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Oral history of 1991 Las Vegas outdoor game

Wayne Gretzky, others recount Kings-Rangers classic at Caesars Palace

by Pat Pickens @Pat_Pickens / Staff Writer

Kings, Rangers play in Vegas

1991 Exhibition: Kings, Rangers game in Vegas

In September 1991, the Kings and Rangers faced off at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where the game time temperature was 85 degrees.

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Outdoor hockey has become a regular part of the NHL calendar with the annual Winter Classic and Stadium Series games. But in 1991, the idea of playing an NHL game outdoors was nearly incomprehensible.

But dreamers from the Los Angeles Kings and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas made outdoor hockey -- in the desert, no less -- a reality 25 years ago.

On Sept. 27, 1991, the Kings and New York Rangers played a preseason game on a rink in the casino's parking lot.

It was a perfect marriage. Caesars Palace, home of many championship boxing matches, always wanted to stage the big event. The Kings, with Gretzky, were the biggest show in the NHL.

Los Angeles won 5-2 in front of a sellout crowd of 13,007, but the event itself was the biggest story. spoke to the people who made the special game happen and those who played in it.

Rich Rose, Caesars World Sports president and chief operating officer: I grew up in Westchester County, New York, as a Rangers fan, and I grew up playing pond hockey. When I got to Caesars in 1988, I knew they had a reputation, primarily for boxing, and the mindset was, "Let's go push the envelope."

Wayne Gretzky, Los Angeles Kings center: When I was with the Oilers, that's when the whole thing started. Mark [Messier] and I and Paul [Coffey] and [forward] Jari [Kurri] and [goalie] Grant [Fuhr] in the early '80s, we played in places like Dallas and Miami and Tampa Bay and Houston. We played in all those cities, and everybody was always saying, "Do you think they'll have a team there (Las Vegas)?"

Roy Mlakar, Kings executive vice president: We were exposing the game where it'd never been played before. This is what we did. It was expose Gretzky, expose Gretzky, expose Gretzky.

Rose: I couldn't get anyone at the League to listen. The gambling was a problem. Nobody wanted to talk about it. The first year and three-quarters was tough because I couldn't get anybody to buy in. Finally, I got a hold of [then NHL director of marketing] Steve Flatow and ran the idea by him, and Steve thought it was a really neat idea. He suggested I contact [then Kings owner] Bruce McNall. He had made the deal to acquire Gretzky and was elected to the Board of Governors and had a lot of clout. The L.A. Kings were the closest team to Las Vegas, so it would be a natural anyway, that plus, L.A. is the biggest market for us. I said, "Sure, why not?"

Mlakar: I was having lunch with Rich, and he said, "Do you think we could pull this off in boxing court?"

Rose: Now he's looking at me like I'm from Neptune or Pluto, but the longer we talked, he got into it. He was a businessman looking to make a good deal for the Kings. We went back to his office to meet with [McNall], and I told him about the idea, and then he was looking at both of us like we're from Mars. But the more we talked about it, the more he got into it.

Neil Smith, Rangers general manager: Well, what happened was Roy Mlakar was the point person for the L.A. Kings at the time. Bruce McNall owned the team, and [Gretzky] was there and all that, and the Kings, because of Gretzky and because of their lineup, they had an ability to do things in preseason to make money. So Roy had called me, and we go back a long way, and said, "Do you want to come west to play against us at Caesars Palace? We're arranging something at Caesars Palace."

Mlakar: I got the Rangers and Neil Smith. We had just traded (Bernie) Nicholls to them. That was the draw. I told Neil Smith, "You've got to bring your 'A' team, we're going to be on TV, you can't be bringing a minor league team." Everybody wanted to play in the game.

Rose: I was hoping that we could have the Kings and the Rangers, just personal for me. It just so happened that Roy and Neil Smith were good friends. So it became the Kings and the Rangers. I was a happy clam.

Gretzky: When we went to Vegas, I remember thinking, "We're going to Vegas," and that was pretty unique in itself. Then they said we're going to play outdoors where they hold the championship boxing matches. Well, I don't know if people realize this, but September in Nevada and California is one of the hottest months. All I kept thinking was, "Wow, how is this going to work?"

