Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille squinted into brilliant sunshine Monday as the 18-wheel truck carrying the NHL's portable refrigeration units pulled up to the outfield entrance to Dodger Stadium.
In less than two weeks, their Los Angeles Kings and the rival Anaheim Ducks will turn Chavez Ravine into California's version of a winter wonderland. The NHL is staging its first warm-weather outdoor game on a hockey rink flanked by a beach volleyball court and an below-ground swimming pool in the famed baseball stadium's outfield.
The NHL's ice-makers were already at work on a beautiful 79-degree day, and Gretzky can't wait to see the next step in the evolution of a sport that didn't bloom in the California sun until the Great One moved to Los Angeles in 1988.
"I'm very proud that I was a piece of the group that was sort of responsible for stamping hockey into this area," Gretzky said while standing on the centre field grass.
"It was the right group of guys, from Luc [Robitaille] to Marty McSorley to Kelly Hrudey to Tony Granato," Gretzky added. "Each and every guy understood that this was a different market from other markets in the NHL, and these guys always went above and beyond the call of duty to go out and promote the sport and get more and more kids interested."
The game will be a landmark for hockey in the American Southwest, which has produced a handful of NHL players and dozens more prospects in the pipeline over the past quarter-century. But the game also heralds the return of the league's career scoring leader to hockey prominence.
Gretzky has mostly stayed out of the public spotlight for five years since leaving the Phoenix Coyotes' bench, but he will be a prominent feature during the festivities, thrilling the NHL. Accompanied to Dodger Stadium by his wife, Janet, Gretzky said he is thrilled to see an outdoor game in the city where he played nearly eight NHL seasons.
Gretzky is 'like our Babe Ruth'
Robitaille, now the Kings' president of business operations, said Gretzky is "like our Babe Ruth, and we need him around."
"We can't have this game without having Wayne," Robitaille added. "It's so important he's here. It's so important that he be here for that game. It's the day before his birthday, too. I've got to remember to have a cake."
Gretzky, Robitaille and Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau got a detailed look at early preparations for the game, which will be played after the sun goes down on Jan. 25.
The NHL's ice crews are putting down the foundation for the rink over the next few days, likely beginning the ice-making process Thursday. They will work entirely at night, gradually building up the ice sheet in colder temperatures while keeping it covered during the day.
NHL ice specialist Dan Craig is intrigued by the challenge of a warm-weather game, but confident his crew will deliver a workable surface — although he won't be getting much sleep over the next two weeks while working through the nights.
Gretzky and Robitaille also aren't worried. After all, they both remember the Kings' outdoor exhibition game in 1991 in Las Vegas, where the biggest hitch was a grasshopper invasion of the ice.
"People don't realize it's like 65 degrees in a hockey arena," Gretzky said. "It's kind of warm. It's not that cold."