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Andy Furillo: For now, hockey in Sacramento stays outdoors

The Bakersfield Condors hockey team practices on an ice rink built at Raley Field in advance of Friday outdoor match against the Stockon Heat.
The Bakersfield Condors hockey team practices on an ice rink built at Raley Field in advance of Friday outdoor match against the Stockon Heat. aseng@sacbee.com

Finally, Sacramento is getting on the outdoor-hockey map.

When the Stockton Heat and Bakersfield Condors meet Friday night on the frozen tundra of Raley Field, we will join the list of cities throughout the world to witness this increasingly popular version of the winter sport.

Raley Field officials say ticket sales have been steady for what they are calling the Golden State Hockey Rush. But it will take a bit of a walk-up on Friday for the Heat and Condors to break the outdoor ice hockey attendance record. The Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs drew 105,491 at Michigan Stadium for the NHL’s Winter Classic on New Year’s Day 2014.

The collegians from Michigan and Michigan State got the puck rolling for big-time outdoor hockey on the continent. The so-called “Cold War” of Oct. 6, 2001, attracted 74,554 to Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. Since then, there have been massively attended games between amateur and pro clubs all over the world – more than 70,000 in Levi’s Stadium, 62,000 in Soldier Field, 54,000 in Dodger Stadium, 40,000 in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and 38,000 in equally iconic Fenway Park.

Fresh air even packs them in at the minor-league level. A gathering of 21,673 attended the Feb. 19, 2011, “Whale Bowl” between the host Connecticut Whale and rival Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League.

For a lot of kids, growing up, a lot of them played outdoors, on ponds if you will, in Canada, or the different places in the United States, the cold areas.

Ryan Huska, Stockton Heat coach

While fans seem to like bundling up for hockey in the bone-chilling conditions of Orchard Park, N.Y., and Los Angeles, it is the players who appear to enjoy the outdoor game the most.

“For a lot of kids, growing up, a lot of them played outdoors, on ponds if you will, in Canada, or the different places in the United States, the cold areas,” Stockton coach Ryan Huska, a native of Cranbrook, British Columbia, said after the Heat’s practice on Tuesday. “I think it takes them back a little bit to that situation. So there should be a little more energy and excitement in there.”

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Members of the Heat and Condors this week no doubt have been blasting off text messages about the game to friends and family, in the cold areas back east and up north, and out here in the West, even. The game will be on international television, at least for those whose cable packages include the NHL Network, which will broadcast the game live.

Stockton and Bakersfield play in what has become a great expansion of minor-league hockey in North America. Both towns had competed in the ECHL, the equivalent of professional baseball’s Double A. Now, they’re in the newly formed Pacific Division of the AHL, pro hockey’s top minor-league level. Stockton is affiliated with the Calgary Flames and Bakersfield with the Edmonton Oilers. The San Jose Barracuda plays in the same arena as the Sharks, which makes travel easier for the fish who are sent packing to the minors. The Los Angeles Kings are hooked up with the Ontario Reign and the Anaheim Ducks with the San Diego Gulls. The Texas Stars, the drop-down club of the Dallas Stars, play in Cedar Park, just up the road from Austin, while the San Antonio Rampage prepares the boys to move up to the Colorado Avalanche.

AHL president David Andrews said NHL clubs in the West are happy to keep their minor-league affiliates closer to the home base, and that more of them are looking to make California moves. Sacramento and the new arena taking shape on L Street have generated some discussion in that regard, according to Andrews.

Sacramento would certainly make sense.

David Andrews, AHL president, about the possibility of a team playing in Sacramento’s new arena

“We would have a strong interest in that,” Andrews said. “Sacramento would certainly make sense.”

In the meantime, Sacramento remains strictly an outdoor hockey town, at least when it comes to the pros. In the Heat vs. Condors, we’ll get the last and fifth-place representatives from the seven-team Pacific Division. But Bakersfield is right at .500 and Stockton just one game below in the AHL’s most competitive grouping.

The teams reflect one of the NHL’s more intense rivalries. Bitterness between the peoples of Calgary and Edmonton goes back to ancient times, and for the ones who lace up skates for a living, it was most heated in the mid-to-late 1980s when the winner of the Flames and Oilers battles usually went on to win the Stanley Cup. Players and coaches say the ill feeling of Calgary and Edmonton has descended to Stockton and Bakersfield, that the clubs disliked each other in the ECHL and that they have become no friendlier since moving to the AHL.

Now the enmity comes to Sacramento.

“I’m not going to use the word ‘hate,’ but to dislike very much the opponent, it makes you want to beat them and do whatever it takes to make that happen,” said Stockton assistant coach Todd Gill, a longtime NHL veteran who wore the captain’s patch when he played for the Sharks in the late 1990s. “If you play somebody you dislike, you’re going to be ready for it and it makes for a better hockey game.”

Forecasters give rain a very good chance of dropping on Raley by the time they start banging each other into the boards Friday night. It shouldn’t be a problem for the players from where bad weather adds to the good memories.

“It’s like going back to being a child,” said the Heat’s Aaron Johnson, 32, who played 172 games with six NHL clubs. “As I get closer and closer to the end of my career, it’s a great opportunity for me.

“That’s all we remember as kids, playing on a pond, or a frozen rink, outside.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

AHL outdoor game

Stockton Heat vs. Bakersfield Condors

  • Friday: 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: Raley Field
  • Tickets: Raley Field Box Office or gshockeyrush.com
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