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L.A. Backstory: How outdoor hockey went from Hollywood to Dodger Stadium

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LOS ANGELES — There will be no snow-globe scene when the Los Angeles Kings face the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium – no big, fat flakes; no wind-whipped, red-cheeked fans.

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The Dodger Stadium rink setup is a nod to West Coast hockey. (USA Today)

The temperature will reach almost 80 degrees Fahrenheit before the sun sets and the air cools enough for faceoff at about 6:30 p.m. PT (9:30 p.m. ET). There will be more ballcaps than knit hats in the stands. There will be a roller rink as part of the staging instead of a little ice rink. There will even be a beach volleyball court to capture the local vibe, an idea out of left field out in left field.

This will not be a Winter Classic.

But it’s not supposed to be a Winter Classic. It’s supposed to be a celebration of hockey in Southern California, complete with a KISS performance and celebrity sightings – Wayne Gretzky to Will Ferrell.

And get this: While the roots of hockey are in places where people shiver playing shinny on frozen ponds, the origin of these outdoor events traces back to, of all places, Los Angeles.

The Kings played an outdoor exhibition in Las Vegas in 1991. When Michigan State held the first outdoor event of this kind in 2001, it was inspired by Hollywood – “Mystery, Alaska,” a movie about a small-town team playing pond hockey against the New York Rangers. The university and the movie used the same refrigeration truck from the same company located in L.A.

The university and the movie also faced the same problems: warm weather and melting ice. But NHL ice guru Dan Craig helped them both avoid disaster, and eventually an outside-the-box idea became an outside-the-arena monster.

The NHL started holding its own outdoor events, along with lots of other leagues at other levels. It learned people loved them and learned how far it could push them, and now it’s holding six this season – including this one, the first outdoor regular-season game in a warm-weather venue. In the end, all the NHL’s outdoor ice will have been laid atop aluminum flooring made in Stanton, Calif., 15 minutes from the Honda Center, the home of the Ducks.

Outdoor hockey has come a long way – all the way from Hollywood to Dodger Stadium.

* * * * *

It was the late 1990s. Craig had been working at the NHL for a year or two when he received a call from Howard Baldwin, the famous hockey owner and film producer. Baldwin was making a hockey film on a lake in the mountains near Canmore, Alberta, but chinooks were going through and melting the ice.

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Russell Crowe (C) in Mystery, Alaska, the movie that started it all.

“We need help,” Baldwin said.

“Well,” Craig said, “let me see what I can do.”

Craig knew the area, knew his ice and knew how to handle unusual situations. He was from Jasper, Alberta. He started working in arenas in high school and ended up making ice for the Edmonton Oilers. Shortly after joining the NHL, he built a rink atop an empty swimming pool at Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo, despite heat and humidity, so the Vancouver Canucks and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim could play two regular-season games overseas and expose the sport to a new audience.

So Craig called the company whose refrigeration truck he had used in Japan – Los Tres Papagayos in Los Angeles. “It sounds like a Mexican restaurant, but it’s not,” said Al Osterloh, the owner. It means “Three Parrots” in Spanish. Osterloh needed a name no one else had, he raised macaws as a hobby, and, well, why not? He was running a portable ice rink business in L.A. for crying out loud.

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Osterloh said. “It doesn’t make sense. Except if there’s a place that needs artificial ice, it’s Los Angeles.”

The truck scrambled to the set along with some of Craig’s colleagues in the area. They lifted up the boards and ran pipes underneath so they could pump super-cold glycol through them. They worked as snow fell and the movie people pushed them to go faster. At one point, someone told one of Craig’s colleagues if the job wasn’t done by a certain time, he’d never work in Hollywood again. The man stopped, took a long look at the mountains and said: “Well, I never planned to work in Hollywood.”

They froze the lake. They made “Mystery, Alaska,” starring Russell Crowe and Burt Reynolds. If you look closely, you can see the refrigeration truck disguised as a TV truck. “There’s a nice plume of steam coming off it in a couple of scenes,” Craig said.

Baldwin is in Craig’s debt.

“He still owes me a steak dinner,” Craig said.

* * * * *

Around that time, Michigan State assistant hockey coach David McAuliffe had an idea: Wouldn’t it be great to play archrival Michigan at Spartan Stadium?

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The NHL has picked up some best practices for building an outdoor rink over the years.

McAuliffe mentioned it to head coach Ron Mason and associate athletic director Mark Hollis. It was just a pipe dream. But Hollis is a dreamer and marketer, a guy who has gone on to try crazy ideas like basketball games on aircraft carriers.

“I pulled the ‘Mystery, Alaska,’ ” said Hollis, now Michigan State’s AD. “It kind of came off that movie. I thought back to my youth and playing outside.”

There was only one problem: How would they do it?

“There was no blueprint,” Hollis said. “We got a lot of, ‘It’ll never work. You won’t get anybody to show up at the game. It’ll be a poorly played game because of the conditions.’ We went through a process of determining, ‘Why are we doing it?’ And then, ‘What are the possible outcomes that could affect it negatively?’ At the end of the day, our balance was to do something positive for the state of Michigan.”

