It's been years since Don Lucia played hockey on an outdoor rink, long enough that the Gophers coach can't remember his last game unconfined by the walls of an arena. Still, he carries vivid memories of those days, just like so many other Minnesotans who grew up skating under the northern sky.
A retiree named Albert ran the warming shack on the pond where Lucia learned the game.
"You'd go in there to warm up, and he'd be there with his pipe, keeping the fire going," Lucia recalled. "You'd ride your snowmobile down to the rink, bring your lunch and spend the afternoon. The only time we saw an indoor rink was when we had our games on Saturday morning."
Sunday, Lucia and his Gophers will play Wisconsin on an outdoor rink far removed from the wood and chicken-wire playgrounds of his youth. He anticipates their game in the Hockey City Classic at Chicago's Soldier Field will be just as memorable -- and he hopes it will inspire the U to hold an outdoor game of its own.
University President Eric Kaler, athletic director Norwood Teague and associate AD Tom McGinnis will attend the Hockey City Classic to get a close-up look at the costs and logistics associated with outdoor hockey, as they research the possibility of playing host to a game at TCF Bank Stadium.
A number of cities have held NHL or college hockey games outdoors in recent years, including Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Omaha. The Wild has expressed interest in being host of the NHL's Winter Classic, an annual outdoor event, and Twins officials have said they would like to hold an outdoor hockey game at Target Field.
Teague also is enthusiastic about the idea. McGinnis said the Gophers are exploring many possibilities, including being host of the game themselves; partnering with a group such as Intersport, the Chicago sports marketing firm that is staging the Hockey City Classic; or being part of a Winter Classic weekend if the NHL brings that event to the Twin Cities.
After this weekend, McGinnis said, Gophers officials will discuss a potential timetable for holding an outdoor game. For Lucia, whose hockey roots sprang from Minnesota pond ice, it can't happen soon enough.
"We need to do this," Lucia said. "Our state wants it, and I think it would be a great success. It's a big endeavor, no question. But it's obviously something we want to do, and I think it's going to happen sooner rather than later."
A first for Gophers
Sunday will mark the Gophers' first outdoor game during their modern era of hockey. It comes a little more than a year after they planned to play Notre Dame at TCF Bank Stadium, only to change their minds. When the Metrodome roof collapsed in December 2010, it cost $700,000 to remove snow and prepare the stadium so the Vikings could play there.
Lucia said U officials worried about a similar expense if it snowed before the hockey game and decided not to take the risk. That potential cost -- and the $500,000 price tag for installing a temporary rink on the football field -- are the greatest expenses, McGinnis said.
As the chief financial officer for the athletic department, he will have plenty of questions for the organizers of Sunday's game.
"We want to get that first-hand look at what it will entail," McGinnis said. "We're very much in an exploratory phase. A lot of folks are doing these now, so we can definitely learn from others."
Two other WCHA teams -- Nebraska Omaha and North Dakota -- played an outdoor game last weekend at Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series. That game had to be delayed 2 1/2 hours because the weather was warm enough to soften the ice. Other college games have been held at Michigan Stadium, Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium, Boston's Fenway Park and Green Bay's Lambeau Field.
McGinnis said the information gleaned over the weekend will help Gophers officials determine the best financial model for the event. They could simply play one game outdoors, he said, or they could play host to a series of events. That could yield ice-rental fees and additional ticket sales and sponsorships.
University officials also will be looking for clues as to whether the NHL's Winter Classic might soon come to the Twin Cities. Sites are chosen by the NHL without a formal bid process, and it has not announced future sites since cancelling this year's event in Ann Arbor, Mich., because of the NHL lockout. Wild owner Craig Leipold has let league officials know of his interest in holding the popular event here.
Wild Chief Operating Officer Matt Majka said if that happens, the Gophers could be part of it.
"We would certainly like to make it a State of Hockey celebration," he said. "It's a league event, and it's not ours to make that judgment, but the league is very open to the idea."
Majka said if the NHL does pick the Twin Cities, the league would choose whether to hold the Winter Classic at TCF Bank Stadium or Target Field, and the Wild would support either one. Twins spokesman Kevin Smith said his organization does not have a specific event in mind for Target Field.
"Whether that is the NHL's Winter Classic, a college game or games featuring regional rivals or other amateur hockey, it's something the organization has an interest in pursuing when the time is right for all parties," he said.
The knowledge McGinnis collects this weekend will help him determine how much time it will require for the Gophers to plan an outdoor game. It will depend largely on the availability of a rink, he said, and could happen as soon as next winter if that is feasible.
"I'm very confident it could be a great success," he said. "It's just a matter of doing our homework and figuring out how to put our best foot forward."
That prospect excites the Gophers, even those whose boyhoods were spent on ponds outside of Minnesota.
"In Finland, that's where you learned to play," junior center Erik Haula said. "That was where I grew up, where I spent my free time with my friends.
"When we started the year, we marked this game on our calendars. This year, it's in Chicago. Maybe next year, it's here."