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On Sight Lines, Dry Runs & More Outdoor Hockey...

TCF Bank Stadium gets the first crack at a large outdoor hockey game in Minnesota, but the college hockey doubleheader has to live up for both the long wait and a future Winter Classic for the Minnesota Wild.

TCF Bank Stadium hosts the 2014 Hockey City Classic January 17th, 2014
TCF Bank Stadium hosts the 2014 Hockey City Classic January 17th, 2014
Nathan Wells

Few people are as ingrained in Minnesota hockey history as Lou Nanne. The 72 year-old has spent over 50 years being involved in the "State of Hockey." Whether it is playing for the Gophers, being the GM of the North Stars or even as the longtime voice of the Minnesota High School Hockey State Tournament, Nanne has seen it all.

So when he says that the sight lines at the 50,000 seat TCF Bank Stadium are comparable to both the Met Center (onetime home of the Minnesota North Stars) and Xcel Energy Center (current home of the Minnesota Wild and renowned for its seats), you have to take his word.

Even if it is about something new: the first largescale outdoor game in Minnesota during the modern era.

"Of all the hockey games that have been played outdoors and the proliferation of the NHL games this coming year and college games, there's never going to be one any better with sight lines than you have here at TCF Stadium," Nanne said during the announcement of the Hockey City Classic doubleheader next January.

It's strange in a way that the University of Minnesota men's and women's teams get the first crack at outdoor hockey after this long. The Wild should be due. Minnesota is the self-proclaimed outdoor hockey capitol of the United States. The National Hockey League has had 7 outdoor games since 2003 with plans for another 6 this year.

None of them have been in Minnesota nor has the Wild participated in one.

There may be reasons why other than both TCF and open-air Target Field recently replacing the Metrodome in the last five years, but the fact is Los Angeles gets to host an NHL outdoor game before St. Paul. It doesn't matter outdoor baseball just returned. There is pressure on the Hockey City Classic to be a dry run on January 17th, 2014 for a future NHL outdoor game.

"I think these outdoor games, starting with the NHL and also in college, we all look at our states and say ‘we need to host one,'" said University of Minnesota men's hockey head coach Don Lucia. "It was just a matter of time."

On that end, TCF Bank Stadium gets the opportunity to be showcased as an outdoor venue over competing Target Field. Little things like the sight lines and playing under the lights at night - as the Gopher men will do against Ohio State - help play a role and warp perception.

"I think it's a tremendous event for the state of Minnesota," Nanne said. "It's unparalleled to have a night game on top of it. I was at the football game here (a week ago against UNLV) and during the game I was looking out at the field at how magnificent it was.

"I can tell you I don't know if the fans understand what a great thrill this is going to be that night."

At the same time, Minnesota's first outdoor hockey game needs to be more than just a dry run for a future Winter Classic. The second Hockey City Classic should look back at what went wrong with the first attempt in Chicago rather than solely look forward.

Not everything can be fixed. For the second year in a row, Minnesota is playing a conference game for points in the elements. The unpredictability can make a huge difference in the standings given that there are only 20 Big Ten games compared to the 82 regular season games in the NHL. For every game with perfect weather there is a Nebraska-Omaha vs. North Dakota outdoor game with ice melting from 50-60 degree temperatures.

Anything can happen.

It's a lesson that organizers should take for the 2014 Hockey City Classic. Be prepared for the worst. The ice surface, which was falling apart and full of ruts at Soldier Field, needs to be improved this time around. Without the NHL "Ice Guru" on hand, the game at TCF Bank Stadium has to be playable regardless of the weather.

Speaking of the weather, Minnesota's winter will play a role one way or another. It has to. There are many ways for the weather to affect the experience, however, playing a night game on the third Friday in January is betting on the fact it will be cold.

Even for Minnesota.

Although Lucia might have to invoke his inner Bud Grant, the rest of us in the stands are looking at spending multiple hours with temperatures in the teens or worse. The last 5 January 17th lows in Minneapolis (from the Farmer's Almanac):

  • 2013: 6 degrees (high of 36)
  • 2012: 11 degrees (high of 32)
  • 2011: 11 degrees (high of 25)
  • 2010: 15 degrees (high of 35)
  • 2009: 3 degrees (high of 21)

The good news is that on average the temperatures should be optimal outdoor ice weather. The bad news is it doesn't equal comfort. With the sun setting in Chicago last year, temperatures in the twenties felt unbearable with the wind. This year the men's game starts at 8 pm.

But there are better sight lines. That fact is true. Compared to a baseball diamond, TCF wins no contest. Same goes with the site of last year's game. Soldier Field was further back to where the shallower end zone seating felt miles away. The best seats were the ones on top of the action. That is not necessarily the case for TCF Bank Stadium.

"The sighting I think is a little more intimate," Lucia said. "The seats are closer to the field. That's going to be the biggest difference, just how much more of an intimate setting it will be."

He added, "The brick wall is not very far from the football field. It's not like they're a long way off. A majority of the seats are going to be really good seats."

That's great although sight lines are only one part of the outdoor hockey experience. Maybe it's because this is coming from someone who has already attended an outdoor game, but the nostalgia of playing outside isn't as wonderful the second time. Instead of just thinking about playing on a pond as a child, there is something to compare the experience with. I have the knowledge of attending a game in a stadium.

It's a fact that benefits TCF Bank Stadium and the University of Minnesota. Getting to go first is a bonus. Although the Wild will get to showcase Nordy's home climate at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Gophers' attempt needs to be done right if fifty thousand people will have already attended an outdoor by the time the NHL comes knocking.

That's something Lucia believes.

"I want to see the Wild have an outdoor game," he said. "I think they will sooner rather than later. (The Hockey City Classic) is a good dry run as far as that is concerned."

There's nothing anyone can do about the weather. If the cold doesn't get fans, playing in slush might make the United States outdoor hockey capitol a harder sell for the Winter Classic. Not only for the NHL. Fans spending money on a return appearance also need to be convinced.

The same holds true if Target Field gets its own shot. TCF can be the best venue in the world with sight lines yet that doesn't make it a guaranteed spot for an NHL outdoor game down the line. Things still have to go right with the Hockey City Classic.

Still, the dry run at TCF Bank Stadium has happen first. And for that, Lou Nanne's years of hockey wisdom is steering everyone in the right direction.

"I know we're all going to treasure it and cherish it and this is going to be the first one. I personally can't envision playing an outdoor game at a venue better than this."


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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation and College Hockey News. You can also follow him on Twitter --