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Oral History Of 1991 NHL Outdoor Game In Las Vegas

The historic contest at Caesars Palace was a precursor to the Winter Classic.

by Dan Marrazza @GoldenKnights / VegasGoldenKnights.com

Twenty-five years, Caesars Palace was part of two milestones: The first NHL game ever played in Las Vegas, and the first outdoor game in NHL history.

This historic contest, played behind Caesars Palace where Neptune's Pool currently sits, featured Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings against the New York Rangers.

It was played on September 27, 1991.

The game was memorable not only for being the first ever NHL game in Las Vegas.

It was also the beginning of the league hosting outdooor NHL games, which was made more memorable by the exposure it received on national television.

Calling the game that night was the longtime Los Angeles Kings' broadcast team of Bob Miller and Jim Fox.

Miller, 78, retired after 43 years in the Kings' broadcast booth on March 2, 2017.

Although his legacy is planted in Southern Caliifornia, he also is notable in Las Vegas' hockey history by helping to introduce NHL hockey to this city for the first time.

Miller, as well as several of the other men involved in various aspects of that game, recently shared their memories with us.

Quoted below are:

Bob Miller: Legendart Kings broadcaster who retired in March 2017.

Jim Fox: Longtime Kings players and Miller's partner in the broadcast booth.

Luc Robitaille: Player for the Los Angeles Kings, and the team's current President of Business Operations.

Kelly Hrudey: Goalie for the Kings and current NHL analyst for Rogers Sportsnet.

Bernie Nicholls: The current Las Vegas resident played for the New York Rangers that night.

Rich Rose: Former President and COO of Caesars World Sports.

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Rose: When I joined Caesars in 1988, one of the things I wanted to do was do an outdoor hockey game. At Caesars, our motto was: 'We can do anything.' It's not 'if' you can build it, but how high and how big? How large?

When I went to corporate, they thought it was a great idea if we could pull it off. Obviously, nobody had ever done it and it would be a great attraction at Caesars Palace, which had the reputation for doing these sorts of things, whether it be Evel Knievel or the movies. The reaction I received was: 'Wow, what a great idea.' When I went to Caesars Palace, they felt the same way because there was no hockey in Las Vegas. As we used to joke, for people in Las Vegas back then, ice was something you put in your drink.

I got to one of the directors of marketing (at the NHL), Steve Flatow. He said it was a real interesting idea and I should talk to (LA Kings owner) Bruce McNall. 

After receiving support from the Kings, Rose's idea gained steam. Although an opponent was still needed, and the logistics of playing an outdoor game in Las Vegas had to be determined, the quick interest of the NHL and Kings made the chances of an outdoor game being played at Caesars Palace a distinct reality.

Fox: When they announced it, I thought: 'No problem whatsoever. Let's do it.'

I think there was a direct tie-in with Wayne Gretzky. There's no question about that. I think the visibility that he brought to the Kings, and to the league, he made it possible to even think of something like this.

I'm not sure that unless you were actually here in LA before Wayne, during Wayne and after Wayne if you can have a full appreciation of what he did.

 

 

Rose: It was a Kings market, so Prime Ticket was available in Las Vegas. So people knew the LA Kings, and they had Wayne Gretzky. From an image standpoint, the Kings were one of the leading franchises, and they had the greatest player in the game there. People really got on board.

Fox: Wayne's crossover ability to have his name recognized by people that weren't hockey fans, but were probably sports fans. They recognized his name, they knew it somewhere. That made it possible for the attention, and the attraction. And then, of course, being Los Angeles and being in Hollywood, that's what happened. He was the only player, the only person who was capable of drawing that much attention to the league at the time. And of course, the dominoes fell after that.

Rose: Growing up, I was a New York Rangers fan. So to me, the Kings and the Rangers was the ultimate game. But the decision (for the Rangers to be the opponent) actually wasn't mine. I was able to sign off on it. The Kings had a very good relationship with (NY Rangers GM) Neil Smith. That's what made it easy.

After working out the details, the stage was set for the first NHL game in Las Vegas history. It would feature the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers, outdoors at Caesars Palace, on September 27, 1991.

Rose: We put the ice in on Tuesday afternoon. The game was Friday night. The only issue I thought we had to deal with was the wind. But there was no wind, we made the ice. The ice was fine.

Hrudey: Leading up to the game, there was so much hype. I think it was Larry Robinson, Dave Taylor, myself, Wayne (Gretzky) and maybe Luc (Robitaille). We went to Vegas a few days early to try to create more buzz.

