Since the first NHL Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008, the league knew it had a goldmine on its hands. The first rendition of the annual New Year’s Day outdoor game couldn’t have gone any better. The Penguins and Sabres game came down to an exciting shootout finish, the snow coming down during the game perfected the outdoor feel, and one of the (if not the) biggest superstars in the game at the time delivered the winning goal. Ever since, the NHL has been hoping to recreate the magic they made in Buffalo, New York thirteen years ago.
The NHL has now played 30 regular season outdoor games since that first Winter Classic. They have been all over North America, everywhere from Regina, Sask. to Los Angeles, Calif. and so many places in between. All types of venues have played host to these games as well, including historic baseball parks Wrigley Field and Fenway Park and legendary college football stadiums like Michigan Stadium and Notre Dame stadium.
Aside from some of these more notable venues, other venues do not necessarily carry the same intrigue. To a certain extent, most football stadiums look the same, or at least similar, and some of the novelty has warn off over time. Per this ESPN article, the NHL actually considered the idea of playing the 2015 Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks on the National Mall. The logistics of constructing a rink and seating for fans in this setting proved impractical, unfortunately.
Fast-forward to the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Having seating for fans is not a requirement when most games are being played without fans anyway. This led to the NHL thinking of playing an outdoor game where, in a normal year, constructing temporary seating would be nearly impossible. It was an idea that made almost too much sense. It was such an obvious thing for the NHL to do that it almost seemed like they would not do it. But in January, the league came through and announced a pair of outdoor games that will be played this weekend at Lake Tahoe in Nevada. On Saturday, the Vegas Golden Knights will take on the Colorado Avalanche, and on Sunday, the Boston Bruins will face the Philadelphia Flyers. These games figure to be the most picturesque NHL games to ever be played.
These games will certainly get people’s imaginations going. Where else could the NHL play games like these? Could a game on the National Mall in DC actually happen? What about a place like Central Park? Or maybe somewhere in Alaska? There is a long list of intriguing options for where outdoor games could potentially be played if all that is needed is a rink and not any room for spectators.
To be fair, thinking of other locations might be a pointless exercise. The Lake Tahoe games were put together very fast, but while it is not impossible, it seems unlikely that the NHL would add additional outdoor games to the 2021 season at this point. Beyond this season, assuming that fans have returned to games, it seems unlikely something like this would ever happen again. The league will almost certainly return to using venues that could accommodate at least some fans.
Given that the Wild were slated to host the 2021 Winter Classic, it would be reasonable to think the NHL could have allowed the Wild to play in an outdoor games and had Minnesota host a unique game. (To be fair, Minnesota will still host the next Winter Classic, so a consolation prize was not necessary, but it is still fun to think about). So if rather than just postponing the 2021 Winter Classic, the NHL moved the outdoor game from Target Field to some one-of-a-kind setting elsewhere in Minnesota, where should the game have gone?
One only needs to look at the history of Hockey Day Minnesota to generate some ideas. Bayfront Park in Duluth, the shore of the St. Croix in Stillwater, Parade Stadium in Minneapolis, or Lake Minnetonka would all have served as wonderful locations. There are also plenty of locations that have not hosted outdoor hockey previously that would make excellent hosts. The river banks of the Mississippi in either Minneapolis or St. Paul (Boom Island Park, perhaps), the Capitol Mall in St. Paul, or at any of the many, many lakes. It would not be the most picturesque option, but there would be something very appropriate about playing at a rink constructed in the Mall of America north parking lot, just feet from where the rink at the Met Center was once located (could top it off by wearing the North Stars-inspired reverse retros).
None of the previous two paragraphs is to criticize the NHL and say that the Wild should have been compensated with a different outdoor game this year. They can wait until next year, and I give the league plenty of credit for actually doing the games at Lake Tahoe. The league had a one-time opportunity to do something like this, and they took it. Hopefully everything this weekend goes as intended, and the games go as well as the pictures of the rink at Tahoe look. That being said, it is fun to think about where games could have been played had the Wild gotten the chance to host an event like this. If you have thoughts about places the NHL should consider for outdoor games like this, whether in Minnesota or anywhere else, please drop them in the comments below.