I hadn’t lived in this city for more than a month when a shouting match erupted as I walked through my new neighborhood one afternoon. I looked up to see a man running away from a woman on a sidewalk in front of a newsstand across the street. Something was odd about the unfolding scene, however: Both the man and the woman were badly overdressed for the weather, and the man wasn’t running very fast. He stopped when he could go no further. A couple more strides, and he would have run into the cameraman.
The scene was exactly that: A scene. This was a novel diversion for me on a sunny afternoon — a real welcome-to-the-neighborhood moment. Of course for the two actors, the cameraman, the extras, the director and the best boy, this was considered work. Creating this fleeting fantasy was their job.
For someone who spends his workday on set, it makes sense that hockey offers the perfect getaway. The fights are real, the body checks are real, the blood and the stitches and the speed — all real. That’s not news; it’s the essence of hockey. It’s why everyone likes the sport. You don’t need to be an actor to appreciate it, but maybe it helps. I often see actors at Los Angeles Kings games, and not just the usual suspects — Matthew Perry, Pat Sajak and Cuba Gooding Jr. seem to have a contractual agreement with the video-board operators at Staples Center.
Gooding and Sajak were there when a red carpet was rolled out inside the bowels of Dodger Stadium Saturday. So were Alyssa Milano, Kevin Connolly, Jon Hamm and others. The occasion: The first outdoor NHL game in Southern California.
The red carpet was a cliché, predictable symbol of Los Angeles, and that might have been the only cliché that didn’t make it to the NBC Sports Network or CBC broadcasts. The NHL was on a mission to pack as many gimmicks as it could into one baseball park for three hours. Here’s how I described the pregame chaos in the Los Angeles Daily News:
In left field, a group of beach volleyball players rallied on a standard sand court. In right field, the band KISS took over a stage for concerts before the game and during the first intermission. Between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, a pint-sized street hockey rink played host to the first hockey ever at Dodger Stadium — among local kids dressed in Kings and Ducks sweaters.
The patches of grass in between supported all sorts of shenanigans: People tossing frisbees, beach balls and footballs, skaters on roller skates, skateboarders on skateboards — even a group of women stretching in yoga poses.
A league spokesperson said the goal was to paint a representative picture of hockey in Southern California. The local kids playing street hockey were real, and their pick-up game was certainly representative. The Ducks’ Emerson Etem and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Beau Bennett both played on the streets of Southern California before reaching the NHL. So have a number of minor leaguers, junior hockey prospects and collegians who hope to make it to the NHL some day. Also real: the thousands of pucks and sticks that the league has donated to kids since 1994 through the NHL Street program.
The rest of it made for good spectacle, but it was also dangerously inauthentic. It was too easy for the show and the message to become conflated, especially to an outsider. Yes, people like to skateboard and throw flimsy inflated balls from the 99 Cent store around Southern California’s beaches. This was also at least 45 minutes from the closest beach. Generally speaking, when someone here attends a hockey game — get this — they go to see a hockey game. They take their Kings or Ducks sweater along and they leave the beach ball at home. Hockey here is a needed diversion from the surreal nature of work or the reality of life, which applies to hockey fans everywhere.
Sean McIndoe, writing for Grantland.com, conflated the show and the message. He first went to great lengths to identify himself as a proud Canadian, full of indignation over the coexistence of hockey and everything else on the field, then slowly comes around:
Mixed in with the Dodger Dogs and life-size bobbleheads were beach volleyball, and yoga, and a rock concert. The game’s organizers didn’t even try to copy the classic hockey tropes that have become the trademarks of the other outdoor games. There was no pond hockey; instead, there was ball hockey, played on a small rink at home plate. In right field, a pyro-packed stage hosted a pair of Kiss performances.
And yes, in left, there was the beach volleyball court. At first, the traditionalists wondered if it were some sort of joke. Beach volleyball during an NHL game? Was Los Angeles mocking us?
Maybe. Or maybe it was just accepting reality. Maybe it was a nod to the idea that L.A. will never be Montreal, and shouldn’t need to try.
An outdoor hockey game as something fun, instead of a quasi-religious experience?
I guessed that could work. Maybe.
Here’s one insider’s take: By staging beach volleyball during an NHL game, it seemed more like the league was mocking Los Angeles. I mean, why not go all-out? Was there really no room for a scaled-down version of Cahuenga Peak with a HOLLYWOOD sign sitting in the Dodgers’ bullpen? How about a fake Griffith Observatory in the visitors’ bullpen? Maybe the Goodyear blimp floating overhead, the lights reading “Ice Cube’s A Pimp?” No, L.A. will never be Montreal, but last time I checked no one ever confused the two cities. Hockey has its own thing going here. So does beach volleyball. Saturday might have been the only time they ever shared the same space. It was a weird sight — not a familiar one, as an outsider might have easily inferred1.
All of that shouldn’t ignore the bigger picture — that is, that the event was a success. As I rode the Dodger Stadium elevator back to the parking lot, a colleague and I got to talking about where the next outdoor game in Southern California should be held. The dasher boards hadn’t even been taken down at that point, but we were ready to do it all over again.
I realize that without the broadcast money, the game doesn’t get played. And without the pyrotechnics, the grown men in black-and-white makeup playing guitars, and all the other frills, the TV experience might border on dull. But please, let Los Angeles stereotype itself. We’re doing plenty between our smog, our traffic, our marijuana dispensaries and our Lap Band billboards. Message to the NHL: keep your made-for-TV gimmicks and give us the hockey. We’ll be just fine.
1. McIndoe was joking when he implied that the Glenn Anderson freeway was named after a hockey player and not a local politician, right?