Wild reveling in Winter Classic spectacle: 'It's not just another game'

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  • The Game
    American rapper and actor from California
  • Matt Dumba
    Matt Dumba
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  • Alex Goligoski
    Alex Goligoski
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Dec. 31—There's something about outdoor hockey that still seems to get to every NHL player.

Because it's a reminder of simpler times. Because it's where many of them fell in love with the game. Because it's the sport at its purest form.

All of those things matter, which explains why the Winter Classic is always the most-anticipated event on the NHL schedule outside of the Stanley Cup. It's a once-in-a-lifetime moment for most players that instantly transports them back to their days of skating on outdoor rinks as kids.

"They are probably the only memories I have as a kid," said defenseman Matt Dumba, who grew up in Calgary, Alberta. "We had an outdoor rink in the backyard. My best friends that lived in the same community as me, they'd come over after school and we'd play until we basically got kicked off."

Though the 27-year-old is all grown up and living out his lifelong dream of playing hockey at the highest level, Dumba is still a kid at heart. A couple of years ago, he got together with some his teammates at the Roseville Oval around Christmastime.

"We ended up playing us against, like, 50 kids," Dumba said. "It was pretty fun."

Did they win?

"Oh yeah," Dumba said with a smirk. "No mercy."

In front of a picturesque backdrop on Saturday night, Dumba and the rest of his teammates will get another chance to skate on an outdoor rink. Only this time it will be at Target Field with the Wild set to take on the St. Louis Blues in the Winter Classic. Puck drop is 6 p.m. Saturday.

Yes, the baseball home of the Twins is about to host the biggest game hockey has to offer.

"Everyone is excited," Dumba said. "There's a buzz in the city. You guys have seen it and felt it. Just even being at the grocery store there are little things set up and everyone is gearing up for the Winter Classic. It's pretty cool."

This has been a long time coming for the State of Hockey. Wild owner Craig Leipold has been trying to get the Winter Classic to the Twin Cities for more than a decade, Wild fans have been patiently waiting, and frankly, it's surprising it took so long for the NHL to get here.

"I think a lot of people were surprised to learn that there's never been a Winter Classic here because it seems like maybe the most natural place to have a Winter Classic," said NHL analyst Jamie Hersch, who grew up in Champlin, Minn. "Don't get me wrong. It's been in some really great places. But it's never been in Minnesota, so it definitely has a sense of, 'OK. It's about time.' "

While this is Minnesota's first taste of the annual spectacle, a number of Wild players have been a part of the Winter Classic in the past.

In 2011, defenseman Alex Goligoski was at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh when his Penguins played the Capitals. In 2017, center Ryan Hartman was at Busch Stadium in St. Louis when his Blackhawks played the Blues. In 2018, winger Mats Zuccarello was at Citi Field in New York when his Rangers played the Sabres.

"The game I played in it actually started raining during the game," Goligoski said. "The ice was really bad. There's those elements to it. But it doesn't look like we're going to have to deal with rain."

No, not rain. The forecast on New Year's Day projects for a high of 0 degrees and a low of minus-11. That doesn't take into account wind chill, which could make it a heck of a lot colder inside the confines of Target Field.

"I remember the last time I played was pretty cold," said Zuccarello, whose tenure with the Rangers included a couple of Stadium Series games at Yankee Stadium. "It is what it is. You've got to skate harder."

Meanwhile, the 40,000 fans at Target Field won't have the luxury of skating. They will have to bundle up as best they can and brave the elements. Luckily, if anybody is equipped to battle the cold, it's Minnesotans.

"This is going to be next-level intense," said Hersch, who will do pregame and postgame shows for NHL Network as well as broadcast for Sports USA Radio during the game. "We are going to prepare the best we can. I have a huge parka, some snow pants that are pretty heavy duty, and all the hand warmers and toe warmers."

Both the Wild and Blues got to practice at Target Field on New Year's Eve. That offered players a chance to soak in the moment about 24 hours before the stadium started to fill up. Fittingly, a flurry of snow dusted the ice surface as the Wild prepared for practice.

"It's an unbelievable atmosphere and might be the only time we get to do this," Wild winger Marcus Foligno said. "We want to enjoy the moment and not be too serious. You want to look around and scan the (stadium) and enjoy it with your teammates and coaches. But our job as players at the end of the day is to win this game for the fans to enjoy it."

For native Minnesotans likes Goligoski and Nick Bjugstad, the Winter Classic takes on a little more meaning with it coming in their home state.

"It's pretty cool to be able to wear a Wild sweater in the first place, and to be able to do it on an outdoor rink is a dream for me," said Bjugstad, who is from Blaine. "Every little kid in Minnesota wants to play for the Wild. I'm very fortunate to be able to grow up here and have such good hockey culture. Plus, everybody knows Minnesotans love their outdoor hockey. I can't wait."

As for the game itself, the Wild (19-9-2, 40 points) know the matchup with the Blues (18-9-5, 41 points) carries a lot of weight. Thus, they want enjoy the Winter Classic for what it is, and also walk away with a win when the final buzzer sounds.

"We talked as a coaching staff, like, 'How do we approach it?' " said coach Dean Evason, who was an assistant coach for the Capitals when they played the Winter Classic in 2011. "It's not just another game. It's completely different from any other game.

"We want to be very consistent with how we play the game as the Minnesota Wild. That said, let's embrace the difference, let's embrace the excitement, let's embrace the atmosphere, and use that hopefully to generate energy for us and excitement for us."

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