When defenseman Nate Prosser takes his first twirl on the ice surface at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis this weekend, his head will be filled with memories of a hockey childhood well spent in nearby Elk River, Minn.
Prosser, 29, has been in the Minnesota Wild system since 2010. He has been a regular on the Wild's blue line since 2013. And though a job in the NHL is the dream of many, a job for the hometown team in a hockey-rich state like Minnesota -- The State of Hockey -- is all the more rewarding.
"I know I will definitely enjoy it and be thankful for the opportunity that I have," Prosser said.
The Wild face the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday in the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series Game at TCF Bank Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports), the culmination of a three-day celebration of outdoor hockey that also will feature a Minnesota Wild family skate, practice sessions by the Wild and the Blackhawks and an alumni game featuring Wild and Minnesota North Stars alumni playing together against a team of Blackhawks alumni.
For Prosser, the return to outdoor hockey is a return to his roots, as it is for so many players from across Minnesota.
Video: Blackhawks, Wild Stadium Series Time-Lapse
"When I look back and I think of hockey when I was in elementary school, I think of outdoor hockey," he said. "That was the biggest thing growing up in Minnesota, in the wintertime there are outdoor rinks everywhere. Whatever city you grew up in, it kind of revolves around hockey. Every community had an outdoor rink."
Elk River had several. There were the two outdoor rinks hard up against the Elk River Arena, according to Prosser, which meant hockey did not have to end after formal practice did. For a self-professed rink rat, it was a haven.
"You get out of practice and instead of going home, you keep your skates and gloves and just go right outside and skate more with your teammates and buddies," he said.
Those rinks were convenient and served their purposes, but it was another outdoor rink that was the hockey mecca for Elk River kids.
Known simply as "The Pit" or Handke Pit, Handke Stadium has been the hub of hockey in the city for more than 70 years. Virtually every child in the city has skated there or sat in the majestic warming hut, a legacy of the Works Project Administration initiative created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. The Handke Pit warming house is the only all-stone warming house in the state.
Prosser is the fourth hockey player to reach the NHL after calling Handke Pit a childhood hockey home. He followed a path blazed by retired forwards Joel Otto and Dan Hinote, and current San Jose Sharks defenseman Paul Martin.
Prosser broke into a wide grin when talking about the Handke Pit, which was formed by a glacier and then landscaped during the WPA years to take the shape it has now, which features tree-lined sloping hills surrounding the basin that holds the outdoor rink maintained by the city.
"What I remember is grabbing all my neighborhood buddies, all my best friends," Prosser said, "and our parents would drop us off down there in the morning and we would pack a bag lunch and they wouldn't pick us up until dinnertime."
Sometimes, they would play games against other groups of kids. Sometimes, they would skate around, harboring dreams of hockey heroics in their imagination as they surged across the ice. Occasionally, somebody would break out a tennis ball instead of a puck, forcing the kids to sharpen their stick skills without the need for formal drills or qualified instructors.
Always, there were smiles.
"We were out there hours upon hours," Prosser said, "and that's where you grow the love for the game."
This weekend, all those memories will flood back as he visits the University of Minnesota for one of the biggest games of his professional hockey career. Some of the rink rats he shared Elk River Arena and "The Pit" with likely will be in the stands at TCF Bank Stadium. Other Minnesotans who will be on hand that don't know Prosser still know his story. It's the same journey experienced by virtually every hockey-loving kid in Minnesota throughout their childhood.
"I'll have a lot of family and friends there," Prosser said. "I have never had the experience of playing in an outdoor game yet, so it will be a great experience, for sure."