Behind the scenes at the NHL outdoor Vegas skills competitions

How to make the NHL All-Star Game even better

10:00 PM ET

LAS VEGAS — Dallas Stars center Joe Pavelski stood 35 feet away from his target, staring into the cool air. He slapped the puck with his stick and took a shot. Not at a goalie. Not even at a goal. At a large playing card: the ace of diamonds, which the puck punctured like a dart.

“Ace!” exclaimed Pavelski, taunting the four other NHL players with whom he was competing.

The players were in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard, which had been shut down for two hours so Joe Pavelski could shoot at a rack of 52 cards with a glowing red puck. The Eiffel Tower was illuminated to their left. The sun slowly set behind the casinos to their right. Showgirls in feathered costumes patrolled the sidewalks.

On Thursday night, the NHL did something it had never done before by staging two All-Star Game skills competitions outdoors: the “Las Vegas NHL 21 in ’22” that shuttered the Vegas Strip for street hockey blackjack, and the “Discover NHL Fountain Face-Off,” in which players traveled by boat to a platform in the middle of the Bellagio fountains for a timed shooting accuracy competition.

“What movie are they shooting here?” asked a passerby, as she looked at the stages and the cameras.

Her question was actually more relevant than she had anticipated: Along with these being the first outdoor events in NHL All-Star history, Thursday night marked the first time the NHL has taped skills competitions ahead of the event itself, held the night before the All-Star Game.

“We’re never going to say it’s live, but for some people, it might feel like we actually did go down to the Strip during the event,” Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer and the visionary behind these spectacles, said on Thursday.

Pavelski and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski attended Friday night’s skills competition at T-Mobile Arena having already won events the previous day. Pavelski captured the “NHL 21 in ’22” challenge on the shuttered Strip, while Werenski won the “NHL Fountain Face-Off.” Their outdoor triumphs were edited together in a marathon session and shown during breaks in the NHL All-Star Skills Competition when the ice needed treatment.

“I don’t think any of us knew what to expect, because it’s never been done before,” Werenski said.

News of their triumphs was kept surprisingly quiet after Thursday night. How did the NHL pull off something so grandiose while maintaining a semblance of secrecy?

The answer involves meticulous planning, thorough testing and around 20 frogmen.

The NHL has always used its All-Star Weekend for audacious ideas. Sometimes that has meant the very format of the game: “North America vs. The World” or the player-led fantasy draft or the current 3-on-3 tournament. More often, it has meant getting creative in its skills competition events: goalie races, a hockey version of “Top Golf” and a trick-shot challenge that has featured everything from players using two sticks to players dressed as Superman and Chewbacca.

With the 2022 All-Star Game in Las Vegas, Mayer knew the league had the chance to really push the envelope. He began planning an attempt at outdoor events as early as the summer of 2021.

The league had used the Bellagio fountains as a venue before. At the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, Panic! At The Disco performed on a stage in the water as part of Game 5 between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Washington Capitals. Holding one of the skills competition events on the lake seemed like the next evolution.

After other possible locations, including the iconic “Welcome To Las Vegas” sign, were considered, closing Las Vegas Boulevard in front of the Bellagio was the best logistical option for the other event. Cameras and tech gear could be assembled on the sidewalk to film the card game in the street, and then swing around for the fountain event.

The NHL went to city officials with their plans, having calculated how much time would be needed to move everything in place and deconstruct it. They agreed on a two-hour window in which the famed Strip would be blocked off for hockey’s version of blackjack.

“We’re on the Strip and it’s shut down. You see no cars. I just think it feels like a big event,” Mayer said.

Las Vegas Boulevard was shut down so that the “21 in ’22” event could take place. Greg Wyshynski/ESPN

There are three basic facets to the creation of the outdoor skills competitions: concept, logistics and testing.

The “Las Vegas NHL 21 in ’22” competition was born out of a desire to mimic a traditional Las Vegas casino game. They thought about roulette and poker. But blackjack seemed like the simplest game to translate to a skills competition.

The cards themselves provided one challenge. The NHL tested out different sizes and materials. The organizers settled on cards that were roughly 32 by 22 inches and made from a plastic compound that would allow them to break but not shatter, giving off a solid “thump” when punctured.

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Both events were workshopped in the parking lot of T-Mobile Arena and in a nearby warehouse before All-Star Weekend. Members of the NHL’s hockey operations and Department of Player Safety — some of whom are former NHL players — tested them out.

