NHL Outdoor Game

Last year, when the NHL used Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, to host one of its annual Stadium Series games, the big concern was how the condition of the ice would be maintained.

In the days leading up to the showdown between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings, crews worked tirelessly -- and sometimes haplessly -- to keep the ice frozen.

It barely worked. Condensation kept gathering on the ice, which turned to slush under the blades of hockey skates. The event was a real spectacle, but the main event seemed like a stubborn venture.

Contrast that West Coast experience with the one presented at this weekend's Stadium Series in Minneapolis, where the Wild hosted the Chicago Blackhawks. In the self-proclaimed "State of Hockey," nothing seemed out-of-place. Not the cold air, not the snow-covered field and certainly not the ice.

TCF Bank Stadium

If the NHL is determined to play hockey games in the outdoors, this is the way to do it: By showcasing the game in its natural habitat.

San Jose couldn't have been further from those environs. Hockey fans from northern and southern California gathered into a high-tech stadium -- a jewel in Silicon Valley's crown -- and enjoyed a show that pumped up a great party atmosphere while covering up the strangeness of watching hockey outside.

Concerts played between periods. On the field, shark fins swam through tropical blue water. The rink was a frozen oasis -- well, a kinda-frozen oasis -- in a land where hockey was never meant to go outside.

Meanwhile, it couldn't have felt more natural in Minnesota. Playing in TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota's campus, the backdrop for the game was simple: Gentle hills of snow blanketed the football field, dotted with a few pine trees.

Chicago Blackhawks

Generations of fans broke out their jerseys, including North Stars throwbacks that seemed nearly as prevalent as Minnesota Wild apparel -- all of this, 23 years after the North Stars moved to Dallas.

Next to the main attraction of the regulation NHL rink, youth hockey games took place on a smaller patch of ice bordered by mounded snow, its ice featuring the "State of Hockey" emblem. The sky was sunny, the air was frosty, and fans seemed to be in attendance to celebrate the game, rather than binge on Coors Light.

I'll admit that some of this might just be my own perception, having watched the outdoor games in Santa Clara and Minnesota in person. Maybe Sharks and Kings fans felt the same sort of thrill and connection that North Stars and Wild fans experienced this past weekend. But the backdrops of both games can't help but color my impression.

On a sunny day in the cold Minnesota winter, I watched hockey in the open air and forgot it was ever played anywhere else.

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