Tiny Wahkon, Minn., located on the south end of Mille Lacs Lake, provided new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer his "Welcome to Minnesota" moment.
With negative-degree temperatures in the small town of just over 200 people, there was Zimmer making his first public appearance as Minnesota’s coach. Zimmer was the star of a parade, complete with horse-drawn, hay-filled wagons, traveling down the main street of Wahkon, the distance no longer than two football fields.
"We had the horses in front of me," Zimmer said Saturday. "Honestly, it was great. I loved it."
Zimmer has spoken of his love for the outdoors since joining the Vikings in January. He was thrust into the middle of the outdoors and hardcore Vikings’ fans last week. The Arctic Blast, which supports the Vikings Children’s Fund, is an annual snowmobile rally which brings in Vikings’ fans from all over.
There, Zimmer got his chance to meet Vikings’ fans, alumni and experience the outdoors in Minnesota — the cold season of the outdoors anyways. Just south of one of the state’s famous fishing lakes, he sat and talked with Vikings’ Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant, a noted hunter and fisherman himself.
Zimmer was soaking in all of the Minnesota experiences. And when it comes to public relations, Zimmer is scoring big.
"I want to get around and see as much of the state as I can," Zimmer said. "Obviously I haven’t had that much time yet, but the reception that we got when we came here last night, the reception they gave me, just the excitement of the people here in the state of Minnesota, it’s just an exciting, exciting time. We’re going to do our very, very best to put the best product on the field for them so they can be proud of us each and every time. We want to be their team. We want them to be proud of us all the time."
The people of Wahkon were proud to host Zimmer. It’s rare for a Vikings’ head coach to make the trip north for the Arctic Blast.
Members of the organization couldn’t remember the last coach to be a part of the annual event. Some said they don’t think a head coach has ever made the trek. Mike Tice would join the event, but it was before his time as the team’s head coach.
"I was talking to Zim the other day as we were in meetings and he was like, ‘We should be up there,’" Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said on Saturday. "I said, ‘We got a lot of work to do here.’ But it would be great to get a break a little bit to come up to the Arctic Blast to support what we do up here. . . . it was funny, we did the parade last night and to give coach Zimmer a chance to feel what it is like to be a Minnesotan and how passionate these people are. It was very exciting last night to be a part of this."
Zimmer is becoming adept at first impressions.
"The first time I met him was when I was walking on to the bus (Friday) and we all kind of said, ’Hey coach.’ Shook his hand, said, ‘Toby Gerhart’ and we all kind of walked to the back of the bus and left him by himself up front," Gerhart said Saturday. "He walked back and said, ‘Come on guys, I don’t bite. I might bark a little bit, but I don’t bite.’ It was a good first impression. We talked a little bit last night. Just about my family, my father being a coach and his father was a coach, and that’s a special relationship and stuff like that. He’s a good guy, going to be a good coach for us."
Gerhart was one of three pending free agents, to make the trip along with Everson Griffen and Jerome Simpson made the trek. They said they were just fulfilling their responsibilities as members of the Vikings and spending time with teammates, but getting the chance to meet Zimmer was an added benefit. Other current players included Harrison Smith, Matt Kalil, Andrew Sendejo and Larry Dean.
Zimmer had a message to spread as well.
"Our biggest thing, I just want to meet the players that are here, sit and talk with them in a relaxed situation," Zimmer said. "We’re trying to get them to understand that this is all about winning and we want to make sure that whatever we do on the field, off the field and everything we do every single day is about winning."
Zimmer is embracing everything involved with being Minnesota’s coach. He has no choice but to embrace the weather.