Lake Tahoe outdoor games present unique challenge for NHL

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STATELINE, Nev. — The NHL sent seven people to Edgewood Tahoe Resort in mid-December to scout for a potential outdoor event. When they reached the 18th fairway of the golf course on the south shore of Lake Tahoe, it was love at first sight.

“You had us at hello,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “We walked out to where the location happens to be, and we just took a quick look around, and we were like, ‘We’re gonna make this work. We are going to make this work.’ ” 

The ice crew was hard at work when the sun rose Tuesday, the Sierra Nevada bright white and the waves rippling on a clear, calm morning, setting the stage for the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe this weekend.

The Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights will play in the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS) and the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers in the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS).

But perhaps the most unique event in NHL history has come with unique challenges, and it started from the beginning. 

“It was the most unique site visit we’ve ever done,” NHL executive vice president of events Dean Matsuzaki said.

This event is a product of the coronavirus pandemic. With crowds limited to varying degrees across North America, the NHL decided to pursue the long-held dream of playing a game in the wilderness to celebrate the most romantic of the game’s roots.

This event is also being held amid the pandemic, which means all the planning and production have had to take place amid strict COVID-19 protocols and on a severely shortened time frame.

The NHL usually makes 15 to 20 site visits across all departments and has a year to plan for an outdoor event. This time, the first site visit was the only site visit, and the League had two months to plan.

The seven-person scouting party spent two days at Edgewood Tahoe Resort, based out of a meeting room large enough for social distancing.

“Every meeting happened in there when we weren’t outside looking,” Matsuzaki said. “We ate every meal in that room, because we couldn’t go to restaurants.”

The first priority was the location of the rink. They laid out the four corners of the deck on which the rink would sit to confirm that it would work, and they took a lot of photos and measurements.

But they couldn’t take photos and measurements of everything, and so much goes into an NHL game beyond the rink itself. And when you’re on a golf course for the first time, you lack many of the things you had while staging 30 outdoor games in stadiums since 2003, from locker rooms to electrical outlets.

“We didn’t have as much time, and we just didn’t concentrate on [the rest of the infrastructure] as much,” Matsuzaki said. “And then as we started laying the plans out, ‘Well, we need two locker rooms. We need a storage tent. We need office trailers.’ You start thinking of all those other things we need, and then we started placing them.”

Unable to make more site visits because of the need to reduce travel, NHL officials relied on maps, satellite imagery and Zoom calls with representatives from Edgewood Tahoe Resort.

They laid out thousands of square feet of tents and office trailers and tried to do it in a way that would reduce the impact on the golf course as much as possible, working around greens, sand traps, water features and trees.

There were inevitable surprises when the NHL arrived in early February to start building.

“We didn’t really know that that tree was exactly right where we thought it was until we got here,” Mayer said.

They had planned to bring the Mobile Refrigeration Unit and generators the size of semitrailers down a cart path to their parking spot on what is normally the driving range, but they discovered they couldn’t go that route because of low tree branches.

“We had to build a whole different roadway to get them into where they needed to go,” Matsuzaki said. “So those are the kind of things that we’re doing on the fly.”

There have been more surprises than usual. Take the wind Monday. It was howling off the lake, and there were no stands to block it.

“Things still come up [in stadiums], but you’ve usually dealt with them before,” Matsuzaki said. ” ‘How did we solve this in the last football stadium?’ But this is all new territory for us.”

In the last football stadium, they didn’t have to solve problems while wearing masks and social distancing, either. The daily planning meeting across all NHL departments is being held via Zoom, even though many people on the call are now on site.

But they’re making it work.

“We looked at this as a challenge, but [it’s] a challenge that right now hasn’t been a problem at all,” Mayer said. “We’re building out what we think is going to be a spectacular event.”

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