The League announced a new event Monday: the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe, two regular-season games on the south shore of North America’s largest alpine lake against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada.
The Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights will play in the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday on Feb. 20 (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN1, TVAS). The Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers will play in the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday on Feb. 21 (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN1, TVAS).
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The rink will be on the 18th fairway of the golf course at Edgewood Tahoe Resort near the California-Nevada border in Stateline, Nevada, the site of the American Century Championship since 1990 and the host of the 1985 U.S. Senior Open and 1980 U.S. Amateur Public Links.
“We always talk about pond hockey,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “It’s always been the basis of why we play our outdoor games, and [this idea] always has been something on the shelf.”
The history of modern NHL outdoor games traces to “Mystery, Alaska,” the 1999 film starring Russell Crowe in which the New York Rangers play outdoors against an amateur team in an Alaskan town.
The film inspired Michigan State to host Michigan outdoors at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan, on Oct. 6, 2001. The game drew a crowd of 74,544, then the world record for hockey.
That inspired the NHL, which has staged 30 outdoor games since 2003, drawing more than 1.6 million fans to baseball and football stadiums across North America, including several iconic venues such as Fenway Park, Notre Dame Stadium and Wrigley Field.
“Ever since we began staging outdoor games in 2003 and made it a regular feature of our annual schedule in 2008, we have considered myriad nonstadium settings, but they always were rendered impractical because of the sheer volume of demand from our fans to attend,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The coronavirus pandemic changed the equation.
The 2019-20 season was paused March 12. As the NHL and NHL Players’ Association formulated the Return to Play Plan, a 24-team tournament with no fans in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto from Aug. 1-Sept. 28, the NHL resurrected the nonstadium idea because it looked like it wouldn’t be able to have full stadiums for its 2021 events.
“The games in stadiums work so brilliantly because of the experience,” Mayer said. “To play them in empty stadiums just wouldn’t make any sense. So (NHL senior executive vice president) Keith Wachtel was the one that said, ‘I think our sponsors would really get behind the concept as they are always supportive of our platforms, especially something as unique as this. Why don’t we explore it?’ I was like, ‘Yes. Let’s do it.'”
The NHL ended up having to postpone the 2021 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues, scheduled for Target Field in Minneapolis on Jan. 1, and the 2021 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series featuring the Carolina Hurricanes, scheduled for Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Feb. 20.
“It lined up, like, ‘Hmmm. If we’re ever going to do it, this is the year,'” Mayer said.
The questions became where, when and how, with safety amid the pandemic a priority.
Mayer said the setting had to be “majestic,” with a lake and mountains.
“You close your eyes, and that’s what you keep on seeing,” Mayer said. “And so, could we find an area that would lend itself to that vision? I think we all had seen the movie ‘Mystery, Alaska.’ … We just sort of had this imagery of this spectacular outdoors and embracing the environment and the wilderness, just a bunch of guys playing for the love of the game, you know?”
The NHL considered Lake Louise, Alberta; Grand Lake, Colorado; Park City, Utah; and Stanley, Idaho. It considered Jan. 1. But Lake Tahoe checked all the boxes, and with the regular season starting Jan. 13, the best dates became Feb. 20-21.
The Edgewood Tahoe Resort will become its own bubble. Only those credentialed will be permitted through the gates. Everyone will be tested and adhere to strict protocols. Teams and staff members will not be permitted to leave the grounds during their stay.
“It’s a very protected environment,” Mayer said.
The lake will not be frozen. The NHL could not play on the lake even if it were because of safety and competitive standards. But by building a regulation rink on the 18th fairway on the shoreline amid the scenery, it will get as close as it can.
“Yes, we’re going to be on a golf course, but you will not be able to tell with how picturesque everything will be,” Mayer said. “There will be no signs of that at all.”
The NHL will build everything needed for an NHL game but, by design, little else. It will create locker rooms that feel like wooden cabins; the players will shower at the hotel. The scoreboard will be retro.
“The whole idea is for the teams to make their way to the rink and be isolated,” Mayer said. “There will be around it some infrastructure, but we’re not building a stadium. There will be no areas for fans to sit and watch. We’re going to really protect the area from people.
“And we’re going to let them play.”