Gophers finally get outdoor hockey game, ‘electric atmosphere’ expected
MINNEAPOLIS — Before the Gophers men’s hockey team ever took the ice for an outdoor game last year in Chicago, the University of Minnesota knew it wanted to host this same event the following year.
The Gophers faced the Wisconsin Badgers in mid-February last year at Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. Along with Minnesota’s players and coaches, a skeleton crew of university administrators also made the trip to the Windy City to check out that weekend’s events.
After the trip to Chicago, Minnesota had one goal in mind: to host an outdoor game on campus. The university contacted Intersport, the Chicago-based company that put on the event, and started talking about doing the same thing in the Twin Cities the following year.
"We almost immediately started working on it," said Scott Ellison, the Minnesota’s associate athletic director. "We wanted to be the first in the metro area in Minnesota to have a major outdoor game in our stadium. I’m glad we did it."
The state of Minnesota has been starved for an outdoor hockey game of this magnitude. When the Minnesota Twins opened Target Field in 2010, plenty of fans began buzzing about the possibility of the new outdoor ballpark hosting the NHL’s Winter Classic. Four years later, that still hasn’t happened, even though the NHL will play an outdoor game in Los Angeles, of all places, later this month.
TCF Bank Stadium was opened on the University of Minnesota campus in 2009. As soon as the 50,720-seat facility was completed, the school had aspirations of one day hosting a hockey game there.
It wasn’t until last February, though, that they got the puck rolling. In early September, it was finally announced that Minnesota would host an outdoor game.
"We’ve been working long and hard over the past year to put this together," said Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague. "It’s a long time coming, but it’s something that we want to do often moving forward here at TCF Bank Stadium."
Fans who witnessed last year’s game in Chicago will notice a difference in the way the rink is set up at TCF Bank Stadium: there’s less room between the rink and the seating bowl. That will provide for a different atmosphere than Soldier Field, which seats nearly 10,000 more fans than the Gophers’ field.
"I think the fans will be a little bit closer, more on top because it’s a little more intimate stadium," said Gophers men’s head coach Don Lucia. "So I think from that standpoint, it’ll be really good for the fans."
The organization of this year’s event is different, too. Last year, four men’s teams — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) — took part. So while the event drew 52,000 fans, many of whom could be found tailgating before the games, there were never that many in the stadium at the same time.
Drew Russell, the vice president of Intersport, estimates Friday’s game will have between 45,000 to 50,000 fans — and they’ll all be packed into TCF Bank Stadium together.
"I think we’re going to have a better atmosphere," Russell said. "This year, obviously, it’s different. We’ve got the women’s game preceding the men’s game. Everybody in Minnesota is a Gopher hockey fan. We’ve got a home team. The closest thing we had to a home team here in Chicago is Notre Dame."
Though the talks have been ongoing for nearly a year in terms of putting together this year’s event, construction of the rink didn’t begin until late December. Some of the flooring was put in place Dec. 17, while the true construction began Dec. 27. It was fully completed by Jan. 9, in time for former Gophers players to take part in a public skate with fans. Since then, the rink has already hosted a number of high school games. The Gophers will practice on it this week in preparation for Friday’s game.
While organizers hope the weather stays cool enough during the days leading up to Friday’s game, the crazy Minnesota weather has actually been too cold in recent weeks. Thanks to several consecutive days of subzero temperatures, progress on setting up the rink fell behind by a day as it wasn’t warm enough to flood the rink.
The ice sheet is set up just like a regular indoor rink, Ellison said. It has piping underneath the ice that can either cool or heat up the ice with glycol, depending on the outdoor conditions. Because it’s been cold enough, the rink hasn’t been cooled much.
The playing surface isn’t the only thing that the weather can make challenging. Snowfall in the last few weeks had to be cleared out in order for the stadium to host a number of high school games last Saturday. Before the snow was cleared, some of it melted and re-froze, making the task even tougher.
With more snow arriving in the Twin Cities on Tuesday, the crew will once again have its work cut out for it to prepare for Friday’s main event.
Ellison and the rest of the university’s administrators have been keeping a close eye on the weather forecast for Friday night’s games. The women’s team will host Minnesota State at 4:30 p.m., and the men’s team will follow with its game against Ohio State at 8 p.m. The current high temperature for Friday in the extended forecast is just 12 degrees, but it will be a bit chillier when the puck drops for the night game.
"I heard it’s going to be a high of five around eight o’clock at night, so it’s going to be a little on the chilly side," Ellison said. "Pack them in tight in the stands and stay warm."
Added Russell: "What’s exciting about this, it’s under the lights, Friday night, prime time, between 45,000-50,000 people all in the facility at once. I think it’s going to be a pretty electric atmosphere."
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