Behind the scenes at the NHL’s incredible dunk tank, golf events
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Hockey fans have seen Sidney Crosby raise the Stanley Cup, win Olympic gold and receive MVP honors. They had never, until this week, seen him emerge saturated and giggling after tumbling into a water-filled tank on a Florida beach.
For the past two seasons, the NHL has incorporated pre-taped outdoor events into its annual All-Star skills competition, held the night before the All-Star Game. In 2022, players shot pucks on the Las Vegas Strip and in the iconic fountains at The Bellagio casino.
With the Florida Panthers hosting the 2023 All-Star Game, the NHL tailored its events to the Sunshine State: One event that combined hockey with golf, and another that had the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and five other stars falling into five feet of water when their opponents shot a puck off an NHL logo target.
“I’m still soaked from it,” Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said, hours after he dropped into the Enterprise NHL Splash Shot tank Thursday. “But it was a lot of fun. I think the NHL’s doing a great job of trying to come up with new games to bring fans in.”
These pre-taped events have come to define both the skills competition and the reinvigorated spirit of the annual event. It wasn’t too long ago that players begrudgingly attended NHL All-Star Weekend and were so wary of being put in awkward situations that the league stopped doing its trick shot competition for a few seasons.
How times have changed. Now, Crosby is lobbying the league to let him compete in a dunk tank event and recruiting his friend Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche to be his partner.
“I just thought it would be cool,” Crosby told ESPN. “We’re in Florida. We’re at the beach. It was Nate and the guys. It was something different that we hadn’t done before.”
Both the hockey golf and dunk tank events were challenging undertakings, from concept to execution, from mechanics to the unpredictability of the environment.
“We knew coming to Florida that it’s a risk,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “Doing an event like this, which you can imagine is not cheap. If we’re in a rainy week, this is a disaster. But it’s worth the risk.”
Here’s how the NHL pulled off events that had players shooting pucks at colorful surfboards at the beach and over a water hazard at a country club. It wasn’t without its challenges, but it had plenty of triumphs.
Wednesday: Hockey meets golf
Police vehicles lined the traffic circle in front of Plantation Preserve Golf Course and Club on Wednesday, the first signifier that something out of the ordinary was happening at the public golf facility.
The second signifier was seeing four NHL players dressed for golf, wearing hockey gloves and using their sticks to shoot pucks at the grassy fairway in front them.
The setup of the Chipotle NHL Pitch ‘n’ Puck had four players — Dallas Stars winger Jason Robertson, Arizona Coyotes center Clayton Keller, Columbus Blue Jackets winger Johnny Gaudreau and Montreal Canadiens center Nick Suzuki — competing to see who could sink their putt first on a par-4 course.
The hockey twist: The players launched pucks with their sticks from patches of movable synthetic ice — something that protected the course and gave the players a better chance of lifting their shots. Once they cleared a water hazard and reached the putting green, they then used their sticks to knock a golf ball into the hole.
To protect the grass, the NHL put a large patch of turf where the unorthodox putting happened. The NHL originally looked at a synthetic ice surface that covered the area around the hole. “But every time [the puck] would hit, it just kept rolling, and it sucked,” Mayer said. “We built a wall and it would just bounce off the wall, too.”
It was 140 yards from the tee to the pin, with a large water hazard lingering 81 yards away. Each player had one “mulligan” to use. Assisting them with expert advice was Corey Conners, a Canadian golfer on the PGA Tour, who grew up playing hockey.
“I’d much rather hit a golf ball. The puck’s hard to get a distance on,” Conners said. “It’s tough. You have to manage the trajectory out here. It’s landing on grass. There are some funny bounces with the puck. They had some spin on it — it was curving sideways when it hit the grass.”
The players had varying degrees of golf experience. Robertson “had basically never picked up a golf club before,” according to Mayer. Still, he was the star of the warm-up round, as he nearly landed a puck all the way to the putting green from the tee box and skipped another one along the water like a pebble.
Suzuki, meanwhile, is an avid golfer. His first question when arriving for the event: Could he play a round after hockey golf was over?
He did, with Conners.
“We ended up playing five holes. It was an unreal afternoon,” Suzuki said. “Just to watch him play is special. I’ve never been that close to a PGA pro.”
Suzuki reported that Conners shot two under par while he was around two over par.
Mayer said he wished more players could have taken their swings in the golf event, but a combination of factors limited the field. There was the need to “spread the wealth,” considering that there are seven skills events in total. But the biggest factor was that the golf competition had to be held Wednesday, with only a handful of NHL players already in town ahead of Friday’s skills competition night.
Last season marked the first time the NHL decided to hold pre-taped skills competition events outside of the arena hosting the All-Star Game. It was a decision inspired by Las Vegas and the chance to create some events in the spirit of Sin City. The NHL set up a giant rack of playing cards set up on The Strip for Hockey Blackjack — players shot pucks at the cards in an effort to make 21. Across the sidewalk and in the middle of a manmade lake, the NHL also held a shooting accuracy competition in the fountains of The Bellagio casino.
