ST. PAUL, Minn. — Each time the NHL holds an outdoor game, players tell warm stories about cold days on outdoor rinks growing up. But this time is different, especially for Nick Bjugstad and Alex Goligoski.
Bjugstad and Goligoski grew up playing outdoors in Minnesota, played for their local high schools and the University of Minnesota, and will play for the Minnesota Wild against the St. Louis Blues in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE).
“That’s where the game started for us,” said Bjugstad, a forward. “It’s a way for us to play an NHL game while we’re doing it for a living but also kind of incorporate it with our inner child, and I think that’ll be really cool.”
Bjugstad and Goligoski represent the State of Hockey, where outdoor hockey isn’t just romantic, it’s part of real life perhaps more than anywhere else in the United States. Minnesota has produced 283 NHL players, more than any other U.S. state. (Massachusetts is second with 208.)
The Winter Classic will celebrate the State of Hockey by making Target Field in Minneapolis, the home of the Minnesota Twins of Major League Baseball, look like the site of a pond hockey tournament. Various teams and clubs from around the state will skate on an auxiliary rink and be recognized.
“I mean, all the communities rally around hockey so much,” said Goligoski, a defenseman. “It’s such a big part of all the communities around here. You drive around, there’s rinks everywhere. You can’t miss them. There’s kids out on them every day.
“So, I mean, it’s just natural that we end up producing a lot of really good hockey players. There is a ton of pride for hockey here and seeing local kids do well.”
Bjugstad grew up in Blaine, a suburb about 25 minutes north of the Twin Cities. His dad, Mike, put him on skates in the house before the ice so he could get the feel for them on solid ground first.
“I don’t know if my mom loved that,” he said.
He grew up skating on his neighbor’s backyard rink and at a place with three outdoor sheets in his hometown. It had a resurfacing machine, so the ice was always good.
“It was called Happy Acres, and it was a happy place for me,” Bjugstad said.
When he was little, he wanted to stay on the ice as long as possible, so he’d wait as long as he could to tell his dad his feet were cold.
“I’d be bawling my eyes out in the warming house,” he said. “He’d take my skates off, bring me into the bathroom and put them under cold water. That always helped.”
Bjugstad played for Blaine High School in subzero temperatures on Baudette Bay on Feb. 9, 2008, as part of Hockey Day in Minnesota, an annual event celebrating hockey in the state.
Blaine made the state tournament at Xcel Energy Center, the home of the Wild, each of the three seasons he played there, and he was named Minnesota Mr. Hockey in 2009-10.
“It’s a rich culture and tradition here,” he said. “I mean, all I wanted to do when I was a kid was make the Blaine high school team. It’s pretty cool when there’s little kids going to all those high school games. You go to the state tournament, it’s sold out in the quarterfinals.
“It’s hard to even understand, I think, if you’re not from here.”
Goligoski grew up in Grand Rapids, about three hours north of the Twin Cities. He and his older brother, Nick, would walk two blocks from their house to their school, Southwest Elementary, which had the neighborhood outdoor rink, Southwest Rink.
“It was pretty much every night in the winter,” Goligoski said. “There’s not much else to do when it’s that cold and you’re that age. We grew up there. When you’re growing up and getting into organized hockey too, you do a lot of outdoor practices and stuff. We only had the one rink inside.”
He said the kids didn’t really care about the cold.
“You’re having fun,” he said. “You learn to deal with the elements. … You’re always playing pick-up games with different-age kids, different skill levels. I think that’s where a lot of the creativeness and your individual skill can come out, in those unstructured games.”
The best was Sunday afternoons. The ice was resurfaced Sunday mornings, and the person overseeing the warming shack would set up a small television inside.
“He’d have football going on the TV,” Goligoski said. “So come in, take some breaks, watch a game, and then just be at the rink all day. That was prime time.”
Goligoski played for Grand Rapids High School for three seasons and never made the state tournament. His last two seasons, Grand Rapids didn’t get to go because of a loss to Duluth East. The schools will represent boys high school hockey on the auxiliary rink at the Winter Classic.
For a night, despite subzero temperatures, Target Field will be Happy Acres.
“I think the fans will have no problem,” Bjugstad said. “I’m sure it’ll be a packed barn. That’s kind of what we pride ourselves in, is outdoor hockey. I’m sure we’ll have a great showing and it’ll be a great event.”