Commentary

Outdoor success is more than money

Updated: January 25, 2014, 10:06 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- There are a thousand things that go into an outdoor event like the NHL's hotly anticipated all-California bash at Dodger Stadium Saturday night.

In this case, there are celebrities, a sand volleyball court and the rock band Kiss.

But at the very bedrock of this sold out game or frankly any of the NHL's successful outdoor efforts is the players.

That might seem self-evident -- no players, no play -- but bear with us.

It's not just that they show up to these events and play the game they're paid to play. It's that they embrace the events, revel in them in fact.

During the NHL Players' Association annual tours of NHL clubs the one question that is always asked: When do we get to play outdoors?

When will it be our turn?

And the fact is none of this works without the players' desire to participate. If this was a chore, if it was a burden to take part in these events, if the players and coaches believed them to be insincere or cheesy or gimmicky, then it would be apparent and it would be revealed as a completely different animal and all it would have little meaning.

But that's not how it is with these events, which have become one of the league's signature success stories over the past six years.

Don't believe us?

Find some shots or video of the wives and girlfriends and friends and parents who spilled onto the Dodger Stadium ice late Friday after the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks finished their respective practices. There were toddlers and pre-teens and folks who hadn't been on skates for years who wouldn't have missed this for the world.

As Justin Williams made his way back into the Kings' locker room, which is where the Dodgers prepare for their games 81 times every summer in Chavez Ravine, he was followed by his son Jackson sporting a miniature "Williams" jersey and clutching a pint-sized hockey stick.

Somewhere nearby the rest of his family was recuperating from their turn on the ice.

"I think it's been about 20 years since my mom had her skates on," Williams said.

"Family time is usually reserved for holidays and things like that but this is certainly a special occasion. We're all taking advantage of it."

Never far from sight is the fact that Saturday's game has great import for both teams as the Ducks try to continue a spectacular first half that has seen them assemble the NHL's top record, while the Kings try to arrest a mid-season slide.

To be sure, part of the allure of these events is that there is meaning to the outcome. It's not a charade or a demonstration event. It's real.

But a day like Friday with the families' happy voices rising beyond the outfield fences suggests there is time to embrace the moment without losing sight of the importance of the two points.

"There's 82 games in a regular season and this one is obviously just as important with two points on the line, but there's an extra added element that's there. It's kind of an intangible thing that you just want to be a part of. You want to play hard and you want to put on a show for Southern California and the bunch of people that'll be watching," Williams said.

Kings captain Dustin Brown admitted there is a double-edged sword to these kinds of events because there is a danger of losing focus in an ultra-competitive Pacific Division race. But he also acknowledged that having his three boys, wife, brother, sister and brother's kids on the ice with him as dusk fell over Dodger Stadium, well, that's going to be hard to beat.

"That's probably going to be the cool part. Getting the pictures, getting the memories with friends and family, that's the cool part about it," Brown said.

"For my kids, they're almost at the age where they'll definitely remember skating on the outdoor rink at Dodger Stadium. How many kids can have that opportunity to have that memory?"

In the end, Saturday's game is a business proposition.

The players will share in the success as mandated by the collective bargaining agreement. But -- and we hate to horn in on the Grinch's epiphany at the end of the Dr. Seuss classic -- but maybe success doesn't just come from a cash register, maybe success means a little bit more.

"I think if there's anything to prove it's to prove that hockey can be a lot bigger. The business of hockey, the brand of hockey can be a lot bigger," NHL COO John Collins explained as the Kings worked out behind him.

"It's about exposing fans to just how great the sport is and how special these athletes are. And that's what comes through every time you go to one of these events. We said early on it's the first reaction of the players when they come in. They just embrace it, they think it's the greatest thing. They think it's cool. That's sort of the relationship with the fans because the fans love it too."

You don't have to convince defenseman Matt Greene that these are moments to be cherished.

"Unless you're really lucky, this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to play in this kind of setup in this kind of event, especially the first time happening here [in California]," Greene said.

"It's a highlight of our year being able to gear up for this and experience this and to be able to share this with them [family] is pretty cool."

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