When the New York Rangers participate in their first ever Winter Classic on Monday in Philadelphia against the Flyers, it will be the first time that most Rangers players will ever take the ice in an officially sanctioned game.
But some may not realize that it is not the Rangers’ first outdoor game. In fact, it was these very Rangers who participated in the first ever official outdoor NHL game over 20 years ago.
On September 27, 1991, the Rangers faced off against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in front of over 13,000 fans in the parking lot of Caesars’ Palace, on the Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada. The exhibition game, played on an 85-degree night, marked the first outdoor game in modern NHL history.
The idea was hatched by then-Kings owner Bruce McNall as a way of generating additional publicity for his team, with Gretzky serving as the centerpiece. The Rangers were selected as the opponent to create an East/West vibe to the game and because they were also expected to be one of the top teams in the league that season – one that would see them win 50 games for the first time in franchise history before falling to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Workers put together the ice surface in about a week, using three times as much coolant as required for a standard rink. Despite 95F temperatures in the afternoon, the temperature of the ice went from 88F to 16F in abut two and a half hours. The surface was far from ideal, as part of the blue line (made of a fabric rather than painted on) came apart and required a bottle of liquid nitrogen to be patched up.
However, players told the media after the game that they had played on much harsher surfaces in previous preseason games. In fact, the two teams were scheduled to play a game two days later in Charlotte, but it had to be cancelled due to the arena’s poor ice quality.
The game itself featured all the pageantry of an event you would expect to see in Las Vegas, such as zambonis driven by gladiator and Trojan characters that looked as if they were plucked right from the USC marching band. Despite the heat and the ice conditions, the game went off without a hitch as the Kings scored five unanswered goals to top the Rangers 5-2.
With players such as Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Mike Gartner sitting out the game, the Rangers went up 2-0 in the first period. They first got on the board when Bernie Nicholls, the former King, fed 21-year old rookie Tony Amonte (wearing number 33) with a pass that allowed him to beat Kelly Hrudey (wearing a camera mounted on his mask for the game) for a quick lead. Nicholls would be dealt to the Edmonton Oilers exactly a week later in the deal that saw Mark Messier traded to the Rangers. In another interesting note, Adam Graves wore number 11 in this game, and would wear it right until Messier was introduced to New York.
A few minutes after Amonte’s goal, Tie Domi then dished to Doug Weight (referred to by legendary Kings’ announcer Bob Miller throughout the game as “Doug Wright”) to make it 2-0 Rangers. But that would be the last lead the Blueshirts would hold.
Tony Granato, the one time Ranger, got the Kings on the board early in the second to cut the deficit to 2-1 and then Jari Kurri, just acquired that summer from Edmonton, connected with Brian Benning a few minutes later to knot it at 2.
In an interesting twist of fate, the Kings took the lead when Sylvain Couturier, a career minor leaguer and father of current Flyers center Sean Couturier (who will likely be playing in the game), beat John Vanbiesbrouck to put Los Angeles ahead for good at 3-2.
From there, it was all Kings as Gretzky and Kurri hooked up for a goal just as they had done many times before in Edmonton early in the third before Gretzky beat Vanbiesbrouck, who played the entire game, glove side to cap the scoring at 5-2.
Vanbiesbrouck, interviewed by MSG Network recently about the game, explained how dehydration became a serious factor during warmups for the teams on the warm night.
“I focused on not moving my legs too much.” said Vanbiesbrouck. “I kind of took a conservative approach.”
Among the other unusual moments from the night were the fact that the teams did not have actual locker rooms, and had to retreat to tent-like makeshift structures with benches between periods. Reportedly, the walls were so thin that the teams could hear each other between periods. Vanbiesbrouck also added that following the game, the teams had to walk back to their hotels while still wearing most of their uniforms.
Another unusual part of the game was an infestation of large grasshoppers that filled the area of the rink during the latter portion of the evening. Domi, who fell down on an uncontested breakaway, told reporters after the game that he had tripped over a grasshopper. Domi wasn’t the only one, as many other players reportedly struggled to see as the bugs flew throughout the rink.
Interestingly enough, while the Rangers/Kings game is considered the first “official” NHL outdoor game, the Detroit Red Wings went outdoors for a game in 1954 against the inmates from a prison in Marquette, Michigan, located in the state’s Upper Peninsula. With Gordie Howe leading the way, Detroit took an 18-0 lead after the first period before officials decided to stop keeping score.
The Rangers are hoping for a better result in Philadelphia than they had in Las Vegas. But at the very least, there won’t be any grasshoppers to contend with.