Along with the size and make of the cards, the biggest challenge in the “Las Vegas NHL 21 in ’22” competition was figuring out how far away the players’ stage needed to be from the rack of cards. Initially, it was significantly closer, but that made hitting the top row of cards quite difficult due to the puck elevation needed. The stage was moved back to 35 feet.

“I think it was pretty good. If it gets too hard, people start looking like fools,” Pavelski said.

The pucks used in the event were treated like game pucks, frozen inside an orange cooler. The events used player-tracking pucks, but instead of embedded infrared sensors, the pucks had six LED lights placed in them.

Please recall Pavelski slapping the puck with his stick before shooting at that ace of diamonds: Doing so ignited the red lights on the puck. Every player had to do the same before each shot in both events.

A closer look at the special pucks used in the outdoor events at the 2022 NHL All-Star Skills Competition. Greg Wyshynski/ESPN

For the fountain shootout, the concept was simple: a timed competition in which players would have to land shots onto five “floating” targets on the water. The layout mimicked that of a hockey rink: The players would shoot from “center ice” at targets placed on the blue line in front of them; at two large circles in the “offensive zone”; and then into a regulation NHL net in between them.

The NHL began constructing the stage on Sunday of All-Star week, working around the clock. Twenty scuba divers secured the foundations of the platforms, which was more than the league anticipated using. They worked in three crews, rotating in and out, because the lake was so cold.

There was also an unanticipated three-hour delay one day. One of the boats that maintained the fountains capsized, blocking the NHL’s entrance to the lake.

One big change in concept for the fountain shootout came during the testing phase: The NHL decided that the target areas needed raised rims around them to prevent the pucks from just sliding off into the water because of their momentum. But that also meant shooters needed to elevate their shots over the rim, adding an extra layer of challenge.

“We test with guys that played in the NHL,” said Patrick Burke of NHL’s player safety department. “But until you get Roman Josi out there and [you see] that it looks really easy for him, it’s a different thing.”

Both the blackjack and fountain events had stages with areas of synthetic ice on them to allow the players to slide the pucks at their targets.

“It was a little slippery,” said Pavelski, “and you really don’t want to fall.”

It was 3:34 p.m. local time on Thursday. Las Vegas was in an off-peak tourist season, with temperatures that could plunge below freezing at night, but dozens of people were still crowded around the Bellagio fountains to gawk at their famous dancing waters.

Local police had shut down two lanes of traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard so the NHL could store its giant rack of cards and other staging. At 3:48 p.m., police moved their roadblocks into position to close this stretch of the Strip to cars, and the NHL’s crew began moving things into position. That included making sure the cards were all there and sorted.

Two minutes later, police began asking people to leave the sidewalk in front of the Bellagio, eventually setting up barricades at both ends.

The NHL was worried about word leaking that these events were being held and recorded on Thursday evening, because of the crowds they would attract. But there was no “bat signal” put up on social media to alert hockey fans. Frankly, onlookers might have mistaken it for a rehearsal, since the actual skills competition wasn’t until Friday night. Still, a few dozen of them lined up across the street on Las Vegas Boulevard, some wearing their favorite team’s jersey and occasionally shouting out encouragement to the participants.

An event that requires the use of 20 scuba divers to set up? Epic! Greg Wyshynski/ESPN

(The organizers couldn’t shoo away everyone, however. One intrepid fan managed to watch the entire blackjack event from the sidewalk in front of the Bellagio, blending in with credentialed onlookers. He later took a photo with Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri as he left.)

At 4:26 p.m., with the sun having ducked behind the Bellagio, five NHL players, along with some friends and family members, walked down the sidewalk to the event. Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, carrying his child, was joined by Pavelski, Kadri, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators.

“Last night we tested this, the way it looks and the lighting. This was like … it better look good, because we had one chance to do this,” Mayer said.

There were 52 cards hung on metal hooks, on a metal frame that stretched across the closed lanes of The Strip. The goal was, as in blackjack, to create a hand that added up as close to “21” as possible without going over. Each time a card was punctured, it was removed by an NHL crew member who used a hockey stick to bring it down.

There were also two referees to help with any close calls, which luckily there were not.

The players drew cards to see who would go first. After some confusion about the value of an ace, it was determined that Matthews would start the game.

