Next season’s Wild schedule will feature a first for the franchise in its 20 years of existence.
The team will host the 2021 NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at Target Field. No opponent has been selected yet.
“We really didn’t know until 10 days ago for sure,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said. “There was another city in the running, but we were just ecstatic.”
Minnesota was revealed Wednesday afternoon as the next site for what has become the NHL’s signature event, with Commissioner Gary Bettman making the announcement on NBC during the second intermission of the 2020 Winter Classic between the Stars and Predators at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
Before that game was awarded to the Stars, the Wild was in the running to host it and didn’t fall out of consideration until about a month before a decision was made.
At the time, the NHL promised to circle back with the Wild, and the team — which has long coveted the game — continued to express interest.
After visiting Target Field in 2018 while mulling the 2020 decision, league officials made another tour in early 2019 and noticed improvements to the facility.
A group that included NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer, who oversees the league’s events department, also took in last year’s NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis, and the NHL was impressed with how the Twin Cities pulled off a significant event.
“It was just first class,” Mayer said. “Everything about it was done so well, and that’s where it really clicked in our mind that, hey, we want to pursue this even greater than we ever had before.”
Still, it wasn’t until late December that Leipold learned the Wild’s bid was successful — this after the team and some of its corporate partners made a push.
“We felt like we should have had one by now, but we’re thrilled to have it now,” team President Matt Majka said.
The Winter Classic was started in 2008 as an annual tradition. The 2021 rendition will be the NHL’s 31st outdoor regular-season game. This will be the second outdoor game for the Wild after it held a Stadium Series matchup against the Blackhawks on Feb. 21, 2016, at TCF Bank Stadium — a 6-1 win for the Wild.
Back then, the team was petitioning for a Winter Classic, but it didn’t meet the criteria the NHL had for the game.
“In fairness to the league, there were some things we were still developing at the time and then over the past number of years we have developed those things — a winning team, a playoff team, stars on our team,” Majka said. “So it was our turn, and we’re thrilled that it got here. No regrets about the time it took.”
What made Target Field appealing was its intimacy. Seating capacity for the game is expected to be around 39,000. More information on tickets will be available in the coming weeks, but season-ticket holders will have the first opportunity to purchase.
Aside from hosting Twins playoff baseball in 2010 and 2019, Target Field has been the backdrop for the 2014 MLB All-Star Game, an international soccer match in 2016 and NCAA football games in 2017 and 2019.
“The challenge has just become how do we make a baseball stadium that has hosted some pretty big games and some great baseball over the years, how do we turn it into a hockey festival and a hockey wonderland and how do we do something that makes people from Minnesota proud,” Mayer said.
That’s where the focus shifts now, to planning a weeklong celebration that includes Minneapolis and St. Paul and potentially features interactive games, concerts and an art fair.
Which team the Wild faces also must be finalized, although Mayer said the league has “a pretty good idea.”
Factors such as rivalry, competitiveness, star players, TV ratings and whose fans are likely to travel to Minneapolis are weighed in the discussion.
“We’ll listen to the fans,” Mayer said. “We’ll listen to what people think would be a good matchup.”
Designing a jersey for the game is another item on the agenda. Although the Winter Classic tends to feature retro looks, it’s unlikely the Wild would don North Stars threads.
“Minnesota is just going to be an incredible host,” Mayer said, “and that’s one thing we’re going to take advantage of to show the rest of the world why Minnesota is the State of Hockey.”