The sun beat down on TCF Bank Stadium on Wednesday. The 80-degree heat made folks sweat through their golf shirts or sports coats.
The weather didn’t exactly scream outdoor hockey. But 200 days from Wednesday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said it would “hopefully be 60 or 70 degrees cooler” when the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks face off Feb. 21 in the State of Hockey’s first NHL outdoor game.
The event comes with a weekend of festivities, including a Feb. 20 alumni game featuring mostly North Stars and some Wild players vs. the Blackhawks.
The North Stars/Wild roster will include names such as Mike Modano, Dino Ciccarelli, Neal Broten, Bobby Smith, Andrew Brunette and Wes Walz. The Blackhawks will include Jeremy Roenick, Denis Savard, Ed Belfour, Ed Olczyk, Murray Bannerman and former villain Al Secord, now an American Airlines pilot.
“This is an unbelievable day for us,” said Wild owner Craig Leipold, using a cane because he’s to undergo double hip replacement surgery Aug. 12. “We have worked really, really hard in the last seven, eight years to try to get an outdoor game for our market, for our fans.
“This is going to be an iconic game. I’m looking forward to the alumni game as much as I’m looking forward to the regular-season game — almost as much.”
The outdoor game, the fourth that involves the Blackhawks, will rekindle a rivalry with the Central Division foe that has dispatched the Wild from three consecutive postseasons. The 2:30 p.m. game, expected to draw 52,500 fans, will be on NBC as part of Hockey Day in America.
“We’re 1-2 in these outdoor games, so we’re going to try to square this up,” said John McDonough, Blackhawks president and chief executive officer. “I can assure you of this: Blackhawks fans come heavy. They love to travel. They will be here. They will be polite.”
This will be the first outdoor game for most Wild players, including Zach Parise, who grew up in Minneapolis. Parise recalled how there was a pond near his childhood home. His late father, J.P., would take an ax to the ice every winter to ensure it was safe enough for him, his brother, Jordan, and their friends to skate.
“This is how we grew up,” Parise said. “That’s what we did. That’s what the majority of kids in Minnesota do. It’s a way of life here.”
Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Ryan Carter are the only Wild players who have played in previous NHL outdoor games. Vanek’s third will be special because it’ll come across the street from Mariucci Arena, where he starred in college.
“For me and some other guys, it’s extra cool being on campus and seeing the ‘M’ here,” Vanek said, smiling. “For a guy like Zach [a University of North Dakota alum], it might not be as fun, but he’ll get over it.”
Parise laughed: “I’m sure I’m going to take a lot of heat. I feel we have half the Gopher team on our team now. But maybe we’ll do one at the Alerus Center one of these days. Who knows?”
Mike Reilly, a Wild roster hopeful, is the only Wild player who has experienced outdoor hockey at TCF Bank Stadium. The former Gophers defenseman played in the Hockey City Classic against Ohio State in January 2014. The temperature was 6 degrees at puck-drop.
“The fans were way colder than us,” Reilly said. “The U did a great job of keeping the benches warm. We were all jacked up for the whole week. You’re kind of in awe, looking around being in a football stadium on a little sheet of ice.”
Season-ticket holders for the Wild, Blackhawks and Gophers football get priority access to a limited number of tickets. Information on ticket availability for the general public will be released at a later date.
Tickets range in price between $109 and $449, and that includes both the alumni game and the Wild-Blackhawks game. Those prices, set by the NHL, are consistent with previous outdoor games. The Wild loses one home date, but the league makes the team whole for all revenue (tickets, merchandise, concessions, etc.) from a typical regular-season home game at Xcel Energy Center.
“I have no doubt the game will be sold out and will be a big deal. Everything around the game, … FanFest, the alumni game, will all be great,” Bettman said. “These games wherever they are do extraordinarily well, particularly in a place like Minnesota and a stadium like this, which will be very intimate for 50-plus-thousand people. It’s going to be a great weekend.”
Bettman said Leipold was “utterly relentless” in his pursuit of an outdoor game.
“Maybe there will be [a Jan. 1] Winter Classic at some point, but let’s focus on this game,” Bettman said.