LOS ANGELES -- When Wayne Gretzky walked out of the dugout club at Dodger Stadium on Saturday night, he looked out onto the field and smiled when he saw the hockey rink built between first and third base and the adjacent street hockey rink built in front of the pitcher's mound.
Gretzky was flanked by his wife, Janet, and his children, Paulina, Emma, Tristan, Ty and Trevor. When Gretzky first arrived in Los Angeles in 1988 after being traded to the Los Angeles Kings from the Edmonton Oilers, he never could have envisioned watching a hockey game at a sold-out Dodger Stadium. Just the thought of another NHL team being in nearby Anaheim was beyond comprehension back then.
Then again, so was the thought of seeing hundreds of street hockey rinks like the one built at Dodger Stadium becoming commonplace throughout Southern California. "My first year in L.A. we were living in the [San Fernando] Valley, and we used to go by this set of tennis courts," Gretzky said. "I remember we were stopped at this traffic light one time, and I said to my wife, 'You know, back home, kids were playing inline hockey or ball hockey on these tennis courts.' I didn't think much of it, and two years later, I went by the same tennis court and there was a sign that said, 'No ball hockey allowed.' I remember thinking, 'We've come a long way.'"
Well, 20 years later, hockey is continuing to come further than Gretzky ever thought it would in Los Angeles. When Gretzky first arrived in the city, he went to a few Dodgers games, sat in the stands and watched Tommy Lasorda and Fernando Valenzuela. On Saturday night, as the Anaheim Ducks beat the Kings 3-0 in front of 54,099 at Dodger Stadium, Lasorda and Valenzuela, along with Vin Scully, were the ones in the stands watching hockey take center stage at Chavez Ravine.
"I never thought we'd have a hockey game at Dodger Stadium," Lasorda said. "It's really incredible."
The Kings and Ducks are well past the respect stage when it comes to their places in the NHL. The Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, and the Ducks won in 2007. The Kings have been in the playoffs the past four seasons, and the Ducks currently have the best record in the NHL by a comfortable margin. But there was something different about Saturday's installment of the NHL's Stadium Series.
If there was any doubt that Southern California was a serious hockey market, Saturday should have forever quieted those critics. Sure, there was a beach volleyball court in left field, a stage for KISS to perform on in right field and a red carpet for celebrities to talk to the entertainment media behind home plate. Hey, it's Hollywood. But die-hard hockey fans arrived four hours before the start of the game and packed every seat of the stadium by the time the puck was dropped.
Nothing can duplicate the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Saturday came close and probably did just as much to validate Los Angeles as a hockey town as any playoff win.
Brad Sholl is the manager of the Kings' practice facility in El Segundo, Calif., and a former youth hockey player in the Los Angeles area who moved to Grand Prairie, Alberta, to play hockey as a teenager. He said his facility is booked solid, youth hockey is booming and Saturday night was a reflection of the growth of the game locally.
"It's just amazing to me," he said. "To me, it's the second-most important game in Kings history after Game 6 [of the Stanley Cup finals] at Staples Center in 2012."
Many of the former Kings who helped kick-start the popularity of the sport more than 20 years ago were in attendance Saturday to watch how far it has come since they led the Kings to their first Stanley Cup berth in 1993. Scattered throughout Dodger Stadium were Luc Robitaille, who is now the president of business operations for the Kings, Kelly Hrudey, Rob Blake, Marty McSorley and Barry Melrose.
"I was a piece of the group that was part of stamping hockey in this area," Gretzky said. "It was the right group of guys, from Luc to Marty McSorley to Kelly Hrudey to Tony Granato. Each and every guy understood that this was a different market than other markets throughout the NHL, and each guy went up and beyond the call of duty to go and promote the sport and get kids interested and get more and more youth involved in our sport."
The youth of the sport was on display before Saturday's game and in between periods as participants from the Ducks' and Kings' NHL Street hockey programs scrimmaged on the street hockey rink adjacent to the NHL rink.
"It's a great game and people love to watch it, and people love watching their kids play," Gretzky said. "That was the most important thing in growing the sport: getting kids to participate in our sport because then their parents want to watch their kids play, and then they want to go to NHL games and that's how it all got going."
Saturday was a big step in not only the growth of hockey in Southern California but showcasing that growth to a worldwide audience. It was also a big step in the 20-year rivalry between the Kings and Ducks, a rivalry that both teams hope will take the next step a few months from now if they are able to face each other in the playoffs for the first time.
"We're to the point now where there are two sets of fans," Gretzky said. "You have Ducks fans who root and cheer for their team and you have Kings fans, and that's wonderful. They're building this rivalry. They got an intense rivalry now, and this game is obviously going to give that a boost, but when they meet for the first time in the Stanley Cup playoffs, that's when you're going to see the Kings-Ducks rivalry go to a whole new level."