The subzero windchill and subpar play of the Minnesota Wild tested the mettle, winter wardrobe and commitment of the hardiest of hometown hockey fans who turned up early and eager for the NHL's Winter Classic outdoors Saturday night at Target Field.
Rachel Herdt of Moorhead bought tickets to the game for her husband, Aaron, as a Christmas gift. "I didn't know it was going to be this cold, but we're big hockey fans and it's in Minnesota so I said, 'We have to go,' " she said.
Even for Minnesota in January it was cold, with the temperature firmly below zero and a minus twentysomething windchill. The sun was gone long before the 6 p.m. puck drop and the temperatures slid throughout the night. The "kiss cam" was replaced with the roving "freeze fan cam."
Nevertheless, fan fever ran as hot as the flames that sprung from the back of the "State of Hockey" stage during country star Thomas Rhett's set during the first intermission of the game between the Wild and the St. Louis Blues.
Minnesota Twins territory was transformed into a land of ice and snow, and fans came early for the unique experience of seeing NHL hockey in a baseball park. They queued up outdoors before the gates opened at 4 p.m., then stood in long lines to buy NHL Winter Classic jerseys and caps.
The Herdts, each carrying a fleece blanket to bolster their clothing layers, spent the pregame ensconced under an overhead heater in the Truly On Deck bar near their seats on the left field benches.
"I figured we'd get in and see what it's all about," Rachel Herdt said. Her husband liked the log cabin look of the warming house in centerfield. "It reminds me of northern Minnesota," he said, taking in the bonfires, Adirondack chairs, deer replicas and simulated ice fishing holes set up in the outfield.
Anna and Jake Smith, who live in Worthington, came for the weekend and bought their Winter Classic gear at the fan fest before the game in and around Target Center, where there was live music, refreshments, ice sculptures and hockey-themed diversions.
"We love hockey. We love the Wild. You can't miss this; once-in-a-lifetime right here," she said.
She wore three pairs of pants under her thermal overalls. Jake Smith said they each had about 15 hand warmers, but he shrugged off the temperatures. "If you get cold, you just got to go walk around a bit," he said.
Anna Smith cheerfully added, "I'm worried about about my phone dying."
Inside Target Field, the game rink was at the center of the action, with eight smaller rinks ringed by colored lights in the outfield for invited high school players. The juniper plants that make up the baseball batter's eye were the only visible green remaining in the park.
The majority of the sellout crowd of 38,619 was seated outdoors — with the option of warming up in a few choice spaces at the park.
Friends Tyler Niemela, 22, and Nate Hillstrom, 19, both from Cokato, were in their right-field seats wearing their Wild jerseys more than 90 minutes before game time. They said they wanted to soak up the experience.
Their seats also had a prime view overlooking the pregame lumberjack face-off in right field that involved saws and tree trunks, As to whether they would be able to stay warm during the game, the two shrugged and said, "Oh, yeah."
Breaks in the main game were packed with diversions, including a dramatic reading of Herb Brooks' famous speech to the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. "This is your time. Their time is done," 7-year-old Adam Christopher Scott of Eden Prairie bellowed from the stage while the delighted crowd cheered.
It was Blues fans who had the most to cheer as their team led most of the game, up to the 6-4 Wild loss. Among the Blues fans were Valerie and Chad Burgess, who came up from St. Louis to accompany friends Sarah and P.J. Hubert of Plymouth.
Chad Burgess said they brought plenty of disposable warmers. "We brought foot ones. We brought toe ones, hand ones and stick-on ones," he said.
Valerie Burgess wore a Blues fleece jacket under an electric heated jacket she purchased for the game. They couples carried rolled-up sleeping bags as they made their way to a restaurant for a meal before the game.
Sarah Hubert had pulled her Blues jersey over her long, heavy-duty winter coat, saying, "It should be fun once we get in there and forget we're cold."