On a pleasantly cool Saturday night in Northern California, not long after the last tendrils of twilight faded over Mt. Hamilton and the Diablo Range, 70,205 people settled into their seats to enjoy a very California ritual:
A hockey game.
An outdoor hockey game, to be precise, in which the Kings defeated the San Jose Sharks, 2-1, on a rink set up on the field at Levi's Stadium. The third-largest crowd in NHL history saw the Kings earn their season-best seventh consecutive victory.
This was no frozen prairie. There was no need to plug cars into block heaters to be sure they'd start afterward. This was hockey California-style, with a backdrop of makeshift mountains and fake pools and the genuine passion of fans who are establishing California as the epicenter of the sport's growth.
“Shock and awe,” San Jose forward Tommy Wingels said of his first look at the surreal setup at the San Francisco 49ers' stadium.
“That's a lot of people,” Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said of the expected sellout crowd.
Hockey has existed in California in many forms and with varying levels of support. College hockey was popular in Northern and Southern California decades ago, and several professional leagues have come and gone. The NHL staked its claim with the expansion Kings and Oakland Seals in 1967; the Seals didn't last but their booster club lives on.
Saturday's game, part of the NHL's Stadium Series, continues a golden era for California hockey. In the last 13 months the Kings and Ducks have faced off outdoors at Dodger Stadium, the Kings won their second Stanley Cup championship and the American Hockey League announced it will move five teams from the East Coast to Bakersfield, Ontario, San Diego, Stockton and San Jose. Eleven California-born players have appeared in at least one NHL game this season. Among them is Sharks forward Matt Nieto, who grew up on the non-frozen tundra of Long Beach.
“Hockey is definitely growing within our state. All three teams here are top teams in the league,” he said. “It's great for the sport and it's great for kids and fans here in California.”
Northern California got its first dose of outdoor NHL hockey in a game whose novelty was enhanced by a fierce rivalry and significant playoff implications. The buzz was tremendous. “I never thought I'd see the day,” said Len Shapiro, the Seals' director of publicity from 1974 until they left for Cleveland in 1976.
The hockey craze triggered by the Kings' acquisition of Wayne Gretzky in 1988 has taken firm root. The Sharks, who debuted in 1991, and the Ducks, launched in 1993, piggybacked on the Gretzky phenomenon. All three teams keep it alive by funding and promoting youth hockey, creating fans and customers for life.
“In the Wayne Era we saw an influx of rinks and there was a growth,” said Luc Robitaille, the Kings' president of business operations. “But with the Ducks winning in '07 and then us, and the Ducks doing their high school league and the things we're doing with them on the growth of hockey, it's totally different now. You feel there's more stability to it. It's not emotional anymore. It's more like this is real.”
The Ducks' high school league has gone from one team to 41 stretching from San Jose to San Diego, and the Kings are working with them to organize an eight-team high school league for next season. The Lil' Kings program has expanded from 180 kids in 2012 to more than 700 this year and might soon top 1,000. The Seals never had money for grass-roots investments like these.
“We're looking almost every week to build new rinks,” Robitaille said. “We're constantly talking to people because we know every rink we're going to build we're going to fill them up.”
Boys' and girls' teams from California routinely contend at national and international events. Players are recruited by colleges, prep schools and junior leagues.
“I think you'll see more and more in the NHL every year,” said Art Trottier, vice president of The Rinks, the ice and inline rinks program the Ducks support and manage. “With the Ducks winning the Cup and the Kings winning a couple of Cups people are looking more at our kids in California.”
The Sharks went from managing one facility and two sheets of ice to three facilities and seven sheets. The adult program based at Sharks Ice — the largest recreational facility west of the Mississippi River — has nearly 5,000 participants. The Junior Sharks program has 28 teams.
“We all learned in our infancy that we would have to grow our fan base and the one way that we could grow our fan base was to introduce the game to as many people as we could, as quickly as we could,” said Jon Gustafson, a Canadian who came to San Jose to play roller hockey and stayed to manage Sharks Ice. “Every aspect of our game has grown exponentially.”
The AHL's admission of five California teams will be the next test of hockey interest in California. The Sharks will share SAP Center with their top minor league team, and Gustafson expects it to be a success.
“It's our future stars. It really puts a stamp on where California has come,” Gustafson said. “We firmly believe, not only us but our NHL partners, that California can certainly handle this.”
Gustafson, who grew up playing on frozen ponds, marveled at the events that led to Saturday's game and its huge audience.
“It's really a testament to our game of hockey,” he said. “It's a testament to our hockey market and it's a testament to our rinks that we have, I don't want to say succeeded, but we've made a dent.”