On a frigid Saturday night with temperatures expected to be below zero, illuminated by the lights of the downtown Minneapolis skyline, the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues will kick off the new year at Target Field. Hello, 2022.
The Winter Classic, originally scheduled to take place at the beginning of 2021, was postponed amid the pandemic, fans not yet allowed back into stadiums at the time. Much has changed, especially in the Minnesota sports scene, in the year that followed.
St. Paul gymnast Suni Lee captured the hearts of fans around the world, winning the women’s gymnastics all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics. Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov debuted and became an instant sensation. Former Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez is now a part-owner of the Timberwolves and Lynx. Fans returned to the stands, infusing energy and life back into stadiums that had gone quiet.
And so much more.
Here’s a look back at the year that was in Minnesota sports. Goodbye, 2021.
Just days into the new year, the Wild named defenseman Jared Spurgeon their second full-time captain in team history after the departure of longtime leader Mikko Koivu.
Days after that, in mid-January, the NHL’s truncated 56-game season began, and in his NHL debut, dazzling Russian rookie Kaprizov recorded three points and netted his first career goal to send the Wild to an overtime win. Kaprizov would go on to win the Calder Memorial Trophy, given to the league’s top rookie.
In a first since 2014, both the Gophers men’s and women’s hockey teams were atop the national polls at the same time. In a surprise twist, the Gophers women’s team missed the NCAA tournament later in the year. The men’s team, after winning the Big Ten tournament, would lose to Minnesota State Mankato in the NCAA tournament.
At the very end of the month, the National Women’s Hockey League (now Premier Hockey Federation) began a two-week bubble season in Lake Placid, N.Y., that eventually had to be suspended because of COVID-19. When play resumed in late March, the Boston Pride edged out the Minnesota Whitecaps 4-3 for the Isobel Cup.
After a nearly year-long hiatus, high school state tournaments returned in February.
Two recent former Gophers football stars — Tyler Johnson and Antoine Winfield Jr. — helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win on Feb. 7. Winfield Jr. picked off Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the victory.
In a year full of turnover for the Timberwolves, February marked the beginning, when the team fired coach Ryan Saunders and immediately brought in Toronto Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch to take over. At the time of Saunders’ firing, the Timberwolves had an NBA-worst 7-24 record.
After finishing third in the NFC North at 7-9, the Vikings spent March reshaping their roster. They released longtime tight end Kyle Rudolph after 10 seasons and followed by releasing offensive tackle Riley Reiff days later, clearing up even more cap space.
In an effort to improve their defense, the Vikings brought in veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson, an eight-time Pro Bowl player, among other moves, on a one-year deal.
After finishing the season under .500 with a dismal conference record, the Gophers parted ways with men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino after eight seasons. Pitino immediately accepted a job coaching the New Mexico Lobos, and the Gophers brought in alum Ben Johnson, a former Pitino assistant coach, to take over.
Gonzaga freshman Jalen Suggs, formerly a two-sport star at Minnehaha Academy, hit a buzzer-beating three-point shot in overtime against UCLA to send the Bulldogs to the Final Four’s championship game. Suggs would later declare for the draft and be selected with the fifth overall pick by the Orlando Magic.
On the women’s side, dynamic freshman Paige Bueckers, a Hopkins High School grad, led UConn to the Final Four. The star point guard was the AP Player of the Year and Naismith College Player of the Year, among other honors. Later in the year, she underwent an ankle surgery and in December, a knee surgery, which has forced her off the court for the time being.
New guidelines set forth by Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health allowed professional teams to let fans back in stadiums at limited capacity. The Twins welcomed back 9,675 fans to Target Field for their home opener, a joyous occasion in a difficult month for the team.
The St. Cloud State men’s hockey team, in its search for its first NCAA title, came up just short, losing to Massachusetts in the championship game 5-0.
On April 12, three sporting events in the Twin Cities — Twins/Red Sox, Timberwolves/Nets and Wild/Blues — were postponed in the wake of the police killing in Brooklyn Center that left 20-year-old Daunte Wright dead.
Also in April, 7-foot star Chet Holmgren led Minnehaha Academy to another Class 3A boys basketball state title and then committed to Gonzaga. Now a freshman, Holmgren is expected to be a top-three pick in the 2022 NBA draft.
Speaking of top draft picks, Marshall’s Trey Lance was taken third overall in the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman was selected by the Baltimore Ravens with the No. 27 pick, becoming the first Gophers player picked in the first round since Laurence Maroney in 2006.
The St. Paul Saints began their first season as the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in May after a delayed start to the season. The Saints were managed by Toby Gardenhire, the son of longtime Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.
Late in the month, the Wild were bounced out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Vegas Golden Knights. The Wild fell behind in the series 3-1 before forcing a Game 7, which they lost 6-2 out in the desert, wrapping up a surprisingly successful season.
TCF Bank Stadium got a new name in late June after the bank merged with Huntington Bank. The new name — Huntington Bank Stadium — was officially approved by the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents near the end of the month.
Twins center fielder Byron Buxton, the American League’s Player of the Month in April, returned from a hip strain only to be hit by a pitch three days later, suffering a fracture in his left hand. It was a big blow for the Twins and their best player.
The Wild made big headlines in July, when they agreed to an eight-year, $42 million extension with center Joel Eriksson Ek, and then soon after, bought out the final four years of franchise stalwarts Zach Parise and Ryan Suter’s contracts. The duo signed identical $98 million deals in July 2012 in hopes of bringing the Stanley Cup to the Twin Cities.