Miller: I believe we had played a preseason game in Tucson, Arizona, the night before we went to Vegas. I can remember the looks on the faces of the players and rookies that had never been to Las Vegas before, as we went down The Strip, coming up to Caesars Palace. This was like midnight, and then the marquee at Caesars Palace, in huge letters: 'NHL preseason hockey. LA Kings vs. New York Rangers.' It just kind of hit me then that this was going to happen and be really unusual. 

 

 

Nicholls: For a lot of the players, I definitely think it was their first time coming into Las Vegas.

Robitaille: Being able to play outdoors in Vegas, no one could ever figure out that this would happen. Just being there, everyone in the city was talking about it.

Sometimes in Las Vegas, you have to expect the unexpected. And the day that the NHL brought hockey to Las Vegas, 25 years ago today, the unexpected began to occur hours before the game.

Rose: After the ice was put in, they said they wanted to put some heat shield above it so it doesn't get the full blast of the sun. Friday afternoon at 12:30, we were supposed to take that screen down to start getting the ice ready for the pregame skate. Finally, one of the people with the crew showed up. What he did was he took one of those big shears that you would use to trim bushes, and one by one he cut the ropes over this heat field. What happened was, with only one person, it fell to the ground. This had been in the sun for maybe 50 hours. It was as if you put a hot iron on a block of ice. Within 45 minutes, we had almost three inches of standing water. This is six hours before the game.

Miller: The ropes were really hot, and so they melted into the ice. You had the whole ice surface with ridges. When I looked out of my room (we stayed at Caesars), and it was raining. That was the last thing that I expected in Vegas. It rained for about a half hour. I was thinking there's no way we're going to get this game in.

Rose: Honestly, this is not hindsight, but the only concern I had was if we were going to be ready for game time. There was no question in my mind that we'd be able to pull it off. The question was how long it was going to take. Normally in an NHL rink, the ice is about 18 degrees. Ours was kept at 11 degrees. After this, they immediately turned ours to three degrees. And it slowly, but surely, it started to harden again and freeze.

Miller: At about 4:00 in the afternoon, I went over there, just to see what it was looking like. There was a guy squeegeeing, I'd say an inch or two of water off the ice. I thought there was no way we were going to play. As I understand, they came to my partner, Jim Fox, and had him put on a pair of skates and test the ice to see if it was OK.

Fox: I went on with my skates, alone, around the ice, with whoever was in control of the ice surface. They were asking for my input on whether or not the game could still be played. At that time, the tarp had just been taken off. The gouges on the ice had went down right through to the refrigeration system. It was in real bad condition.

Robitaille: I don't think the ice was that bad. It was pretty good. In those days, when we played games in Miami and Tampa Bay, the ice was way worse. We were pleased with the quality of the ice. It wasn't the way it was in Edmonton, but it was playable.

Fox: They did have a couple hours to go back and patch the holes that were there. Under the circumstances, they did a heck of a job to make sure it was playable.

Miller: When Jim skated on it, he said that he thought it would be OK. Then at 7:30, we were on the air. At faceoff time, the temperature was 85 degrees at 7:30 at night. It was an experience.

Despite a scare hours before the scheduled faceoff, the Kings and Rangers skated onto the ice at 7:45 PM, only 15 minutes after the originally scheduled time.

Nicholls: Probably the coolest thing was, I think we dressed in Caesars Palace. We had to go through the casino. You threw your equipment on, and whenever you're coming through a casino, there's everything there. Slot machines, card dealers.

Robitaille: Yeah, it was a long walk over from Caesars.

Nicholls: I remember there was a long walk out to the rink. Walking out with the skyline and all the big buildings there, just looking up and being outside in Las Vegas. The view was spectacular. Second to none.

Hrudey: It was a unique thing because I recall walking over to the game through the dressing room we had with John Vanbiesbrouck. He was starting for the Rangers. Never in my life had I walked to the rink with the opposing goaltender.

Fox: It seemed to me more like a Hollywood premiere, where all of us were in the spotlight. It's not like I've been to a lot of Hollywood premieres, but I just get that feeling that that's what it was. It was about promotion, and getting as many eyes on our game as possible

Robitaille: It felt like it was a boxing match, the way everyone was cheering. It was pure excitement to be part of such a grand event at the time. I remember the place having a roar and being packed.

Miller: 13,000 fans, and the fact that they wore hockey jerseys. Not only Kings and Rangers, but from all sorts of NHL teams, junior Canadian teams, European teams. They weren't only in the stands, but they were staying in the hotels. We'd see it in the casinos, and then at the game. That was when I realized how many fans of other teams were there and wanted to see this outdoor game. I thought it was amazing to draw that many people for a preseason game.

