NHL should return to great outdoors
It would be an attention-getting, day-long carnival. In most ways, it would be a significant departure from the National Hockey League norm. In others, it would be an elemental return to the game's roots.
"It" is outdoor hockey, another example of which will be played out Saturday, albeit on the NCAA level, at one of the United States' most storied sporting facilities.
Cue up the memory of John Facenda, the sonorous voice of NFL Films.
The game will be played "On Frozen Tundra."
The Wisconsin Badgers and Ohio State Buckeyes, who have played so many significant games over the years, will meet in hockey's Frozen Tundra Classic at the Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field, temporarily reconfigured to seat about 41,000, yet with tailgating and bratwursts still all but mandatory.
They even could call it "Ice Bowl II" and have Bart Starr and Jethro Pugh contest in the ceremonial opening faceoff.
Of course, it is reminiscent of the Nov. 22, 2003, spectacle at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, where 57,167 watched the Canadiens beat the Oilers 4-3 in frigid conditions. Because of the extreme cold, ice conditions were shaky because the surface chipped so easily. And the enduring memory for many is Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore wearing a toque, or stocking cap, over the top of his mask as his breath came in cloudy bursts.
Also, on Oct. 6, 2001, Michigan and Michigan State played to a 3-3 tie before a world-record crowd of 74,554 at East Lansing's Spartan Stadium.
So could Saturday's game in Lambeau be a dress rehearsal, or at least a model, for future NHL stadium games, whether outdoors in football or baseball stadiums, or less revolutionary, at a covered stadium along the lines of Detroit's Ford Field?
Mike Clayton, general manager of Ice Rink Events, took a break from overseeing the installation of the ice sheet in Lambeau Field, with the ghosts of Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau peering over his shoulder, to address that possibility.
"I don't think anybody would go on the record right now, but there are five major-league stadiums and clubs, both in baseball and football, looking at the possibility of hosting such events in their stadiums," Clayton said from Green Bay. "A couple involve NHL games, a couple involve college."
Bring them on, whether Avalanche-Red Wings in Denver's Invesco Field or Coors Field; Sabres-Maple Leafs at Ralph Wilson Stadium; Red Wings-Maple Leafs at Ford Field or, better, Comerica Park; Flyers-Rangers at Lincoln Financial Field; or a stadium game in any one of the other five Canadian cities.
Imagine the possibilities.
Done right, it would be both a major headache and a huge boost for the NHL. Done wrong, it merely would be a curiosity, along the lines of when the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning opened up shop in the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg, Fla.
As a one-shot, once-every-few-years carnival, kind of like the Olympics minus the Opening Ceremony, it could work and be invigorating for the league. Heck, even some of the major media members, who don't pay any attention to winter Olympic sports unless they involve an Olympiad junket, might show up for a stadium NHL game.
Oilers president and chief executive officer Patrick LaForge oversaw the 2003 Heritage Classic, a wonderful -- albeit chilly -- festival that also involved a great alumni game. Even over two years later, it's as if everyone remaining in the organization still is catching collective breaths.
"I think there always will be a market for fans to watch a game of hockey played outdoors, whether college hockey in this case, in Green Bay, or pro hockey," LaForge said. "It's a fun thing to do. It's a fun idea. But to have a whopper of a game, a big one like that, is something else.
"We've have lots of people talk to us about trying to do it again. The weather is quite stable. It's known to be cold or colder, so you don't have to be worried about not being able to hold the ice in the winter. ... We've been talking about with some of the guys who were in it before, and they say, 'What's the reason this time? We know you guys did it because it was the 25th anniversary of the hockey club.' So we're saying we've got our 30th anniversary coming up, two or three years down the road, so we can think about that and find a reason to do something similar.
"But the organization doesn't have it on our radar yet. We just about had to shut down the company when that was over, because it's almost like doing two seasons in one year."
The technology, for the most part, has been around for several decades, and was even tapped for Kings outdoor games in desert temperatures at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The ice wasn't great there, of course, but Clayton said the sheet still can be good at temperatures up to about 55 degrees, taking some of the risk out of staging games where the outdoor temperatures can fluctuate and become unpredictable, even in the dead of winter.
The latest innovations are part of Calmac Manufacturing's IceMat II system, which Ice Rink Events is using in Green Bay. Clayton said Ice Rink Events will install about 40 ice sheets this year, most of them temporary and recreational sheets, but the potential for facilitating more outdoor hockey games is there.
"It's very feasible," Clayton said. "It's gotten a lot more economically possible. Our system is very modular that only features a five-day install and about a three-day out, so it takes out a limited amount of time in arenas and stadiums. It's not something that's going to take a month to put in and three weeks to get out, when you tie up a lot of dates.
"The main issue is how does it affect the field and are we going to negatively affect the stadium or the primary sport that's played there. It does not. The stadium groundskeepers will have to be the final judge. Here, there's natural turf and a heating system under it, and we're treating it very carefully."
Beginning the process in Green Bay last Saturday, Clayton's company put down a level plywood base, a significant move because Lambeau's field has a crown, and then essentially made the rink a stage. It involves approximately 32 miles of tubing, 2,200 gallons of antifreeze solution kept at a temperature of 10 degrees, and applying the water that freezes.
"We're rocking and rolling," Clayton said with a chuckle.
Other outdoor and indoor stadium games will follow. Boston College officials indicated this week that the school is hoping to finalize plans to play an outdoor game at Fenway Park in December, perhaps as part of a doubleheader that would also include Boston University. Detroit is scheduled to play host to the 2010 Frozen Four in Ford Field, which might nudge NCAA hockey closer to parity with basketball -- at least in terms of routinely staging the national championships in larger-than-arena settings, which is not necessarily a good thing. Indoor stadium hockey can be invigorating but certainly lacks the charm of both players and fans braving the elements in something other than national-title atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin-Ohio State matchup involves schools with a long history of playing in other sports in the Big Ten Conference. But this will be a nonleague game, because the Badgers, led by Toronto draft choice and Los Angeles native Robbie Earl, play in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and the Buckeyes are in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
The attendance won't threaten the record set by the Michigan-Michigan State game that featured several future NHL players. Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller and Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles both played for Michigan State that day.
"It dropped down to 30 degrees for the game, and it was pretty much perfect," Liles recalled. "It's funny when you feel the wind in your face when you're not skating and your jersey is flapping when you're not moving. [Mike] Modano's jersey flaps when he skates, but nobody else's really does. And then all of a sudden, you're out there in the middle of the ice, and your jersey is flapping, and you're thinking, 'Geez, this is unbelievable.'
"It was the best ice we played on all year, it was so hard. It was chippy, but it was hard and really fast, so it was great. The whole thing was like a carnival, with concerts and a ton of stuff going on. There were fireworks and then during the game, Ryan Miller wore eyeblack, and we tied it up with something like 40 seconds left and the place went absolutely bonkers. I just sat back after the game, I was so drained emotionally."
The NHL should pay attention to what happens at Lambeau Field on Saturday and then give "it" another try.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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