Dodger Stadium game should be special

LOS ANGELES -- We were asked recently about how the NHL follows up the tremendous success of the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., with its litter of outdoor games -- the first of which goes Saturday at Dodger Stadium.

In short, what does the NHL do for an encore after the the frigid, snowy, almost idyllic Winter Classic game on Jan. 1?

That’s one way to look at it, but it’s not necessarily the right way or the only way.

Looking down on the Dodger Stadium field on Wednesday afternoon as Dan Craig’s ice crew rolled the special tarps that have been protecting the ice surface in the middle of the historic baseball field from the unusually hot California sun, we were once again struck by the notion that "outdoor game" is just the start in explaining these events.

Yes, Saturday’s tilt between the host Los Angeles Kings and their neighbors the Anaheim Ducks is one of six outdoor games this season. There’ll be two more in the coming days at Yankee Stadium in New York, one in Chicago, one in Vancouver.

But as picture-perfect as Toronto’s shootout win on Jan. 1 was -- with a record number of people in the stands and watching on television seemed to agree -- there is something equally inspiring about this sheet of ice and the space it shares with the Dodgers’ famed interlocking "L" and "A," a sand volleyball court and roller-hockey rink.

What made the Winter Classic games at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park so special? It was the marriage of iconic locations with a different game, the NHL’s game, the juxtaposition of the different elements. Among active MLB parks, only Wrigley and Fenway are older than Dodger Stadium, which has been home to the Los Angeles Dodgers since 1962.

Look one way and you see the San Gabriel Mountains, look another and you see fabled downtown Los Angeles.

Look down and there’s a sheet of ice. How does that happen?

I kept waiting for the gang from "L.A. Confidential" to roar up in their sedans and give Craig and his crew the third degree about what they were doing putting this giant slab of ice smack dab in the middle of their town.

After a media skate early Wednesday evening, a disparate group of league and team officials, actors and media personalities, including Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, Kings’ assistant general manager Rob Blake, actor Cuba Gooding Jr. and others took the ice for a game of shinny.

While the puck moved up and down the ice, Craig took off his skates and admitted it has been a challenge, especially after the success in Ann Arbor.

“The toughest part of this in Ann Arbor,” Craig told ESPN.com. "I would say that was the best sheet of ice we have produced on an outdoor game anywhere and now, all of a sudden two weeks later, I’ve got to come here. So the bar is set pretty high for me to accept."

We joked about what level of sunblock Craig and his crew were using in California, but they have been on the night shift building this sheet of ice.

“I’m never out in the sun,” he said. "Honest. I’m not."

Neither is the sheet of ice, as it turns out.

“I don’t even know how to compare it [to the Winter Classic in Michigan] other than night and day,” Craig said. "Literally. Because we can’t take the tarp off before 4 o’clock in the afternoon."

We skated in the media skate with longtime NHL netminder Brian Hayward, who is now a broadcast analyst for the Ducks. He predicted that Saturday’s game might be the best of the outdoor games because there would be no precipitation to alter the play and the night temperatures in theory should produce pristine ice conditions, allowing for the two teams to play the style of game they would normally play.

Craig seems happy with what the temperatures are telling him and what he has seen of his frozen work thus far.

“The thing is, at night, around midnight, we’re right around the 50-degree mark,” Craig said. "It gets chilly. You don’t realize how chilly 50 degrees is until you’re out here for a while. Everything reacts totally different."

“What will happen is you will see it get better and better as the night goes on. And that’s the whole thing. Here we are right now, what time are we? Six, 5:30? We’re at warmup right now. We still have another 35, 40 minutes before we drop the puck in a real game.”

Craig looked at his mobile device to get the current ice readings.

“I can tell you right now we’re almost to 60 degrees outside," he said. "As long as I can get to the 60 by the end of the first period, in fact over on the side it’s 55.8 degrees over on the other side right now; 55.7 over in that corner.

“You can’t get better than that and that’s all that we ask. Put our best foot forward and give everybody a good surface to play on and the fans to enjoy the event."

Earlier this week, ESPN's Craig Custance lamented that the NHL didn’t wait and host a Winter Classic here. He might be onto something.

The NHL and the Washington Capitals are going to have to come up with different strategies and outlooks to continue to elevate next year's Winter Classic at Nationals Park to that "special" status given that park’s lack of historic significance.

After just a few hours hanging around Dodger Stadium, walking by the trophy cases with the golden gloves and retired jerseys, then hearing the familiar cry of "next goal wins" from the game of shinny a few hundred feet away, hard not to imagine this is a pretty good encore after all.