As the event commenced, it became obvious why a pre-tape was a shrewd decision. There were long delays between shots. The players wore mics and earpieces. They bantered with each other and with comedian Gerry Dee — doing play-by-play, although not over any speakers at the event — and chatted with reporter Laura Rutledge. The NHL would also update them on the rules of the game and strategy, as well as on the phases of the event.

“The biggest issue is, because it’s so new, you gotta be in their ear the whole time and explain to them all the elements. The TV audience will know [how the game works], but these guys were hearing it for the first time. But they were all blackjack players. So that made it a little easier,” Mayer said.

That wasn’t immediately evident. Matthews’ first shot hit the three of diamonds. Tkachuk missed with his first shot, ringing it off the metal posts, and then hit the two of hearts.

“I think they knew exactly what they were going for. It just didn’t happen,” Pavelski said. “You come out to that event and you don’t take a [practice] shot. You’re just standing there and shooting, trying to get that depth perception. You don’t know if that bottom row is a little under or a little up.”

After drawing an ace, Auston Matthews earned the right to go first in the contest. Greg Wyshynski/ESPN

Pavelski, meanwhile, was a card shark: He hit the ace of diamonds and then the king of diamonds, hitting 21 first with the highest possible combination of cards.

He was also aces when it came to banter. “You can see Joe Pavelski knows what he’s doing. When there’s a pause, he talks. He could be the host out there,” Burke said.

That included trying to get his opponents off their games.

“You’re going low and telling everyone to go high!” lamented Kadri at one point to Pavelski.

But the players’ blackjack savvy was evident by the end of the first round, as every player made 21 and advanced to the next round, where players would get one shot and the highest-value cards advanced. Pavelski hit an ace. So did Stamkos, which froze out the other competitors.

“Gotta know the rules, boys!” said the Lightning star, gleefully.

The two remaining players engaged in a blackjack battle that would have attracted a crowd at a casino table. Although it wasn’t shown on the edited version for the broadcast, Pavelski and Stamkos both hit kings on their next shots to remain tied. But in the end, Pavelski hit the queen of clubs and Stamkos nipped the four of clubs, giving the Stars forward the win.

Pavelski celebrated by having his 11-year-old son, Nate, take a shot from the stage, and he managed to hit a card on his second attempt, as the players tapped their sticks in appreciation.

“At the end, we were just messing around, and they were like ‘Let’s go … we gotta get you off the stage or we’re going to get fined!’” Pavelski said.

The mood throughout the “21 in ’22” event was jovial, with Joe Pavelski emerging as the winner. Greg Wyshynski/ESPN

The players walked back down the sidewalk to the staging area underneath the shops at the Bellagio. The breakdown of the set began at 5:40 p.m., as cameras and gear swung across to where the fountain shootout would be held.

Two NHL crew members swept up debris from the road; it turns out one of the errant shots shattered a spotlight behind the stage. “There were a couple of pucks that went through the cards and hit the lights,” Pavelski said. “You got that double explosion. It was cool.”

One person used a broom, while the other used one of the playing cards as a dustpan.

“If we lose a couple of lights, that’s fine,” Mayer said. “There’s a reason why these guys are considered the greatest athletes in the world, and this event showed how great they can be.”

At 6:15 p.m., the shuttered lanes of Las Vegas Boulevard reopened to traffic. Soon after, the sidewalk was reopened to pedestrians, although a large portion of it was cordoned off in preparation for the fountain shootout. Fans started crowding around the metal partitions, waiting for the players to arrive.

Which they did, at around 6:53 p.m. — on a barge.

There were three boats in the water during the “NHL Fountain Face-Off”: two small crafts that helped collect pucks and maintain the set and the barge that brought the players, refs, NHL personnel and camera operators to the center stage. That barge is typically used for horticulture around the Bellagio foundations.

“I was wondering how we got there. I assumed it had to be by boat,” Werenski said.

“I’ve been to Vegas a few times, and every time you come here, you walk by them, see the fountains go off,” Werenski said. “When I heard about it originally, I was kinda hoping that was the one I had to do. Just being out there, taking it all in, it was unbelievable from our perspective.”

As the players disembarked from the barge, the fans gathered on the sidewalk began to realize what they were about to witness. Not a run-through, not a rehearsal — the actual All-Star event.

“Wait, are those players?” exclaimed one, excitedly. “I’m from Winnipeg! I’ll swim out there! I really want to meet them!”

