AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — The National Hockey League transformed the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium Saturday night into a winter wonderland, sparing no expense in a clash between the Colorado Avalanche and the Los Angeles Kings in the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series.
Stadium features and accessories unique to the Air Force set this game apart from many of the NHL’s previous 29 outdoor games.
Players emerged from the stadium tunnel and walked down a mock runway the led toward an ice rink flanked by almost 1,000 cadets, the first ever F-16 Thunderbird, and lights and signs that turned the surrounding area into an miniature airfield.
Leading the teams out was 107-year-old retired Air Force pilot Col. Oliver Cellini, who flew 87 combat missions in the Pacific over the course of World War II and served under Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, commander of the famed “Flying Tigers.”
Three F-16 Fighting Falcons led by a KC-10 tanker roared overhead, sending the sellout crowd of 43,574 into a frenzy that lasted well into the night despite temperatures that dipped as low as 26 degrees.
And while Falcon Stadium, which sits at 6,621 feet above sea level, proved a worthy host — aside from the horrendous traffic that caused some fans to miss nearly two-thirds of the game — the night belonged to the visitors from Southern California.
The Kings edged the Avs 3-1 behind the first ever outdoors hat trick courtesy of forward Tyler Toffoli.
“It was really cool,” Toffoli said postgame. “I think this whole experience has been pretty incredible.”
On his way to visitor’s locker room after the game, the star of the night handed off his stick to a cheering cadet.
“The things that they do for the United States, all over the world, is pretty impressive,” he said of the gesture. “So, it wasn’t a very hard decision.”
Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick stopped 32 of 33 shots, including five by Avs center Nathan MacKinnon, who, despite shouldering the disappointing result, said the event will be one he’ll remember fondly.
“The coolest part was seeing the cadets and all the people who serve,” MacKinnon said. “They had so much energy when we were coming in and out of the dressing room. That was really cool; it definitely stuck out for me.”
Kings captain Anze Kopitar, playing in his third outdoor game, echoed his opponent’s sentiments.
“We didn’t have the flyover in the first two we played in in LA and San Jose, so I was looking forward to that,” Kopitar said.
Saturday’s game marked the second time in three years the NHL has played outdoors at a service academy. In 2018, the Washington Capitals beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2 in front of nearly 30,000 fans at the Naval Academy’s Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
“Just the atmosphere around here,” Kopitar said. “The setup was great. And getting the win at the end of the day, it certainly helps with the experience.”
Sights, sounds, and numbers of this year’s Stadium Series:
- The game between the Avalanche and Kings marked the 30th time the NHL has played outdoors.
- Nearly an hour before puck drop, fans were treated to an additional flyover by four F-35 Lightning IIs.
- Country singer Sam Hunt performed during the first intermission on a stage resembling a helicopter landing pad.
- A custom 53-foot refrigeration unit, with a 300-ton capacity, was used to keep the ice cool for yesterday’s game.
- 350 gallons of paint were used to ensure the ice maintained its white appearance.
- 3,000 gallons of coolant were used to keep the ice frozen.
- 20,000 gallons of water were spread to create the two-inch ice surface.