The Winter Classic had all the makings of a disappointing experience. The temperature was -5.7 degrees at puck drop and plummeted from there. The St. Louis Blues thrashed the Minnesota Wild 6-4 in a more lopsided game than the score indicated. The Wild didn't recall hotshot prospects Marco Rossi and Matt Boldy until two days after the big game.
But none of that could spoil a perfect evening of hockey at Target Field. Wild fans stayed to the end of the game as if they were frozen to their seats. When the rare opportunities to cheer came, the fans rose to the occasion. The St. Louis Blues component of the crowd was rowdy and respectable. Fans had a non-zero chance of running into Emmy-Award Winner Jon Hamm.
So since the Wild got a Stadium Series game in 2016 and a Winter Classic in 2021 (which the NHL postponed in 2020), we can perhaps expect their next outdoor game experience to be in 2026. Maybe 2027 if, I don't know, some sort of worldwide volcanic event occurs.
But does it really need to be that long of a wait? What will it take for the Wild to be regulars at outdoor games?
Since the initial Winter Classic in 2008, there have been about 30 outdoor NHL games across North America. The teams that feature most often fit a certain profile. They're competitive teams with star players in big American markets. The Chicago Blackhawks dynasty got six appearances. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers got five apiece. The Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, and New York Rangers reside in the Four-Timer Club.
Scroll past a couple of Canadian teams in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, then the Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, and Washington Capitals (three outdoor games each), and you'll finally come to the tier with Minnesota. Yes, the State of Hockey has received as much national spotlight as the Ottawa Senators.
As the hockey world saw Saturday, Minnesota has a proud and storied hockey tradition and a unique identity. They're an American market with strong local ratings. They've even been playoff regulars during the Winter Classic Era.
The problem was the stars. The likes of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were great players in their own right. But was anyone tuning in to see Parise whack rebounds in the net or Suter play positional defense? Not outside Minnesota.
It's safe to say that star power is no longer an issue. Kirill Kaprizov notched three points at the Winter Classic, his sixth three-point game in 31 tries. That already matches a team record, and he's on pace to do it 16 times. Since the 2003-04 lockout, only Jaromir Jagr, Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Joe Thornton, and Sidney Crosby accomplished that. He's on a 103-point pace and establishing himself as one of the league's most exciting players.
Kaprizov may not be alone in that category soon. Rossi and Boldy will both make their debuts on Thursday. If their production matches their hype, Minnesota will have an exciting Big 3 to build around — and for the league to showcase — for years to come.
So the NHL should be more than willing to keep coming back to the Minnesota well for outdoor games regularly.
Or, hey, why not every year? After all, Minnesota already has Hockey Day in Minnesota, which is dedicated entirely to outdoor hockey. Or rather, entirely up until the moment the Wild game starts. Then we go indoors to the Xcel Energy Center.
Why does that make sense? The league probably doesn't want to put a game out in Mankato, Duluth, or Bemidji. There's not enough seating capacity to make it worth it financially. But it makes much more sense to have the outdoor hockey events in various Minnesota locales, then bring things back to Target Field for a Wild game.
Such a move would probably require a league-wide commitment to more outdoor games, but for a revenue-starved league, this is something they should look into. Even a smaller stadium like Target Field packs 38,000 fans in, more than double X's capacity. That's an extra home game worth of tickets, merchandise, beer, etc.
With COVID-related crowd restrictions and postponements climbing, the NHL faces a third straight year of having their salary cap remain flat. More outdoor games seems like an easy way to juice those numbers, especially since outdoor events aren't likely to be impacted by COVID.
People might bristle at more outdoor games, saying that a saturation of them robs them of their special quality. Does it? If we're talking one game a year, that doesn't seem to dilute the quality of the event. No one gets mad that Halloween, the State Fair, or hey, even Hockey Day in Minnesota happens every year.
Even if it does make it less exclusive, maybe it means fans can pay a bit less than $125 on the secondary market to freeze in bleacher seats.
It was great to see the Wild get a big moment on a national stage for a unique event. With the rise of a much more entertaining, exciting Minnesota team on the way, it'll be a shame if the State of Hockey and NHL can't be treated to more of these going forward.
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