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.