The NHL started featuring at least one outdoor regular season game per year only at the beginning of 2008. For the first few years, they stuck to just one such game, the Winter Classic, played on New Year’s Day. In 2014, they created the Stadium Series, which allows them to host a handful of outdoor games each season. So the concept is still relatively new and a limited amount of fans have been able to catch one of these games in person.
This past Saturday night I became one of those fans. My brother was kind enough to take me with him to the Kings-Sharks game held at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
Any sports fan should immediately say yes to an invite for an outdoor hockey game. It’s such a unique experience. For people in many parts of the United States and across all of Canada, the earliest memories of playing hockey revolve around a frozen pond, hand-me-down skates, makeshift goals and the biting winter wind attacking their faces. Playing outdoors in the elements feels right when it comes to hockey.
On top of that organic, back-to-its-roots feel that comes along with an outdoor game, there’s also something really exciting about being part of an audience that’s three or four times larger than the normal crowd at a hockey game. It just feels more important.
With only six weeks remaining until the NHL playoffs and the Sharks and Kings battling for the same playoff spot, this game actually was important. Throw in the recent history of the Kings winning two Stanley Cups in the last three years—including last season’s run that started when LA completed an historic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit in the 1st round against these same Sharks—and San Jose repeatedly underperforming in the playoffs, and suddenly we had a true rivalry game at a key point in the season with pond hockey at a state-of-the-art NFL facility as the backdrop.
This event was going to be awesome, right?
For the most part, yeah, it was fantastic. The Kings won 2-1 with a 3rd period goal being the difference. The game was pretty evenly played and both teams had plenty of great scoring chances. The weather was perfect: a little chilly so it felt like we were watching outdoor hockey, but not so cold to make it miserable for fans sitting in their seats for three hours.
But despite the good times and enjoyable experience, I was able to nitpick and find six legitimate complaints. I’m not sure if these things are the NHL’s fault, Levi’s Stadium’s fault or a combination. Here they are in no particular order:
1. Temporary Prohibition: At 6pm, about 75 minutes before the opening puck drop, some of the beer vendors ran out of beer. Look at all those sad empty boxes in the picture above. My brother and I were second in line at the time these workers announced they were all out of the only product they had for sale at their stand. They pointed out another beer stand but said that stand already borrowed from them earlier, so they were probably low or out too. In fact, these guys were so unsure of whether or not any more beer was coming, they started handing money back to customers. That’s gotta be a worst case scenario for a stadium and a greedy sports league, right? You give money back to your customers due to inept employees or logistics, and you block people from getting liquored up, which stops them from making drunk purchasing decisions (more beer, lots of food, spontaneous merchandise transactions). Who’s running this league anyway? Roger Goodell?
2. “Easy Listening” as the Music Choice: The NHL has this rare opportunity with every outdoor game to make it bigger than it really is. In terms of the theatrics and entertainment, they should treat these events like the Super Bowl. Blow it out. Make the entire experience memorable, not just the game itself. So who did they roll out to get the fans fired up for hockey? None other than Kris Allen for the opening song & the National Anthem and Melissa Etheridge for the 2nd intermission performance. Everyone knows Etheridge and her style. And I’m sure you’d agree that hockey doesn’t really scream for her type of music. As for Allen, he’s a former American Idol winner who seems to specialize in soft, easy-listening, Christian music. Again, I can’t see any natural link between this artist or his music and a live sporting event or the typical hockey fan. It’s beyond mind-boggling. It was infuriating to have to sit through that crap. In fact, these performances were so out of place, it made John Fogerty’s 1st intermission set seem like the perfect fit for a hockey game. Fogerty was actually awesome. He played the Creedence hits, rocked out as hard as I imagine he can rock out, and seemed like he was having a genuinely good time. But the rest of the music was just disappointing.
3. Piped-In Sound Effects: My brother said it sounded like Michael Bay had produced the sound effects that were coming through stadium speakers during the game. And I think that’s a spot-on comment. Think about how lame it would be if a stadium was playing the audio/natural sound from the game being played over their speaker system. It’s just corny, right? The natural noises of the game should sound natural, not extra loud or enhanced. Well imagine if they didn’t even play the natural sound (of shots being taken, pucks being blocked, skates scraping across the ice) but instead created their own exaggerated version of what those game sounds should be. It was like listening to a lightsaber battle in Star Wars combined with the noises from a pinball machine. It was laughable, considering they were trying to play it off like those sound effects were simply the natural noises of the hockey game. Corny, over-the-top and terrible.
4. Bandwidth Problems in the Valley: Speaking of technology, the fans were repeatedly beat over the head with messages saying to download the Levi’s App for a special interactive light show during the intermissions (where, presumably, everyone’s lights/flashes on their smartphones would blink in rhythm with the music). Except in the heart of Silicon Valley, apparently 70,000 people can’t be connected to the internet all at once, even on “the Nation’s #1 networks” or whatever the stupid cell companies say about their 4G capabilities. I could hardly get Twitter to load once every 25 minutes let alone download an app that could take control of my phone. Do you think by the year 2075 humans will have fixed this ongoing problem of not knowing how to make the internet work when more than five people are trying to access it at the same time from the same location?
5. A Showcase for Ugly Uniforms: Ugly, unimaginative jerseys for both teams The Sharks went with this:
Notice the size of the numbers (which was done on purpose so the fans up in the nosebleeds of this extra large stadium could see who was on the ice). Also notice that the Sharks’ base color, teal, is just ugly on a uniform of any sport. Unfortunately they don’t have too many variations to choose from in their short history: Sharks Jersey History. Looks like they need to finally put a buck or two into having someone redesign their look and brand.
The Kings, on the other hand, have a variety of yellows, purples, and blacks to choose from when looking back at their history. Instead, they went with the drabbest of drab:
This is supposed to be the NHL’s grand showcase. You think the NFL or MLB would have let a chance to roll out a classic or bold new uniform slip through their fingers on the National stage? This might seem like a minor detail, but I think it’s actually a pretty huge fail. So many more people would be interested in buying a commemorative Stadium Series jersey if, you know, there was something interesting and different about the jersey.
6. Fake Sharks: Again, this is supposed to be an event where even people who aren’t going to start watching a lot of hockey say to themselves every year, “I gotta see those outdoor games. They always do the coolest things during those.”
And you know what’s cool? Real sharks swimming around in the manmade shark tanks that surrounded the outer edges of the football field (right below the first rows of seats). I didn’t do a good job getting a picture of these pools, but if you look back at the very first picture at the top of this article, you can see right in front of the Stadium Series sign is a little bit of water. They had these large pools scattered throughout stadium.
Imagine a handful of great whites circling below everyone for the duration of the game? It would be a great feature, a rare thing to see, and an easy way to hold onto half your security budget because there’d be no need for people to monitor for fans running into the playing area (or other official on-field areas).
They didn’t even bother with complete fake sharks. They lazily placed a couple fake shark fins sticking out of each pool and called it a day. How could they have screwed this up so badly?
Here’s what I know: In 11 months, 100 million pairs of eyes will be on this same Bay Area stadium as the NFL hosts its 50th Super Bowl here. Of course the NFL has a much better handle on how to put on a show, so you can expect the music and the lack-of-real-sharks problem to be resolved. But Levi’s Stadium didn’t seem like a facility ready to host the world’s largest annual sporting event.
We’re talking about a major NFL milestone with the 50th Super Bowl, and we’re talking about history as Tom Brady will likely be going for Lombardi Trophy #5 in his own backyard. Don’t screw this up for us, Levi’s Stadium.