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GROWING THE GAME

BY PAUL GAZZOLA

This story was originally posted on Jan. 15, 2017.

Before the drop of the puck came drops of rain. They descended expeditiously and turned into a shower. It wasn't long until the shower became a downpour.

The ice - gleaming and just waiting to be carved into by skate blades - didn't need another flood but was getting one. Puddles began forming in various spots on the ice sheet, assuring the difficulty ahead.

Hockey skates began dragging like snow boots. Leather equipment and anything made of absorbent materials - goalie pads, gloves, chest protectors, pants - were increasing in weight. Visors needed windshield wipers. Consider all jerseys and socks soaked.

A squeegee would have been more useful than a hockey stick; a beach ball more mobile than a puck.

It stemmed from playing in the great outdoors, where hockey's essence truly resides. Community rinks, backyard surfaces, frozen lakes, ponds, pools - even the new rash of stadium games - all captivating settings which produce many of the sport's remarkable moments.

This was hockey in the open air, where nature intended it to be played, regardless of the elements.

It was the Condorstown Outdoor Classic, and it was only getting started.

HOLLYWOOD HOCKEY

In the middle of Bakersfield College Memorial Stadium, skating on a constructed rink, was the American Hockey League's Bakersfield Condors, the Edmonton Oilers minor-league affiliate. Their combatant, the Los Angeles Kings' AHL affiliate Ontario Reign, prepared on the other side of centre ice.

Centre stage was the talent, prepping for faceoff to start the second period. Over 12,000 hockey fans were expected to watch the spectacle that was a Californian AHL outdoor hockey match but the weather was affecting production.

The environment was meddling with much more, in fact. It was impinging on all those caught in the precipitation, including the players, coaches, maintenance crews and media.

It was pretty routine for Ontario Reign Head Coach Mike Stothers, though, who's used to having the sky fall on him.

"That's what coaching is: you stand around and have people dump on ya," he said on that Saturday, January 7, unapologetically. "Today, it was the weather."

For the performers caught in the rainstorm, the sensation varied. It was unusual and unrelenting; cool, but cumbersome; a dream come true, but a challenging ordeal simultaneously.

"It was fun for sure," said Reign centre Brett Sutter. "Kind of one of those once in a lifetime chance things."

It was, even when ordinary motions like stopping and turning became a burden.

"I think my skates were about 40 pounds," said Reign right wing Jonny Brodzinski. "Any time you stopped, any time you turned, ice would get chipped up in the bottom of your skate and it was just like walking around."

The weight of the equipment became such a gripe it forced Condors goaltender Laurent Brossoit back to dress rehearsal.

"I got fed up after the second period and went into some old gear in the third period and it helped tremendously," he said after it was all said and done. "That second period… I've never experienced such heavy gear."

Stickhandling, passing or even moving up with the puck? Forget about it. This test against the elements needed simple improvisation: chip and chase.

"You really couldn't stickhandle the puck," said Brodzinski. "You couldn't really do anything with it."

No team wanted the curtain closed, though. The show - despite going off-script - was meant to go on. So, it did.

"It was coming down pretty good but once you get started you want to finish it," said Stothers. "There was a lot of water on the ice but our guys wanted to play and I talked to [Condors head coach] Gerry [Fleming] and his guys wanted to play. 

"So, why not?"

Despite all the difficulty, the inability and the obstacles, the demonstration became cinematic - viral, too. Nobody would forget the night, whether recognized as a farce or famous clip for years to come.

"It was a cool atmosphere," said Ontario defenceman Vincent LoVerde. "The AHL and the Bakersfield Condors did a great job with this."

The game may have played like slapstick comedy, but it ended a drama. The resolution was a 3-2 Condors overtime victory. Bakersfield, overcoming struggles like a two-goal deficit against antagonist the Ontario Reign, and persevering past torrential rain, reached its capstone with Griffin Reinhart's showstopper.

"It's nice that we got through it and battled through it," said Reinhart. "Now that it's over with, it's a more enjoyable story."

The forecast that day called for a pour, but no one could have projected how the presentation unfolded. The same can be said about the show a night before when 41 NHL alumni and Hollywood personalities converged for the alumni-celebrity game on the same rink.

