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NHL Had Better Options for Outdoor Games Than Lake Tahoe; Warm Weather Was Predictable

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The puck dropped on the NHL’s Outdoor Game between the Colorado Avalanche and Las Vegas Golden Knights in Lake Tahoe on a Saturday afternoon last month. It finished after a nine hour hiatus due to mushy ice caused by bright sun and temperatures that were hovering around the freezing mark. 

There were far better lakeside options than Tahoe for the outdoor games, temperature-wise.

But there is a bigger issue here: Should the NHL be playing outdoor games in temperate climates like Tahoe or in even hotter locales like Los Angeles?

It’s hard to imagine a more striking site for two outdoor hockey games than a rink on the Nevada bank of stunning Lake Tahoe. That was the first-time venue for the NHL’s weekend doubleheader of games February 20-21. It was supposed to be an idyllic substitution for the popular Winter Classic and Stadium Series games that were kiboshed earlier this year due to COVID-19.

Except the idyll turned out to be less than ideal, thanks to the afternoon sunshine that bore down on the ice and warm-ish temperatures.

The puck dropped on the Saturday contest between the Avs and Golden Knights at 12:12 PM PT but the soupy ice forced a halt to the game after the first period. It didn’t resume until 9:02 PM local time and the final horn didn’t wail until 10:50 PM, more than 10 hours after the game began.

Since there were no fans in attendance, the only way to watch the game was on TV (cable or streaming) and the marathon intermission cost NBC Sports dearly. According to Nielsen, about one million fewer viewers watched the last two periods as compared to the first.

With warm, sunny weather again expected for Sunday, the NHL moved the start time for the Bruins and Flyers from 11 AM to 4:30 PM local time.

Now you may be thinking, “Lew, the NHL should’ve gone further north to Canada. Lake Louise in Alberta would likely have been much colder than Tahoe.” Problem is, due to COVID-related travel restrictions, Canada is not an option for U.S.-based teams. And NBC Sports would not want to televise a game between two Canadian teams for fear of low ratings in the U.S.

 

LAKE TAHOE TOO WARM, SUNNY IN FEBRUARY FOR GOOD QUALITY DAYTIME ICE

Was Lake Tahoe the best venue for the NHL outdoor games?

First, let’s set the parameters for skateable outdoor ice.

A 2020 study by four researchers (Malik et al. 2020) at Ontario-based universities suggests that daily high temperatures need to be approximately 23° F (-5° C) or below for ice to be of skateable quality. Those temperatures have to remain in that range for about four consecutive days to produce a high quality rink for hockey. According to publicly available weather data, it was a virtual lock that the ice at Lake Tahoe would not meet the standard for NHL hockey the weekend of February 20-21.

 

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The column highlighted in blue clearly shows that February average daily high temperatures at Lake Tahoe from 2010-2020 blew past the 23° F skateability threshold. And the yellow column put the exclamation point on it: over those last 11 Februarys, there was not one day where the high temperature was below 23° F.

Dr. Madeleine “Maddy” Orr, founder and co-director of the Sport Ecology Group and Assistant Professor at SUNY Cortland agrees that these data are crystal clear: Tahoe is not a suitable location for NHL outdoor games in February.

“Based on these numbers, Tahoe was never going to work,” offered Dr. Orr. “Not naturally, at least. These figures show that an outdoor rink in Lake Tahoe would require significant artificial cooling.”

The NHL’s communications department, in responding to our weather-related email question, did not appear to have taken the need for a potential outdoor venue to have “four days in a row of maximum high temperatures of 23°F” into account:

Our research showed that average February temperature range from 21.7°F (-5.7°C) and 36.1°F (2.3°C).”

The league also asserted that, “the reason why the games were delayed on both days was not due to warm weather, but due to direct sunlight impacting the ice surface, thereby creating unsafe playing conditions for our players.”

It must be repeated that the temperature thresholds for ideally skateable ice were not close to being met at Tahoe. However the NHL is correct to note that abundant sunshine was a significant factor in the delays.

According to Dr. Orr, sunshine in the middle of a February day in Tahoe was also predictable: “The area gets direct sunlight for 5.8 hours per day with the height of [that sunlight] being between 10AM and 3PM. The noon local start time  wasn’t smart planning. Why not have a 7 PM local time puck drop to begin with?”

