Too Much Sunshine Dims Outdoor Hockey in Tahoe
February 22, 2021

File it under the best laid plans of mice and men. Because the National Hockey League's pandemic-shortened season began after New Year's Day, which is normally the day of their Outdoor Classic, the NHL tried to get creative. Since fans wouldn't be allowed to attend anyway, how about building a rink on a golf course, in the very picturesque setting of Lake Tahoe? It was a great idea, but there was one thing they didn't take into account. The sun.

The idea itself wasn't bad. Edgewood Golf Course, which is just on the Nevada side of the south shore of the lake, is beautiful. The celebrity golf championships are held there every year, and the rink was built on the 18th fairway. It was so close to the lake that pucks hit over the boards could land in the water, if not the beach. Saturday, which was to be the first of two NHL games that would count in the standings, saw snow early that morning, with high temperatures in the 40s. Conditions seemed good.

The first Outdoor Classic, played in Buffalo on New Year's Day in 2008, had snow fall during the game. It was glorious. Other games had rain, and wind, and fog, which isn't so good, but it made it more than interesting for the viewers. Sun, and ice, however, don't get along very well, as most of us learned in first grade. Lake Tahoe? We have a problem.

All outdoor events are going to be tricky because of the weather, but here's where the league, and NBC, which was to televise the games, got greedy. Both games, Saturday between the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche, and Sunday featuring the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins, were to start at noon Pacific Time. Yes, high noon. They call it that for a reason.

The skies cleared Saturday morning, and the game got started on schedule. There was one particular spot on the ice where several players and officials stumbled and tripped on multiple occasions. The players noticed, but didn't really seem to mind. After 20 minutes of play, the first period ended with Colorado leading 1-0. The players headed off to their makeshift locker rooms for intermission, but wouldn't get to play again for another eight hours. With the sunshine beaming down onto the ice, crews were trying to patch up the holes and ruts, and get the surface playable. Viewers were told the delay would be at least another 20 minutes longer than the scheduled 15-minute intermission. Then the delay turned into over an hour, with NBC on the air the entire time, scrambling for hockey-related programming to fill what would otherwide be dead air.

Finally, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the game would resume at 9pm local time, or at midnight on the east coast. The telecast would also shift off of the main network, to NBCSN. Bettman didn't say why the resumption would be so late, and announcers Mike Tirico, Eddie Olczyk, Brian Boucher, and Rutledge Wood didn't ask him. It was likely, though, that the ice was so damaged that they had to wait for it to get cold enough so it could re-freeze. Sunday's game was postponed from noon until 4pm, and went off without a hitch.

According to NBC, exactly nine hours after the first goal was scored, the Golden Knights tied the game 1-1. The Avalanche would go on to win 3-2, in a game that would end close to 11pm, and after most people back east went to bed. The Sunday game, also on NBCSN, was a blowout with Boston defeating Philly 7-3.

So how exactly is this weekend going to be remembered, and is this a major blunder for the league or just a bizarre set of unavoidable circumstances? Before we draw any conclusions, let's get away from the ice for a moment.

NBC said that the NHL had three months to prepare the venue for this game, compared to about a year for the New Year's Day outdoor games. The games, though, and the opponents, weren't officially announced until about a month ago. Colorado was the home team, and not Vegas, even though the Golden Knights were in their home state of Nevada. Also, why bring two teams from the east all the way out to Tahoe to play a game, when the entire league was re-aligned to keep travel at a minimum because of Covid-19? Greed, potential ratings, and poor planning are the answers.

The noon start (3pm ET), was an attempt to maximize an audience. We don't know the answer to this, but perhaps NBC was either unavailable or unwilling to have a prime time game in the east. A 4pm start (7 ET) would have been perfect, and it worked out well in the re-scheduled second game. It was still light enough that viewers, and the players, could enjoy the spectacular scenery that went with the rustic setting, and the shots of the sunset over the lake were fantastic. Bringing the Flyers and the Bruins three time zones across the country for one game was a blatant statement that the NHL and NBC feared that no one back east would watch if two western teams played. San Jose, which is about 200 miles closer to Lake Tahoe than Las Vegas, could have hosted, say, the Los Angeles Kings, in the second game.

And why was Colorado the home team on Saturday, and not Vegas? Because that's how the schedule was laid out before the matchups were announced. The two teams play each other eight times this season, though, so adjustments could have been made. The home team doesn't really make that much of a difference with no fans at the game, so we can let that issue slide.

Bottom line? You could say that the several hour 'sun delay' was an oddity, or perhaps a slight oversight, and will provide a sidebar for what could be another wacky Covid-related season. NBC and the NHL, though, screwed up. Bettman said this weekend that the purpose of trying these kinds of events is to “grow the game.” The heart was in the right place, and the intentions were good. Instead, though, those highly-prized east coast viewers had to stay up until 2am to see the end of the first game, and of the six periods of hockey played, only one of them was shown on NBC. A late afternoon start would have been better. We know that now, of course, but it still could have rained or snowed, and the games postponed anyway. Maybe this was Mother Nature's way of keeping an east coast bias out of west coast hockey.

Seven minutes in heavens: For the most part, it was just live video of nervous scientists who then erupted in celebration, but watching the coverage of the Mars rover Perseverance touch down on the red planet was still gripping. CNN, KTLA, and many other news outlets showed NASA TV's broadcast of the landing live Thursday afternoon (around 1pm PT), and it was reminiscent of the Apollo lunar landings (if you are old enough to remember). About two dozen people were sitting nervously at their work stations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, much the same way as at Mission Control in Houston in the 1960s and 70s. Officials called the rover's approach to the Martian surface 'seven minutes of terror', but the initial result indicated a triumphant landing. Animation was used (like the Apollo missions) to show viewers what was supposed to be happening. Actual pictures from Earth's planetary neighbor are just starting to come in.

Drama, to no surprise: More results that were expected but still provided compelling television came from Australia. Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic won the women's and men's Australian Open tennis championships in straight sets over the weekend, but both achievements were significant. After defeating Serena Williams in the semifinals, the 23 year-old Osaka knocked out Jennifer Brady 6-4, 6-3 to win her fourth Grand Slam title. She's 12-0 at the major tournaments once she gets to the quarterfinals. About 24 hours later, Djokovic defeated Daniil Medvedev 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 for his ninth Aussie Open championship. The Serbian, nicknamed 'Joker', kidding calls Australia his 'second home', and to conclude his victory speech, thanked “the court”, where he is undefeated in the finals.

Pull up a chair: Spring training games get underway on Sunday (February 28), and according to the schedule calendar on the Dodgers website, all games home and away will be televised on their cable channel, Spectrum SportsNet LA. Interestingly enough, not all games will be on radio—quite a contrast from years past. The Giants and A's have not announced their spring TV schedule yet, with each team usually doing a limited number of telecasts. There will be no Bay Bridge preseason series this year, but the two teams will play each other in Arizona to conclude spring training on March 28 and 29.

Walton wackiness: It was about four minutes of inadvertent broadcast comedy Saturday night on ESPN2. To open the second half of the Arizona State-UCLA basketball game, analyst Bill Walton couldn't hear play-by-play man Dave Pasch, with each doing the broadcast remotely from separate locations. For a few seconds, the two were talking over each other, then with Walton assuming Pasch's mic wasn't working, he took over play-by-play duties. During the 'technical difficulties', a producer must of ended up telling Walton to shut up, because Pasch then started doing play-by-play. After getting the situation straightened out, Walton admitted he had somehow turned the volume down on his computer, and it was all his fault.

Photo: "The Guardian"

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