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The LA Kings Outdoor Game That Almost Didn't Happen

28 years ago, Wayne Gretzky and the LA Kings beat the NY Rangers in their first-ever outdoor game at Caesars Palace

by Mike Commito @mikecommito /

When Kelly Hrudey arrived at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for morning skate, he was convinced that there would be no way the LA Kings would be able to play the New York Rangers that night in an outdoor game. 

The ice was in such bad condition, that the skate was actually cancelled.

"I recall a thick layer of water on top of the ice that had melted," the former Kings netminder reflected. "I'm thinking there's not a chance in the world that we're going to play tonight because the ice wasn't in good enough shape."

In the weeks leading up to the game, huge refrigeration units, three times the normal size of ice power for a standard NHL game, were trucked into Las Vegas. As the rink took shape in the parking lot of Caesars Palace, a skilled team of technicians painstakingly developed and tested the ice to ensure it would withstand the 85-degree temperatures.

During the day, to protect the ice from the sweltering desert heat, a massive reflective blanket hung over the playing surface to block the sun's glare. It was the NHL's first foray into Sin City, and they weren't going to leave anything to chance. 

Although it might have been a preseason game, it was an important moment. Under the Las Vegas skies, it was to be the NHL's first outdoor exhibition game to feature two clubs from the league. Not only that, it was the Kings and the Rangers, a truly marquee matchup. It didn't get much bigger than that. 

Tony Granato, who was heading into his third season in LA, remembers how the contest was billed. "You had Gretz [Wayne Gretzky] on one team and Mess [Mark Messier] on the other. Kings versus Rangers. Everybody says it was an exhibition game, but it was bigger than that," Granato reminisced.

"When you think of all the games you played in your career and all the opportunities you had, that one was special for lots of reasons. To be able to play in Las Vegas and to be able to show the NHL off to that market and do it in that dramatic sensational venue was really special to be part of," Granato said.

But it nearly didn't happen. Much to everyone's surprise, especially Hrudey, the ice crew managed to salvage the ice in time so that the two teams could compete.

"For the life of me, I still don't know how the guys that made the ice, were able to save and not only save it, I don't recall big issues with the ice," Hrudey recalled. "I thought it was in pretty darn good shape, considering what it was like in the morning. I was really impressed."

Granato echoed Hrudey's recollection of the ice. "Ice conditions were really good. Everybody was worried about it, but the ice was good," Granato said. 

The ice held up in the Vegas heat, but the Kings and Rangers had other concerns about the playing surface. Following the first period, a swarm of locusts came through and started landing on the ice.

"I was a little bit cautious thinking you'd run over a grasshopper and lose an edge," Granato remembered. Meanwhile, Hrudey was concerned that the insects would impair his vision. "I'm not making this up or embellishing. I had a little bit of concern that somebody on the Rangers might be taking a shot at me and a locust might get in the way and hit me in the face," the goaltender explained. 

The locusts were an irritation but they hardly had an impact on the game. During stoppages in play, officials simply scooped them up or players pushed them off to the side. 

Besides the venue and the minor infestation, the matchup was also unique because of the vantage point it offered throughout the broadcast. While Hrudey tended goal that game, he did so with a camera, affectionately known as the Hrudey Cam, mounted to his helmet.

"I believe it that was the first time it was ever used in our sport. I was really excited about that," Hrudey noted. "The video was amazing. I still think it's a really cool thing. I've looked back at it a couple of times and it brings back some great memories."

Having a camera fastened to his helmet was a first for Hrudey, but it didn't impact his performance. He does, however, remember how cumbersome some of the other equipment was.

"The battery pack was enormous and it was strapped onto the back of my pants," Hrudey recalled. "That took quite a bit of rigging, so I had to get dressed early and then go into this special room where all the camera operators and technicians were and they hooked me up. But not only was it really heavy, it was fairly hot, which didn't help things because it was already a hot day. That was the only downside."

It certainly didn't show. After allowing two goals in the first period, Hrudey stopped every shot he faced for the rest of the game, and the Kings went on to pick up a 5-2 victory in front of the 13,007 fans at Caesars Palace. 

When Granato thinks back to that game, it's not the ice conditions or the grasshopper invasion that still resonates with him, it's the of the venue. "Sitting on the bench and seeing Caesars and the Mirage in the background, and knowing that's where all the main events were for boxing had happened, and to have a hockey rink down there was really cool," he stated. 

For Hrudey, the outdoor game in Vegas was just part of what it meant to be a member of the LA Kings in that era. "We did really cool things and we tried to really promote the game. We went to a lot of places in North America to try to gain more exposure for the game of hockey," Hrudey said. 

The juxtaposition of NHL hockey and Las Vegas might have been unusual at the time, but that is hardly the case today. The outdoor game at Caesars Palace demonstrated that there was a place for hockey beneath the neon lights. 

Since bringing some of the league's brightest stars to Vegas in 1991, the Kings have continued that outdoor game tradition with the Stadium Series against the Ducks and Sharks in 2014 and 2015, respectively. 

This season, following a five-year hiatus, the Kings are returning to open-air ice and taking the outdoor game to new heights when they square off against the Avalanche at the Air Force's Falcon Stadium, which sits 6,600 feet above sea level, in Colorado Springs on February 15, 2020

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