NHL’s first outdoor game was icy blast at Caesars

They played another one of those outdoor hockey games Monday.

I was there for the first one.

It was on Sept. 27, 1991, at Caesars Palace on the Strip, of all places.

Before its outdoor stadium was sacrificed for a shopping mall at which nobody who lives here can afford to shop, Caesars always was the best place for a fight.

In the case of the NHL, it was “only” a matter of adding ice. No small matter, eh, because though the average September temperature in Las Vegas is 55 degrees inside a movie theater, it’s 95 degrees outside.

They said it couldn’t be done.

Wayne Gretzky said if it could be done, he and his pals from the Los Angeles Kings would be here. Heck, they’d come here anyway, because even if the ice melted, Las Vegas still beats Moose Jaw on most nights.

Those in charge at Caesars Palace said it will be done, and it was.

With all respect due Herb Brooks and Mike Eruzione, et al., that was the real Miracle on Ice.

As I remember it, there was supposed to be another NHL exhibition game played in Charlotte or one of those other Sun Belt cities earlier that week. It wound up being canceled, because it was warm outside and the ice melted. And that was for a game to be played indoors.

But the ice held up in the outdoor stadium, because Rich Rose and his staff at Caesars World Sports said it would. An ice machine was brought in at a cost of $135,000, and Mr. Freeze from “Batman” was hired as a backup.

The Caesars people had thought of almost everything.

With the exception of the grasshopper invasion.

If the Kings and New York Rangers, who served as the opposition that night, thought former Philadelphia Flyers instigator Ken “The Rat” Linseman was a little bugger, they hadn’t seen anything yet.

Though the ice held up on a sultry 85-degree evening, Caesars’ bright lights, which had attracted Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes and Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns and Ray Leonard and Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova and Mario Andretti and Pele, just to name several, on that night attracted a swarm of grasshoppers of biblical proportions.

A centurion drove the Zamboni. The Kings won, 5-2. When Gretzky scored a goal, the crowd of more than 13,000 went wild, as if The Great One had just lit the lamp in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals instead of a meaningless exhibition game.

Then the crowd began swatting at the air.

The game was twice delayed by grasshoppers, which were attracted first to the lights, then to the brightly lit skating surface. When the grasshoppers took the ice, they literally froze to death, and centurions with shovels then had to sweep them away.

In retrospect, it might have been the worst case of icing since the California Golden Seals moved to Cleveland and became the Barons.

“The only problem was the thing with the grasshoppers, or whatever they were,” Gretzky said afterward. “They kept coming on the ice. It got pretty bad toward the end.”

Another thing I remember about the NHL’s Summer Classic (though they didn’t call it that) was Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey wearing a tiny camera on his helmet, and thus “Helmet Cam” was born. And before the game, Colin Cowherd, then sports director at KVBC Channel 3, talked the Kings’ Larry Robinson into taking a penalty shot on him, though Cowherd never had been on skates.

Cowherd, who was assessed a two-minute minor for impersonating John Vanbiesbrouck, put that footage in his audition tape and it must have worked. He has gone on to become a media star on ESPN, where he mostly ridicules Boise State for playing a soft schedule.

I don’t usually keep stuff from games because there’s no room in my closet. Plus, I also believe the best memories are ones you keep in your head and then embellish when drinking beer with your buddies. But I kept my credential from that game, if for no other reason than to prove it actually happened.

So the next time you are in a tavern in Moose Jaw, and the conversation turns to these outdoor hockey games that have become so popular, you can tell them we thought of it first.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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