LAS VEGAS — Zach Werenski raised his arms in triumph in the middle of the Fountains of Bellagio on Thursday, water shooting into the night sky behind him in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip.
The Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman won the Discover NHL Fountain Face-Off, an event created especially for the 2022 NHL All-Star Skills presented by DraftKings Sportsbook at T-Mobile Arena on Friday.
Eight players arrived in a boat, stood on a set resembling an NHL rink on unfrozen ice, and shot pucks at targets to see who could hit them the fastest.
“It was awesome,” Werenski said. “I’ve been to Vegas a few times, and I feel like every time you come here, you walk by [the Bellagio fountains]. You watch the fountains go off.”
This was the one time, though, you could watch NHL players show off and the fountains go off as part of the same spectacle.
It was the most ambitious thing the NHL had pulled off since … well, right beforehand, when the League shut down the southbound lanes of Las Vegas Boulevard for the Las Vegas NHL 21 in ’22, another event created especially for the All-Star Skills here.
Five players stood on a stage in the middle of the street and shot pucks at oversized cards in a game combining hockey and blackjack.
Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski, a former member of the San Jose Sharks, was crowned the “Puck Shark” while the sun set and the lights came alive on the Strip.
“Like, when have you ever been here and seen something like that?” said Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, who faced Pavelski in the final round of the event.
The NHL always tries to celebrate the local market at big events. But holding an All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas in particular, culminating with the 2022 Honda NHL All-Star Game at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday (3 p.m. ET; ABC, SN, TVAS), presented unique opportunities.
“Vegas forces you to think out of the box,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “It just does. If you were going to come in here and just do an event and go home, you would probably do yourself a disservice.
“You really want to come here and be a part of what is already going on here, and that’s every night incredible entertainment.”
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The NHL has vast experience staging all kinds of events in all kinds of places. It had put on a show in the Bellagio fountains before, when the Las Vegas band Panic! At The Disco performed before Game 5 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights.
Still, this was an immense challenge.
These were the first outdoor All-Star Skills events in NHL history, and they were the products of months of preparation and days of setup by countless employees and contractors, including scuba divers.
The NHL had to come up with rules and infrastructure for each event from scratch. It had to optimize the look for television while incorporating the events in the arena with the Verizon NHL Fastest Skater, Dunkin’ NHL Save Streak, EA SPORTS NHL Hardest Shot, adidas NHL Breakaway Challenge and Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting.
The Strip’s main street rarely shuts down, and the Bellagio fountains had never hosted a sporting event. The NHL needed permits, approvals and cooperation from Clark County, the City of Las Vegas, MGM Resorts and others, a long process that wasn’t final until recently.
“An idea’s an idea, but if you can’t execute it, you can’t execute it,” Mayer said. “A few times, we could have just said, ‘You know what? Let’s move on.’ And we didn’t.”
The NHL tested ideas in a parking lot at T-Mobile Arena in November with the goal of creating events that weren’t too easy or too hard so the players could have fun, display their skills and entertain the fans.
For the 21 in ’22, the NHL settled on 24-by-32-inch cards of thin plastic that broke when struck by pucks. The 52-card deck would be hung in a grid, with four rows of 13 cards. The players would stand on artificial ice on a shooting deck 35 feet away, giving them enough room to hit the top row. They’d try to hit 21 without going bust. Once a card was hit, it would be discarded.
For the Fountain Face-Off, the NHL modeled a regulation rink in the water. The players would stand on artificial ice on a platform representing center ice, and they would shoot over the water at platforms of artificial ice — a net, the left and right face-off circles, and the neutral-zone face-off dots. They’d see who hit the targets in the least amount of time.
For each event, the puck would glow orange so it could be seen in the dark. SportsMEDIA Technology, the company that makes the pucks for the NHL Puck and Player Tracking system, replaced the infrared sensors with LED lights that glowed orange when the players tapped the pucks with their sticks.