Michigan State hired Los Tres Papagayos. If you’re going to pull the “Mystery, Alaska,” you might as well hire the people who helped pull off “Mystery, Alaska.” The game was scheduled for Oct. 6, 2001.

“They said to me, ‘Can you do this?’ ” Osterloh said. “I said, ‘Yes, but if it gets hot, we’re going to have a hard time.’ ”

Craig was supposed to be involved only from afar. He created a checklist for the MSU folks and talked to them maybe once every three weeks. He was in Provo, Utah, doing prep work for the 2012 Salt Lake Olympics, when he got a call from NHL executive Colin Campbell a few days before the event.

“Do you understand what’s happening at Michigan State?” Campbell asked.

“Definitely,” Craig said.

“Well, they’ve asked for your assistance,” Campbell said. “How soon can you get there?”

Craig scrambled to East Lansing, Mich., where temperatures reached almost 80 degrees Fahrenheit for a few days. Michigan State didn’t have an experienced crew – just volunteers from around campus, including student-athletes from other sports. They started making ice, but the weather stayed warm. They worked and worried.

The second day (or night) Craig was there, he didn’t go to bed until 11 a.m. He woke when a beam of sunlight came through his hotel curtains. When he went to the window, he saw heavy wind outside – a bad sign. He threw on his jeans and went to the stadium to check on the rink.

“All I saw was water everywhere,” he said.

Did he think they wouldn’t have a game?

“No, no, no, no,” he said. “That never, ever crosses my mind. Ever.”

There were two loads of snow under an overhang by the football locker room. Craig grabbed a silver mop bucket, made slush from the snow and started building a dam around the base of the rink. He was soaked to his knees and all by himself. He had to contain the water until the sun went behind the stands to give him shade.

“I thought, ‘All I need is one person to come help me,’ ” Craig said. “ ‘Then if I get one, I can get two. And if I get two, I get three.’ And that’s what happened. ‘Can I help you?’ ‘Most definitely. Get your hands in here.’ Just random people. I don’t even know who they were.”

They never painted the ice white, because they were worried it would melt and white paint would end up all over the Spartans’ artificial turf. The ice looked grayish, with only hockey markings.

But the weather cooled the day before the game, no higher than about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Ryan Miller and Duncan Keith played for Michigan State, Mike Cammalleri and Mike Komisarek for Michigan. The teams tied, 3-3. There was also a performance by country singer Shannon Brown and a laser-light show. As Hollis told the Detroit Free Press then: “It’s all about the hoopla, not the hockey.”

The event drew 74,544 fans – a world record for hockey at the time.

Not that Craig saw it. He left the day before the game to get to Dallas for the Stars’ season opener. When he boarded his flight, there was a newspaper on his seat – with a picture of him and that silver mop bucket, holding a shovel, stomping on slush at the bottom of the boards. There was a guy spraying the ice with a fire extinguisher in the background.

“I opened up the paper,” Craig said, “and I went, ‘Wow.’ ”

* * * * *

Had “Mystery, Alaska” never been made, Michigan State might never have played outdoors. Had Michigan State failed to pull the “Mystery, Alaska,” no one else might have tried this, at least not for a while, certainly not in a place like Los Angeles.

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The 2014 Winter Classic was a record-setter and the first of six NHL outdoor games this season. (AP)

“If it hadn’t worked, it certainly would have slowed things down,” Osterloh said. “The reputation would have been around that it was no good.”

But the NHL saw that it was good, and the league made it bigger and better. The NHL staged the Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003. Then it hired chief operating officer John Collins, a dreamer and marketer, and staged the Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008. It has turned outdoor games into tentpole events for exposure and revenue, putting its product in iconic venues like Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Michigan Stadium, surrounding the game with other entertainment. It’s about the hoopla, not just the hockey.

The NHL sold 105,491 tickets to the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at the Big House – an NHL record, a world record pending confirmation by Guinness. It expects to sell out 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium. Then it will go to New York’s Yankee Stadium on Sunday and Wednesday, Chicago’s Soldier Field on March 1 and Vancouver’s B.C. Place on March 2.

“You always hear reasons why you can’t do it, but I believe that the NHL is doing it for the same reasons we did the first one, and that’s to celebrate and expose the game to people that might otherwise not be exposed to it,” Hollis said. “And if you can get 40,000-plus to show up to an event, many of them which maybe wouldn’t see a hockey game otherwise, I applaud them for the effort.”

Making ice when it’s almost 80 degrees Fahrenheit? Craig has been there, done that and learned from it. The NHL has invested in its own equipment – two state-of-the-art refrigeration trucks, two aluminum floors, two sets of boards and much more, enough to fill a warehouse outside Toronto. Craig has a network of seasoned crew members. He has insulated blankets to cover the ice when the sun’s out. No more emergency mop buckets.

If anything, the criticism is that these events aren’t novel enough now, that they have become too routine, that we have seen this movie before.

As he oversaw the construction of one of his rinks recently, Craig was told he had made a fantasy a reality.

“OK,” he said.

No big deal. Not anymore.

“It’s what we do,” he said.

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