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Las Vegas grasshopper invasion recalls Caesars Palace NHL game

Updated July 29, 2019 - 7:43 pm

The little buggers are back.

But it’s really not a Las Vegas grasshopper infestation until Wayne Gretzky weighs in on it.

Hockey’s “Great One” played only one full game in Las Vegas — astute local fans may recall that brother Brent, the “Average One,” appeared in 40 games for the 1996-97 Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League — but boy was it ever remarkable.

Gretzky scored the last goal in the Los Angeles Kings’ 5-2 preseason victory over the New York Rangers at Caesars Palace on Sept. 27, 1991. But that isn’t what made that game memorable. It was the first NHL game played outdoors. And late in the third period, it was delayed by a horde of grasshoppers.

An unexpected source of water again was to blame.

According to the Nevada Department of Agriculture, unseasonably wet weather has lured the swarming insects to Las Vegas for a return engagement en route to a Stephen King movie set.

In the case of the Kings-Rangers game, frozen water was the main attraction.

The grasshoppers weren’t the first visitors to be mesmerized by Las Vegas’ bright lights. With powerful beams from a Musco Lighting system turning the temporary rink into a giant reflector, they were drawn to the ice during the third period causing a surreal scene that gave Gretzky the heebie-jeebies.

“The ice was perfect,” he said at the postgame news conference long before NHL games played outdoors became all the rage. “The only issue was the black flies were diving onto the ice.”

The scientific name for a grasshopper is acridomorpha, not black fly. But cut Gretzky some slack. Guys who score 894 NHL goals usually aren’t confused for the Orkin man.

Caesars freeze-out

Rich Rose, then president of Caesars World Sports, is a longtime Rangers fan. Rose was the one who pitched the idea of playing a hockey game outdoors during September when the average high temperature in Las Vegas is 96 degrees.

Rose thought he and the Caesars people had thought of everything when it came to building a temporary outdoors rink and keeping it frozen.

But they did not think of grasshoppers invading the attacking zone as if they were the San Jose Sharks during a five-minute power play.

“In the press conference afterward, Gretzky said it was great,” Rose recalled Sunday from his home in Florida. “What he said was ‘I’ve been skating since I was four. And I thought I had seen everything on the ice until tonight.’”

The grasshoppers were virtually frozen on the spot. They had to be carried off on shovels. I wrote that it might have been the worst case of icing since the California Golden Seals moved to Cleveland and became the Barons.

“From the heat and when they touched the ice,” Rose said of sudden death in the third period. “Think about when you reach into the freezer to get a piece of ice and sometimes your fingers stick to it because of the difference in temperature.

“I will tell you in all honesty in every meeting we had, we never talked about grasshoppers.”

Expect the unexpected

“What we had been told during our meetings (with the NHL) was the biggest hindrance to making the ice surface was going to be wind,” Rose said. “As long as there wasn’t wind, it didn’t matter how warm it was because the freon could be (put down) evenly and it would be able to freeze.”

The game attracted a sellout crowd of 13,007, dozens of invited guests and thousands of little flying visitors who weren’t on the pass list.

Rose said he was attending to business behind the scenes when somebody came in and said the grasshoppers literally were buzzing the creases of goalies Kelly Hrudey and John Vanbiesbrouck.

It was the craziest thing that Wayne Gretzky had ever seen. But it ranked only No. 2 on Rose’s list.

What could be crazier than a horde of grasshoppers interrupting a hockey game?

“Fan Man,” Rose said of the night a man strapped himself onto a powered paraglider and crashed into the side of the ring during the Nov. 6, 1993 heavyweight title fight at Caesars between Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield.

The man’s name was James Miller. When it came to disruptive little pests, he made those grasshoppers on the Caesars Palace ice look like Jiminy Cricket.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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