Rose: We sold out, had almost 14,000 fans.

 

Video: 1991 Exhibition: Kings, Rangers game in Vegas

 

A sold out crowd and that NHL quality ice stayed intact made the Caesars Palace game a definite success. But on the night that the Kings won 5-2, there were some curve balls.

Robitaille: On the funny side, what none of us can forget is the bugs. Those big grasshoppers were jumping on the white ice, because it was so bright. They'd jump a couple times and then freeze.

Hrudey: For the locusts, it might not have been the best day they ever had. They're expecting to maybe land in a nice warm parking lot, and not land on ice.

Nicholls: That's the thing. Insects are always attracted to light.

Hrudey: I'm sure those grasshoppers and those locusts had never experienced ice in their lives. I'm sure they were pretty confused what was going on. They were probably thinking: 'Who are these guys playing hockey and what are they doing in our parking lot?'

Miller: Some of them got frozen in the ice, so the players were skating over the grasshoppers.

Robitaille: By the end of the period, it seemed like there were 100 of them on the ice. Probably an inch or two inches long. These suckers were big. It seemed like they were flying in, would jump a couple times and then just freeze.

Hrudey: They weren't crawling. But there's no question that, on occasion, they would be propelled toward you. I don't recall actually getting hit in the face. But there were some casualties amongst the locusts that night. I don't believe they were an issue until at some point in the second period. Then they started coming in swarms.

Nicholls: It's tough enough going against hockey players. But when you've got to fight some bugs when you're skating down the ice, that's annoying. But it didn't take away from the atmosphere.

Hrudey: A lot of us had experienced playing outdoors growing up, but only in winter and never with locusts.

Kelly Hrudey, the Kings goalie, didn't only have to contend with locusts. He also played with a camera attached to his helmet, the first NHL player to ever wear a camera during live action.

Hrudey: Back then, Kings broadcasts were on Prime Ticket. Somebody in their production team came up with the idea, and approached me well in advance of the game. The moment the question was asked to me of whether I'd wear a helmet, mounted camera and microphone, I was all for it. I think we had a couple dry runs of how it would work with my equipment, and the things I would experience from that standpoint.

Miller: The first time there was a camera on the goalie's helmet. I remember the linesman skating up and looking at the camera and saying: 'Hi, Mom.' 

Hrudey: The camera itself was not an issue. It might have been for part of warmups. Even after the game I remember thinking that it wasn't so bad. The camera mounted on my helmet was no problem whatsoever. The only thing that was a concern of mine was the battery pack and the size of it. I was already a guy that was a heavy sweater. So the last thing I needed was a warm battery pack strapped to my back and pants.

Miller: It didn't turn out all that well. We thought we'd get a great shot from the blue line coming in at the goalie. As I recall, Kelly had his head down a lot in front of him to play the puck. So we didn't see the puck coming toward him that much.

Hrudey: Being in 1991, the battery pack and the camera itself were enormous. I can't recall exactly how much it weighed. That was taped to the back of my pants with all sorts of duct tape to ensure that this large battery pack wasn't going to come loose during the game. I might not look as though a goaltender is all that busy. But trust me, there are a lot of movements and you're soaking wet, and all these things that might allow this battery pack to come free

Hrudey: When you play on a team with Wayne Gretzky, you become so much more aware of trying to grow the game. I had no problem in doing something like this. I don't know how it ever happened that I never got asked again. But it's too bad. I still think in today's game, with today's technology, that it would be really cool. It wouldn't be cumbersome at all to a goaltender to wear a camera on his head. It would be amazing footage with HD capabilities.

Hrudey allowed only two goals wearing the 'Hrudey Cam' and was the game's winning goalie.

Rose: The Rangers scored first, the Kings won the game, Gretzky scored. It couldn't have gotten much better.

Robitaille: If there was one special event from those days, it was this one. We knew this was special. Nobody had ever done that. If you asked me then if I thought they'd still be talking about this 25 years later, I'd have said yes. That's how special it was.

Rose: It is a great personal sense of pride, number one. It is a team sense of pride knowing that a lot of people, certainly with Caesars Palace but also with the LA Kings, they were tremendously supportive. So many people had a finger in this. I look at the Winter Classic, which is one of the top events in the NHL right now, maybe outside of the Stanley Cup. It's tremendous that we were able to start it, we were able to show in Las Vegas that it could be done.

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