Myers: Gophers fans show outdoor hockey game for Wild would make sense
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MINNEAPOLIS - In case you needed one extra indicator that Friday night's Hockey City Classic (also known as "the night the outdoor stadium hockey trend finally came to the State of Hockey") was something special, check your friends' Facebook photos for candid tailgating pictures with Don Lucia. There are surely at least a few of them out there, somewhere.
The ordinarily reserved Gophers hockey coach, who notably values his privacy and shuns the spotlight, admitted that even he got caught up in the moment on his way to the rink - the temporary one plopped down between the 30 yard lines at TCF Bank Stadium - on Friday, and stopped by a few tailgate parties to chat with fans and pose for a few photos.
Inside the stadium, where an announced crowd of 45,021 (the largest group to witness a hockey game in Minnesota history) saw the Gophers prevail 1-0 over Ohio State, the atmosphere was downright festive. Although the actual "butts in the seats" attendance number may have been something closer to the 30,000 range, as many were likely frightened off by the chilly forecast, the multitudes in attendance clearly were there for a good time.
No, blaze orange has not been added as an official third color by the U athletic department, it just looked a bit that way, as the stands the concourses were filled with folks decked out in all manner of cold-weather gear typically reserved for winter activities such as ice fishing and deer hunting. Concession lines for coffee and hot chocolate were lengthy during the first and second periods, but were dwarfed by the line for beer, which stretched from the end zone to the 15 yard line in one corner of the stadium.
The Gophers were 0-1 in outdoor games coming into the evening, having fallen 3-2 to Wisconsin last February in the Hockey City Classic's first incarnation. That game, played at Chicago's Soldier Field, was a twi-night doubleheader, with Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame in the afternoon opener and the Gophers and Badgers completing the dance card.
With the Illinois sun beating down on the rink for much of the first game last year, most of the complaints on the Lake Michigan waterfront were related to sub-par ice conditions. There were no similar complaints on Friday, as the temperature was officially 6 degrees when the men's game started. Earlier in the day, the top-ranked Gophers women's team had christened the event with a 4-0 win over Minnesota State-Mankato. There was sun at the start of that one, which quickly dropped behind the pressbox side of the stadium, and when the men began play at 8 p.m. as the temperature dropped, soft ice was not a concern.
"It seemed like everybody had a good time, and the ice conditions were very good," said Lucia, after rookie Taylor Cammarata scored the game's only goal, and Adam Wilcox had 21 saves for his second shutout of the season. "I think they had to make one (ice) repair the whole game. That was a lot different from last year's event."
But instead of dwelling on last year, or even this year, Lucia immediately began looking ahead. This week it was revealed that the NHL's 2014 Winter Classic, played Jan. 1 before more than 100,000 fans at the Big House on the University of Michigan campus, turned a profit of more than $20 million. There will be NHL outdoor games in Chicago, New York City and even Los Angeles this season, and the Winter Classic will be played in Washington, D.C. in 2015. And although they've played outdoor NHL games seemingly everywhere else so far (Buffalo, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Calgary and Edmonton at last count) there is a general feeling that eventually Minnesota will host one of these. When they do, Lucia would prefer they choose the stadium across the street from his office, rather than a venue like Target Field. He began lobbying to that effect in the post-game presser.
"Quite frankly, the next team that deserves to play in this game is the Wild," Lucia said. "I think that our fans would really embrace that. Hopefully the NHL will come here. I think TCF is a great place to host it. I think the sightlines are pretty good in a football stadium."
Although he acknowledged that with the Vikings calling TCF Bank Stadium their home for at least the next two seasons, a Jan. 1 hockey game at the stadium would be a challenge, as dates need to be left open for potential playoff games. Of course, at the rate that the NHL is steadfastly ignoring its most passionate hockey market when choosing Winter Classic sites, perhaps Gary Bettman and his ilk will consider a Minneapolis-based outdoor game sometime after Nashville, Dallas and Phoenix have all had a chance to host.
The message sent loud and clear on Friday, by Lucia and 30,000 or so of his closest friends, was this is the place to be for winter outdoor hockey on a big stage. Go have your fling at Dodger Stadium and Yankee Stadium and other curious hockey locales. But when you're ready for the game's true outdoor roots, Minnesota will be waiting with solid ice, cold beer and bundled-up fans - lots of them - in bright orange parkas, ready to make some noise and have some fun.