The NHL's Stadium Series is a very cool thing, even if the novelty can't survive some of its obvious problems. There's no other major American sport that creates as much fanfare around a single regular-season game as what the NHL accomplishes by putting a hockey rink in a football or baseball stadium.
Whether in-person or on television, the scene is impressive: An oval of white ice dwarfed by the sprawling confines around it, not the least the oversized seating capacity that puts hockey in front of record-sized crowds that could never fit inside the Shark Tank or any other NHL venue.
With that space, the NHL does a great job of beautifying its presentation. At Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings faced off as the centerpiece of a downright beautiful portrait that paid homage to California's diverse landscapes, including its shark-invested waters.
Those waters were paid tribute in the most literal way possible, with shark fins emerging from beautiful blue pools. You have to imagine that, in the course of planning the event, the possibility of importing live sharks was at least mentioned, even if it couldn't be practically done.
The sprawling parking lot outside the stadium, meanwhile, was a hockey tailgate at enormous scale: Vast sections of pavement were claimed and defending as if the grounds were being used as an oversized Risk game board. Fans in Sharks jerseys were moving and replacing the orange cones and metal gates used to enclose tailgating areas, and they took their work seriously. The scene was wild and just as wet: Beautiful blue skies and nary a cloud, but the entrance to Levi's Stadium was so littered with bottles and cans that you had to step carefully just to avoid the detritus.
It was clear fans enjoyed the game environment. From the pre-game festivities to watching Sharks jerseys file in and slowly paint the stadium Pacific teal, the outdoor game brought an added layer of excitement. But there were problems, too, and most of them started when the anticipation gave way to the actual game.
The music performances were a big part of the event's appeal, and there were big names indeed: Bay Area legend John Fogerty, along with Melissa Etheridge, and former American Idol winner Kris Allen singing the national anthem.
Those names are nothing to sniff at, but they might have lacked the impact that other Stadium Series performances have brought. Fogerty's tired voice wasn't an equal substitute for, say, KISS, which performed in Los Angeles when the Stadium Series was brought to Dodger Stadium last year. Etheridge was fun, but also demanded less attention than Fogerty, and fans seemed a little less tuned in.
Then there were issues related to the hockey itself -- problems you can't overcome by booking a different act. Amid the beauty of the field presentation, it was hard not to notice the frantic work being done on the ice right up until the game started. The ice crew was hosing down the playing surface and trying to improve its conditions amid high humidity in Santa Clara, and the problem was never really solved.
It didn't take long for the game action to erode the quality of the ice, creating adverse conditions that both teams had to play through. No one would complain because the spectacle was so exciting, but that's also easy to say when you know it was a one-time occurrence.
"Considering we're playing in California and the temperature is 60 degrees or whatever it might be, it held up very well," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "I didn't think our group, especially early in the game, understood the impact that that ice could have."
Of course, that's the risk of playing hockey outdoors in California -- no matter the time of year. Even the best ice technicians in the world couldn't manage to keep the playing surface frozen and consistent for the outdoor game, which shows the true limitations of hockey as an open-air event. When you have teams based on San Jose, Los Angeles, Tampa and other warm-weather climates, a roof is not an optional piece of equipment.
Even so, the game went on, and tough surface conditions didn't dampen the spirits of fans. But the excitement of the crowd and the action on the ice were both muffled by the wide-open spaces in Levi's stadium. Even fans with front-row seats were sitting 30 or so yards away from the rink glass, subduing the game environment. In the press box, the sound of skates and board checks were piped through speakers overhead. A Swedish reporter next to me was thoroughly unimpressed.
"This isn't hockey," he said on multiple occasions.
The one exception came on the Sharks' only goal of the game, about one minute before the end of the first period. The score by Brent Burns set off a sonic eruption that one reporter said was "louder than when the 49ers score a touchdown."
It was a great, powerful moment that showed the full potential of 70,000 crowded-in fans, but it was the only such moment that occurred. The rest of the game was played amid crowd noise more deafened than deafening.
"You could tell it was loud, but it's not as loud as the Shark Tank with 20,000 people and a ceiling over top of you," McLellan said. "You know, you have to yell down the bench. But the noise dissipated and kind of went up and out.
"So it was -- I know it was loud. I know all 70,000 people were cheering and it was very loud, but it wasn't what I thought it might be when you were down there."
In other words, 70,000 in Levi's Stadium can't hold a sonic candle to 20,000 in the Shark Tank. And that seems to be the enduring fault with the NHL's Stadium Series, a quality that will erode the appeal of outdoor games as they near a saturation point among fans.
The Stadium Series is great fun for anyone who has never experienced it before. But as more and more fans across the country take the outdoor games for a spin, they're likely to take on a "been there, done that" attitude. The excitement of in-game concerts and open-air hockey won't maintain as fans realize that the actual game experience is subdued in large venues -- and all the pageantry in the world can only go so far in hiding this fact.
But don't get me wrong: The Stadium Series is fun. It's just not the same kind of fun that hockey provides. Eventually, those limitations will catch up with the Stadium Series. For now, it remains a great attention-getter. And that's probably what the NHL needs most.