MINNEAPOLIS – Steve Mayer stood in section 220 at Target Field on Tuesday overlooking the ice rink where the Minnesota Wild will play against St. Louis. Louis Blues in 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic on Saturday (19:00 ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE). The snow fell. Perfect.
This will be the first Winter Classic in two years and the first NHL outdoor game with fans in almost as long. For the sold-out crowd of about 38,000, it will be a greeting to “State of Hockey,” which mimics a women’s hockey tournament on the court where the Minnesota Twins play Major League Baseball. There will be ice fishermen, lumberjacks and more.
“A winter wonderland,” said Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer. “That’s what we’re trying to project. The fact that we’re outside and doing these events in front of fans again … it’s fitting that for the Winter Classic we’re come to a place that celebrates winter in Minnesota.”
Every time the NHL hosts an outdoor game, it celebrates the market for the local fans and puts the spotlight on it for the television audience.
The last time the NHL hosted the Winter Classic was on January 1, 2020, when the Dallas Stars defeated the Nashville Predators 4-2 before 85,630 at the Cotton Bowl Stadium. Fans played games, enjoyed horseback riding and ate corn dogs at the State Fair of Texas, and then felt like they were at a rodeo with everything from rope twirlers to pig racing.
“After doing it in Dallas, we were pumped,” Mayer said. “It was about the best game we’ve ever played. There were so many interactive elements and we were really excited to make it the year after.”
The Los Angeles Kings defeated the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 before 43,574 in the Stadium Series at Falcon Stadium on February 15, 2020. Fans knew they were on the grounds of the US Air Force Academy, where the football field was transformed to look like an airfield and the cadets a lot of the show.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHL postponed the events scheduled for the 2020-21 season, including the Winter Classic in Minnesota.
The league struggled to stage the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe, where the Avalanche defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 on Feb. 20 and the Boston Bruins defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 7-3 on Feb. 21 in an event that was only on TV. Although it was an aesthetic success against the backdrop of the lake and mountains, the most important thing was missing.
“The game and the players draw tremendous energy from our fans, and that’s what it’s all about,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “So as unique and as compelling as this can be artistic, the fact is, we want to be back with our fans.”
Finally, despite the ongoing complications of the pandemic, we are here.
As they continue to follow the COVID-19 protocols, the workers build the ice rink and stage the rink. The ice team installed lines and logos on Monday, continued to add layers to the ice after shoveling snow on Tuesday, and plans to install the glass on Wednesday.
“It’s great,” said Mike Craig, NHL senior manager of facilities operations, who oversees the ice. “Everyone is really excited. It’s not lost [on anyone] that this is the first with fans for a long time, so everyone is really excited to put this together. “
In the outfield is another sheet of artificial ice, almost the size of an NHL ice rink, flanked by two smaller sheets of naturis that you would find in a Minnesota backyard. The NHL has made more assists than ever before and invited various hockey teams and clubs from across Minnesota to attend and be recognized throughout the night.
“We really focused on this cross-section of Minnesota hockey – young, medium and old – and giving people not only here but everywhere the taste of why this is ‘State of Hockey,'” Mayer said.
Thomas Rhett appears in the first break. The U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team will be introduced during the second. The other elements will be as realistic as possible, including the ice fishermen.
“We have to catch fish,” Mayer said. “Like, the guy will literally pull a fish out.”
Especially under the circumstances, it will be like pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
“Ultimately, it’s really about the Minnesota Wild taking on the St. Louis Blues in what should be a great NHL game between two of the best teams in the league,” Mayer said. “But I think for the fans we’re trying to give them something to keep an eye on every single minute. There’s a timeout whistling on the ice and something’s going to happen on the pitch. ‘
“We’ve had to wait two years, but the wait will be worth it.”