Remembering the 1991 outdoor game in Vegas

Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers. ( B Bennett/Getty Images)

The voice on the other end of the phone was coming from inside Caesar’s Palace, where the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings and all the National Hockey League people were staying back in 1991.

Rob Shick was there to referee the first sanctioned outdoor game of the NHL’s modern era. It was Wayne Gretzky’s Kings versus a Rangers team led by Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Bernie Nicholls, in the parking lot of Caesar’s Palace—the same slab of tarmac where Muhammad Ali had faced Larry Holmes, not far from the fountains Evil Knevil had once attempted to jump on his motorcycle.  It was here where that bozo with the parachute and giant fan attached to his back tried to land in the ring during an Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe fight.

That bout was fought to completion, but now the general manager of Caesar’s Palace was on the phone, and he wanted to know what might happen if the hockey game that night was not completed.  “He says, ‘What constitutes a full hockey game,?” Shick recalls. An avid fastball player, Shick could only think of baseball, where a game can be considered official after five innings are played (four-and-a-half if the home team is leading).  “He wanted to know what constituted a legal game,” Shick remembers. “He says, ‘We’re expecting rain tonight, and there’s been a lot of money bet on this game. What’s a legal game?'”

Remember, this is 1991. Think of the set-up that NHL Ice Man Dan Craig is working with in Dodger Stadium this week as an iPhone 6, and think of the rink that the Kings and Rangers played on as the brick-sized cell phones they used 23 years ago. “They had this tarp that NASA had developed and it absorbed all the heat. It hung right over the ice, 12-15 inches above it, during the heat of the day,” says Marty McSorley, a Kings defenceman at the time. “But later in the afternoon, when they were getting ready for the game, they lowered the tarp down on to the ice. It began melting the ice, and then they were scrambling around, trying to get the tarp off.”

There was ice, just not much of it recalls Louie DeBrusk, a rookie who would shortly after be traded to Edmonton in a package that sent Mark Messier to New York. “The ice was good for periods of the game,” DeBrusk says. “It started out OK, actually, but it wasn’t deep enough. A minimal, minimal depth of ice. When it broke away in big chunks… they’d come out with a spray can filled with dry ice, or whatever they call it, and spray it down. But it wasn’t a solid piece of ice. It couldn’t hold up. We demo’ed it.”

The anthem singer was dressed as Cleopatra. The Zamboni driver was Caesar. And, as if out of the Bible itself, when the sun went down and they clicked on the floodlights, from the desert didst a plague of locusts come. “They’d dive bomb the ice and get stuck,” Shick says. “They wouldn’t be able to get up and fly away. The players would hit them and lose their edge.  Nobody wore face masks back then. Today, it would be like having your windshield full of bugs.”

The game went off, relatively without a hitch. New York opened a 2-0 lead before the Kings scored five straight to win 5-2. But while Kelly Hrudey recalls the ice “not being an issue at all,” others say a truce was called. “I don’t remember who told us, but it was decided,” DeBrusk says, “no taking runs at guys. Be respectful. The ice conditions aren’t the greatest. Play hard, but take just a little bit off. Let’s just play it out for the fans, and get the game in.”

And so they did, with the players changing in dressing-room tents erected near the rink, and then walking to their hotel rooms in Caesar’s Palace robes to shower up.

The Kings and Rangers were scheduled to play another pre-season game two nights later, in Charlotte, N.C. The ice plant at the Charlotte Coliseum was not up to the task, however, and two nights after the Rangers and Kings had completed a pre-season game under the desert skies of Las Vegas, the ice in the controlled arena environment was deemed too dangerous for play.

The game was cancelled.

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