SANTA CLARA– Saturday, it may be a good thing that California, North or South, is not generally considered a traditional hockey market. There will be no blizzard, no high winds, no unexpected glare, no ice storms, no life-threatening and ice-tilting weather conditions to contend with. After a successful outdoor game last season in the southern part of the state, the Levi’s Stadium game might put the nail in the coffin of the old stereotype: the one that says bad weather is hockey weather. Maybe good weather is hockey weather too, and bad weather is just bad weather.
Friday, some of the Sharks talked with the media about several aspects of the upcoming game. For fans, the event is the main thing. For the Sharks, the game has to be front and center, a game against a divisional rival. How long will it take the Sharks to get into the game, to forget the football stadium and the audience of 69,000 in the stands? Justin Braun said they should be in the game “right away. I think by the time warmups kicks in and you’re going and you’re in that zone, you don’t even think about that. Maybe the anthem, you give a quick look around and you’re ready to go.”
Scott Hannan has played outside before, in the NHL Winter Classic, when he was a member of the Washington Capitals. Of his prior experience outdoors, he said:
“The conditions are always a little bit different. You gotta be expecting a bad bounce, the puck to bounce a little bit more or maybe to stick. You gotta expect the unexpected out there. Sometimes it’s a tough bounce that make or break it in the game.”
Does Hannan feel the Sharks are missing out on something to not be facing extreme weather? Outdoor games in more traditional hockey markets feature wind, rain and extreme cold. Is that an important part of the outdoor game experience? Hannan answered:
When I talk about experience, experience is the day, the buildup, the coming into the rink and seeing the fans tailgating. That’s just not something you get to experience every day. Yeah the experience of a blizzard, sure that would be great. I mean rain wasn’t too great in Pittsburgh. But getting to play outside, getting a change of scenery as far as just going to the next arena, waking up at the hotel doing the same routine. I mean it’s something different, I think it’s something different for the fans.
Obviously having a big game against LA. Everybody knows the standings and the series so it’s a big game in that respect.
In the buildup to this very big event on an extra large stage, Sharks’ rookie Tomas Hertl has been finding his way slowly back onto the scoresheet, but more slowly than anyone had expected in his (almost) second NHL season. After his first season was cut short by injury, he has struggled to play with the confidence and sharpness of his first partial NHL season. Has he felt extra pressure to score, from the team or from himself? “I don’t know, it’s a little bit, maybe both. I have 15 goals last season after 35 games. Now I have just 10, it’s making me say ‘what is wrong? I have just ten goals after almost 60 games.'”
He described his approach to the game now as trying to just play, and play hard. He recognizes that the team badly needs every player to chip in for the wins they need. He has also adjusted to playing on the left wing. Before coming to North America, Hertl had played primarily as a center, and had a little experience as a right winger. He does prefer to play as a center but he says it is not a game breaker: “I start left or right, I just go play.”
Hertl and his team will be playing in a once in a lifetime kind of game Saturday. After practice Friday, Sharks forward Chris Tierney described what he expects from tomorrow night’s game:
It’ll definitely be a chip and chase game, you know the ice probably won’t be as good as it is in a normal rink. But I think everyone will be excited so I think it will be a good experience and I’m sure everyone’s adrenaline will be pumping.
Playing in a football stadium has a very different feel for hockey players. There will be no fans along the glass, and the space outside the rink gives the stage a very different feel from an indoor arena. Tierney played in an outdoor game once before, at the junior level. It was not an event of the same magnitude as this one, but it gave him a scale for comparing the venues:
Last time I thought it was kind of far away and you couldn’t really hear the crowd that much. But when you come out here and see the stadium here, it looks like the stands are pretty close to the rink. So I think with this many people it will be loud and it will be a cool experience.