The success of those events sparked a new All-Star Game tradition: Creating events that are themed to the All-Star Weekend’s host city.
“The first thing we did, and we’ll probably do it now to the end of time, is make the list of everything in the area that it’s known for,” Mayer said. “Golf is so prevalent here. We’re never shy to mix in another sport [with hockey], and our guys love to play golf, so why not?”
To design the event, Mayer needed some test subjects. He once again turned to the NHL Department of Player Safety, which helps craft and assess the annual skills competition events.
“George Parros was the key to this,” Mayer said of the NHL’s senior vice president of player safety. “He lives on a golf course. He would constantly go out and test different distances.”
Parros was impressed with how the players handled the event. “A legitimate birdie is great on any day, let alone one with two pucks and a golf ball. Hats off to them,” he said.
To further the testing, the NHL had former Florida Panthers players Shawn Thornton and Keith Yandle play every distance, shot and angle in order to figure out what worked best. The NHL filmed their session, and determined what it felt was the ideal distance to the hole and to the water.
“We wanted them to lay up. We didn’t want them to go for it in one [stroke],” Mayer said.
The four players took golf carts to the course, driving through a collection of Florida Panthers season-ticket holders and premium box owners. After five practice swings, they began lining up to take their first shots at the puck — rather than black rubber, it was painted white to better show up on the course.
As a drone filming the event buzzed overhead, Suzuki’s shot caught a great roll after hitting the grass. He waved to the crowd with this glove. Keller’s shot was flat but had good distance, Robertson’s shot was flat and did not and Gaudreau’s long drive had great backspin to set up his approach shot.
The four artificial ice surfaces were transported down the fairway. Now came the part Mayer was most looking forward to seeing: Sending the pucks across the lake.
“If I’m being honest, we wanted them to hit it into the water,” he said. “And they didn’t. That kind of blew me away, that they all got it on the green.”
All four hockey golfers safely cleared the water, with Gaudreau coming the closest to missing. Suzuki’s low shot had a friendly bounce to land near the hole. Someone in the crowd shouted “Boo-ya!” as it settled.
“It was harder than it looked,” Suzuki said. “The second shot was kind of scary: Into the wind a little bit, with the water. You really didn’t know how to touch it in there.”
The players walked over to the green. Their pucks were replaced with golf balls. Some leaned down to measure the distance to the hole with their hockey sticks.
Robertson missed, took his mulligan and missed wider. Gaudreau missed, took his mulligan and came close to the hole. Keller’s first shot lipped out, and he missed wide after taking his mulligan. That left Suzuki with a chance to birdie the hole and win.
The crowd was hushed. He stepped to his ball, around 12 feet away from the hole. He knocked the ball in with his stick and casually waved to the crowd.
“It was weird, trying to get the technique down,” Suzuki said. “I honestly thought my putt was too far to the left and then it broke in. I knew I had the mulligan in my back pocket, so that helped.”
Conners was impressed. “It was a pretty unique challenge. It looked very, very difficult but these guys are All-Stars,” he said. “They made it look really easy. Myself, I would have had a hard time getting the puck over the water. I thought there was going to be some reloads out there, but the guys were awesome.”
After the celebration, Suzuki was informed that he was the winner of a year’s supply of Chipotle, the sponsor of the event.
“It’s a huge bonus. Big bowl guy. Steak and chicken,” he told ESPN’s John Buccigross after the event.
Later, Suzuki admitted he might have to give his prize away. “We don’t have it in Montreal. Maybe I can give it to my brother,” he said. “It was a really fun event. It’s going to be a hit for sure.”
Thursday: The dunk tank
Sidney Crosby sat with his legs dangling into five feet of water and a nervous grin on his face. Mikko Rantanen shot a puck that clanged off the large NHL logo. Crosby’s seat collapsed. The Pittsburgh Penguins captain raised his arms as he submerged into the dunk tank’s water. He returned to the surface with a hearty laugh, the black baseball hat he was wearing temporarily adrift.
“I haven’t ever been in a dunk tank. I wouldn’t say I was happy about it,” Crosby said. “But Rantanen went 3-for-3 and I was like, ‘OK, this is happening.'”
Crosby asked for this. Mayer said the Penguins star heard about the dunk tank event, called NHL Discover Splash Shot, from an NHL marketing call. He petitioned the league to be part of it, a proposal they quickly accepted.
“He wanted to find someone to do this with. He’s the one who made the phone calls,” Mayer said.
Crosby partnered with his friend and fellow Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia native Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.
The NHL figured it could find chemistry and camaraderie in the event by having teammates competing as duos. For example, Toronto Maple Leafs stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were set to compete together before Matthews was forced out of All-Star Weekend with an injury.
MacKinnon’s teammates Makar and Rantanen formed a team, as did New York Rangers teammates Adam Fox, a defenseman, and Igor Shesterkin, a goaltender.