Both the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings brought many of their organizations' former stars to the city of Bakersfield. Names like Wayne Gretzky, Glenn Anderson, Luc Robitaille and Rob Blake spearheaded the celebration.

When the conditions were perfect for the alumni-celebrity tune-up, the crowd was an estimated 8,000 strong.

"At the end of the day, it's all about promoting our sport and making the game even bigger and better than it has been and tonight was a nice night," said Gretzky.

"Luc [Robitaille] and I always kid about it and tease about hockey in this town, but hockey's come so far and to see this many people show up for an alumni-celebrity game is pretty nice."

Californians are treated to a variety of entertainment options on any given night. With 15 current professional sports teams across the MLB, NBA, MLS and NFL to root for, they still spread California love to Canada's most cherished pastime. 

Much of that is attributed to Gretzky, who dedicated 20 years to the National Hockey League and suited up with four separate franchises, including the L.A. Kings.

"It's all about the game and everything I have in life is because of hockey," he said.

That sentiment is reversed in California: everything hockey in The Golden State derives from The Great One.

"Nobody probably ever thought that we'd play an outdoor game in Bakersfield in January 40 years ago," said Gretzky, who went from being Edmonton's adopted son to Hollywood's hockey luminary in a seismic trade on August 9, 1988.

Without Gretzky, would hockey in Bakersfield or Hollywood have even been a reality 30 years later?

LIGHTS, CAMERA, CALI

"Probably not," said Daryl Evans, a former King who scored the 1982 'Miracle in Manchester' marquee goal against the Oilers.

Now the Kings' radio colour commentator, Evans was formerly involved in expanding hockey in the sunny parts of the Left Coast.

"When you go back to the Kings who came out of '67, celebrating now our 50th anniversary, probably after the first 10 years there you're looking at it and you're still not sure whether or not [hockey's] going to stick and how much success it's going to have."

Hockey stayed afloat, though, but in 1988 it was still struggling for a share of L.A.'s attention. That wasn't easy to clutch with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers establishing a city-wide championship-calibre precedent.

"We had a good fan base, it just wasn't a big number," said Evans, the Kings ninth-round selection in the 1980 NHL Draft.

The Kings may have still maintained their modest supporters without Gretzky but in the end, the franchise needed a headliner to firmly plant the sport in the market.

"It really did because if you look at what was going on with the Lakers, they had Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Magic [Johnson] and that, it was show time with the Lakers and in order to compete with that level of entertainment you've got to - if you're not winning championships - then you've better have a star type of player."

And Gretzky, the king of hockey at the time, appropriately wore the Kings uniform. It was a sorry sight for the Oilers faithful but like the Pacific Ocean, it made waves in California.

The Kings organization may not have won a championship with the Brantford, Ont. native but with the Lakers and Dodgers hogging all the celebration cake, the Kings could finally get a piece - or add some flavour to the dish, at the very least.

"Wayne coming here was just kind of like the icing on the cake," Evans said. "I think it just showed the commitment to the people that were involved. Jerry Buss at the time, Bruce McNall, the ownership, that they were going to commit to hockey having a hold here in Los Angeles."

The turnover was successful and felt almost immediately.

After losing figures of around $4 million annually, the Kings finished in the black in 1989-90 for the first time in all its previous years of existence.

When Gretzky first played as No. 99 in the patented black, white and silver Kings threads, the club's gross revenue escalated by $9 million more than in 1987-88.

Advance ticket sales were increasing, and so too was attendance. More TV deals were created. Merchandise and concession profits heightened. The effects were so profound in Southern California that the NHL decided to add two more Cali-based franchises while Gretzky was still heating up the League in L.A.: the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and San Jose Sharks.

"There's no doubt that when Wayne came here we saw hockey go from one level to a level that they had probably never expected," said Evans. "We're still reaping the effects of it now generation after generation."

One indicator of that clearing being the display put together in Bakersfield.

"It shows you how much of an impact Wayne had," said former Oiler Mike Comrie, who took part in the alumni-celebrity meet. "This whole area was kind of built from his trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles. It was unfortunate for us Edmontonians but it helped grow the game, I think that it was ultimately great for the game."

