To get outdoor game, Wild had to fulfill NHL’s checklist

It took a while for the Minnesota Wild to host an outdoors game at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium. That's because the Wild was given specific requirements to host one of the NHL's marquee events.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Step by step, the Minnesota Wild had their agenda from the NHL and worked to check off each item of the list.

Minnesota wanted to host an NHL outdoor game, preferably the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, and were given specific requirements by the league in order to one day host some of the marquee games on the league’s yearly calendar.

Venue, availability and excitement are certainly a part of holding such an event. The NHL wanted to see more than just the passion and facilities in the "State of Hockey."

"They’ve been demanding about certain things," Wild chief operating officer Matt Majka said Saturday. "They wanted us to become a better hockey team. We’ve done that. They wanted us to appear in the playoffs. We’ve done that. We have some high-profile players now. Those are all fair requests.

"We’ve checked those things off our list through the years, so here we are. They were true to their word. They wanted more from us and we brought it, and here we are now with a Stadium Series game."

The league announced Minnesota will host the Chicago Blackhawks in one of two Stadium Series games in 2016. The Wild play Chicago on Feb. 21, 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus.  

The NHL, with the Stadium Series being a league-run event, chose TCF Bank Stadium over Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins baseball team. TCF Bank Stadium hosted outdoor games Jan. 17, 2014 with the University of Minnesota men’s and women’s hockey teams both playing in the Hockey City Classic.

"I think it helped," University athletic director Norwood Teague said Saturday. "I think it helped with the NHL. I think it helps us because we’ve been down the road before. We know where we’ve made mistakes and what we did very well. It was certainly a success. We had about 43,000 fans there. So we look forward to doing it again. I’m glad we’ve had it under our belt."

TCF Bank Stadium opened in 2009 and has a capacity of 52,525. Target Field seats 39,201 for baseball. TCF Bank Stadium also has improved Winterized features, which were upgraded for the Hockey City Classic as well as more improvements made last year for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings to play at the facility on a temporary basis.

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But Majka, Wild owner Craig Leipold had other requirements made by the NHL. The team started talking to the league years earlier and increased their efforts about five years ago to host an outdoor game.

The NHL started the Winter Classic New Year’s Day game in 2008 and introduced the Stadium Series with four games in 2014.

"When it first started, we’re like, ‘Well, our market, of course. The State of Hockey, it will fit right in,’" Majka said. "We wanted one years ago and the league demanded more of us. I give a lot of credit to Craig Leipold, our owner, for committing the kind of resources he did to make us a better hockey team. I give (general manager) Chuck Fletcher a lot of credit for putting the kind of hockey team he has together. I think we’ve got what we deserve now, which is a great marquee hockey game for the State of Hockey and our fans."

The on-ice development really took hold in 2012 when Minnesota signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to landmark, matching 13-year contracts as the top two free agents on the market. Trades by Fletcher brought in forward Jason Pominville and the team added several young prospects. This past season, the Wild signed three-time, 40-goal scorer Thomas Vanek.

After missing the playoffs four straight seasons, Minnesota returned to the postseason in 2013 and made a run to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last season.

"We’ve worked really hard for years now to gain the profile that teams that play in outdoor games in the NHL get and receive," Majka said. "For the Wild to achieve that status is really important to us, and for our fans. This is so much about the sentiment and the passion and heritage of the sport in this state. We feel like it’s just as much for all the fans and all of our customers who have supported us through the years as it is for our team and our franchise."

Leipold and the Wild still want to host the Winter Classic. Leipold expressed that desire again Saturday in a letter posted on the team’s website.

"Congratulations, you deserve this chance to showcase and celebrate our favorite game in the great outdoors on a national stage," Leipold wrote. "The recent Hockey Day Minnesota events all around the state showed once again how the outdoor game is in our blood.

"We’re confident that we’ll be awarded a Winter Classic someday soon. But we’ll enjoy this one too — the first-ever outdoor professional game in the state. And when the Minnesota Wild hit the ice for our Stadium Series game next season, we’ll all be warmed by a great deal of pride watching our boys out there, no matter the weather."

Majka echoed Leipold’s sentiments.

"That remains a goal for us," Majka said of the Winter Classic. "That is the marquee game, of course, these days. Maybe we’ve got a little more work to earn our way there, but this will be a great first step for us. Yeah, we want to play in a Winter Classic someday too. We will not give up on that goal. But we’ll start here and make it great."

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