Before sailing to the stage, the players gathered in what one NHL official called “the Bat Cave.” It was a dock, housed underneath the Alexander McQueen store at the Bellagio shops and looking very much like something from a Bond villain’s lair. Inside was a green room, where the players suited up and waited for their event.

The rules for the fountain shootout changed before the event. Originally, it was going to be a tournament, in which groups of two shooters competed against each other. Instead, the players who landed four pucks on four different targets in the fastest time advanced to the final round.

Another change came in the staging, as the NHL used only half the “rink” for the shootout. That was a made-for-television decision, as the lighting worked better in that direction.

“Once we got into testing, it was easier for broadcast to set up the cameras and get set [with one side]. It’s so we can see the pucks, even when they’re glowing,” Burke said.

The NHL All-Star Weekend begins with the Skills Competition on Friday, Feb. 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. The All-Star Game will be broadcast live on Saturday, Feb. 5 on ABC and ESPN+, beginning at 3 p.m. ET.

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Joining Werenski in the event were Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi, Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux, Seattle Kraken winger Jordan Eberle, Vegas Golden Knights winger Mark Stone, Montreal Canadiens center Nick Suzuki, Team USA gold medalist Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers, who shot first.

The fountains in the background created a screen of mist on which the NHL projected the event’s logo and the name of each player. Sometimes there was a delay as the projectionist adjusted the font size for the names. Getting “Mark Stone” on the mist was easy; getting “Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson” and “Jonathan Huberdeau” on there was, by the looks of it, a bit more challenging.

Huberdeau is one of the NHL’s scoring leaders and best puck handlers, but he missed on his first couple of shots. While this was no doubt frustrating for him, it was encouraging for his competitors.

“It kind of took the pressure off at that point. I just didn’t want to be last,” Werenski said.

Some of their shots would bounce into the target area and bounce out. A few dropped directly into the water, the red glow of the puck slowly disappearing in the depths. Suzuki had one of most memorable attempts, missing the net but having the puck skip atop the water like a stone.

After the first round, Werenski and Josi had the fastest times. The rest of the competitors returned to the barge, which sailed back to the “Bat Cave,” leaving the two blueliners to battle it out in the final round.

The NHL had indicated that the fountains would become a challenge for the competitors, and that manifested in the final round. Instead of a gentle curtain of mist, Werenski and Josi competed during a full-on Bellagio fountain show, with gigantic streams of water crashing down in a thunderous boom.

“I think that was the coolest part. When the big fountains were going off, and how loud they were,” Werenski said.

Louder than the cannon they fire off at Columbus Blue Jackets games?

“No. That’s hard to beat. But it was close, though,” he said.

The players could feel the spray of the water, too, which wasn’t ideal on a chilly evening. “We were out there for an hour at that point, and we were both shaking because it was so cold,” Josi said.

Werenski had a strong final round. Josi struggled. The fact that one of the pucks didn’t light up when he tapped it didn’t help. “I was getting nervous. I was like, ‘C’mon, c’mon!’” Josi said.

Werenski was victorious and was soon doing a winner’s circle interview as the fountains sprayed behind him.

“You can skate the fastest skater lap whenever. You can shoot at targets whenever,” Zach Werenski said. “But I’ll never shoot pucks in the Bellagio fountains again.” Greg Wyshynski/ESPN

It was 8 p.m., but the work was just starting for Mayer and his crew, who had to edit the footage into 10- to 12-minute segments for the following night’s skills competition broadcast. “I know that it’s going to be a long night editing, but I think it’s going to look good,” he said.

At the Bellagio, NHL personnel — including a diver — began collecting the errant pucks. The barricades on the sidewalk were taken down. Fans turned their attention to photo opportunities with Batman, Deadpool and two “S.W.A.T. troopers.”

The most ambitious NHL skills competitions ever were complete. Their winners were $30,000 richer and knew they had just been a part of history, for both the All-Star Game and hockey in Las Vegas.

“I don’t think we really knew how big of a deal it was until you start to hear the stories. The Strip’s only ever been closed down for a few movies, or in the middle of the night,” Pavelski said.

“You can skate the fastest skater lap whenever. You can shoot at targets whenever,” Werenski said. “But I’ll never shoot pucks in the Bellagio fountains again.”

Source: ESPN NHL


Author: Ellen Garcia