Sure, hockey-crazed Minnesota has yearned for a successful team in the NHL, but a winning Wild would also be just as good for the league as it tries to recover from the long lockout that bruised its image. While Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles have won the last three Stanley Cup titles, Minnesota is hockey's answer to Green Bay, a smaller but vital market with enthusiasm that far exceeds raw numbers.
"It would mean a lot to the NHL and the game if we won our first Cup here," says forward Zach Parise. "If you judge hockey markets by how much it matters to people, Minnesota is as strong as any market in Canada."
Before the lockout took hold, the Wild had made hockey's biggest offseason splash by signing Parise, the Devils' captain last season, and Predators defenseman Ryan Suter to belt-busting (and identical) 13-year, $98 million free agent contracts. Both players are skilled and savvy, former All-Stars and U.S. Olympic teammates with ties to the region. Parise's dad, J.P., played a total of nine years for the NHL's old Minnesota North Stars, later became an assistant coach for the team, and still lives in the area. Suter, one of the game's best two-way defensemen, grew up in neighboring Wisconsin and often visited the Twin Cities for summer tournaments.
"When you'd see families obsessed with the game in the middle of July," says Suter, "you knew there was no place for hockey like Minnesota."
In addition to a thriving culture for the game at the high school level, the state boasts 200 ice arenas, an NHL-high 48 active homegrown players and the No. 1-ranked men's and women's NCAA teams at the University of Minnesota. Still, an uptick for the Wild couldn't come at a better time. The team's only two playoff series wins took place in 2003, its third season, and 2011--12 marked the fourth straight time that it missed the playoffs. With a drop to 98.4 percent capacity last year, attendance at St. Paul's Xcel Center was the lowest in franchise history. To stay in the good graces of the team's fans, a number of Wild players, including Parise, Suter and team captain Mikko Koivu, hand-delivered a number of season tickets to people's homes this winter.
The Wild missed a playoff spot by 14 points last spring, scored the fewest goals, 177, of any team in the league and had only one player, Dany Heatley, with at least 45 points. They also got worse as games went along. Minnesota won just 15 of 30 contests when scoring the first goal of a game, and the Wild was last in the league with a total of 60 combined goals in the third periods and overtimes. Every other team in the league won at least 20 times when scoring first in 2011-12.
Opening the season at home on Saturday, Heatley scored twice against the Avalanche -- both times on assists from Parise -- giving the Wild a 4--2 win. Both goals came on the power play, an area of deficiency all last season for a club that finished 27th in the NHL. Suter gives the team a secure quarterback who moves the puck quickly and smartly. Parise is a strong skater, but also especially skilled at making plays in traffic. "If there's one area we need to improve on, it's the power play," he says. "Getting that fast, early goal really sets a tone for the whole game."
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Roster upgrades should at least carry the club to the postseason, even if the club sometimes struggles to score.
"The team is going to be better," Suter says. "If we win a Stanley Cup some day, you'd see what a celebration of hockey really is."