Coach Bruce Boudreau wore a Wild-themed knit hat as he relayed instructions; puffs of air swirled among players when they chatted in between drills.
And there was snow piled up under the bench.
The scene at the Recreation Outdoor Center on Thursday morning in St. Louis Park wasn’t just a departure from the usual practice setup.
It was also a preview of what’s to come when the Wild hosts the Winter Classic next season on New Year’s Day at Target Field.
“It’s awesome,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “I know I’m really looking forward to it. All the guys seem pretty happy about it. It should be a fun atmosphere.”
A day earlier, the Wild was awarded the 2021 spotlight after long pursuing the NHL’s marquee event. The team was in contention for 2020, but the game ultimately went to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas where the host Stars prevailed over the Predators on Wednesday.
“This is a state where that’s what people do. They go out on the ponds. They go out and skate on their outdoor rinks. They spend time playing the game outside,” center Eric Staal said. “Rightfully so, getting the opportunity to showcase the state and the game itself here in Minnesota, for us as players to be involved with everything leading up to it will be pretty fun.”
Although the game is almost a year away, coinciding with the Wild’s 20th season, the Wild and Twins already have been preparing for it.
As part of the bid, Target Field had to be winterized — a process that made sure the facility would have running water and functioning restrooms and concessions on Jan. 1 “just like they would on July 1,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said.
These improvements came at a “significant expense,” Wild team President Matt Majka said, but the Twins have wanted to play host to a hockey game for quite some time. Their groundskeeper, Larry DiVito, has taken in many outdoor hockey games and was in Dallas last week to touch base with the NHL’s ice specialist Dan Craig.
“It’s going to be great,” winger Zach Parise said. “You have the skyline and the downtown in the background. A lot of us are Twins fans in the room, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Where exactly the rink will be situated over the diamond is unclear, and that positioning could also impact the final capacity. Right now, that number is pegged around 40,000.
Tickets won’t go on sale to the public for months, but Wild season-ticket holders will get the first chance to purchase in several weeks, Majka said. Within that timeline is also when an opponent is expected to be revealed.
“A divisional game would bring that rivalry part, for sure, more so whether it’s Winnipeg, St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas,” Staal said. “Those are teams that are important points and big games every time we play against them every season.”
The weather was mild Thursday in St. Louis Park, where the high was expected to reach 36 degrees, but cooler temperatures, snow and/or rain could certainly affect the execution of the Winter Classic. If needed, the game could get bumped back to Jan. 2.
“If you get the right conditions like they are right now for a New Year’s game, it’ll be quite a spectacle,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Everyone participated in the outdoor session Thursday except captain Mikko Koivu (cold) and defenseman Carson Soucy, who took a maintenance day. Boudreau expects Koivu to practice Friday and is hopeful Soucy skates.
But only a handful of Wild players have played in an outdoor game.
Seven were in the lineup when the team held a Stadium Series game Feb. 21, 2016, at TCF Stadium.
“You walk out there and see all the fans cheering loud,” Suter said. “It’s something I’ll never forget, and I’m sure this is going to be just as special.”
Boudreau coached in the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field when he was with the Capitals, an experience he called one of the best of his life; and winger Mats Zuccarello has skated in three outdoor games: two Stadium Series games at Yankee Stadium and the 2018 Winter Classic at Citi Field — all with the Rangers.
Winger Ryan Hartman is also familiar with the Winter Classic, playing in the 2017 one at Busch Stadium when he was a member of the Blackhawks and taking in the event in 2009 as a fan when it was at Wrigley Field.
“It was probably 2 degrees that day and snowing, so that was a crazy cold day,” said Hartman, who sat by the first base line in the second level. “Just being on both sides of it, it’s pretty cool and you really take in the whole aspect.”
Staal has experienced almost all there is in hockey, capturing a Stanley Cup and gold medals in international play and being on the brink of his sixth All-Star Game appearance. But he’s never played in an outdoor game, an opportunity he’s been hoping to receive.
“The memory of growing up doing it, I think that’s the cool part,” he said. “You did so much of it as a kid, for the love of the game, just playing outside on the pond and fooling around. And to play a game that means something outside in a special environment is pretty special.”