The NHL’s annual Winter Classic game is always something to look forward to. Maybe not for the game itself, as the speed and full ability of the league’s players are not on display on the outdoor rink, but the entire atmosphere and surrounding activities for the local team is no doubt something to enjoy.
One player that fully understands the potential significance of a game like this is Minnesota Wild winger Mats Zuccarello, someone who has appeared in three outdoor games and even as two goal and two assists to show for it.
“It’s something special,” Zuccarello said Tuesday. “Not just for us, for everyone around us, family, friends, fans, as well. It’s something big happening. At the end of the day, for us, it’s just a game. A tough game against a tough opponent. You’ve got to enjoy it now, these couple days with friends and family, and then game time, you want to try to win.
“You try to soak everything in, but once it’s game time, it’s game time. You get to practice there the day before and soak it in a little bit. You get to warm up. Then I think your mind is in focus. Just the couple days before are special.”
The Wild have a lot of time to hype up to the Jan. 1 game, as they have not played since Dec. 20 due to a series of game postponements and the NHL extending the holiday break due to a massive COVID outbreak that has now affected every team in the league.
Unfortunately, this also has meant that the Wild have had less opportunities to get back on the winning side of games — they are currently on a four-game skid after their eight-game winning streak.
“We’ve lost four in a row,” he said. “That’s not acceptable. We’ve got to get on a winning pace here. For us, it’s a big game against a good team. We let everyone around soak it in and enjoy it. But for us, it’s a big game.”
It’s hard enough to try and play outdoors at NHL speed, but when the two points that are up for grabs means a lot to the current status of your team, and can either signal a return to success or the painful milestone of a five-game losing streak, the game is suddenly more risky.
Outside of the meaningful points in the standings, some guys are still looking forward to the event.
“It’s obviously a great experience,” Kirill Kaprizov said. “Overall, it’s a great atmosphere. It’s super special for the team, the fans, the players. Depends though when it’s really cold, it’s obviously very tough. But overall, it’s a great, fun experience and a lot of fun for everyone.
“I loved playing as a kid and even just recently with a long break, we got a chance to go play some outdoor hockey. I love it. It’s always a lot of fun.”
The forecast is currently calling for a low of minus-15, so Kaprizov will certainly get back to his Siberian roots at Target Field.
Even Zuccarello acknowledges what’s different about playing in that sort of cold.
“You’ve got to skate harder,” Zuccarello said. “The ice is going to be maybe different than we’re used to. Maybe better, maybe worse. You just deal with that then. I don’t like to get cold, especially when I play. I’m sure we have some stuff that we can use. But once you get into the game you don’t really feel it. It’s more before the game you think you’re going to get cold, but then during the game, you don’t really think about it.”
Cold weather or not, this game is going to be fun and potentially stressful. Let’s just try and enjoy it.
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