LAS VEGAS — “So,” they ask. “Have you been down to cover any hockey in Las Vegas yet?”
Well, let me tell you a little story.
It was just over 20 years ago — March of 1998 — and the National Hockey League threw what we called their “Why Not? Weekend,” using the American Hockey League and the now defunct International Hockey League as petri dishes to experiment with the rulebook.
Why? Well, it depends on whom you listened to.
It was the year before the 1999 expiration of the NHL’s national TV deal with FOX TV, and Gary Bettman didn’t have any big U.S. networks banging down his door for hockey. FOX owner Rupert Murdoch had decided that a three-hour broadcast window was too large. Also, the Australian-born author of the glowing FOX puck mused, sustaining American viewers through two intermissions — when they’re used to just one halftime in football and basketball — was becoming a problem.
Call it Aussie Rules hockey, but the league had to listen. So Hockey Ops set up a weekend where they’d try a few things on for size.
In Rochester, players served the entire two minutes during minor penalties, whether or not a powerplay goal was scored. In Springfield, goalies weren’t allowed to play the puck behind the net, while in Syracuse players were forbidden from stopping with the puck behind their goals for longer than two seconds. In Hamilton, they moved the goal lines out from the boards by two feet, shrinking the neutral zone.
But it was here in Las Vegas where Dr. Frankenstein was dispatched. Here, in a pair of games between the Las Vegas Thunder and the Detroit Vipers, they tried out four-quarter hockey.
Two 60-minute games, with a dry scrape at the 15- and 45-minute marks, and a “halftime” after 30 minutes. I’m telling’ ya, I saw both games with my own eyes. It happened.
Only two seasons before, in ’96, the Winnipeg Jets had moved to Phoenix. The Quebec Nordiques had bolted for Denver in ’95, so as much as these things galled Canadians, the reality was that an infusion of FOX money just might save the Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators, next in line for relocation.
Most of us cringed every time we saw that fire-tailed FOX puck, a metaphor for how OUR game was being lost to a nation that couldn’t even figure out where the puck was when they watched a game on TV.
Now, they were dabbling with four periods?
NHL vice president Brian Burke — yes, THAT Brian Burke — pooh-poohed our traditionalist, negative attitude towards this innovation: “With all due respect, it’s just The Flat Earth Society,” Burke said that weekend. “It may be a dismal failure, and if it is it will end here.”
As President of the Flat Earth Society, I had sold the trip to my bosses at the Edmonton Journal to watch this heresy play out. It was my first taste of hockey in Las Vegas, and what a scene it was.
“The Thomas and Mack Center (where UNLV plays basketball) was the only arena in town, but it had no ice plant,” recalled Bob Strumm, the GM of the Thunder, over the phone on Monday. “So they blasted out one end of the seating, and installed temporary freezing pipes they called, ‘the noodles.’
“It was a portable ice-making system that went in and out,” Strumm said. “It worked OK, but the sound was weird when they skated on it. It was really hollow. Like back home, it sounded like when you’re skating on a lake.”
As the 10 skaters flowed up and down the ice, the arena echoed with a sound like a bowling ball rolling back and forth in a giant canoe. But it was real hockey played by (mostly) Canadian players — who were as offended by the process as I was.
Asked Tim Cheveldae, the Las Vegas backup goalie: “Why doesn’t (then-baseball commissioner) Bud Selig come out and say, because baseball is not as popular as it used to be, they’re going to make the game eight innings to get it over faster? Why don’t they have a field-goal kicking contest to decide the Super Bowl?”
By now, the NHL was made paranoid by Canadian reaction to their obvious pandering to the hockey-ignorant fans in the new, mostly Southern regions Bettman was targeting. They had buried this experiment deep in the desert, in front of about 3,500 fans in the Pacific time zone and, hopefully, no Canadian media.
This was hockey’s Area 51, a far cry from what awaits us in Vegas 20 years later as we arrive for a Western Conference Final Game 3.
“This is not done for TV, and this is not done for the guy who owns the concession stand,” promised Bryan Lewis, the NHL’s director of officiating who was on hand. “What’s to be gained? The knowledge of the pros and cons. It’s that simple. There’s no ulterior motive.”
So, what exactly were the pros?
“The ice in the final 10 minutes of the second and fourth quarters was awful,” recalled Strumm.
And the cons?
“There were too many stops,” said Vegas winger Russ Romanuik, who played 102 NHL games for Winnipeg and Philadelphia. “And, we’ve played this way our whole life. The game has changed so much over the years, something has got to be sacred.”
For the record, they did not replace the opening face off with an opening tip, and neither team deferred their decision on which end to defend in the second half. Detroit did pull off a late, fourth quarter comeback on one of the nights, however.
How did we write it?
“Just remember the dates: March 27 and 28, 1998,” we concluded some 20 years ago. “Some day a young hockey fan will see a replay of our country’s greatest, single third period triumph, and ask, ‘Daddy, why was Paul Henderson so happy?
“’Wasn’t there still a quarter left to play?’”