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NHL Stadium Series

Toffoli gifts stick to Air Force cadet after Kings win in Stadium Series

Forward who scored first outdoor hat trick grateful for their service to country

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Tyler Toffoli made history Saturday night. Never before in 30 NHL outdoor games had someone scored a hat trick, and he scored all three goals for the Los Angeles Kings in a 3-1 victory against the Colorado Avalanche before a crowd of 43,574 in the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series, the last two in the final minute.

Toffoli could have kept his stick as a souvenir. But as the forward walked off the ice at Falcon Stadium, he was greeted by more than 800 cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy in olive green uniforms who had been whooping, hollering, dancing, fist-bumping and high-fiving on the field in the cold for hours.

"Good game," cadet Tracy Love said. "Can I have your stick?"

"Sure," Toffoli said.

The souvenir went to Love.

"It was really cool," Toffoli said. "I think this whole experience has been pretty incredible. [The cadets] did a great job. For the things that they do for the United States all over the world, it's pretty impressive, so it wasn't a very hard decision."

 

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In the end, a good part of this was about giving back. Staging this event at the academy was a salute to the Air Force, this institution and its people.

Turns out, Love is from Denver and an Air Force football player. He's an Avalanche fan, and he has been on the sidelines for football games as a redshirt freshman defensive lineman so he has the perspective to make comparisons.

"The only thing that rivals this energy is, like, a Navy or an Army game," Love said. "I didn't expect this many hockey fans to come out in Colorado Springs. It was a cool atmosphere. I haven't seen Falcon Stadium be this live before, so it was fun."

Video: LAK@COL: Toffoli records first NHL outdoor hat trick

The NHL makes each outdoor game unique by tailoring it to the venue. This one could have been nowhere else but at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Fans shot pucks and saw the Stanley Cup at the Truly Hard Seltzer NHL PreGame like at other events. But here they also climbed into a TG-16A glider from the 94th Flying Training Squadron at the academy, and they watched one soar overhead. They watched four F-35 stealth fighters fly over.

As the teams took the ice for warmups, cadets played "The U.S. Air Force," the song known for its opening line: "Off we go into the wild blue yonder."

The pregame pageantry began when the lights went out, drums played and cadets marched into the stadium to cheers. The cadets turned and saluted retired Col. Oliver Cellini, a 107-year-old World War II veteran.

The players followed, led by ground control crewmembers waving lighted wands as if directing airplanes at an airfield. After all, the field was staged as an airfield, complete with a runway, a helipad and an F-16 Thunderbird, the plane that flies over graduation ceremonies at the stadium each year. Three F-16 fighters and a KC-10 tanker flew over.

"If you don't love that," Kings defenseman Alec Martinez said, "then you don't have a pulse."

As the starting lineups were introduced and the lights went up, two parachutes opened quietly over the stadium. Then, as cadets sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," members of the academy's Wings of Blue parachute team soared into the stadium, touched down and delivered the game puck. Grizzly, a military working dog, delivered it to center ice 6,621 feet above sea level.

"It's hockey at a different altitude," Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the academy superintendent, said on the video boards before participating in the ceremonial puck drop with Gen. Jay Raymond, the first leader of the U.S. Space Force.

Cadets sat in chairs at the north end of the rink. They were the first spectators on the field at an NHL outdoor game, but they were part of the show too, playing to the TV cameras, playing to the crowd. At one point, a puck flew out of play. A cadet retrieved it and pretended to walk back to his seat, only to turn around and toss it to a fan.

When country star Sam Hunt played on the helipad during the first intermission, hundreds of cadets surrounded him. Each time the teams walked to and from the ice, hundreds of cadets lined up to greet them.

"The atmosphere of the fans here was incredible," Kings coach Todd McLellan said. "I think having the cadets on [the field] and near the ice surface was good. We felt that going on and off the rink. They had a lot of energy. They were having a lot of fun."

Love was one of several cadets who received a stick after the game. Cadet Niyah Martinez, a freshman from Waldorf, Maryland, received one from Kings forward Jeff Carter.

"This is honestly amazing," she said. "It's my first hockey game ever, actually. I got to see Sam Hunt. I got to experience a real hockey game. It was awesome."

That is not what she will remember most, though.

"I think I'll remember the brotherhood most, honestly," Martinez said. "Marching onto the field, it's awesome. I think everybody here appreciates what the NHL's done for us, beyond words."

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