Winter Classic between Wild, Blues will be worth wait

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MINNEAPOLIS — Steve Mayer stood in Section 220 at Target Field on Tuesday, overlooking the rink where the Minnesota Wild will play the St. Louis Blues in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE). Snow was falling. Perfect.

This will be the first Winter Classic in two years and the first NHL outdoor game with fans in almost that long. For the sellout crowd of about 38,000, it will be a salute to the “State of Hockey,” mimicking a pond hockey tournament on the field where the Minnesota Twins play Major League Baseball. There will be ice anglers, lumberjacks and more.

“A winter wonderland,” said Mayer, the NHL chief content officer. “That’s what we try to project. The fact that we’re outside, doing these events in front of fans once again … it is fitting that for the Winter Classic we’ve come to a place that celebrates the winter in Minnesota.”

Each time the NHL stages an outdoor game, it celebrates the market for the local fans and spotlights it for the TV audience.

The last time the NHL held the Winter Classic was Jan. 1, 2020, when the Dallas Stars defeated the Nashville Predators 4-2 before 85,630 at Cotton Bowl Stadium. Fans played games, enjoyed rides and ate corn dogs at the State Fair of Texas, then felt like they were at a rodeo with everything from rope-twirlers to pig races.

“After doing it in Dallas, we were pumped,” Mayer said. “That was about the best game that we’ve ever done. There were so many interactive elements, and we were really excited to do it the following year.”

The Los Angeles Kings defeated the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 before 43,574 in the Stadium Series at Falcon Stadium on Feb. 15, 2020. Fans knew they were on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy, with the football field transformed to look like an airfield and the cadets a part of the show.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHL postponed the events scheduled for the 2020-21 season, including the Winter Classic in Minnesota.

The League scrambled to stage the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe, with the Avalanche defeating the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 on Feb. 20 and the Boston Bruins defeating the Philadelphia Flyers 7-3 on Feb. 21 in a TV-only event. Though it was an aesthetic success against the backdrop of the lake and mountains, the most important thing was missing.

“The game and the players draw tremendous energy from our fans, and that’s what it’s all about,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said then. “So as unique and as compelling as this may be artistically, the fact is, we want to be back with our fans.”

Finally, despite the pandemic’s ongoing complications, here we are.

While continuing to follow COVID-19 protocols, workers are building the rink and staging the field. The ice crew installed the lines and logos Monday, kept adding layers to the ice after shoveling snow Tuesday, and plan to install the glass Wednesday.

“It’s fantastic,” said Mike Craig, NHL senior manager of facilities operations, who oversees the ice. “Everyone’s really excited. It’s not lost [on anyone] that this is the first one with fans in quite some time, so everyone’s really excited to put this together.”

In the outfield is another sheet of artificial ice almost the size of an NHL rink, flanked by two smaller sheets of natural ice like you would find in a Minnesota backyard. The NHL has made more auxiliary ice than ever before and invited various hockey teams and clubs from throughout Minnesota to take part in and be recognized throughout the night.

“We really focused on this cross-section of Minnesota hockey — young, medium and old — and giving people not only here but everywhere the flavor of why this is the ‘State of Hockey,'” Mayer said.

Thomas Rhett will perform during the first intermission. The U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team will be introduced during the second. The other elements will be as realistic as possible, including the ice anglers.

“We’re going to catch fish,” Mayer said. “Like, the guy is going to literally pull a fish out.”

Especially under the circumstances, it will be like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about the Minnesota Wild taking on the St. Louis Blues in what should be a great NHL game between two of the best teams in the League,” Mayer said. “But I think for the fans, we try to give them something to look out for every single minute. The whistle blows for a timeout on the ice, and something’s going to happen on the field. …

“We’ve had to wait two years, but the wait will be worth it.”

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