Everything about the larger-than-life setup at Target Field in the middle of winter screams Minnesota.
There’s the NHL rink in the infield of the Twins’ baseball stadium, the pond hockey rinks in the outfield, and the makeshift dock near home plate that doubles as a subtle reminder of summer, as well as a stage for country music star Thomas Rhett.
There’s even a log cabin and some ice fishing holes for good measure in the confines of Target Field, or as the NHL is calling it for the next few days, Lake Winter Classic.
All of it makes perfect sense, effortlessly encapsulating the feeling of Minnesota with its aesthetic, while seamlessly serving as a picturesque backdrop more than appropriate for the NHL’s annual outdoor spectacle.
Even better, there will be a sold-out crowd of nearly 40,000 fans braving sub-zero temperatures on New Year’s Day to watch the hometown Wild take on the rival St. Louis Blues.
It doesn’t get much more Minnesotan than that.
It raises the question: What took the NHL so long to get here?
For more than a decade the Wild have been lobbying to bring the Winter Classic to the Twin Cities.
In that span, the NHL has made stops in major metropolises like Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia — even Pittsburgh — among others, as well as quaint towns like Ann Arbor, Mich., Orchard Park, N.J., and South Bend, Ind.
Heck, even Dallas got a Winter Classic a few years ago with rather balmy temperatures at puck drop.
All of those locales were special in their own right. None of them were the State Of Hockey.
No, that’s Minnesota. Always has been. Always will be.
It produces NHL players at a higher rate than any state in the country. And it isn’t particularly close. According to QuantHockey, Minnesota currently has 51 active players in the NHL, while Michigan is next closest with 36 active players.
There might be a reason for that. The sport is a way of life in Minnesota. Always has been. Always will be.
As respected NHL Network analyst Jamie Hersch so succinctly put it during a recent interview with the Pioneer Press: “I always tell people that the Land of 10,000 Lakes also means the Land of 10,000 Frozen Pond Hockey Rinks.”
She would know. She was born and raised in the State of Hockey.
“It’s something we take a lot of pride in,” Hersch said. “It isn’t hard to walk outside and come across a frozen pond with kids skating on it.”
That’s where the love of the game starts. That’s also where NHL players always seem to transform back into kids again.
Just look at the Wild, for example.
With a few days off during the holiday break, Kirill Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, Jonas Brodin, Kevin Fiala and Victor Rask gathered at the Roseville Oval for a skating session.
“I loved it,” Kaprizov said with a smile earlier this week. “It’s always a lot of fun.”
They weren’t alone in enjoying some of the simple pleasures Minnesota has to offer. Alex Goligoski took his kids to an outdoor rink in Edina about a week ago.
“You get the skates on out there and it’s such a pure feeling,” said Goligoski, who grew up skating on outdoor rinks a few hours away in Grand Rapids, Minn. “It definitely brings back those memories a little bit.”
There’s something poetic about a couple of NHL teams playing a professional game on an outdoor rink at Target Field knowing there are hundreds of pickup games going on at the same time at outdoor rinks scattered across the state.
It’s why Minnesota is a perfect place for the Winter Classic. Always has been. Always will be.
“This is past due for our market to get it,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said. “It’s going to be such a fun event for everybody in Minnesota.”
It’s about time.