Feb 19, 2011; Lake Louise, AB, Canada; A game of shinny hockey takes place on the frozen surface of Lake Louise a day before the Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames at McMahon Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Outdoor hockey finally a reality for Gophers men's hockey

When you’re eight years old, you shouldn’t have to worry about ice time if you live in Minnesota. Mother nature provides us with a non-stop open skate for at least three months out of the year. Those three months is where some of the game’s greatest stars have learned that hockey is fun.

The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers will get a chance at some fun when they play in the Hockey City Classic this Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago. It may be a once in a lifetime opportunity for any of the athletes in the double-header to skate outdoors in front of over 50,000 fans.

Minnesota will take on rival Wisconsin in the day’s second game. Before the Gophers and Badgers take to the open air sheet of ice, Miami University (Ohio) will take on Notre Dame in a CCHA conference battle between two of the top three teams in the standings.

For the Golden Gophers, this will be their first appearance in an outdoor game since helmets were required and before former Gophers coach Frank Pond from the 1930s scheduled games to be played on a pond.

The Badgers on the other hand are a little more familiar with the event, having played two previous outdoor games in the last seven years. In 2006, the Badgers took on Ohio State University in Green Bay on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. The Badgers defeated the Buckeyes 4-2 in front of just over 40,000 fans at the usual home of the Green Bay Packers.

More recently, Wisconsin hosted future Big Ten opponent Michigan in 2010 at Camp Randall in Madison. The usual home for the Badger football team played host to an outdoor game in front of over 55,000 fans and the home Badgers eked out a 3-2 win over the Wolverines.

Four players remain on the roster for Wisconsin from that game in 2010. The experience of playing in such an event as a nationally televised outdoor hockey game gives the Badgers a certain advantage. Captains John Ramage, Ryan Little, and Derek Lee represent three of the four holdovers and their leadership leading up to the game could be a difference maker for Wisconsin.

Before any players on the Badgers or Gophers can think about Sunday, there is still a big conference game Friday night at the Kohl Center in Madison. The 7:05 p.m. CT start time for the series opener may be a momentum builder for either team as they look forward to Sunday.

Minnesota and Wisconsin are currently just one point apart in the WCHA standings and any win this time of year is a premium.

Earlier in the season, Minnesota took three out of four points from the Badgers at Mariucci Arena. That was back in Mid-November when the Badgers were still trying to find themselves as a team.

Since Dec. 1, the Badgers and Gophers have each lost just two games. The Badgers have relied on good defense and goaltending in that stretch and have allowed four or more goals just once since the beginning of December.

The Gopher recently fell to No. 2 in the USCHO national polls. A split last weekend with conference leader St. Cloud State gave Minnesota two losses in their last four games overall. The opponents were tough, but Don Lucia and his team will need a strong weekend to regain some momentum heading towards the postseason.

With the excitement of the Hockey City Classic finally in close proximity, the exuberance of youth should come out of the players at Soldier Field for an experience they wont forget.

That combined with on-going talks of outdoor hockey coming to Minneapolis for the first time in the ‘modern era’ means hockey fans young and old should take in the event and remember its significance for the future.

Win or lose the Gophers will use the Hockey City Classic as the building ground for outdoor events in the Twin Cities for years to come. Finally, eight year old mites can skate on the outdoor rinks in their neighborhood and visualize playing for the Gophers on-campus in just over a decade.

As for the outcome on the weekend….

Prediction: 3-3 tie on Friday in Madison. 5-3 win for Minnesota on Sunday in Chicago.

Friday’s game will be televised on Fox Sports North. Sunday’s 3:30 p.m. CT start for the series finale can be seen on the Big Ten Network. Both games can be heard locally on AM-1500 ESPN.

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