Winter Classic scene starts to take shape at Target Field

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Dec. 17—Ask almost any NHL player and they likely will have their own story about skating on outdoor rinks as a kid.

Wild captain Jared Spurgeon remembers his dad used to flood the backyard of their Edmonton, Alberta, home, and he and his buddies would spend hours skating on it after school.

"It's where the love of the game comes from," Spurgeon said. "You're out there and there's no rules. You can do whatever you want."

Wild winger Nick Bjugstad has fond childhood memories of skating with his dad at the local rinks around Blaine. Well, somewhat fond childhood memories. He actually used to cry in the warming house because his feet were so cold.

"He'd run my feet under cold water, and that would actually warm my feet up," Bjugstad said. "Then we would go back out. It was the best time to play hockey as a kid."

Which is why the Winter Classic has such a special feel to it across the NHL. It's a reminder of simpler times and something no player takes for granted.

The process of bringing the annual spectacle to Minnesota started on Friday as the ice plant arrived at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis. The 53-foot trailer is the world's largest mobile refrigeration unit and houses the ice-making and ice-monitoring equipment used to create the sheet of ice that will be used on New Year's Day when the Wild take on the rival St. Louis Blues.

It will take roughly two weeks to get the hockey rink at Target Field ready, and while it's no doubt a tremendous undertaking, it's a process that Mike Craig has become quite familiar with over his years as the NHL Senior Manager of Facilities Operations and Hockey Operations.

Craig estimates that he and his crew have installed outdoor ice sheets more than 30 times between the various Winter Classics and Stadium Series put on by the league.

"We will be full hockey ready by the evening of Dec. 30," said Craig, whose crew started unloading equipment at Target Field on Thursday night. "The rink will be fully installed and everything ready to go. We will make sure everything is buttoned up and ready that night because we have practices the next day."

Perhaps the biggest benchmark will come on Monday. That's when the boards will go up and Target Field will really start to feel like a hockey rink.

"If everything goes well by (Monday), we'll be making ice," Craig said. "It looks like we're going to have some really good weather for hockey."

This will be the second time in Spurgeon's career that he will be a part of an outdoor game. He played in the Stadium Series in 2016 when the Wild beat the Chicago Blackhawks 6-1 at TCF Bank Stadium.

"It's a pretty special thing to be a part of," Spurgeon said. "It brings back memories." Unfortunately for Spurgeon, he might not get to play in the Winter Classic after aggravating a lower-body injury Thursday in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

Meanwhile, this will be the fourth time that Bjugstad has participated in a sanctioned outdoor game. He played in a high school game during a frigid Hockey Day in Minnesota in Baudette, in a college game when his Gophers played the rival Badgers at Soldier Field in Chicago, and in a Stadium Series game as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Still, for Bjugstad, nothing compares to the idea of playing for the hometown Wild in an outdoor game.

"Every little kid in Minnesota wants to play for the Wild," he said. "I'm very fortunate to be able to grow up here and have such good hockey culture."

It was hard for Spurgeon and Bjugstad to picture how the crew was going to turn Target Field into a hockey rink. As of Friday afternoon, the scene was nothing more than a few tarps on the Twins' baseball field.

"It's fun every time," Craig said with a smile. "It really is. Every stadium we go to is unique and special. I just love being in the middle of big stadiums like this knowing we're able to bring everyone together and play hockey outside."

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