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Vanbiesbrouck remembers his night in Vegas

Saturday, 09.22.2007 / 10:23 AM / Off the Wall

By Evan Weiner - NHL.com Correspondent

John Vanbiesbrouck played in one of the most unlikely spots ever for a preseason game when the Rangers took on the Los Angeles Kings on a makeshift rink in a parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 27, 1991.
The United States Hockey Hall of Fame will be adding four new members on Oct. 12. NHL forwards Bobby Carpenter and Aaron Broten, along with goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck and the late John MacInnes, Michigan Tech’s longtime coach, will take their place among the giants of U.S. hockey.

Of the three living inductees, Vanbiesbrouck may have the most unusual stories to tell during his acceptance speech at the induction dinner in Grand Forks, N.D., As a New York Rangers farmhand, Vanbiesbrouck played with the 1983-84 Central Hockey League champions, the Tulsa Oilers — a team that didn't have a practice rink and finished the season playing on the road and based out of Denver because of financial problems in Tulsa.

Vanbiesbrouck also played in one of the most unlikely spots ever for a preseason game when the Rangers took on the Los Angeles Kings on a makeshift rink complete with stands in a parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 27, 1991. Vanbiesbrouck also was in goal for the Florida Panthers during the team's 1996 ride to the Stanley Cup Final when fans threw rubber rats onto the ice after the Panthers scored a goal. The plastic rats became the Panthers’ playoff symbol, similar to Detroit Red Wings fans throwing an octopus on the ice at the start of the playoffs.

Vanbiesbrouck also scored a New York-area hat trick: He played for the Rangers, Islanders and Devils.

But of all the stories Vanbiesbrouck might tell, the pre-season game in Vegas might top the list. It was an outdoor game played in the desert in Las Vegas heat. It was the first time an NHL pre-season game was played in Las Vegas and it featured Wayne Gretzky, which brought hockey and non-hockey fans to Caesars’ parking lot. About 13,000 people attended the game.

Caesars Palace was (and is) famous for hosting big-time boxing matches and other events. Evel Knievel, a one-time minor league hockey player, was unsuccessful at trying to jump over the hotel’s water fountain with his motorcycle on New Year’s Eve in 1967. In 1981 and 1982, Caesars hosted the Las Vegas Grand Prix, a Formula One auto racing event. Boxing great Joe Louis worked at the hotel as a greeter. Among the boxing matches held in the parking lot were Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Tommy Hearns, Leonard vs. Marvin Hagler, Hagler vs. Hearns and Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney. Mike Tyson won the heavyweight boxing championship there by knocking out Trevor Berbick.

The Kings and Rangers were playing in an historic parking lot in September 1991 before a huge crowd — and lots of grasshoppers.

"The Vegas story is a great story, because win or lose you still win," Vanbiesbrouck said of the game.” It was fun and it was a great experience. There were hundreds of them (grasshoppers) on the ice. It was like the desert was throwing grasshoppers on the ice and they couldn't move. Once they hit the ice, they couldn't hop anywhere, so we just swept them off to the side. Gretzky looked like he came in on a 2-on-1 with one of them. I stopped them.”

It’s not easy playing hockey in the desert heat — 90 degrees is still hot, even if it is a "dry" heat. Goaltenders in those days still had heavy equipment, the players had to skate and it made for uncomfortable conditions.

"It was funny because walking back to the (dressing) room after the period, you were just drenched," said Vanbiesbrouck. "You were trying to get your clothes off just to breathe, but in the distance the Tropicana Hotel and the Dunes looked kind of funny. Walking back to the room, I was getting the gambling itch."

Vanbiesbrouck grew up in the Detroit area, where he was able to play pond or river hockey in the winter — something that is impossible to do in Las Vegas. Vanbiesbrouck's Rangers teammates were talking about their childhoods and playing outdoors; playing in a Las Vegas parking lot in the heat was something totally foreign to them.

Vanbiesbrouck also was in goal for the Florida Panthers during the team's 1996 ride to the Stanley Cup Final when fans threw rubber rats onto the ice after the Panthers scored a goal.
"I don't know, about 70 degrees or so," he said of the difference between the temperature in Las Vegas and in the Detroit area the last time he had played outdoors. "It was something because (Rangers defenseman) James Patrick and myself talked about it because he played (growing up) extensive periods outside in Winnipeg, which is probably the coldest place in this planet. He had some great stories.

"My father used to heat up the car to the point where he would get the heater underneath the dashboard going so hot that I could just stick my feet under there and they defrosted."

Playing outdoors in Las Vegas in late September also presented a major challenge to Caesars Palace icemakers. As the sun was setting, they were still working on the ice.

"It was more night; at twilight there was hardly any ice," the goaltender said. "So they had to wait until it froze over pretty good, and actually the ice was great. But looking up, it was weird because the moon was up there and it was a full moon. We ended up losing 5-2."

Vanbiesbrouck also noticed something besides the full moon: The Zamboni driver was not wearing the usual Zamboni driver uniform.

"They were Caesar and Cleopatra. They were out there," he laughed. "It was kind of funny because I never saw a Zamboni driver with Roman Empire equipment on. They played it right up, they wanted Julius Caesar to come out and make the ceremonial drop of the puck. Unfortunately they got little Caesar."

Vanbiesbrouck grew up seeing the old pictures of the Rat Pack — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop — standing in front of the marquee of the Sands Hotel with their names posted. All of a sudden he got a big thrill approaching Caesars marquee.

"It was a great thing for us," Vanbiesbrouck recalled. “When we were driving in, I thought it was great to see ‘LA Kings vs. New York Rangers’ as one of the names up on the marquee. It’s kind of funny when you see a name up there and it’s your name up there.”

Las Vegas is still hosting Kings’ preseason games, and city officials hope to get their own NHL team in one of two arenas that might be built in the city within the next three to five years. There probably will not be any more outdoor early fall games in Las Vegas. The NHL has had just one outdoor game since the Caesar’s Palace preseason match up — the Heritage Game in Edmonton between the Oilers and Montreal on Nov. 22, 2003.

It will be pretty hard for Carpenter or Broten, both fine players with great hockey resumes, to top Vanbiesbrouck’s story at the introduction ceremony. After all, they never played outdoors in the Nevada desert.

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