Winter Classic staff goes extra mile to bring wilderness to Target Field

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MINNEAPOLIS — It wouldn’t be the Minnesota Wild in the Winter Classic without, well, the wild.

So when the Wild play the St. Louis Blues in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN1, TVAS, NHL LIVE), there will be real trees and fake animals as part of the décor at Target Field.

But the best part of the story is how they got there.

The trees were Christmas trees in local homes days ago, decked out in ornaments, with gifts tucked underneath, and they were collected on the fly as a favor by a friend of an NHL executive.

The animals — deer, birds and squirrels — were purchased online at Dick’s Sporting Goods and Amazon, shipped to NHL headquarters in New York and brought to Minneapolis by truck.

It’s a testament to the creativity and attention to detail of the NHL events folks, not to mention their hustle. The goal is for fans to see something cool everywhere they look.

“Everything needs to go to the next level, and that’s what we strive for, and that’s what this staff is always thinking about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “It’s just, ‘How do you take everything one step further to make it better?'”

Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins of MLB, has been staged to look like the site of a pond hockey tournament. A sign in right field calls it “Lake Winter Classic.” There will be lumberjacks and ice anglers and more.

The NHL wanted trees as part of the look but ran into stumbling blocks, so NHL group vice president of events Chie Chie Yard reached out to Libby Witchger, a former hockey teammate at Brown who lives in the Twin Cities suburb of Shorewood.

“She called maybe Tuesday afternoon and just said, ‘I know you’re local. I know you have contacts. Can you get me some Christmas trees?'” Witchger said. “It’s like, ‘What do you mean?'”

Yard told Witchger the trees would be used on the field.

“I was very specific,” Yard said. “I said, ‘We need all the ornaments off. No tinsel.'”

Witcher told Yard she would see what she could do, then texted about 40 friends and neighbors, explaining the situation and enticing them by telling them their trees would be famous.

By Thursday, Witchger had 13 Christmas trees on her front lawn. Yard sent a truck with a trailer, and they were hauled to Target Field and installed.

Some are near the rink. Most are near a tent in center field decorated as a warming house, which will serve as an actual warming house for various clubs and teams that will skate on auxiliary rinks and be recognized during the night to tell the story of the “State of Hockey.”

Witchger and her husband, Gerry Trainor, will be at Target Field to see not only the game but the Christmas tree that they had just used to celebrate the holiday.

“We are going to wear ice-fishing gear to keep ourselves warm, but we’re super excited about it,” Witchger said.

The NHL wanted to use live animals like it did when the Dallas Stars played the Nashville Predators in the 2020 NHL Winter Classic at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas. The theme was part ranch, part rodeo, part State Fair of Texas, and one of the highlights was pig races.

The League decided against real reindeer because of the cold.

But it had the next best thing, like it did when the Washington Capitals played the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2019 Stadium Series at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland. The theme was nautical, with the rink looking as if it were atop an aircraft carrier, and one of the details was a fake seagull perching on a buoy.

NHL coordinator of events and entertainment Angela Wallin purchased six deer decoys — three does, three bucks — online at Dick’s, at least once the transaction went through. 

“My credit card company actually flagged me buying all of them,” Wallin said. “They’re like, ‘This doesn’t seem like a usual purchase from you.'”

Oh, deer.

Wallin also bought birds and squirrels from Amazon, about 16 of each. In the end, the NHL had a whole pallet of pretend animals delivered to Minneapolis via Manhattan.

“Like, there’s a lot,” Wallin said. “We’ve got a whole winter animal village.”

Wallin and others spent Friday morning assembling the deer and placing them on the field. They placed some of the birds and squirrels on the field Friday and will put out the rest Saturday.

“We’re just going to sprinkle them throughout the outfield, around the aux rinks,” Wallin said, “just to kind of bring it to life.”

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