Businessman Marc Lore and Rodriguez acquired a 20 percent stake in the Timberwolves and Lynx, and will become controlling owners within the coming years. News of the impending sale had broken months earlier and initially prompted fears that the duo might try to move the Timberwolves. In later interviews, they have confirmed their intentions to keep the team in Minnesota.
Swimmer Regan Smith, a 19-year-old from Lakeville, captured three medals at the Summer Olympics, taking home the bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke and silvers in the 200-meter butterfly and 4×100-meter medley relay.
Sunisa Lee, an 18-year-old from St. Paul, stepped into the spotlight after teammate Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s individual all-around. Lee became a sensation, winning gold in the all-around, while also capturing silver (team) and bronze (uneven bars) medals. St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter declared July 30 as Sunisa Lee Day to honor her achievements. Lee’s big year continued when she competed on “Dancing With the Stars” and started her college career at Auburn University.
On July 30, the Twins shipped their best starting pitcher, José Berríos, to the Toronto Blue Jays at the trade deadline. Days earlier, they traded their best hitter, designated hitter Nelson Cruz, to the Tampa Bay Rays. The trades — two more pitchers also were dealt — came as a result of their underwhelming season.
Minnesotans continued to shine on the international stage as wrestler Gable Steveson’s last-second takedown netted him an Olympic heavyweight gold medal in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.
Lynx stars Sylvia Fowles and Napheesa Collier also took home gold as members of the U.S. women’s basketball team, as did Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. Reeve served as an assistant coach on the team, but was tapped in December to take over as head coach of the U.S. women’s national team moving forward after Dawn Staley stepped down.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was among those who missed a handful of practices after being deemed a “high-risk close contact” because of his vaccination status. Coach Mike Zimmer subsequently voiced his frustration about players not taking the COVID-19 vaccine. Cousins, who then said he considered surrounding himself with plexiglass in the QB room, has so far avoided missing any games because of COVID-19 despite remaining unvaccinated.
Also in August, the United announced a new Chief Executive Officer, Shari Ballard, a longtime former Best Buy executive. Ballard succeeded Chris Wright.
In September, St. Thomas University’s jump to Division I was well underway. The first Tommies team to rack up a DI victory was the women’s soccer team on Aug. 29.
On Sept. 21, the Wild signed Kaprizov to a five-year extension, concluding a long negotiation process and making him the highest-paid player on the team.
A day later, the Timberwolves made big news of their own, firing president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas in part for creating what was deemed a toxic work environment less than a week before training camp began.
Late in the month, the Lynx were upset by the Chicago Sky in the second round of the WNBA playoffs.
The Twins’ season came to a merciful end on Oct. 3 in Kansas City and while they managed to avoid 90 losses, they finished dead last in the American League Central after winning the division in the previous two seasons.
All four games the Vikings played in the month were decided by one possession, a trend that began in Week 1 and has continued through the season. The Vikings have tied an NFL record with 14 of their 15 games thus far decided by one possession.
Allianz Field was announced as the host of the 2022 MLS All-Star Game. Later in the month, it was the site of women’s national team star Carli Lloyd’s final match for the U.S..
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck signed a new seven-year contract early in the month, which adds two more years to his last deal and will keep him at the U through the 2028 season. Fleck and the Gophers upset the Badgers late in the month, bringing Paul Bunyan’s Axe back to the Twin Cities.
The Vikings also aced their Border Battle, beating the Packers in a rollercoaster 34-31 victory. Second-year wide receiver Justin Jefferson continued his rise into stardom, recording his first-career multi-touchdown game in the win.
Earlier in November, a former girlfriend of star running back Cook filed a civil lawsuit accusing him of assault, battery and false imprisonment. Cook, during a news conference, said he was the “victim in this situation.” Cook wasn’t the only Viking to encounter legal trouble; earlier in the year, cornerback Jeff Gladney, the No. 31 overall pick in the 2020 draft, was released after being indicted on a felony assault charge.
On Nov. 21, the Loons were knocked out of the MLS playoffs in the first round, falling 3-1 to the Portland Timbers.
A flurry of activity marked the beginning of December as Major League Baseball teams rushed to lock in moves ahead of the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the subsequent lockout, which is ongoing. The Twins got in on the action, signing pitcher Dylan Bundy and extending Buxton long term. Buxton’s seven-year, $100 million deal is the second most money the club has committed to a player in team history, behind Joe Mauer.
Days later, Twins legends Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat were elected to the Hall of Fame by the Golden Days Era Committee. They will be inducted in Cooperstown in July.
The Vikings’ playoff chances took a hit when they lost a close game to the last-place and then-winless Detroit Lions early in the month. They currently are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in with two games (at Green Bay, home against Chicago) remaining.
Over at the U, the volleyball team made a run to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight before getting swept by Wisconsin, which won the tournament. Johnson and the men’s basketball team finished their nonconference schedule undefeated and are off to a surprising 10-1 start. Women’s basketball coach and former Lynx star Lindsay Whalen became a first-time nominee for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and the football team ousted West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix to finish the season 9-4.
The Wild sit near the top of the NHL standings and as a result, coach Dean Evason and the entire coaching staff signed multi-year contract extensions.
COVID-19 cases caused the NHL to hit pause briefly on its season and forced some of Minnesota’s biggest stars, like Cook and Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, out of action.
And finally, Target Field was transformed into a hockey venue, where the Wild and Blues will compete, at long last, in the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day at 6 p.m.