Rose: It cost us $135,000 to make the ice. We had to move the north and south stands and move them back and still couldn't get it to 200 [feet]. We were at 192 or 193. But at the time, the old Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium weren't 200 feet either. So we had to be at least 190. We knew we were fine when they did the measure, and it showed 192.

Larry Robinson, Kings defenseman: My first recollection is, myself, [Kings goalie] Kelly Hrudey, [Kings forward Luc] Robitaille went over a couple of days early and kind of were getting everything ready. We went on the ice with a bunch of kids and were trying out the ice and everything. It was pretty good actually.

Gretzky: They put a tarp over the ice because it was so hot. The sun was beating down on the tarp, and the tarp -- my gosh -- it must've been 180 degrees because it was so hot. They tore the tarp off, and nobody was thinking, and it basically melted the ice.

Mlakar: It would've been typical of the evening news to put crime and murder at the top, and at the very end, we would've been tonight's good news story. But if the game was canceled, we would be at the top of the news with the other disasters.

Rose: By 6:40, we were able to get a Zamboni out there, and we did have ice. We didn't have a pregame skate, but we had a warmup and there were no issues.

Gretzky: I remember sitting with Kelly Hrudey, and we were thinking, "There's no way we're going to play tonight." But it was a crazy crowd. By 7 p.m., the arena was full. Normally, people get to the games just after warmup, but it was pretty much full by the time 7 p.m. came around, and it was still hot. Before the sun went down, it was still probably 95 or 96 degrees.

John Vanbiesbrouck, Rangers goalie: I remember the conditions. It's all about your perspective, because I remember coming out and seeing [the rink] as a puddle, then actually having ice. What was really going to dictate [the condition] was warmups, because all the players were on the ice at the same time. Then it finally dawned on me that, "Hey, we're actually going to play tonight."

Hrudey: I think much to our surprise, the ice was fantastic. I think at one point, the game was in doubt; I was really impressed.

Smith: I remember looking up into the sky and seeing the stars and all that kind of stuff up above me and thinking, "This is really neat. This is cool." You're seeing something that you'll never see again. This is very different to look up and see a night sky and a desert sky, and yet there you are playing hockey. I remember that feeling.

Tony Granato, Kings forward: It was warm. I remember walking out from Caesars to walk down to get ready, and the atmosphere was so cool. We were walking toward the parking lot where Muhammad Ali fought.

Gretzky: Although it was only an exhibition game, it had the feeling of a heavyweight championship fight in the stands. People were getting excited about the game. Local people who had never seen an NHL game live were there. Kings fans were there. Rangers fans were there. All in all, the atmosphere was pretty spectacular for an exhibition game.

Vanbiesbrouck: The locusts that hit the ice were pretty unique, as was the comment by Tie Domi that he would have scored on a breakaway but he tripped on a locust. I'm sure it had nothing to do with his stick-handling ability. They blew in in a wave. They did before the ice really set, and a couple got caught in the ice, and I think there was one locust remaining that got caught in Tie Domi's skates.

Hrudey: It was a strange situation. A lot of us grew up playing outdoors, but not in September and not with insects flying around.

Gretzky: The last six minutes of the game, I don't know if they were black flies or wasps or whatever, but they were flying into the ice thinking it was water. So there was a little concern in that last six or seven minutes. We didn't want to step wrong, pull a groin, break a leg or something like that, so we basically made a self-commitment in that last six minutes that nobody was going to go near anybody, nobody was going to hit anybody. Hey listen, we knew the conditions weren't perfect, so the players on both sides were really honest. Nobody wanted to hurt anybody, but they played hard. It just turned out to be a wonderful night, a nice game for everyone. And I think promotionally it went a long way to help promote our game in the Southwest.

Smith: At the time, you don't know then what you know now, which is that game will never be repeated again. That parking lot is not even there anymore. So, had you known what the future would bring, as far as that [it] would be a one-of-a-kind thing that would be talked about for a lot of years, you might've taken it in a lot more than you do.

Vanbiesbrouck: When you look back on 25 years and look back on Caesars Palace, you thought what a cool thing they pulled off. It was a stepping stone to the Winter Classic. The [NHL has] perfected outdoor games. The Winter Classic has become a real gem for the NHL, but 25 years ago, this was a real risk.

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