One Memorable Night: Hockey Under the Stars

09 October 2017

Isn’t it nice to spend time outdoors? Feeling the crisp air brushing across your skin, smelling the pleasant aromas in the surrounding atmosphere, and - for allergy sufferers like me - having your eyes water and nose run uncontrollably (PS. I’m getting allergy shots now to combat this). Back in 2008, the NHL decided to stage a game outdoors in a football stadium, and for a league that was struggling to gain viewership it was a resounding success. Thus, the Winter Classic was born, to be held every year on New Years Day.

But you can never have enough of a good thing, right? So in 2014, the NHL announced they would add another set of outdoor games, dubbed the Stadium Series, which would allow additional teams (especially those that weren’t big enough TV draws for the Winter Classic) to experience the phenomenon. The inaugural Stadium Series game would be held at historic Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, featuring the Kings squaring off against their rivals from down Interstate 5, the Anaheim Ducks. It was quite the spectacle, including a beach volleyball court set up near the hockey rink, and a pre-game concert from KISS.

As much as I would have enjoyed seeing this, I was actually up the coast in San Jose, to see my first Sharks game. So when the NHL announced the following season that the Stadium Series would be returning to California, I knew I had to go. Even better, this game would be played at a football stadium - Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara - which offers much better sightlines for outdoor hockey than a baseball stadium. The San Jose Sharks were hosting the Kings, so I convinced my travel companion Chad to join me on this journey, as we booked our flights and hotel room and headed north.


The excitement for the game was evident from the moment we arrived at the airport, as the waiting area near our gate was full of fans wearing Kings jerseys and hats. It was a smooth hour-long flight to San Jose, and we were checked into our hotel room in the early afternoon, before stopping for lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant. We didn’t really have a lot of time to kill, so we walked to the light rail station soon after lunch and headed to the stadium. Much like the airport in Los Angeles, the light rail trains were packed full of hockey fans, this time sporting the Sharks logo on their clothing. The train arrived at Levi’s Stadium as the sun was setting on this brisk afternoon, and we descended into the sea of people in the massive parking lot.

The area around the stadium was densely crowded, as both Kings and Sharks fans were enjoying this impromptu "tailgate party".  A stage was set up for live musical performances, and Reebok even had booths for fans to try on the equipment of their favorite players.  Thankfully, the slowly-setting sun was keeping us warm on this otherwise chilly day, and we spent a couple of hours wandering around and soaking it all in.  The gates would soon open, and we made our way inside...

A fascinating sight awaited us within the stadium, as the hockey rink was situated directly at midfield, surrounded by a rugged terrain of temporary fixtures.  As you can imagine, virtually all of the fans inside were slowly surveying the scene, taking pictures along the way.  Of course, we were no different:

One thing that specifically caught my eye were the makeshift broadcast booths set up near the lower concourse, as both the NHL Network and CBC Hockey Night in Canada were preparing live interviews and remote segments.  I focused on the CBC area, where Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Kelly Hrudey (who played goaltender for both the Sharks and Kings during his playing career) were getting ready to go on air.  Before they did, I was able to talk with Hrudey for a few minutes, explaining to him that I would be in Alberta soon and was open to any suggestions for places to go (he immediately recommended Lake Louise).

From there, we used the rest of the pre-game moments to cover every inch of the stadium that was open to fans, and grabbed a snack while shopping in the team store.  Darkness would soon fall on the area, providing the first opportunity I'd ever had to experience a sunset before a live hockey game.


The unique evening continued with a ceremony reminiscent of a football game, as a giant American flag was displayed in the lower bowl during the anthem, and fireworks showered the sky.

The biggest difference between this game and a typical "indoor" game was the crowd noise, which quickly dissipated into the air with each initial roar - the smaller arenas tend to do a better job of both containing and sustaining the clamor.  The disorienting feeling was very evident when Kyle Clifford gave the Kings a 1-0 lead less than three minutes into the game: due to our distance from the rink itself, it was hard to see the puck go in the net, and we were left to rely on the reactions of Clifford and his teammates to assure us that the goal had been scored.  The Kings fans in our section - of which there were many - immediately joined along in the joyous moment as confirmation.  Even a goal from the home team, courtesy of Brent Burns just before the opening period ended, didn't elicit the enormous explosion I had expected.  There was no goal horn, just a graphic on the giant scoreboard to incite the celebration:

The rest of the game was very ho-hum, as it was hard for the crowd to sustain any momentum while trying to keep track of the play on the ice.  Honestly, the biggest highlights from this point on were the musical performances during the intermission: John Fogerty delivered a blistering set after the first period, followed by Melissa Etheridge firing up the crowd after the second.  As is our usual custom, Chad and I spent the entire second period walking around the stadium, talking with other fans and taking in the surroundings.  We were back in our seats for the third period, just in time to see Marian Gaborik break the tie, helping the Kings escape with a 2-1 victory.

It was certainly a memorable night, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to witness the occasion - while these outdoor games seem to be quite profitable for the league, I can only wonder how much longer they'll continue to occur.  As a result, I would encourage all hockey fans to make every effort to see the Winter Classic or Stadium Series should either one come to your town - just be prepared for a different type of game, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Don't let Chad's face fool you - he had a great time, he just doesn't like selfies.


Did I mention these outdoor games are making large profits?  Well that would probably have to do with the merchandising, as the fans in attendance were able to purchase a large amount of items emblazoned with the Stadium Series logo - just like on my Hockey Road Trips, I felt compelled to buy a shot glass to commemorate the evening, along with a cool looking puck.

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