You can call the NHL’s outdoor games a big ol’ gimmick (and by and large, you’d be right), but you also can’t deny the spectacle the league creates whenever it stages one of these events. The annual Winter Classic and its ever-increasing portfolio of Stadium Series games are the closest thing the NHL has to the Super Bowl, with massive crowds, a buildup of pregame hype and in-game festivities.
If you’re a hockey fan, I highly recommend checking out this spectacle at least once. Yes, tickets and other things associated with the games are overpriced, and the spectating experience for hockey in a venue way too big for hockey is less than optimal. But trust me when I say that the atmosphere has a way of making up for it.
Mrs. Fan and I have gone twice now, fortunate enough that the team we back, the Los Angeles Kings, has played in a Stadium Series game two years in a row — on the heels of last year’s game at Dodger Stadium, where they proved they could maintain the ice well enough to where the players wouldn’t be swimming by the third period, we traveled north to the Bay Area to check out the Kings and Sharks at the impressive Levi’s Stadium.
A few impressions after a nice weekend trip that, fortunately for us, ended with our team winning the main event:
• First off, while Dodger Stadium with 56,000 fans was pretty cool, Levi’s Stadium with an announced 72,000 made for an even better atmosphere. Kudos to the Sharks and Bay Area fans for really bringing it. It was pretty electric at the start of the game, and at least they got to experience what we Kings fans didn’t last year: a goal by the home team and the chance to see 60,000-plus fans rising in unison. (Seriously, of the handful of Kings fans I talked to before the game, nearly all of them expressed the same sentiment: “I just want to see them score this year.”)
• After having seen an outdoor game in both a football stadium and a baseball stadium, I have to say that football stadiums beat baseball stadiums for this sort of thing hands down. The sight lines are really that much better, I guess because a hockey rink is about the same shape as a football field. I remember last year having to turn my body at a 45-degree angle in my seat to watch the action. No such problems here. Still, though, the novelty typically wears off around the middle of the first period when you realize that no matter where you’re sitting, there are large parts of the rink where you can’t tell what’s going on. (On two of the three goals scored in the game, I didn’t realize the puck had gone into the net until the red light went on and the respective players raised their arms.)
• You might find yourself thinking that all the extra landscaping the NHL does around the rink is useless, even silly, but it beats looking at a worn-out field. For this game, other than the stages for the intermission performers and the pathways for the players that were made to look like walkways at a pirate-themed restaurant, there were man-made lakes with shark fins sticking out of them. One of the best moments of the game for the fans, at least the ones in our section, was when a puck flew out of play and SKIPPED on the lake, like a stone you throw idly when you’re a kid. No matter which team you root for, you can be delighted by mundane things.
• We had heard horror stories about getting in and out of Levi’s Stadium, but I thought that was just confined to people who drove in and parked. Santa Clara County has a light-rail system that most people who don’t live in the region don’t know about, so I thought I was being smart by planning to use light rail. Wrong — we waited half an hour on the platform watching FOUR jam-packed trains go by before we gave up and called an Uber. While we waited for it, a Sharks-fan mother-and-son duo came by and asked if we were calling a cab (“What’s Uber?” she said when we explained what we were actually waiting for. Turned out they came from Canada — don’t they have Uber up there?). In the end, we offered them a ride, and the Uber whisked us over to within walking distance of the stadium, where we bailed out quickly while the car waited at a stoplight. The ride cost us $12, and the Sharks mom gave me a $20 bill for my kindness, meaning that I actually PROFITED from choosing to take an Uber.
We still waited for the light rail after the game, and it turned out to be a two-hour slog through long lines and temporary barriers. Sharks fans and Kings fans weren’t exactly getting along during the game from what I saw, but in that line we bonded over the commonality of being hockey fans enduring the pain of trying to take public transit home. People were legitimately angry. But it was a one-time thing, big deal, right? Well, consider that Super Bowl 50 is being held in this stadium barely 11 months from now.
Safe to say tonight’s #StadiumSeries featured longest VTA train lines in Levi’s Stadium’s brief history. Lesson for Super Bowl 50.
— Mike Rosenberg (@RosenbergMerc) February 22, 2015
So, note to VTA: Might want to get your act together.
• This is probably stating the obvious, but man, sports travel is so much more fun when your team wins. All the knowing nods from the fellow Kings fans on Sunday morning made all the trouble of traveling, going to the game, getting heckled, etc., worth it.
• Mrs. Fan and I both still want to go to a Winter Classic, or maybe a Heritage Classic up in Canada. The two California Stadium Series games were great, but it really doesn’t seem the same without snow.