Here are two reasons why not:

  1. The NHL and NBC Sports didn’t want to have the biggest regular season games of the season start at 10 PM in the eastern time zone. That would guarantee abysmal ratings.
  2. Starting the game in the dark eliminates the beautiful Lake Tahoe vistas from the broadcast. The NHL communications put it beautifully: “Lake Tahoe offers one of the most picturesque locations in North America to host a hockey game: its majestic scenery and beauty reflects the connection of the outdoor roots of our sport. That visual helps to reinforce hockey’s environmental focus and ensures why our sustainability efforts remain an important part of the League’s broader social impact mandate.” 

 

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The Avs and the Golden Knights finished their “warm weather and sunshine”-delayed game more than 10 hours after it started, in the Lake Tahoe night (Photo credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

 

 

OTHER U.S. LAKES OFFERED BETTER ODDS FOR GOOD HOCKEY WEATHER

Thing is, there are other U.S. lakes on which hockey is played that offered a better chance for suitable weather and I’m sure some lovely — if not Tahoe-lovely — views.

 

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This chart compares weather data for Lake Tahoe to five other U.S. lakes on which hockey is frequently played.

All of the five had lower average daily high temperatures than Tahoe from 2010-20. And all had at least some February days in the which the high temperature did not rise to 23° F.

Lake Nokomis, Minnesota — the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” — would have been the best choice for the NHL since it experienced the lowest February average high temperatures and the most days below the skateability threshold. It is located close to the Minneapolis airport and thus would’ve been easily accessible for players and support staff. And the lake is a pond hockey mecca — it plays host to the annual U.S. Pond Hockey Championships.

So, while not Tahoe-picturesque, the views at Lake Nokomis show pond hockey at its best.

 

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Fans watch the 2020 U.S. Pond Hockey Championships at Lake Nokomis, Minnesota (Photo credit: Kerem Yücel/MPR News)

 

GSB’s Take: The NHL would have done better by its players and its TV viewers by hosting this year’s outdoor games at Lake Nokomis rather than Lake Tahoe.

But, there is a much bigger issue at play here.

Outdoor games in warm-ish sites like Lake Tahoe or, much worse, in Los Angeles — the league played a game at Dodger Stadium in January 2014  with a game time temperature of 63° F/17.2° C — the league is not “walking the climate walk”.

 

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Aerial view of Dodger Stadium during the 2014 NHL Stadium Classic game (Photo credit: SB Nation)

 

And, it sez here, the NHL is not doing itself any favors, with the “cool factor” of hosting outdoor games in warm locales being outweighed by greenwashing concerns.

Unfortunately, the NHL is essentially channeling Will Ferrell, who when hilariously impersonating President George W. Bush giving a talk on global warming 15 years ago, said “we don’t need to listen to nature, we need nature to cooperate with us.”

 

 

This is the wrong message for an organization with a powerful platform that has been a Green-Sports pioneer for more than a decade (click here, here and here for examples).

So, here is a bit of constructive if unsolicited advice for the NHL:

Never host outdoor games in Lake Tahoe or Los Angeles again.

And here’s some more unsolicited help — I’ve written the beginning of the press release announcing the switch:

NEW YORK: The National Hockey League announced today that it will no longer play outdoor games in Los Angeles and Lake Tahoe.

“According to the IPCC, the world has until 2030 to decarbonize by 45 percent if we’re to avoid the most calamitous impacts of climate change,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman noted. “Playing outdoor games in places like Dodger Stadium and on Lake Tahoe, while fun for fans and players alike, gives the impression that we’re not serious about doing our part to take on the climate crisis. Nothing could be further from the truth. And so, that is why we are no longer going to play outdoor games there, nor will we expand our outdoor game roster to cities like Miami, Tampa and Phoenix. We will turn things around on climate.”

 

Photo at Top: The Colorado Avalanche (white uniforms) and the Las Vegas Golden Knights played on ‘soupy ice’ during the first period of their outdoor game at Lake Tahoe on February 20 (Photo credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

 

 


 

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