NHL Lake Tahoe event bringing hockey to the middle of the wilderness

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STATELINE, Nev. — Fifty paces. That’s the distance from the closest corner of the rink to Lake Tahoe. That’s it.

Put your back against the boards and walk to the water. Thirty paces, and your feet are on the beach. Twenty more, and they’re wet.

“I think what’s pretty cool is, you’re standing on the rink, we’re making ice, and you look over the boards, and there’s a lake there,” NHL senior manager of facilities operations Derek King said Monday. “So this is a gorgeous spot.”

Tour the site of the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe, and two things jump out: the simple, timeless beauty that brought this event here and the complex, modern infrastructure it will take to pull it off.

Though it will celebrate pond hockey with no fans in attendance, it won’t be pond hockey this weekend when the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights play in the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS) and the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers play in the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, SN1, TVAS).

These will be two real regular-season games, all the more important with the season shortened from 82 to 56 games amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“The thought of this event was a rink kind of in the middle of the wilderness,” NHL executive vice president of events Dean Matsuzaki said. “Well, unfortunately, you do need a certain amount of [infrastructure] to support all of these things.”

The scenery is everything you’d expect and then some at Edgewood Tahoe Resort on the California-Nevada border.

With your back to the rink facing Lake Tahoe, it’s like there’s no rink at all. There is only the water, unfrozen, waves chopping in the wind, and the Sierra Nevada on the far side. The tan of the sand, the blue of the water and the white of the snowy mountains provide different vistas hour to hour, depending on the time of day, the cloud cover and the light.

Just like when John Muir wrote about it more poetically almost 150 years ago.

“Tahoe is surely not one but many,” the naturalist wrote in a letter Nov. 3, 1873. “As I curve around its heads and bays and look far out on its level sky fairly tinted and fading in pensive air, I am reminded of all the mountain lakes I ever knew, as if this were a kind of water heaven to which they all had come.”

The infrastructure is everything the NHL needs but nothing it doesn’t.

The League couldn’t find a frozen lake somewhere, put up boards and glass, and play a couple of games.

“Putting it on a lake would be great,” King said with a laugh. “I think that would save us a lot of time.”

The ice has to be up to NHL standards, so the League is building the rink on the 18th fairway of the golf course at Edgewood Tahoe Resort. 

King said the ice crew had laid about three-quarters of an inch as of Monday afternoon and planned to paint it white late Monday night or early Tuesday morning. By the time it’s ready for practices Friday, it will have lines and logos and will be almost 2 inches thick.

“We’re going to do everything we can to provide the best quality sheet,” King said.

Everything else has to be up to NHL standards too, but because this game is on a golf course, not in a baseball or football stadium like other outdoor games, everything has had to be built from scratch. 

On the side of the rink facing Lake Tahoe, the NHL is building a TV tower so the cameras can capture the action and the views. In front of the TV tower will be a small tent that will house video replay and tech support.

Flanking the TV tower are two tents that will house GM booths, the off-ice officials who record real-time statistics, and the game production crew. They will be made to look woodsy. NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer is calling them collectively “the chalet.”

Behind them are two tents that will serve as the locker rooms, complete with lockers; training, medical and equipment areas; and restrooms. The only thing they won’t have is showers. The players will have to clean up at their hotel.

“I do think the players are going to be pretty surprised by it all,” Matsuzaki said. “My recommendation is that they come over in more warmups. Don’t come off the bus in a suit like you show up at the arena. Come in your warmups.”

There is a medical tent with an X-ray machine. Then there is a small village of tents and office trailers, the Mobile Refrigeration Unit and generators, all on thousands of square feet of plastic decking to protect the turf as much as possible.

“I think the players’ first reaction is going to be pretty much excitement getting off the bus,” Matsuzaki said. “They’ll hit the locker rooms first, and you still can’t see the rink from where the locker rooms are. And there will still be a real curiosity factor, I think.

“We often see, even in the stadiums, guys come out before they’ve really dressed in their equipment. When they see the rink and the mountains and the water, I think they’re going to love it.”

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