The NHL started setting up Sunday, using at least 15 scuba divers in the fountains. Unable to rehearse on Las Vegas Boulevard, the League held a rehearsal for the 21 in ’22 in a warehouse Tuesday; it would get only one take on the street. It held a rehearsal for the Fountain Face-Off in the fountains Wednesday night.
“It was a true Vegas team effort in order to make all this happen,” Mayer said. “You need that. You also have a lot of people here who completely get it. This is what they do. When you say a ‘crazy idea,’ to them it’s not crazy at all.”
The timing was a secret.
The first concern was safety, security and crowd control. It wasn’t practical to have a lot of people watching the action on the street and near the fountains.
But the NHL also wanted to wire the players for sound and edit the segments for television, and it wanted to show them on the video screen in the arena during the All-Star Skills to fill the time during normal ice resurfacing.
“The folks in the arena, they’ll never, ever have no action,” Mayer said.
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Cars cruised south on Las Vegas Boulevard as usual at 3:30 p.m. PT on Thursday, but the right two lanes by the Bellagio were closed, filled with equipment. Workers sorted oversized cards on a table almost like they were dealing blackjack inside the casino.
At 3:45 p.m., the police closed that section of the street, and workers sprang into action like a NASCAR pit crew to set up for the 21 in ’22, installing the shooting platform, the truss holding the cards, the lights and the cameras.
At 4:45 p.m., the players strolled down the sidewalk in their NHL jerseys: Pavelski, Stamkos, Nazem Kadri of the Colorado Avalanche, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators.
By 5:05 p.m., they were onstage, smiling, laughing and shooting. Each hit 21 in the first round, and Pavelski defeated Stamkos in the final round by hitting the highest card.
“It was amazing to watch their accuracy,” Mayer said. “I was blown away. That’s not easy, and they were really just calling cards out and hitting them. That was pretty cool.
“You want to show that there’s a reason why these are the greatest players in the world, and this event clearly showed how great they can be.”
By 5:30 p.m., the 21 in ’22 was over, and the NASCAR pit crew sprang back into action to clear the street by 6:15 p.m. The NHL had promised to take only so much time.
“After the event, we’re standing there and just messing around, and they’re like, ‘Let’s go. We’ve got to you off the stage. It’s got to be down in about four minutes, or we’re going to get fined,'” Pavelski said with a laugh. “So it was a big deal. It was fun.”
Then the action moved across the sidewalk to the Fountain Face-Off.
The players gathered in a maintenance area known as the “Bat Cave” underneath the Bellagio.
Werenski, Seattle Kraken forward Jordan Eberle, Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude Giroux, Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau, Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi, former United States women’s national team forward Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, Vegas Golden Knights forward Mark Stone and Montreal Canadiens forward Nick Suzuki boarded a barge usually used for maintaining plants around the fountains.
At 6:50 p.m., they shipped off.
“I really had no idea what to expect, and I don’t think any of us did, because it’s never been done before,” Werenski said.
In the qualifying round, each shot at the net, the right and left-faceoff circles, and one of the neutral-zone face-off dots with the fountains shooting water at a calm, constant height. Josi (11.855 seconds) and Werenski (15.163) had the best times and advanced to the head-to-head final.
At 7:40 p.m., the others boarded the boat and headed back, leaving Josi and Werenski to see who hit all five targets fastest — with the fountains booming full blast.
“It was so cool,” Josi said. “You come to Vegas to see the fountains, right? It’s one of the coolest things here.”
Werenski said he wanted to win so badly that he wasn’t distracted while he hit the five targets in 25.634 seconds, but he soaked up the scene in more ways than one while watching Josi hit them in 47.454.
“I think that was the coolest part, was when the big fountains were going off and how loud they are,” Werenski said. “You could feel the mist from them a little bit. It was an awesome event they put on. It was better than I expected it to be.”
It was like nothing the NHL had ever seen, a one-of-a-kind Vegas show, a memory that will last a lifetime.
“It was different,” Werenski said. “It’s one of those things where, you can skate fastest-skater lap whenever. You can shoot pucks at targets whenever. But I’ll never shoot pucks in the Bellagio fountains again.”