The NHL knew it could be chilly Saturday for the New Year's Day Winter Classic at Target Field. Now the league is preparing for what could be the coldest puck drop in the history of the event.
"We've always respected where we were going to play this game and how cold it could be," said Steve Mayer, the NHL's senior executive vice president. "We never hesitated."
Neither have the fans. Billed as a "Salute to the State of Hockey," the 6 p.m. game between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues is mostly sold out. The National Weather Service predicts Saturday's high will be 2 below.
"This is an incredible moment for hockey," Mayer said. "We're confident this is an area that can't get enough of games like this."
In preparation for the game, Target Field has been transformed into an ice-covered hockey haven. The main rink is built across the Minnesota Twins' infield, with a "State of Hockey" stage for live music at home plate and eight smaller ice rinks arrayed across the outfield.
A log cabin-style warming house sits in center field. Crews on Wednesday were blowing fresh snow off the seats throughout the ballpark.
The Wild, which has been eager to host the game for years, initially expected to play at Target Field a year ago. But COVID-19 shut that down, postponing the event until now.
As an anticipated 38,000-plus fans arrive at the gates Saturday, they'll be given handwarmers. Mayer, who confessed he's in no position to tell Minnesotans how to dress for the cold, encouraged everyone to bring blankets, too. Few fans are likely to need a nudge to cover their mouths and noses.
"This is just one of those games where it's natural that everybody's going to be wearing some sort of mask," Mayer said.
The Wild may play indoors in St. Paul, but outdoor hockey and backyard ice rinks are a Minnesota tradition. When the team last played outside at TCF Bank Stadium on Feb. 21, 2016, the temperature at puck drop hovered in the balmy mid-30s.
According to NHL.com, the coldest of the league's 32 modern outdoor games was played in November 2003 in Edmonton, Alberta, where the temperature at puck drop was zero.
Minnesota fans know the cold-weather drill. In January 2016, with the temperature at kickoff registering minus 6, some 50,000 watched the Vikings play the Seattle Seahawks at TCF Bank Stadium. In the lead-up to Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2018, fans shrugged off the frigid wind chill for free outdoor concerts on Nicollet Mall.
"The colder it got, the more people came downtown," said Wendy Williams Blackshaw, CEO and president of Minnesota Sports and Events.
Wild season ticketholders Sharon and Doug Olson of Minneapolis were at the Wild's TCF Bank Stadium game in 2016 with friends from Omaha who are returning Saturday. "It's a rare event, so you want to be there," Sharon Olson said.
Blackshaw and Matt Meunier, director of Sports Minneapolis for the convention bureau Meet Minneapolis, see the game as part of the city's post-pandemic reinvigoration. "We are expecting a lot of out-of-town visitors based off the ZIP codes from NHL buyers," Meunier said.
Said Blackshaw: "These are people who fly into our airports, eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels. ... It's why we're working so hard to bring these events here. They really do have such a positive impact."
Before the game, there's a Truly Hard Seltzer NHL Pregame Fan Fest at Target Center (indoor) and at 1st Avenue and 6th Street (outdoor), no ticket required. "That's going to be the big party scene leading up to the puck drop," Meunier said, adding it will make for a "fun, positive atmosphere for downtown."
At Saturday's game, the NHL also plans to pack action into the game's intermissions. The women's 2022 Olympics hockey team will be introduced; youth skaters from across Minnesota will take to the pond-hockey style rinks; and country music star Thomas Rhett will perform.
The Twins prepared for cold-weather play in 2020 by adding heating elements in the ballpark's main and upper concourses, concessions areas and restrooms. Mayer noted that Target Field also has several indoor spaces open to the public.
"We will communicate throughout the game where those areas happen to be," he said.
The Twins on Wednesday also revealed hearty new menu items for the game, including tater tot hot dish, booyah with short ribs and the Loon Cafe's Pecos River Red Chili. Booze-infused cocoas and coffees also are on the menu.
Confident in her ability to stay warm, Sharon Olson already had turned Wednesday to the familiar concern of a faithful Wild fan.
"I really want them to win," she said. "They need to beat St. Louis after losing four games in a row."