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NHL Stadium Series

NHL Stadium Series setting at U.S. Air Force Academy 'something special'

Runway, fighter jet, flyover among unique features for Avalanche-Kings game outdoors

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Maj. Jim George serves as an instructor pilot in the 557th Flying Training Squadron at the U.S. Air Force Academy. At an airfield within sight of Falcon Stadium, he teaches cadets how to fly in a T-53, a two-seat, single-propeller plane.

On a routine flight Friday, he looked down inside Falcon Stadium and couldn't help but snap a photo. He had a bird's-eye preview of the setting for the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series between the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN360, TVAS2, AFN|sports2).

Later in the day, he stood inside the stadium. The football field is staged like an airfield, with a helipad, a runway and even an F-16 Thunderbird. Look closely, and you see lots of little touches that give it authenticity and a sense of place.

"We were all waiting in suspense to see how it was going to turn out," George said. "It probably couldn't have turned out any better with the details. You've got the tire marks on the runway. You've got the windsocks. You've got the runway heading. You've got the taxi signs, the runway signs. It's perfect. Perfect."

Executives, coaches and players from both teams took in the surroundings before, during and after practicing at Falcon Stadium on Friday. Kings president Luc Robitaille came up to NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer on the field to tell him it looked awesome. 

"It's just the little things they've done," Robitaille said. "It's really neat. You really feel like it's something special."

Each NHL outdoor game is months in the making and unique to the venue. Mayer said a small group scouted Falcon Stadium in November 2016 and made one or two more trips before this game was announced Jan. 1, 2019. Starting about a year ago, the League made more trips, including to an Air Force football game, to nail down the defining characteristics and traditions of the academy.

"We've got to get it right," Mayer said. "We didn't just throw this together. The Air Force was with us all along the way and helped us and taught us."

So many things are by design. The team logos atop the rink are on fighter jets. The Thunderbird is important because the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's air demonstration squadron, fly over Falcon Stadium at the end of graduation each year. As the players skated, they checked out the jet through the glass.

Video: Luc Robitaille talks Stadium Series on NHL Now

"I want to know how they got that in there," Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said. "I was looking at it. I'm like, 'I don't think that fits through that little hole they've got in the stands.'"

It almost didn't.

"It made it by an inch," Mayer said. "One inch."

The runway has lights. As if the Thunderbird is about to taxi and take off, a sign says, "STAND CLEAR: ACTIVE RUNWAY."

A sign gives the elevation: 6,621 feet, the highest for an NHL outdoor game. Another points to the cadets, more than 1,000 of whom will be in the stadium, including 846 in chairs at the north end of the rink as the first spectators on the field for an NHL outdoor game. Another points to the crew, in this case the ice crew dressed in green flight jackets.

A section of the field is marked as a landing zone, because that is where two members of the Wings of Blue, the academy's parachute demonstration team, will deliver the game puck. They will give it to Grizzly, a German shepherd who is a military working dog. Grizzly will deliver it to center ice for a ceremonial puck drop that will include Gen. Jay Raymond, the first leader of the U.S. Space Force, and Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the superintendent of the academy.

Some things are happy accidents. The helipad is marked with an "H" because it is supposed to look like a helipad, not because it is also the stage for the country artist performing during the first intermission.

"People actually have been coming up to me going, 'How cool, an 'H' for Sam Hunt!'" Mayer said.

The 30 at the south end of the runaway is a subtle reference to the fact that this is the NHL's 30th outdoor game, not because runways are numbered in the direction planes fly and that is the correct heading. But it just so happens to be virtually the correct heading. As the Avalanche and Kings march out before the game, three F-16s from Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado and one KC-10 from Travis Air Force Base in California will fly over from south to north.

"If you know or have flown in a military airfield, it's like, 'Wow, the details are just amazing,'" George said.

NHL officials gave Air Force officials a tour Friday and received a review. Mission accomplished.

"To see their reaction and to hear all they think is so cool, it's a win before we even start [the game]," Mayer said. "I just think this is our way at the NHL to sort of give back a little and showcase these amazing institutions, and I think we have a lot of really good elements to do that."

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