STOCKTON, CA -- Outdoor hockey in the Central Valley of California – how’s that hit your eyes?
As a kid that grew up just south of Sacramento, I would tell you that outdoor hockey in the Central Valley was restricted to ball hockey in your front yard, moving your net and yelling “CAR!” every 15 seconds.
My brothers and I always tried to see which one of us could shoot the ball under the cars as they drove by.
To this day, I credit my brothers’ shot accuracy to those days hitting the net under cars and I credit my writing ability to all those apology letters I wrote to people whose cars I dented.
We didn’t have a frozen pond or river to go skate on after school. We had the asphalt and concrete that melted your wheels down on 100-degree days.
Outdoor ice hockey was unimaginable.
It’s why it’s always so shocking when an ice rink pops up in places like Elk Grove, as one did a few years back right next to the train tracks that my friends and I played far too close to when we were young.
However, nowadays with the technology that exists, ice can be created in 80-degree weather and have the integrity to withstand 40 professional athletes carving through it for 60 minutes.
We’ve already seen two outdoor NHL games played in California and go off without a hitch.
Now it’s the AHL’s turn, as the Stockton Heat and the Bakersfield Condors will hit the ice at Raley Field in Sacramento on December 18th.
As I’ve said before, it’s truly remarkable how far the sport has come in the state of California.
Hockey may never be as big as football or baseball is here, but there is physical proof that it is growing at a rapid rate.
The Los Angeles Kings have undoubtedly led the charge, bringing two Stanley Cups and an elite youth program to the state over the last decade.
Now, other teams like the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks are following in the Kings’ path, while the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames planted some roots here this past summer.
Canadian teams planting their top affiliates in California – how cool is that, seriously?
Without all of this movement west, I don’t think we would have seen another outdoor hockey game for a long time, if ever.
The only other venues that could really support one would be AT&T Park, Los Angeles Memorial Stadium or the Rose Bowl.
The nice thing, in my opinion, about an AHL game at Raley Field is the intimacy of the event itself.
Raley Field isn’t a 100,000-seat stadium that was built in the early 1900s or a ballpark that would cost you $200 a person to go enjoy a game.
The home of the River Cats AAA baseball team is a picturesque ballpark set against the backdrop of the Tower Bridge and the Sacramento River with a modest capacity of just under 15,000, giving the atmosphere an intimate feel.
For Northern California hockey fans and sports fans alike, the game at Raley Field means much more than just a night out of the house. This is a once in a lifetime event that no one saw coming.
The one thing I can’t wait for is to sit in the Press Box high above what would be home plate and look out over the ice surface as the boys start to warm up. The view of Sacramento in the background might not be the most impressive skyline, but it’s the skyline I grew up with – the one that I recognize as home every time I come back from a road trip.
I live in Stockton now and I’m glad to call the city my adopted home.
I understand some of the concerns that people have had over the game being moved 30-40 minutes north to Sacramento, but just hear me out for a second.
This is not a time to look at this as a game “Sacramento stole from Stockton”. We are ONE Central Valley when it comes to hockey.
During my playing days, it was always Central Valley teams that didn’t get much respect against Bay Area and Southern California teams that always thought they were better.
One of the best days of my life was winning a State Championship back in 2006, beating both San Jose’s youth team and the best SoCal team in the process.
On December 18th, it will be a total display of what the Central Valley can offer at the professional level.
The two teams provided by Stockton and Bakersfield, while the stadium is provided by Sacramento.
I for one can’t wait to take in the entire experience and hopefully I’m able to take a second and appreciate where I’m at while the game is happening in front of me.
This is the biggest hockey event in Northern California since the outdoor game at Levi’s Stadium and I genuinely believe that this will be an event that officially establishes the sport of hockey in our community.