Winter Classic, NHLs coldest game, experience of a lifetime

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That was the temperature at face-off of the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic, making the St. Louis Blues’ 6-4 win against the Minnesota Wild at Target Field on Saturday the coldest game in NHL history.

“I was looking over my shoulder for a polar bear,” Wild forward Marcus Foligno said. “That’s how cold it was out there.”

It was notably c-c-colder than the previous record-holder, the first of the NHL’s 33 modern outdoor games, when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 in the Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Nov. 22, 2003. The record book says it was zero degrees at face-off then.

But while the temperature was negative, the pluses outweigh the minuses when it comes to outdoor hockey. That’s especially true here in the “State of Hockey,” where it isn’t just romantic but a part of real life maybe more than anywhere else in the United States.

NHL outdoor games are meant to honor hockey’s roots, and going back to the beginning, the whole point of hockey is to make the best of the winter, to turn something frozen into something fun.

Here we had a sellout crowd of 38,619 hardy souls for a subzero spectacle. The field was staged to look like a pond hockey tournament, with nine rinks carved out of the snow on “Lake Winter Classic,” turning Minnesota into the Land of 10,001 Lakes. There were no polar bears, but there were deer, lumberjacks, ice anglers and more.

“It was awesome,” Foligno said. “When you’re in the middle of that ice rink and you look around you, it’s unbelievable. It’s an unbelievable sight. And to see the fans stacked right to the top, I mean, braving the cold, those are probably the best fans, I believe.”

Video: The Winter Classic provided great lasting memories

Minnesota fans had been waiting for this for a long time. The Wild had hosted an outdoor game before, defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 6-1 before 50,426 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Feb. 21, 2016. But that was in the Stadium Series, not the NHL’s New Year’s Day showcase, and it was a relatively toasty 35 degrees at face-off. They were scheduled to host the Winter Classic last season, but it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This was the first Winter Classic in two years and the first NHL outdoor game with fans in attendance since the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 before 43,574 in the Stadium Series at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado on Feb. 15, 2020.

As soon as the gates opened two hours before the game Saturday, fans started streaming in, dressed as if they were going skiing or snowmobiling or ice fishing or hunting. They were experienced in this weather, and it showed. Actually, it seemed like more than that. It seemed like a point of pride.

Chris Opskar, 44, of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and his 15-year-old son, Ryker, a junior varsity player at Champlin Park High School, climbed straight to their seats in Row 19, Section 237 — three rows from the top in right-center field of what is usually the home of Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins.

“We are bred for the cold,” Opskar said. “Like, I’m warm right now. I could sit here all day long.”

Why?

“Oh, this is the experience of a lifetime,” he said. “I went to the Stadium Series here when we whupped up on the Blackhawks. My son wasn’t old enough to go at the time. I just decided, like, ‘Hey, outdoor hockey’s what Minnesota’s all about.’ We suffer through the pain when these guys are little out there skating on the rinks. Your toes get cold. We’ve got to be able to suffer through this to watch a good NHL hockey game.”

The NHL kept insulated blankets on the ice as long as possible to keep it warm. Yes, that’s right. To keep it warm. The optimal surface temperature of an NHL sheet is 22 to 24 degrees, so the NHL had to warm the glycol pumping through the aluminum pans in the floor to keep the ice from becoming brittle.

The League heated the benches and penalty boxes, and the equipment staffs of each team helped the players after consulting with Green Bay Packers equipment manager Red Batty, who prepares his NFL players for the famous “frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field. They wore special thermal undergarments and balaclavas, put hand warmers in their gloves and drank chicken broth out of water bottles.

“It’s kind of like soup, so it was pretty good,” Blues goalie Jordan Binnington said.

It’s all a state of mind. 

The Blues thought about arriving dressed as lumberjacks. Binnington said he even bought 30 shirts. But, instead, they decided to arrive as if they were going to the beach, wearing sandals, shorts, swim trunks, tropical shirts and sunglasses. Defenseman Marco Scandella had his shirt unbuttoned, bare-chested underneath, and carried a cooler. Forward David Perron had a towel draped over his shoulder.

“Everyone was talking about how cold it was,” Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly said. “We thought it would be good to come in just ready to catch some sun and enjoy it. We got a good laugh.”

They got more than that. They got an experience they’ll remember forever.

“It was awesome,” O’Reilly said. “I thought the NHL did a fantastic job putting it on. The crowd, I was talking with Binnington about it after the game, especially that anthem, how it was to see that amount of people, fireworks and everything, the emotion of it … They definitely did a great job. It’s so special to be around that, to be in a different setting. It was so much fun.”

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