MINNEAPOLIS -- Wild owner Craig Leipold stepped to the lectern, black RayBans blocking the bright sunshine at Target Field, and reflected on how thankful he was to be right there, at that very moment ... one that was more than a decade in the making.
The 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic is still 97 days away, but on this day, a picturesque autumn afternoon in the State of Hockey, with the outline of the rink that will reside in the stadium a few feet behind him, it wasn't easy for Leipold to become incredibly sentimental.
Leipold got through his lengthy list of thank yous, but it was impossible to keep hidden the smile on his face, and how eager he is to showcase the home of the Minnesota Twins to an international audience in just a few short months.
"We're so happy it's here," Leipold said afterward. "What we're going to remember on January 1st is that we sat out here in the hot sun, with sunglasses on, and now it's going to probably be zero degrees. It's gonna be fun, but it'll be surreal."
Leipold officially took over the Wild from original owner Bob Naegele Jr. in September of 2009, nine months after the very first Winter Classic in Buffalo.
From that date, Leipold has been in the ear of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman about bringing the League's showcase event to the Twin Cities.
Video: 2022 Winter Classic Press Event
"Craig always wanted the Winter Classic," Bettman said. "Even though we did an outdoor game (a Stadium Series game at TCF Bank Stadium in 2016), he wanted to save this place for the Winter Classic. I thought we'd placate him for a few years with the Stadium Series game, but I remember him saying to me at that game, 'This is great, I love it, we're having a great time, but when am I getting the Winter Classic?'
"He has been relentless, and I mean that in the best possible way, because he is so passionate about this team and about this community, and he's so competitive. This is what he always envisioned and wanted, and he wasn't going to give up until he got it."
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the event by a year, a true test of Leipold's patience, but come Jan. 1 at 6 p.m. - the first scheduled primetime edition of the game - Leipold won't have to wait any longer.
"It's been a long 10 years," Leipold said. "Everything is timing in life, it had to be the right time and this is it, it's the right time to do it. We were prepared last year when COVID came, so we know what to do, we've had plenty of time to work it and it'll be a good time for all of it."
Right up until about this time last year, the Wild was hopeful the pandemic would subside enough for a Winter Classic to serve as, perhaps, some sort of Opening Night special for the 2020-21 season.
But as the pandemic dragged on, and a second wave eventually hit, it became clear that last season would be played under very different circumstances. The dream of a packed Target Field quickly died, and all of the sudden, the Wild simply hoped the event would be postponed for a year, and not indefinitely.
Having Leipold as the team's owner certainly helped, as nobody has pushed harder to bring the event to their market over the years. The NHL was committed to the market, and earlier this year, it was announced that the game itself was being moved just 365 days ahead in the calendar.
And as the country continues to grapple with "normal" and whatever new routines folks will find in the coming weeks and months, one thing is becoming quite clear: come New Year's Day in downtown Minneapolis, Target Field will be packed with spectators for a hockey game, one that Leipold has had his sights set on for more than a decade.
"It feels like it has been a long haul to get here," said Wild President Matt Majka. "But now that we're almost here, and just looking at the stadium today, it's going to be just a heck of a scene on New Year's Day, and our fans deserve it. It's been a long time coming, but we're super excited."