Golden Knights cherish Lake Tahoe experience — even with long delay

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AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Members of the Colorado Avalanche, in white, and the Vegas Golden Knights, red, prepare to face off to start the first period of the Outdoor Lake Tahoe NHL hockey game in Stateline, Nev., Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.

Sun, Feb 21, 2021 (12:05 a.m.)

STATELINE — The anthem finished, the U.S. Air Force flyover was completed, and the Golden Knights and Avalanche were ready for the puck to drop.

Everything, it appeared, was going according to the NHL’s plan on Saturday.

But once the game started there were hints things weren’t quite right at the Edgewood Tahoe Resort for the highly-anticipated NHL Outdoors.

Players seemed to be slipping more than usual, and during the TV timeouts in the first period, ice crews were working furiously on the ice to patch holes and shovel excess snow of the playing surface.

That’s not out of the ordinary, but it seemed to be taking longer than normal. And it was happening all over the ice.

Parts of the ice melted to create puddles on the ice that were impossible to skate through — chucks of the playing surface were literally falling off. That forced the league NHL postponed the game for nearly seven hours because of unsafe ice conditions.

When play resumed seven hours later at 9 p.m., it was a game fit for the setting. The Golden Knights and Avalanche played under the lights with each team showing off the skill and speed they’re known for. Colorado’s stars shined the brightest, as Nathan MacKinnon had a goal and two assists to send Vegas to a 3-2 defeat.

It was a long day and the result wasn’t what the Golden Knights desired. But the experience was still memorable.

“Spectacular setting, spectacular venue, two real good teams that were excited to play,” Vegas coach Pete DeBoer said. “I think everyone’s disappointed we didn’t get to play 60 minutes this morning, but we found a way to get the game done. I think obviously not perfect, but a lot of positives from what went on here.”

The temperature was about 30 degrees at puck drop with a slight breeze and nothing but a few scant clouds in the sky. The irony that the sun was shining and that the game was delayed because it was too nice of a day was not lost on anyone.

“We knew that unabated sunshine was a problem,” commissioner Gary Bettman said when announcing the game on NBC, which broadcast the game on national television. “Sunshine has always been our enemy.”

The NHL has hosted outdoor games in the past at higher temperatures than Saturday’s game, including a September 1991 preseason game in Las Vegas in with temperatures nearing the 80s and another in 2014 in Los Angeles with similar heat.

Ted Pretty, chief meteorologist at FOX5 Vegas, said that elevation was the biggest factor in the ice melting..

The sun’s rays intensify by about 8%-10% for every 1,000-foot gain in elevation, Pretty said. The elevation of the game by the lake is about 6,200 compared to about 2,000 for Las Vegas, meaning the ultraviolet radiation is roughly 40% more intense at the lake than it is in Las Vegas, he said.

Only once has the NHL had an outdoor game at close to Lake Tahoe’s elevation. That was last season at Colorado Springs (about 6,000 feet) for a game between the Avalanche and Kings, but otherwise every other venue had been 1,000 feet or more below Lake Tahoe.

And the biggest difference between today’s game and the Colorado Springs game was that the latter was played at night.

“That would kind of explain what happened today,” Pretty said.

The rink wasn’t finished until Thursday night, and players didn’t take the ice on it until practice Friday. Clouds covered much of practice, and players said afterward they were more concerned about wind than they were about melting ice.

Vegas forward William Karlsson even remarked after practice how he hoped there would be “sunny skies tomorrow” because “that would be the perfect setting.”

And until the game started the ice issues became apparent, “perfect setting” was an apt description. The sun was shining before anyone knew that was actually a bad thing, the mountains in the distance looked like a postcard and a seagull even flew overhead to check out warmups on the ice.

The NHL didn’t sell tickets to the game because of the pandemic, but that didn’t stop boaters from parking just off the beach — similar to those who wait in McCovey Cove for home run balls at San Francisco Giants games. Among the dozen-plus fans in boats of all sizes was a woman from Carson City in an Alex Tuch jersey, two kayaks with Golden Knights flags and another with a Red Wings flag for some reason.

Then there were fans of the closest team geographically to the lake, clearly upset at the snub. One man wore a black San Jose Sharks jersey with a sign that said, “Anyone but Vegas,” and when another was asked his rooting interest, the man responded in a hilariously bitter way.

“I’m actually a Sharks fan but they wouldn’t let us play,” he said.

It’s a shame that the postponement will mar memories of the game, because had it not been for that, it would have been a breathtaking exhibition of hockey in a winter haven. There was a fresh dusting of snow overnight at the lake, creating a pristine layer of powder to go with the mountains as the backdrop and pine air so fresh you could almost taste it.

The game itself was disappointing for the Golden Knights. They came out flat in the first period, and DeBoer said during the layover they treated the upcoming second and third periods like separate games. It showed, as Vegas came out with more jump after the break, and played the Avalanche to a 2-2 draw.

Unfortunately that goal in the first period still counted, even if it came nine hours before the second goal of the game. The Golden Knights came up short in a big regular season game against one of their biggest rivals in the West Division, which is a disappointment by any measure.

Still, it’s not every day or even every season that players get to take part in an outdoor game. It might not have ended up quite like anyone foresaw, but it still wasn’t a bad day at work.

“It wasn’t our best start, but I had a lot of fun tonight,” Tuch said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”

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