LOS ANGELES – Emerson Etem went to Los Angeles Dodgers games as a kid growing up in Long Beach, about a 40-minute drive from downtown L.A. He never foresaw that one day he would be skating from first base to third base.
"I can't even describe what the feeling is going to be like," Etem said Thursday during a press conference at Dodger Stadium, which will become the first warm-weather site of a regular-season NHL game on Jan. 25. "It's kind of ironic. I started playing roller hockey, playing outdoors, playing at the YMCA. Seventeen years later, I'm playing in an outdoor ice hockey game. I didn't even know it was possible, to be honest. I don't know, scientifically, how this whole thing works out. But it's quite shocking, for sure."
After staging all of its outdoor games in cold-weather cities, the League will match Etem's Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings at Dodger Stadium on the last Saturday in January. It's the first of four outdoor games in the 2014 NHL Coors Light Stadium Series
The challenge, and the main reason the game has not been held in Southern California prior to this season, is the climate. Dan Craig, the NHL's Senior Director of Facility Operations, said the technology for putting down a rink isn't much different from other outdoor games, but that he has to plan slightly differently.
His crew of 12 men, down from 40 for the actual installation, will build a thermal cover that will be placed directly on the ice. It will have a silver topping to reflect the sunlight "so we don't have any burn off along the boards," Craig said.
The refrigeration center for the rink will be directly through the center field entrance, and will be needed for only one rink; there won't be an auxiliary rink as there are for some other outdoor games.
"It's a direct run," Craig said. "It's probably one of the best runs we've ever had."
Another problem could be rain. Los Angeles gets its wettest in late January and February, and rainstorms in Southern California at that time of year can be torrential. But rain is something the League has dealt with in previous outdoor games; sun and heat are the bigger potential villains at a venue where there are palm trees in the bullpens.
"This is a very unique setting and for us," Craig said. "It's knowing 100 percent that your real work is [during] the day. Everybody that's coming on the crew knows they're working from six or seven at night through 'til six o'clock the next morning."
There's just one thing Craig hasn't figured out: Where do you keep the Zamboni?
"We're not sure," he said.
In the past, Commissioner Gary Bettman has not been keen on staging a game in the area because of weather concerns. But he reversed course after consulting with Craig.
"When I made those comments, we weren't sure that it could be done," Bettman said. "I spoke to Dan again, and he's confident that whatever the weather is, he will be able to put down a sheet of ice that will provide for a competitive game."
When Bettman arrived at top of the Stadium, he immediately walked over to take a look at the iconic view: the outline of the rink in the foreground of the San Gabriel Mountains. It was a sunny, windy 75-degree day.
"I love this stadium," Bettman said. "Clearly, [former Dodgers owner] Walter O'Malley was a visionary. When you're up on the ninth level and you see the view? It's off the charts."
The Ducks and Kings see the game cranking up their rivalry, which has become more compelling because both teams made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2011 and 2013. The Ducks won the Cup in 2007; the Kings did it in 2012.
"The guys are going to be so excited, maybe over-pumped," said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, a Toronto Blue Jays fan who has attended some Dodgers games. "It will have that atmosphere … like a playoff game. It's going to be a little nerve-wracking, I'm sure. I've never played in front of this many people. It's going to be loud. I'm just really excited and anxious to get out there."
It is officially a Kings home game, meaning that the Kings will have the last line change -- and will use the Dodgers' clubhouse. Two points will be on the line, and Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau was asked about using the "h-bomb," or hatred, when discussing the rivalry.
"It's better than the f-bomb I've been known to drop," Boudreau joked in reference to his salty language on HBO's "24/7" a couple of years ago when he was coaching the Washington Capitals prior to their outdoor meeting with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"I only think it's going to strengthen it [the rivalry]," he said in a more serious vein. "We play them two days before. There's always overflow if you play teams back-to-back. They're a great hockey club; take nothing away from that. But we're like the little stepchild here when it comes to them. We want to prove to them that we're much better than they think we are."
Etem is a textbook example as a product of the growth of hockey in California, which has the seventh-highest number of people playing hockey in the U.S., according to Bettman. Etem accepts his status as the dream come true.
"To go back into some of the arenas and to give back and see the smiles on the kids' faces, and to know that a couple of kids in the NHL today have gone through what they're going through right now -- it's possible to make it," he said.
"It's awesome to be an example."