Finally, after a decade of watching other teams play outdoors in Boston, New York and even Los Angeles and soon to be Santa Clara, Calif., the Wild will get its turn to take its game out into the Minnesota winter.
On Saturday, the Wild was officially awarded a Stadium Series game next season. The first outdoor professional game in the state will take place Feb. 21, 2016, in the afternoon against the Chicago Blackhawks at the 52,525-capacity TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Chicago, which has knocked the Wild out of the past two postseasons, has played in three other outdoor games, including two Winter Classics. This will be the Wild’s first.
“We’re incredibly excited about it,” owner Craig Leipold said. “The opportunity to play the rival Blackhawks, I think, makes it a very compelling game. We clearly understand the Blackhawks have been in a number of outdoor games. So they may have a slight mental advantage if you will, but we’re quick learners and we’re just really excited to be in an outdoor game.”
Wild players are excited.
“The players that I know that have played in one say the whole event is a great experience, not just the game itself,” Wild veteran Zach Parise in a text message. “Having one here is a little bit overdue, I think. Outdoor hockey is part of the culture in Minnesota.”
Leipold’s wish is to turn the Stadium Series game, which includes an accompanying alumni game, into “a real iconic weeklong event” that could include Hockey Day Minnesota (which includes high school games and maybe a Gophers game), an Iowa Wild game and “basically as much as we possibly can do” to show off Minnesota’s love affair with outdoor hockey.
Less money for ‘The Bank’
Because the Gophers football team’s home was chosen by the NHL over the Twins’ Target Field only in the past few days, Leipold said “a lot of planning has to take place still,” including ticket information and a behind-the-scenes reality show similar to HBO’s “24/7’’ that the Wild hopes to produce in partnership with Fox Sports North.
If the NHL had chosen Target Field, the league would have incurred added costs such as replacing the sod and winterizing the stadium. TCF Bank Stadium’s ability to fit 15,000 more fans was “ultimately a huge factor,” Leipold said.
Last January, TCF Bank Stadium hosted the Hockey City Classic. The Gophers women played Minnesota State Mankato, and the Gophers men played Ohio State. The announced attendance for the men’s game — a 1-0 Gophers victory — was 45,022, the largest crowd to ever see a hockey game in Minnesota.
Leipold again made clear Saturday that his ultimate objective is to bring Minnesota the New Year’s Day Winter Classic. The league and NBC so far have scoffed at giving Minnesota a game because the Wild is not yet considered a national, marquee draw.
So upset at that sentiment, Leipold previously turned down the chance of hosting a Stadium Series game or being the visitor in the Winter Classic until recently having a change in heart.
“After talking with the league now for a long time about the Winter Classic, it became apparent to me, particularly after talking with other owners who have hosted the outdoor games, that this is a great way to profile your team and profile what we can do in the Twin Cities,” Leipold said. “It’s a great way of possibly getting the Winter Classic sooner versus later.”
NHL alums excited
With the amount of Minnesotan former NHLers, North Stars and Wild players, the alumni game will be a must-see event. The Wild and NHL already are kicking around ideas regarding the makeup of teams and captains.
Brian Rolston, who hit the 30-goal mark in all three seasons he played for the Wild, already says he’s in.
“I would be honored to play again in the great State of Hockey, where I enjoyed my best years in the National Hockey League,” Rolston said via phone Saturday. “When you think about outdoor games in the United States, the first thing that would come to mind is Minnesota. It only seems fitting to have the outdoor game in Minnesota, where so many young players started their careers on frozen ponds or lakes.
“I believe one of the reasons Minnesota has produced so many great hockey players is the accessibility to outdoor venues.”
The NHL also announced Saturday that the Boston Bruins will host its second Winter Classic next Jan. 1, this one at Gillette Stadium, against the Montreal Canadiens, and that the World Cup of Hockey will return to Toronto in 2016. A second Stadium Series game was awarded to the Colorado Avalanche, who will play rival Detroit at Coors Field on Feb. 27, 2016.