And it was all a direct result of one hurricane hockey trade.

GOLDEN STATE GETS THE GREAT ONE

You didn't have to be a SoCal local to catch drift of the monsoon that was bound for the coast.

'The Trade' made a bigger splash than any current before it. In Edmonton, Los Angeles, the Sun Belt States. Everywhere.

The Oilers received $15 million in cash, Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas and three Kings first-round draft picks (1989, '91 and '93).

L.A. got Gretzky, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley.

McSorley still vividly remembers his exact location when the tidal media wave hit. It wasn't because he was part of the package, either.

"I was in St. John's, Newfoundland at Bob Cole's charity event," recalled McSorley.

"I went out for a run with Kevin [Lowe]. I got back to the hotel, Don Koharski ran out and grabbed me and said, 'Gretzky's been traded.' So, I went up to my room and I called Mike Barnett, he was Wayne Gretzky's agent and I said, 'Mike, they can't do this. You can't tear apart the best team in history.' And he said, 'Sit down big boy, you're in the trade.' "

By all accounts, it was hard to fathom. The one player who was seemingly irreplaceable and untouchable was traded - to California. The storylines and press conferences ensued like a flash flood and the inconceivable fact that the sensation was dealt caught the hockey world by surprise.

"I was in California and I remember when it hit the news," recollected Evans. "It was kind of one of those moments you just kind of sit back in disbelief like, 'Did this really happen?' I think I was more shocked, not necessarily that L.A. was getting Wayne Gretzky, it was more so that Edmonton and Canada were losing Wayne Gretzky. 

"Once you get over that hurdle, and then you sit there and now you've got to take in, 'Well, he's actually coming to Los Angeles; wow.' It was kind of like two different waves of emotion there. It was something special and boy, it created a buzz immediately."

To this day, many have their own take on the transaction, including whose decision it was and why it occurred.

Regardless, it happened.

Gifted talents seek new challenges. Case closed, suitcase filled with clothes, Gretzky - going going, back back, to Cali Cali - would be staying for much longer than a routine road trip. It was a welcomed assignment. If anyone was to plant the seed then nourish it in a non-traditional hockey city, it needed to be No. 99.

That isn't to say he couldn't use a hand.

"I didn't know the responsibility that Wayne had going to L.A. to grow the game and what he felt with that," said McSorley. "When I went there with him, I could see that he needed help. He needed support, is what he really needed. But he's such a great ambassador, so to go down there was great for the game. It really was."

It was beneficial for all aspects of hockey, not just professionally.

Minor hockey in California is blossoming. Women's minor hockey is taking off. College programs are beginning to enter top division territory. The American Hockey League's Pacific Division is almost exclusively comprised of California-based clubs.

"Going back into the '80s there, I got involved with the hockey camps and the hockey schools and that kind of stuff and we've seen a great growth," Evans, a major driver in the grassroots evolution of hockey in the state, said. "Then, when Wayne came on board, we saw a huge spurt."

The beaches in Cali aren't only producing great tan lines but also great hockey players.

Just ask Long Beach's Emerson Etem of the Anaheim Ducks or Matt Nieto who's with the Colorado Avalanche. There's also Newport Beach local and Minnesota Wild winger Jason Zucker.

Bakersfield is even developing prospects, with Vancouver Giants forward Brayden Watts hailing from Condorstown.

A 2007 Ducks Stanley Cup Championship, two others by the Kings in 2012 and 2014 - and not to mention the inclusion of the San Jose Sharks in the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final - and that's all the evidence needed to suggest that hockey in the 31st state is beyond healthy.

"It's come a long way," confirmed Evans.

All it really took was a commitment by The Great One to get the ball rolling - without the snow.

One trade. One emotional, difficult, hurricane trade.

"Wayne deserves all the credit in the world, in terms of what he did," said Oilers Entertainment Group Vice Chair and former Oiler Kevin Lowe.

"It wasn't the easiest thing for him but many of us said at the time and we continue to say it: it was probably the best thing to happen to hockey."