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Wild’s first Winter Classic appearance could feature a surprise opponent

The Wild probably will end up playing host to the St. Louis Blues on Jan. 1, 2021 at Target Field when Minnesota makes its Winter Classic debut. But the NHL has yet to make an official announcement and it’s not a done deal that the Blues will be the opponent.

The Wild’s preference would be to play the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets are the Wild’s closest opponent geographically, meaning many fans would come from Manitoba to attend the game and various festivities that will be held. Not only would they drive the already high demand for tickets in a stadium that seats only 38,544 for baseball, but they also would fill up hotels, as well as bars and restaurants in Minneapolis and the surrounding areas.

The issue with this is that as a non-U.S. market Winnipeg’s presence in the game would do little for NBC and that would be a problem. The network wants to get the highest ratings possible and having only one U.S. market in the game wouldn’t help matters. Toronto and Montreal are the only two Canadian teams to play in the Winter Classic.

There was a time when Chicago would have been the logical opponent but the Blackhawks have appeared in six outdoor games, including serving as the Wild’s opponent for a Stadium Series game in 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Blackhawks also have hit a down cycle in recent years.

There is another team that has emerged as a possible opponent for the Wild. That would be the New York Islanders, who could attract a television audience from the East Coast and also have three Minnesota natives on their roster (Anders Lee, Nick Leddy and Brock Nelson). Being in different conferences, there is no rivalry between the teams but that doesn’t mean the NHL couldn’t get creative.

The only real tie-in between the Islanders and Minnesota is the fact New York eliminated the North Stars in five games in the 1981 Stanley Cup Finals. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced in late January last year that the Nashville Predators would serve as the opponent for the Dallas Stars for the 2020 Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

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