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The night they made hockey history in Vegas

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Vegas Golden Knights, LA Kings, outdoor game

With the Vegas Golden Knights well established in the NHL and ready to begin their fifth season in the league, Monday marks an important date in the city’s hockey history.

On Sept. 27, 1991, the NHL staged an exhibition game outdoors at Caesars Palace. Today is the 30th anniversary of that memorable event which laid the foundation for a franchise to one day represent the city of Las Vegas.

That night, Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers faced off before more than 13,000 on a makeshift rink in the back of the hotel-casino’s property that was usually the site for major boxing cards. Anyone who wa in attendance that night, either as a player, an official, a member of the media or a spectator won’t ever forget it.

“I think that was the first real introduction to hockey in Las Vegas,” said Rich Rose, who was then-president of Caesars World Sports and the mastermind for staging the outdoor game. “The (Las Vegas) Thunder; the Wranglers of the ECHL, Bill Foley and the Vegas Golden Knights, all of that came from that outdoor game.”

Las Vegas had semipro hockey for years playing at the old Commercial Center rink on East Sahara Avenue, about two miles from the Las Vegas Strip. But in 1991, there was no illusion of the NHL expanding to Las Vegas. The city’s penchant for legalized sports betting, including NHL games, put any notion of a team calling the town home to rest right away. 

The other doom factor was there was no suitable place for a hockey team to play.

Still, Rose was undeterred. He reached out to the NHL and for three years, he was met with resistance to his idea of an outdoor game at a casino.

But Kings then-owner Bruce McNall wanted to roll the dice and get the Southern Nevada market to be part of his team’s fan base. Prime Ticket, which televised Kings games throughout Southern California, was also available in Las Vegas. And when Rose met him in Los Angeles and explained his plan, McNall was on board.

“Without Bruce McNall, there is no game at Caesars Palace,” Rose said Monday, reflecting back on the process to pull this off. “He had just been elected head of the NHL’s Board of Governors and he carried a lot of weight with the other owners. He also had (Wayne) Gretzky and he was really trying to grow the game in his market.”

A lot of work went into staging the exhibition game and it all nearly went for naught. Early in the afternoon of the game, a protective tarp that hovered over the ice to keep it from melting wound up on the ice itself and the heat retained by the covering quickly melted the surface. It took some quick thinking and hard work to save the ice — and the game.

There were no dressing rooms per se. The teams dressed in convention room areas and marched past the pool to the rink. And being late September in Las Vegas, it was still hot, so skating in full equipment wasn’t exactly comfortable.

The game itself was typical preseason stuff. The Rangers had an early 2-0 lead before the Kings stormed back and eventually prevailed, 5-2.

Of course, not many games deal with grasshoppers. The ice was covered in critters as the coldness was attractive to them, especially with the air temperature at 85 degrees. 

Luc Robitaille, the current Kings president, played in the game for L.A. 

”It was a lot of fun that night for the players,” he said. “The thing I remember was the grasshoppers jumping on the ice. But it was a great experience. The fans really got into it.”

I covered the game for the Las Vegas Sun. And being a former hockey player, I got to skate on the ice the day before, passing the puck and shooting at the net with Dave Taylor of the Kings. The ice was actually pretty good. The rink, which was 192 feet long, was shorter than the standard 200 feet because the stands at either end of the site couldn’t be moved far enough back to accommodate the extra eight feet of length. The 85-foot width was no problem.

 And once they got the ice playable, it was a heck of an event. Gretzky and the Kings vs. the Rangers, an Original Six team. In Vegas. Outside. In front of a raucous crowd. 

“My bosses, Henry Gluck and Terry Lanni, loved it,” Rose said. “Nobody had done it. We got so much exposure from the outdoor game and of all the things that I’ve been privileged to do in my 10 years at Caesars, including bringing the Davis Cup tennis and all the big boxing matches, the outdoor hockey game was the signature moment.”

Today, the NHL plays multiple outdoor games each season, sometimes in unique settings. Last year, the Golden Knights played the Colorado Avalanche in a rink constructed on a golf course adjacent to Lake Tahoe only to have the ice deteriorate due to — guess what? — the sun. They finished the game late in the evening.

Rose said he’d like to think that night 30 years ago in the back of a casino helped create the phenomenon that’s today’s NHL Winter Classic and Stadium Series events.

“There were so many obstacles we had to overcome, so many people who doubted us,” Rose said. “Somehow, we pulled it off. Now we have an NHL team and I think we became a major league city that night outdoors at Caesars Palace.”

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