Skip to Main Content
The Official Site of the Minnesota Wild

Winter Classic a long time coming for Staal, Minnesota

Wild has had visions of game in the State of Hockey for more than a decade

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

There isn't much Eric Staal hasn't done in his hockey career. 

He has his name on the Stanley Cup. He's won an Olympic Gold Medal. Later this month, he'll play in his sixth NHL All-Star Game, an exhibition in which he's already won an MVP award. 

He's won two medals, including one gold, representing Canada at the World Championships, making him a member of the exclusive Triple Gold Club (Stanley Cup champion and gold medals at both the Olympics and Worlds), an accomplishment just 28 other players in history have achieved. 

But there is one career highlight that remains unchecked on Staal's hockey resume: the Thunder Bay, Ontario has never played in an outdoor game in the NHL. 

That could change a year from today. 

On Wednesday, the League announced that the Wild will host the 2021 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic® at Minneapolis' Target Field next New Year's Day. 

Video: The 2021 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic will be in MN

For someone like Staal, the opportunity to play in a marquee outdoor game is one the 35-year-old veteran has wanted to do since the NHL began the Winter Classic phenomenon 11 years ago. 

"No question, 100 percent, I would love to be a part of that," Staal said. "My brothers, both, have played in them a few times and they've always talked that it's a great experience. It's something that's been on my radar to do before my career is over, and for Minnesota to get that chance, it's gonna be a lot of fun and an awesome time."

While the event itself has been on Staal's radar, you can certainly believe that it has been on the radar of Wild owner Craig Leipold. Ever since the original Winter Classic game was played in 2008, Leipold has had the vision of bringing the game to Minnesota.

Leipold's purchase of the Wild from original owner Bob Naegele, Jr. was announced just 10 days after the first outdoor game at what was then Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y.

"Very excited. We've been working with [Commissioner] Gary [Bettman] and the NHL now for 10 years and having the outdoor game was a lot of fun and a cool thing, but it's not like the real deal," Leipold said. "It's been a lot of hard work by our group and the NHL, we know, for years have been trying to get us on the schedule. We're excited. We're going to make the NHL proud and we're going to make our market proud."

Bringing the Classic to Minnesota has been a long time coming, and the Wild has been confident that it had a strong chance to get it in 2021, when the team will be in the midst of celebrating its 20th season in the NHL. 

It didn't find out for certain that it was coming until just recently.

"We knew we were in play for some time, but we really didn't find out until about a week ago," Leipold said. "We knew that we were in competition with another stadium with a lot more seats. We kept working hard. We had some community partners that stepped up with us and we will announce who they are in the weeks ahead, but they helped us make a better package, and as a result we got it."

Just the visual of NHL hockey being played outdoors in recent years has made Leipold's desire to bring the League's signature event to the Twin Cities. 

"Of all the markets in the United States, yeah we're biased, but come on, this is the State of Hockey. This is where pond hockey started in the United States, was in Minnesota. We're glad to have it here," Leipold said. "It's been a few years coming, but that's all fine. We're excited. We're going to have a great time doing it. Our fans are going to be great and we're expecting a fun week, not just a fun day."

Wild forward Zach Parise, who grew up playing on outdoor rinks in Bloomington, said some of his fondest memories of the Stadium Series game in 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota, was the lead-up to the game itself. His kids were two years old then, but now, they're skating on their own and will have a much better understanding of how unique of an opportunity playing in an outdoor game is. 

"They're gonna love it, and that's awesome for me," Parise said. "The whole thing is pretty fun. I think just playing in front of that many people, it's just a neat experience."

Parise, who has been known to hang out at Target Field in the summer time when the Twins are in town, said he is expecting the atmosphere to be off the charts next winter. So does the Wild, so much so, that it wanted to save the venue for when it was one day awarded a Winter Classic.

That day will come, Jan. 1, 2021. 

"Target Field was kind've always our first choice, but we were going to save that for the Winter Classic," Leipold said. "It's got great hospitality areas, great place to entertain people, great sightlines. It's going to be really fun, we get along really well with the Twins. Our organization and theirs are very close, so we're all going to have fun doing it."

View More