Shesterkin’s involvement was a surprise, since goalies are rarely involved in events that primarily focus on skaters. When the NHL discussed the event with the Rangers, the team offered up Shesterkin as a possibility to team with Fox. “They said he wanted to do it,” Mayer said of Shesterkin, who wielded his goalie stick in the competition.
Rounding out the field of four were a pair of brothers: Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk and Matthew Tkachuk, the hometown pick from the Florida Panthers fans that made up part of the estimated 1,200 fans in attendance.
As one might expect, the atmosphere at the beach was more boisterous than it was at the golf event. A group of New York Islanders fans chanted “let’s go Islanders!” at the Rangers players; Florida fans drowned that out with “let’s go Panthers!” before one solitary Ottawa fan chanted “Go Sens Go,” which drew laughter from the other fans in attendance. It was that kind of afternoon.
The dunk tank event was initially conceived for the 2020 NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis. Mayer said they wanted to do a dunk talk on the ice during the skills competition. “At that time, there were some controversial figures in and around hockey that we thought people might want to dunk,” he said.
The NHL opted for something a little less splashy: a variation on Top Golf that incorporated NHL stars and women’s national team players. But the dunk tank concept was so popular, they kept it in mind for future installments.
“The ones we think are pretty good never die,” Mayer said.
Once the NHL knew its Fan Fest would be located on the Fort Lauderdale beach, their creative brainstorming began. One early idea: Somehow incorporating live alligators into an event. Mayer said that proved to be “a little complicated.” Instead, the NHL ran back the dunk tank concept.
The NHL was concerned that a traditional dunk tank setup — shooting pucks at a target to trigger the drop — would too closely resemble the shot accuracy skills competition, where players fire pucks at targets placed in each corner of the net. So the league added elements to make Splash Shot stand out: Competitors would have to knock down six foam surfboards before getting a chance to shoot at the target.
The tanks were placed directly in front of the beach — pucks that missed the boards would fly off into the sand or, in some cases, all the way into the ocean. Fans dove in to scavenge for them after the event. The Splash Shot would also be a timed event: The team that shoots first establishes a time that the second team has to beat.
After the players applied some sunscreen — it was sunny and in the mid-80s at the NHL FanFest where the event was held — Matthew Tkachuk and Shesterkin climbed into their respective tanks.
Fox took several shots to knock down the surfboards but hit the NHL logo with one wrister. Tkachuk tumbled into the water, and remained there to cool off.
Brady Tkachuk took his turn to the right of Fox, hitting a few boards before running out of time. Shesterkin shrugged and then eventually jumped into the tank on his own.
“I have to admit: I’m not sure everybody knew how deep the water was when they got here. But they were great about it,” Mayer admitted.
Or, as Makar put it: “It was definitely deeper than we expected.”
NHL splash shot explained
Take a look at the rules for the NHL All-Star Splash Shot.
Makar and Crosby entered the tank next. Rantanen made quick work of the boards before dunking Crosby. As he shook the water out of his hair, a fan chanted “Let’s go Flyers!”
MacKinnon shot from Rantanen’s right. He hit all the targets … but four of them refused to fall down. For the second shooter in a row, direct hits to the targets didn’t bring down the boards.
The Avalanche and Rangers teams made the final round. Fox climbed into the tank on the right side. Makar, still saturated, shot at the surfboards to his right. Again, two fell but his hard shots at the others couldn’t topple them.
Something was wrong.
“We were ripping it hard. I think it had something to do with the wind because the [water] tanks were blocking the other side,” Makar theorized.
The NHL rehearsed all morning with a collection of hockey influencers known for their shooting skills. The event went off without a hitch. The wind later in the day was one issue. Another was the shooting position of the NHL stars: They were shooting from the side rather than straight on like the shooters in the practice run, who moved down the line to shoot at each board.
The NHL decided to call an audible. Makar would shoot again, this time on the left side. Fox climbed over to Rantanen’s seat. “Let’s redo this final! Let’s get a fair winner!” the event announcer said.
“You never can predict [what happens] in these events,” Mayer said. “For some reason, if there wasn’t a direct hit here, they didn’t fall because the wind was coming from the back. So we made adjustments.”
Makar dunked Fox in 18 seconds. Shesterkin stepped up next with the event on the line. Wielding his goalie stick, Shesterkin knocked down five boards before time ran out. The fans chanted his name. He returned to knock down the final board and hit the target to dunk Rantanen, but the event was done. The Avalanche were “Splash Shot” champions.
“It was fun. It was unique,” Makar said. “As long as the fans are happy, we’re happy.”
“The beauty of editing makes me feel like this is going to look beautiful on television,” Mayer said.
For the second straight year, the NHL had taken its action outside the arena and offered its fans a different kind of event while giving its All-Stars a memorable experience.
“I don’t get many moments with the greatest players, and they were so cool,” Mayer said. “They were trash talking. Sidney Crosby goes in a dunk tank and laughs about it. For all those reasons, it was a complete success.”
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