MINNEAPOLIS – Alex Goligoski grew up in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, precisely the type of up-north community where a pair of hockey skates are as prevalent of a possession as the snowblower and the parka.
Winter activity for Goligoski and his friends was an easy pick. They took their sticks and pucks to the rink at the elementary school playground two blocks down the street from his home.
Goligoski's career on the ice is about to come full circle.
In the veteran defenseman's first season with his home-state team, the Minnesota Wild will play in the NHL's marquee outdoor event for the first time Saturday night when they face the St. Louis Blues in the Winter Classic at Target Field.
The game the Wild have long lobbied the league to host was delayed a year by the pandemic.
“If any state would appreciate an outdoor game, it would definitely be Minnesota. Those are my favorite hockey memories growing up, playing on the outdoor rink,” said Goligoski, one of nine players on the Wild roster who've participated in a fresh-air NHL game. He played for Pittsburgh in the Winter Classic in 2011 at Heinz Field.
There have been 637 players drafted in league history who were born in Minnesota, according to NHL records. That's the most of any U.S. state. Goligoski and teammates Nick Bjugstad and Rem Pitlick are the Minnesota natives on the Wild among the 49 players who have appeared in a game this season, also the most of any state.
“It is a sense of pride in that way. It’s obviously such a great organization, the way the communities support the game and how important hockey is to this state,” Goligoski said.
The Wild have played outdoors once before, in a Stadium Series game in 2016 at the University of Minnesota’s football stadium. Wild goalie Cam Talbot posted a shutout in the Heritage Classic in 2016 with the Edmonton Oilers.
“The elements are different, but the game’s the same,” Talbot said.
The Blues hosted the Winter Classic in 2017 at Busch Stadium, the home of Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals. This will be the 13th edition of the Winter Classic and the 33rd outdoor game the NHL has staged.
“It’s so much fun,” said forward Marcus Foligno, who's from Buffalo, New York. “After school, you tell your buddies, ‘Hey, let’s meet here at 5 o’clock,’ and then before you know it you have 20 people out there playing.”
The Wild won't quite have their full crew. Captain and defenseman Jared Spurgeon and stalwart forward Joel Eriksson Ek won't play because of injuries. Standout defenseman Jonas Brodin is in the COVID-19 protocols, though the Wild were hoping he can be cleared in time for the game.
About that game: It's going to be awfully cold, fittingly. The temperature in the Twin Cities on Saturday was forecast to stay below zero the entire day, so the evening start time won't make it much worse. It's expected to be around minus-5 degrees at faceoff.
“I don’t know what to expect. I see how cold it’s going to be, but I don’t know how cold it will feel,” Blues goalie Jordan Binnington said earlier this week. “We’re going to do our part gearing up and do the best we can to be ready for it.”
The NHL designed the snow-covered home of the Minnesota Twins to look like a frozen lake, with a log cabin warming house in center field and eight mini-rinks to simulate pond-style play next to the main sheet of ice that was coated with 350 gallons of paint. The music stage was built like a dock. Pine trees and deer statues completed the scene, as light snow fell on Friday afternoon while each team skated through a light practice.
“It actually wasn’t bad. The fingertips were really the only things that I experienced cold. I don’t think the guys were," Wild coach Dean Evason said. “It was a little bit funky at the start, a lot of snow coming down in our eyes and the shields were getting fogged up. When it stopped snowing there, it got a lot better.”
Wild star Kirill Kaprizov won't be fazed. He's actually from Siberia.
“I loved playing as a kid and even just recently with a long break, we got a chance to go play some outdoor hockey,” Kaprizov said. "I love it. It’s always a lot of fun.”
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