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  • The Winter Classic Could've Been So Much More With Rossi and Boldy

    Justin Wiggins

    The news of the Minnesota Wild recalling top prospects Matthew Boldy and Marco Rossi left one big question in the State of Hockey: Why now? Why make these moves one game after the Winter Classic, their biggest regular-season game ever? Why waste such an excellent opportunity to treat your fans to something extraordinary?


    Since its inception in 2008, the State of Hockey had been clamoring for its chance at hosting the Winter Classic. Yet year after year, the NHL passed up America’s most passionate hockey market to showcase teams with more established stars.


    And young, marketable stars at that. Look at the 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins from the first Winter Classic when they visited the Buffalo Sabers. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jordan Staal – all 21 years of age or younger. Yes, that team competed in the Stanley Cup Finals that year, but they first captured fans' imaginations at Ralph Wilson Stadium in one of the biggest events to ever happen for the NHL. The Winter Classic was a huge step forward in innovating a stale league.


    So why not bring the New Year’s Day tradition to Minnesota, a state widely known for its shinny hockey on outdoor ponds and lakes? Well, did you read those names in the last paragraph for the Penguins roster? The Wild simply had never possessed a fun lineup in their first two decades.


    Sure, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter ushered in a new era of Minnesota Wild regular-season success beginning in 2011. But the Wild were still stuck in the Jacques Lemaire era in many ways. A boring, average team with little star power. Not exactly the type of product the NHL was looking to showcase for the midseason classic in front of a national audience.


    However, it became apparent to Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL they could no longer treat Minnesota as if it were the player’s association, continuing to lock them out from hosting the treasured event. It’s the State of Hockey, for crying out loud! One of the few US markets with a tradition of actually playing outdoor hockey! So Minnesota finally got their Winter Classic, and a collective cheer rang out from warming house to warming house across the state.


    Just in time, too, as the Wild started becoming must-watch TV across the league. Additions such as Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov, along with an exciting and up-tempo head coach in Dean Evason pulling the strings, had suddenly made the Wild a fun team.


    Unfortunately, critical injuries and COVID protocol leading up to the Winter Classic meant Jared Spurgeon, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Jonas Brodin couldn't suit up. But Minnesota had a backup in two high-profile first-round picks. Boldy and Rossi were ready to go in the AHL, which they dominated all season.


    The timing was perfect for the Wild to showcase their elite young talent to the hockey world. To give the many Wild fans among the 38,000 in Target Field a glimpse as to what they could be capable of soon. It could've been the same coming-out party Pittsburgh had back in 2008. And yet, in true Minnesota sports team fashion, they stepped up to the plate with a national TV audience and struck out once again.


    Instead of adding Rossi and Boldy, the Wild opted to keep both players in Iowa. And for what? To trot out less than stellar options such as Victor Rask, who just a few days later was placed on waivers for any team to pick him up free of charge — and even then, nobody wanted him. Does Freddy Gaudreau move the needle at all if you are a casual fan tuning in? Is that really the type of product you want to put on display when you finally get your Winter Classic? You know, the event you clamored to get for years and years?


    The majority of people understand the human-nature side of the decision. A veteran like Rask had been with the Wild for years, even if his limited success was mainly because he was on the same line as Mats Zuccarello and Kaprizov. Surely Bill Guerin and Evason thought he deserved a chance to play in the biggest regular-season game in Wild history.


    Yet, this is the NHL, and the league is struggling to navigate the economic difficulties presented by the ongoing pandemic. For a league affected so much by smaller gates due to capacity restrictions, the Wild and the NHL missed out on a chance to showcase their upcoming stars. Had they brought up their two prospects, it’s easy to assume Rossi and Boldy Winter Classic jerseys would have flown off the shelves.


    And remember that “boring team” tag the Wild are still working to shed? While Minnesota fans have spent the past few years telling everyone how fun their team is now, it’s not as though the Wild are playing on national TV very often. Even when they are, they're certainly not drawing 1.4 million viewers on cable any other time. It was the perfect moment for the Wild to change their identity outside of Minnesota and let everyone in the hockey world know they're the next skilled, dangerous, and fun team.


    The Winter Classic provides the best marketing platform the NHL has developed in quite some time, maybe ever. And the Wild waited, at times impatiently, for 14 years to play host. Yet, when provided the green light to swing away at a complete facelift, they reverted to the same boring decision-making that kept them from hosting for so long in the first place. That was the most disappointing result, even more so than the 6-4 loss.

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