Winter Classic between Wild, Blues to celebrate Minnesota hockey culture

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MINNEAPOLIS — “STATE OF HOCKEY.” The words are everywhere at the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic, wrapped around an outline of Minnesota.

That is what will be celebrated when the Minnesota Wild play the St. Louis Blues on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE).

Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins of Major League Baseball, has been staged to look like the site of a pond hockey tournament, with pine trees, a warming house, the largest auxiliary rink of artificial ice the NHL has ever made for an outdoor game, and two smaller rinks of natural ice.

The NHL has invited various clubs and teams from around Minnesota to take part in the festivities and be profiled in the stadium during stoppages in play. The idea is to tell the story of the place where hockey matters more than maybe anywhere else in the United States.

“It’s hard to find in the States,” Wild forward Nick Bjugstad said. “Obviously, Canada has their own paths. But Minnesota, it’s a rich culture and tradition here.”

Minnesota has produced more NHL players than any other U.S. state. In NHL history, 284 Minnesota-born players have played at least one game, including 49 this season. Massachusetts has had 209 players all time, 24 this season. Michigan has had 188 all time, 34 this season.

Of the NHL’s 32 teams, 25 have had at least one Minnesota-born player play at least one game this season, including each team in the Winter Classic. The Wild have had Bjugstad (Minneapolis), defenseman Alex Goligoski (Grand Rapids) and forward Kyle Rau (Eden Prairie). The Blues have had defensemen Justin Faulk (South St. Paul) and Scott Perunovich (Hibbing), and goalie Charlie Lindgren (Lakeville).

“If you grow up here, even if you don’t grow up playing hockey, it is a part of your life in some way,” Goligoski said. “So many people play. In the communities, it’s such a big thing that it’s going to touch you at some point.”

The theme of this Winter Classic goes back to the beginning of the Wild, who joined the NHL as an expansion team in the 2000-01 season.

Their president then was Tod Leiweke, who is president and CEO of the expansion Seattle Kraken. He recognized how deeply hockey was embedded in Minnesota and how fans felt about the Minnesota North Stars moving to Dallas and dropping “North” from their name in 1993.

“It could not dominate the hockey community and have the other parts of the community suffer,” Doug Risebrough, the Wild general manager then, once said. “It had to be part of the hockey community, not the top of the hockey community and everybody else listen to what we’re doing. It was just, ‘We’re one dynamic in this great state of hockey.'”

After the Detroit Red Wings branded their city as “Hockeytown” in the 1990s, the Wild branded Minnesota as the “State of Hockey.” They invited a kid to skate with a “State of Hockey” flag before games and used program sales to benefit minor hockey associations.

Knowing the importance of high school hockey, the Wild hung a jersey from each high school program in the state at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, their home and the home of the high school state tournament.

They created an organ shaped like an ice-resurfacing machine and a replica of the Split Rock Lighthouse northeast of Duluth on the shore of Lake Superior, so they could shine the light and sound the foghorn when they scored.

“It became a Minnesota building,” Risebrough said. “It didn’t just become an NHL building.”

Each North Stars game started with public address announcer Bob Utecht saying, “Let’s play hockey!” The Wild put their own twist on the tradition by having local celebrities do it, and they will do it at the Winter Classic, of course.

“I guess it’s how much the game is actually in the fabric of Minnesota,” said Wild GM Bill Guerin, who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. “Like, it’s just in the culture. Everybody plays hockey or knows hockey or follows hockey. It’s what people do here more than anywhere else, and I’m from Massachusetts where hockey is really big.”

And so, expect a showing of tremendous pride, in the NHL players, the folks on the auxiliary rink, and the fans in the stands, braving subzero temperatures to show what the “State of Hockey” is all about.

“I’m jacked up for the Winter Classic,” Guerin said. “It’s going to be unbelievable. Yeah, you know, it’s going to be cold, but everybody’s really excited. I think people in Minnesota have a lot of hats and gloves and warm coats and good boots. I don’t think people are going to shy away from this game at all. Like, I think this just kind of … I think it kind of adds to it. It’s almost like a challenge.”

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