October 08, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) Minnesota is hardly a marquee place in major professional sports, a midsized market in the middle of the country best known on the coasts for the length and extremity of its winters.

In the NHL, though, there's evidence mounting to the contrary. Thomas Vanek was the latest free agent to pick the Wild, two summers after Zach Parise and Ryan Suter jolted the league by coming as a package deal.

''It's a good city to live in and play in, so I don't see why this wouldn't be a destination of choice,'' said Jason Pominville, who was traded to the Wild last year and liked the surroundings enough to sign a new contract.

After advancing to the Western Conference semifinals last season, the Wild have returned with a roster to match the hockey-maven populace and quality-of-life features in the Twin Cities area. Winning, of course, is the ultimate sell.

''Good players want to play with good players. Hopefully that trend is going to continue,'' Parise said.

Vanek was the one, ironically, who first encouraged Pominville to embrace this place when he was traded by Buffalo. Vanek and Pominville were teammates with the Sabres for eight years and neighbors, too, and the Montreal-area native wasn't familiar with Minnesota.

''He loved Buffalo a lot, which I did too,'' Vanek said. ''But I told him, `You'll like it there. There's a lot of good fans.' And after a week or so, he called me and said, `You know what? You're right. I do like it here a lot.'''

Pominville signed a five-year, $28 million deal a few days before last season, and that has now kicked in. Vanek signed for three years and $19.5 million. Two seasons ago, Parise and Suter each signed 13-year, $98 million contracts.

''People recognize the talent that you have. So we're getting better,'' general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Another factor in the Wild's favor has been the cultivation of prospects who have begun to contribute. With Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin the standouts, the Wild will likely send a 20-man lineup to the ice for the season opener Thursday against Colorado that includes 11 players age 24 or younger.

The 14-year-old Wild don't have much on an original six franchise and the Twin Cities area is dwarfed by New York or Los Angeles in glamour and density, but Minnesota has produced more NHL players than any other state. Canada will always be king, but the land of frequently frozen lakes is a legitimate landing spot for many of this sport's best.

Vanek was raised in Austria but played at the University of Minnesota, winning an NCAA championship in 2003. Parise grew up in the Twin Cities area, the son of a former NHL star. Suter's roots are across the border in Wisconsin, but his wife is from Bloomington, where the North Stars used to play before moving to Dallas and creating the void filled by the Wild.

Stephon Marbury once infamously swore off a long-term NBA career with the Timberwolves because of Minnesota's cold weather, but for players in this league the climate during the season feels no different than western Canada or northern Europe. Good schools for the kids and postcard-quality summer days help, too, and the depth, history and passion of the fan base is a plus.

With the Suter-Parise signings as the impetus, the season-ticket base for 2014-15 is the highest in owner Craig Leipold's nearly seven years running the team.

''We've got the total package here and I think we need to continue to push that,'' Leipold said. ''We have a really great product to sell, and that's one reason we know that Thomas Vanek was interested. Anybody who has ever played in Minnesota wants to come back.''

Vanek has kept an offseason home in the Twin Cities area, so he had opportunity to settle his family. He wasn't going to pick the Wild, though, if they hadn't shown the same promise on the ice.

''I liked the team, I liked the depth, I liked the veteran players that we have, I like the young guys,'' Vanek said, ''and overall I think it's a good mix.''

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