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NHL Lake Tahoe outdoor games could lead to others like it

League might stage more events in 'beautiful, wonderful, landmark places'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe will be a one-time, made-for-television event, right?

This is a product of the coronavirus pandemic limiting crowds, and never again will the League stage outdoor games without fans like when the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights play in the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday on Feb. 20 (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS) and the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers play in the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday on Feb. 21 (2 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS).


Well, we'll see how it goes.

"I think we're hearing the buzz," NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said Friday at Edgewater Tahoe Resort as the rink was being built on the golf course next to the lake. "We think this is going to be an incredible event. I think the proof will be probably afterwards in terms of how our fans took to this game, our sponsors, and how we were able to execute it and pull it off as to whether we do these in the future."

The NHL held its first modern outdoor game on Nov. 22, 2003, when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 in the Heritage Classic before 57,167 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. 

It didn't hold another until Jan. 1, 2008, when the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in the shootout in the Winter Classic before 71,217 at Ralph Wilson Stadium outside Buffalo.

"From what I understand," said Mayer, who wasn't working for the NHL then, "it sounded like it might have been a one and done until it just was met with just the response from the fans and not only the hockey world, but the sports world."

Video: Steve Mayer takes us behind the scenes at Lake Tahoe

The 2008 Winter Classic transcended hockey. The image of Penguins center Sidney Crosby scoring the shootout winner as snowflakes fell became a classic winter image indeed.

That broad, romantic appeal helped lead to 28 more outdoor games in stadiums across North America.

"That's really important with this one as well," Mayer said. "We do believe we're putting this on, it's going to be a hockey spectacular, two amazing games Saturday and Sunday, but we also feel that this is something that will resonate with sports fans.

"You know, sports fans are, like, yearning for great events. They're home, they're all going through what we're all going through, and we're here to entertain, and I really believe this is going to catch their eye. Whether you're a hockey fan, a basketball fan, a football fan, this is something you're going to tune in to.

"And if we do get a great response, I think at the League office, we'll talk about what the future of games in crazy, beautiful, wonderful, landmark places happens to be as we look to the future."

So far, so good.

Even though the NHL had two months to plan instead of the usual year, even though a group of about eight people made one site visit in December instead of several departments making the usual 15 to 20 visits, and even though the golf course does not have the usual infrastructure of a stadium, everything is on schedule.

The crew was installing the aluminum pans that make up the floor of the rink Friday, and the plan was to start the slow, methodical process of building the ice surface Friday night. A temporary building Mayer called "the chalet" is going up next to the rink.

Video: 2021 NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe time-lapse

Normally, the NHL tailors the set design to the location. When the Dallas Stars defeated the Nashville Predators 4-2 before 85,630 in the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2020, Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas was dressed up like a Texas ranch. It felt like a rodeo. A big part of the idea is to give TV viewers a sense of place.

No need at Lake Tahoe.

"When you come here, and I'm just going to kind of walk over to what's behind me, the lake and the mountains, this surrounding speaks for itself," Mayer said. "I mean, that's the set design, so we didn't want to do much with it, and you'll see when you watch the game next week that we really are taking advantage of this incredible surrounding, the wilderness."

It's one thing to dream about an event like this, to plan for it. It's another thing to see it come to life in person.

It will be yet another thing to see it on TV.

"This is just going to be really unique and different," Mayer said. "And it is such a shame that we can't have fans here, but for those who are going to watch from home, I think they're going to get a really special show.

"It is for us, as we've sort of thought about it, designed it and [are] now starting to execute it, it is turning out to be one of those ones that you look at and you think that years and years from now people are going to still be talking about, so we do feel that we're putting together something that will be very memorable."

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