LOS ANGELES – Gary Benge was down from Lancaster, Calif., an hour and a bit north of here, standing in the vastness of the Dodger Stadium parking lot, a cold beer in his hand and a classic gold-and-purple Kings sweater on his back.
He looked out over the thousands of sweater-clad hockey fans, gathered like tribesmen under the warm California sun, and thought back to his first Kings game, a tilt in the old Fabulous Forum back in 1969. “You used to talk about hockey and you’d get this look from people,” he says, making a quizzical face. “Now you go into a sports bar, you’ve got baseball, basketball, soccer (on the TVs). You hear, ‘Hey? Where’s the hockey game?'”
Where’s the hockey?
Indeed, the pertinent hockey is here in California, and being played to a far higher standard than anything our Canadian teams are producing at the National Hockey League level. Anaheim’s 3-0 win gave the Ducks an incredible 83 points before Robbie Burns Day had passed. They are 19 points clear of the Kings, seven up on the defending champs from Chicago, and have clearly staked their claim as the NHL’s premier combination of size, speed and skill; locked and loaded for a Stanley Cup run.
And as if that doesn't sting a Canadian fan enough, these Frisbee throwing, beach-volleyball playing, electric-car driving Ken and Barbies have officially hijacked the outdoor game as well. We've witnessed a few of these events, but this one, folks, was fabulously done. On a 17-degree Celsius evening that followed a 28-degree day, the sheet of ice laid down inside venerable Dodger Stadium performed better than many indoor rinks have over the years. Passes stayed flat long into the periods, and if it was a tad sticky, it surely was no worse than a Carolina sheet in May.
Hollywood took this production over, and the warm California night was epic, where these games tend to suffer under snowy, cold conditions elsewhere. It was what California does better than everybody else—put on a show. Sure, a 3-0 Anaheim win poured some water on a pro-Kings crowd. But years from now when the score is forgotten, the success that was the first Sunbelt outdoor game will not be.
From Wayne Gretzky's triumphant, pregame march in from centrefield (a tangible, recordable moment when The Great One walked back into an NHL family that had given him $8 million reasons to be distant) to the introduction by the incomparable Vin Scully—"Welcome the Boys of Winter"—to a Jordin Sparks national anthem that sent chills down your spine, this was special.
If only original Kings owner and Canadian Jack Kent Cooke had lived to see it. "This is very high on my bucket list," said Teemu Selanne, who will retire at the end of this season. "I've played in five Olympics. This one-game experience, it's going to go right up there. Everything was perfect."
Once one of hockey's premier speed burners, at 43-and-a-half Selanne now struggles to keep the pace set by this supremely fast Ducks club. But his gift for description has not abandoned him, and after 1,429 NHL games Selanne still sounded like a kid coming off the rink for the first time. "You don't have many chances to play in front of 55,000 people, in California, outdoors where you can see the stars," he said. "The whole package was outstanding, the atmosphere was unbelievable. I can't see any reason why they shouldn't do this more."
Of course, like all things Hollywood, when you scratch the surface a bit you realize that there might not be a real building behind that false store front. The Ducks still don't sell out every night despite their status as hockey's best team. In fact, Anaheim may still be a taker rather than contributor come revenue-sharing time.
But this was not a night to dwell on the messy details of an Orange County hockey team that faces more competition from sports teams inside a 50-mile radius than the Toronto Maple Leafs have inside the entire province of Ontario. Or a Kings team that shares its rink with the Clippers and Lakers, and played Saturday in Chavez Ravine, the historic home of the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers.
This was a night to celebrate the fact that California showed the hockey world something it didn't know. And after all the grief us Canadians give the Sunbelt teams, this was a night for a Canuck to take off his hat, and give SoCal the ol' slow clap. "It's hard to believe it happened here," says 67-year-old Gene Rasmussen, who attended his first Kings game in their expansion season of 1967. "I would have never have believed that hockey really would have gotten that big. You used to go, and there was nobody there..."
There were 54,099 people there on Saturday. And none them will be looking for a refund.