

The game in Charlotte had been canceled because they couldn’t make ice cream.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.