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Ice Hockey in the Desert

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Updated: 1/23 1:26 pm

There's news for hockey fans these days: a brand new NHL Stadium Series. That's in addition to the NHL Winter Classic and Heritage Classic games, also played outdoors.

The first ever outdoor game between two NHL teams happened in Las Vegas in 1991.  The idea of hockey itself in Las Vegas wasn't all that crazy...there were already franchises being developed in Sun Belt cities.

"But this was outside," says Phil Cooper.  "This was Caesars Palace.  It was the middle of the summer."

Cooper handled media relations for Caesars Palace in the late 80s and early 90s.  And late September of 1991 felt like summer.

"We were concerned," continues Cooper.  "It was 85 degrees that week.  A lot of action.  We had the Kings here.  Wayne Gretzky was here.  Mark Messier. Luc Robitaille, who is now the president of the organization.  Larry Robinson was here, who became a coach."

Sports writer Steve Carp covered the event for the Las Vegas Sun.  "Y'know, how are you gonna pull this off?" he remembers wondering at the time.  "Because you can't control the climate outdoors.  You're at the mercy of Mother Nature."

The event was the brainchild of Kings owner Bruce McNall.

"He had a vision that like Southern Nevada and Las Vegas was Kings territory," says Carp.  "And he wanted to grow the game here and bring in the original six teams like the Rangers to Las Vegas where there's a lot of transplanted New Yorkers.  Made a lot of sense."

"He started talking to the president of Caesars World Sports," adds Cooper.  "And then they cut a deal.  So they had it in 1991."

A newspaper photo at the time shows "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky, observing construction of the rink under a green shade structure.  Cooper says this helped keep things cool and dry until a few hours before face off.  "And it fell down on the ice and all of a sudden there's two inches of water."

Carp remembers maintenance crews flying into action.  "So they quickly had to get the tarp off the ice, and then basically perform CPR on the ice with the Zamboni to save it from cratering out. And the game was in jeopardy for a couple of hours."

A smooth surface was restored. But later with action underway, spot repairs were needed.

The game's TV announcer watched as spot repairs were made using liquid oxygen as a coolant:  "They were out on the ice, and they seem to be concerned about that blue line coming loose a little bit.  It's not that far under the ice."

After that, the game continued smoothly, with standard NHL broadcast chatter.

"No score first period.  There's a pass to Gretzky.  Gretzky in the slot drop it now to Curry...."

Then - another major problem. 

"Grasshoppers!" remembers Carp with a laugh.  "Because they built the rink in the Caesars Palace Stadium where there was grass surrounding the stadium.  And these grasshoppers were attracted by the light.  And when they managed to find themselves on the ice, they froze to death."

"It was like the plague," adds Cooper.  "A plague of locusts."

"It was humorous in one respect, but it was serious in another respect," explains Carp.  "Because you've got guys making millions of dollars--at least in Gretzky's case at the time. 

One player claimed he slipped on a grasshopper while trying to make a goal, but there were no serious injuries.  Between unsure ice and insects, there was a potential for problems.

"But it worked," says Cooper.  "And it was very exciting."

"I think they had like 13-thousand people show up," remembers Carp.  "And they were in to it.  The Kings won I think 5 to 2.  Gretzky scored a goal!"

Outdoor NHL action in Las Vegas September heat has never been tried again.   These days Steve Carp writes for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Phil Cooper is Marketing Director for MGM Resorts.

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