MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- For the first time since the NHL started taking its regular season games out of doors on a regular basis, the league is taking its big-boy show to the State of Hockey. In some ways it's long overdue, although it's also a function of how long it's taken the Minnesota Wild to push their way into the national hockey discussion in the U.S. The game features the Wild against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET at TCF Bank Stadium.
What to watch for this weekend:
First, the older guys: As with almost all of these outdoor events, there will be a significant alumni component to the weekend's festivities -- which also coincides with Hockey Weekend Across America, USA Hockey's successful annual midwinter celebration of the sport. Starting with the 2012 Winter Classic, the alumni events have been integral to the success of the outdoor events. And come on, who doesn't want to see Hall of Famers and former North Star heroes Dino Ciccarelli (who showed up at Friday's pregame workout sporting a signed Ciccarelli North Stars jersey) and Mike Modano whipping (or an approximation of whipping) down the ice, trying to outduel another Hall of Famer and longtime Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Chris Chelios in Saturday's alumni tilt? And how about guys such as Dennis Maruk or Cliff Koroll and Jerry Korab, names that will bring fans back to the days of hockey cards and table hockey sets? To watch the Minnesota alum work out at a suburban rink Friday was to see first-hand the bond that exists for teammates, even decades after the fact. Even if Neal Broten, he of the Miracle on Ice, admitted his feet hurt as he was walking to the ice. "It's just a lot of fun," Broten said while taking a break on the bench. "Haven't seen a bunch of the guys in a long time, guys you used to hang out with every day for 20 years." Added Craig Hartsburg, drafted sixth overall by the North Stars in 1979, "We've been looking forward to it for a long time since they named the guys who were going to come," he said. "Going to bring back a lot of old memories." Tickets to the alumni game were bundled with tickets to the main game Sunday, so that means the old-timers will likely play before the biggest crowd of any of these events.
Ice, ice, baby: Hey, we're outside, so guess what, the weather's part of the narrative. My cab driver practically laughed in my face when I complained, mildly, about the chilly 40-degree temperatures (which felt 10 degrees colder with the moisture) as we were headed from the alumni practice. Relatively speaking at this time of the year, it's practically balmy here in the Twin Cities and in spite of a downpour earlier Friday morning, the forecast for the game appears perfect: maybe a little sun but not too cold to keep fans away (seats were still available as of Friday afternoon) and not too sloppy or sunny to effect the ice surface, with highs in the high 30s. At least that's the plan. "We're good," master ice man Dan Craig explained. "Right now we could drop the puck here within the half hour. ... Looks pretty good."
Running Wild: The game, which Wild owner Craig Leipold has been chasing for years, comes at a weirdo time in the franchise's history and certainly at a strange juncture this season. Last week, head coach Mike Yeo was fired after a grisly stretch that saw the Wild lose eight in a row. Hardly the backdrop for a euphoric celebration of hockey in the State of Hockey. Then, under interim head coach John Torchetti, the Wild have suddenly found their mojo, winning three straight games on the road before Sunday's matinee with the Blackhawks. So, all of a sudden there is a little jolt of energy heading into the kind of event that might not come around again for years. Timing is everything.
Serving cold revenge: Speaking of the Blackhawks, everyone knows they have won three Stanley Cups in the last six years. And they are also the kings of the outdoor world, setting up for their fourth outdoor game since hosting the 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field and their third outdoor game in the last three years. Some suggest they're sick of seeing the Blackhawks in these events. Boo-hoo. If you get tired of watching Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane do their stuff, watch golf. Plus the Blackhawks are the perfect foe for the Wild. For the last three playoff years, the Blackhawks have put a fork in the Wild's season. Pretty sure no one in Minnesota has forgotten that. Throw in the aforementioned slide that has seen the Wild sink just outside the playoff bubble, and Sunday's game looms as a crucial, dare I say, statement game for the boys from the State of Hockey.
Warming to outdoor hockey: There really isn't any other place like Minnesota in terms of its symbiotic relationship with the game of hockey. That's not to say there aren't other places that embrace and love the game but this state that boasts almost 12,000 lakes doesn't just love the game, it loves the game played outside in a way that is unique. "I understand exactly what hockey means," said Craig, who lives in the area and has family from Minnesota. "And the thing is, the State of Hockey, you go up to Roseau and up in that area, they have high school games outdoors, so this is what they love for. To put their professional team on a rink outdoors? Let's go. Let's play on."