ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild practiced outdoors on Thursday, Jan. 2, getting in an hour of on-ice work in near-perfect conditions, with a standing-room-only audience on hand, at a suburban Minneapolis youth hockey rink.
Seeing the local NHL team on the ice at the mercy of the Minnesota winter elements was a scene they are sure to repeat once or twice sometime in the next 360 days or so, in preparation for the league’s biggest regular season show finally coming to town.
On Jan. 1, 2021, a sellout audience is expected to pack Target Field, the downtown Minneapolis ballpark that houses the Minnesota Twins, to see the Wild face off in the Winter Classic.
There is a general consensus that the event, which started in 2008 with the Buffalo Sabres hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Buffalo Bills’ football stadium, should have come to Minnesota many years ago. Still, officials from the Wild and Twins were all smiles on Thursday, Jan. 2.
“We have been surprised at how long it took to come to the State of Hockey. But all of that’s behind us now,” said Wild team president Matt Majka. “We’re thrilled to do this and I know our market is, too. We’re going to have a heck of a party on January 1, 2021.”
It will be the second outdoor NHL game held in Minneapolis, after the Wild beat the Chicago Blackhawks at TCF Bank Stadium on Feb. 21, 2016, with a crowd of 50,000 on hand. The move across the river to Target Field will mean a more intimate setting, and likely more expensive tickets that are tougher to get.
Twins president Dave St. Peter said they expect seating for about 40,000 at the ballpark, depending on the rink’s configuration, and there are efforts underway to prepare the facility, which is normally only in use between April and October.
“The ballpark was built for baseball. It’s not built to host hockey on Jan. 1, so we have embarked on a process to fully winterize the building, making sure we have running water to the restrooms and all the concession stands are operating on Jan. 1, just like they would be on July 1,” St. Peter said. “That’s a commitment for us. Yes, it helps us bring this event to Minnesota.
"We think it also helps us for baseball early in April and hopefully into late October. It was something that was necessary to host this event, and from our perspective, we thought it was worth it.”
The Wild’s opponent for the game has not yet been named. Majka said he expects that the foe will be set in the coming month or so, with the NHL looking for a team that’s a natural rival and that has fans who travel well. With those stipulations in mind, one could realistically expect a Central Division foe like the Winnipeg Jets or St. Louis Blues to come to Minneapolis.
The Blues hosted the 2017 Winter Classic at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, while the Jets have played in a pair of stadium games, including a win over the Calgary Flames earlier this season before 33,518 at a Canadian Football League stadium in Regina, Sask.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau is 2-0 as a coach in outdoor games, having directed the Washington Capitals to a win over the Penguins in the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, which was played in a steady rain. He also coached the Anaheim Ducks to a 3-0 win over the Kings in a 2014 Stadium Series game played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
“The weather is the biggest thing. I thought yesterday’s game was in absolute perfect conditions. If there was a roof on it, you wouldn’t have known the difference,” Boudreau said, referencing the Dallas Stars’ 3-2 win over the Nashville Predators, played with temperatures in the 50s and cloudy skies at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. “Sometimes when we played, it was in pouring rain and it was a little more difficult. Sometimes if it’s 30-below, which I’ve felt it here before, then it becomes a little different.
"The shifts become slower. The speed of the game probably slows down. But if you get the right conditions like they are right now, for a New Year’s game, it’ll be quite a spectacle.
Just how big a spectacle it will be is up in the air. Melvin Tennant from Sports Minneapolis said they look forward to another opportunity to showcase the community during the cold weather months, to encourage more winter tourism to the region.
St. Peter, a University of North Dakota graduate, said it would be a dream to have his alma mater play the Minnesota Gophers at Target Field on New Year's Eve, but admitted that it might be hard to arrange, logistically. Other communities that have hosted the Winter Classic have made it a week-long celebration of the game, with college, high school and youth hockey games played at the stadium as well and open skating sessions for fans.
“I think that’s something that the Wild and the Twins are going to take a look at,” St. Peter said. “We want to maximize ways for the community to engage around the Winter Classic.”
After more than a decade of watching other teams and cities host the Winter Classic — some of them more than once — it seems the Wild and the Twins are determined to make the event worth the wait.