STATELINE, Nev. — It was too beautiful.
For a while, it seemed like the NHL couldn’t have asked for better for the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday. Snow had fallen overnight, and it felt like Christmas morning with the pines dusted in white and the grounds covered in a fresh, clean blanket.
By the time the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights appeared for warmup about 11:25 a.m. PT, the sun was out. The scenery was as spectacular as advertised. The Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe gleamed as the background for the rink on the 18th fairway of the golf course at Edgewood Tahoe Resort.
No one had ever seen an NHL game like this.
Problem was, the sun stayed out when the game started at noon PT, despite forecasts calling for partly cloudy skies into midafternoon. The dark logos absorbed the sunlight, deteriorating the top layer of ice despite temperatures in the 30s.
The NHL had to suspend the game in the interest of player safety after the first period with Colorado leading 1-0. The first intermission didn’t end until 9 p.m. PT, under a half-moon with temps in the 20s. In the dark, the view gone except for the lights illuminating the pines, the Avalanche won 3-2.
“We’ve done over 30 outdoor games,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told NBC. “This has been the most difficult weather circumstances we’ve had, and it’s a beautiful day.”
This is not what the NHL envisioned, of course. But when you play outdoors, this is part of the deal. You can’t control the weather. You can only work around it, and even then, you’re at the mercy of meteorologists and ultimately Mother Nature.
The NHL had pushed back start times and delayed play briefly multiple times, including for sun, while playing 30 outdoor games from 2003-20. But this was the first time it was forced to suspend play significantly.
“We’ve been fortunate that to this point we’ve never lost a game,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said.
Each of these events is a risk. Each requires a massive investment in terms of money and manpower.
But the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe, which includes the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday between the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, pushed back from 2 p.m. ET to 7:30 p.m. ET because of sun in the forecast, is even riskier than usual.
It is a product of the coronavirus pandemic. With crowds limited or forbidden across North America, the NHL decided to play outdoors without fans in attendance in a place it never could with fans in attendance.
Without revenue from tickets, concessions and more, it built more infrastructure than usual because a golf course doesn’t have the amenities a stadium does.
And it had one site visit and two months to plan instead of the usual 15-20 site visits and one year to plan.
The whole point was to not just make the best of a bad situation, but to transform a bad situation into something unique and memorable, to give fans a made-for-TV event with a wow factor.
“You can’t have success,” Commissioner Bettman said, “if you don’t risk failure.”
Welp, there was only one thing to do Saturday: Make the best of it again. Wow, anyway.
This is hockey. You overcome adversity, do what you have to do to get the job done. The NHL has dealt with so many delays and disruptions this season because of the coronavirus. Was it going to wilt because of the sun? There’s a reason it brought lights.
The ice crew kept the ice covered until the sun set, then repaired it. The teams warmed back up and played two periods of hard hockey in seclusion. No crowd noise. No artificial crowd noise. Just the natural sounds of the game, music during stoppages and the Vegas mascot clanking his sword on his shield.
It was, well, night and day.
“It was pretty incredible,” Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said. “Kudos to the ice crew and everybody who put this whole event on for us. Obviously, it was a very tough day for those guys dealing with all the problems we had, but the ice was incredible tonight, and overall, it was just a really cool experience. You don’t get the scenic views at night, but for us players, it was definitely still pretty special.”
This summed up everything: NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer, the one overseeing the spectacle, was talking on the phone outside around 8 a.m. PT when he slipped on a patch of ice and hurt his right leg. He kept working through it all until 12 hours later, when he finally visited the X-ray tent.
Diagnosis: spiral fracture of the fibula.
In hockey terms, it was just a lower-body injury. He pulled his boot back over his swollen foot and hobbled to his station in time for the second period. Between the second and third, he was fitted for a walking boot and given crutches. He finished the game without missing a shift, and he’ll be back Sunday too.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said, “but it’s part of the game.”