Wildest Dreams: Minnesota may finally have a Stanley Cup within reach

1:08 | NHL
Can anyone stop the Metro?
Tuesday April 11th, 2017

Long before Snoopy dreamed about getting slashed by Wayne Gretzky and elbowing Gordie Howe, before Woodstock scraped his frozen birdbath with an avian-sized Zamboni, Charles Schulz launched his cartooning career with a hockey joke. In the February 1947 edition of Timeless Topix, a blond boy gives a colorful ceramic vase to his mother. “Happy birthday, mom,” the caption reads, “and if you don’t like it, the man said I could exchange it for a hockey puck!”

Twenty-four years old at the time, Schulz had learned to skate on icy patches of the sidewalks of St. Paul and practiced wristers by pelting tennis balls at his grandmother in the family basement. After moving west to pursue art in the 1950s, Schulz built Redwood Empire Ice Arena—Snoopy’s Home Ice—across the street from his studio in Santa Rosa, Calif. He never abandoned his inner Minnesotan in the Peanuts world, either. Whether on dusty sandlots or backyard rinks, sports always offered an outlet for Charlie and the gang to express life’s great frustrations. They rarely succeeded, but bless their humble hearts for always trying hard.

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Thanks to LeBron, the Twin Cities now claim the longest title drought of any North American market having at least three major league teams; the last belongs to the Twins in 1991. Of course, the hockey team eventually lifted a Stanley Cup in ’99, but did so as the Dallas Stars, six years after abandoning Minnesota and burning every one of the 20,000 or so bridges in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Schulz died on Feb. 12, 2000, eight months before the Wild began their inaugural season. Were he around today, or if Fox Sports North isn’t blacked out in the afterlife, Schulz would undoubtedly find favor in his hometown team. He’d cheer its speed and depth, a dozen 10-goal scorers on the league's second highest scoring attack. He’d applaud its resiliency, a roster with also-rans accustomed to dusting themselves off.

Fittingly, the Peanuts crew will keep watch over the Wild at Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul this week for the first two games of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Blues. Five statues were commissioned when the building opened, including goalie Linus and player-coach Lucy. Another depicts Charlie Brown in Minnesota’s forest-green home jersey, holding a foam bear claw, with an inscription on its base that reads, #1 wild fan.

Come to think of it, Schulz would’ve gotten a kick out of the current coach, too.

***

Picture Charlie Brown, five decades older. Shift the hair from atop the head to the sides. Let him taste triumph—make him the fastest coach to 400 wins—but keep the sad-sackery and the paunch. Sound familiar? No doubt Bruce Boudreau has accumulated enough mustard stains through the years to match the color of Charlie’s trademark tee. “Definitely not afraid to spill on his shirts,” Wild assistant John Anderson says. And what are all those GIFs capturing Boudreau’s emotion during games but real-life comics, minus the block-lettered- speech bubbles:

AUGH! BLEAH! *sigh*

Boudreau knows his image runs counter to the NHL’s thick-jawed, drill-sergeant ideal. “I’m just totally what’s average,” he says. “You’re thinking, He’s like the King of Queens, what a goofball. It’s just who I am.” He’s the guy who stunk up his first bus ride as coach of the AHL’s Hershey Bears by unpacking peel-and-eat shrimp. Whose pig-sty pad served as Reg Dunlop’s apartment in Slap Shot. Who sports comically crooked neckwear on the bench, as he did on March 14 in Washington, prompting a text from his wife, Crystal, during intermission: “fix that f------ tie.” He may hail from Ontario, but he has a Minnesotan soul.

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For the record, Boudreau has fared far better at coaching hockey than ol’ Charlie Brown ever did at, say, kicking field goals. His .658 career points percentage is even a hair better than Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman’s for tops all time among coaches with at least 250 games. A Jack Adams winner with Washington, he has led teams to division titles eight times, conference-best records four times. He has also never missed the playoffs with any NHL team he’s coached for a full season—a streak that can rest easy, even if Boudreau does not.

“The problem with me is, when the good times are going good,” he says, “I can’t allow myself to -really let go and enjoy it because I worry about all of a sudden making it and not continuing to work hard.” He’s behind his desk after practice one late-March afternoon, noshing on a chocolate bar. An uncapped bottle of antacid sits nearby. For all his regular-season success, it can indeed churn the stomach to consider how many times the pigskin has been pulled from beneath Boudreau’s feet. In eight postseason runs, he presided over Game 7 exits seven times (three with Washington, four times with Anaheim), more than any other NHL coach. The most recent one, last spring against Nashville, led to his dismissal from Disneyland.

But hockey is a small world, after all. Courted by both Ottawa and Minnesota, Boudreau spent only nine days unemployed. “We felt that we lost some of our team orientation last year,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher says. “The buy-in wasn’t great. Players weren’t listening. Bruce could walk into that room and get the attention of the group right away.”

Shortly after taking the job, Boudreau invited Wild alternate captains Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to dinner at the St. Paul Grill downtown. “I don’t care what’s gone on in the past, just what’s going on in the future,” he told them. “This is probably my last coaching gig. I’m getting older, so I don’t give a s---. We’re just going to do it my way.”

Even with a 4-10-2 skid in March, which included the first five-game regulation losing streak of Boudreau’s NHL career and knocked the Wild from atop the Western Conference, his way has largely worked. Twelve straight victories heading into New Year’s Eve set a franchise record. While blending lines like a Vitamix, Boudreau concocted Minnesota’s most potent offensive trio: captain and center Mikko Koivu between 25-year-olds Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker, both of whom passed 20 goals and set career highs in points.

Boudreau, of course, hasn’t abandoned the blunt approach. Recently he photocopied excerpts from Pat Riley’s book, The Winner Within, about selfishness, which Riley calls “The Disease of Me,” and handed them to players during one-on-one meetings. In other words, the man is black and white and—after the occasional bad call—red all over. “Like a goal light,” assistant coach Scott Stevens says.

If Boudreau intends to make the Twin Cities his final coaching stop on a Forrest Gumpian journey that spans 25 years, 10 teams and five leagues, no better theater exists for staging his last act. In a state that carries more classifications for hockey (ball, sock, pond, broom, floor) than Doc Emrick has synonyms for a pass, Minnesota fans share not only Boudreau’s everyman ethos but also his unquenched thirst for Lord Stanley’s Cup. They are, however, not alone. Only four of the 16 playoff teams have won championships in the past 20 years; seven, including Minnesota, have never won at all. But who better to root for than the lug who readily admits, “If we’re not talking about hockey, I have a hard time communicating with people.” Why? “Because I don’t know what else to talk about.”

***

On the morning of July 4, 2012, a small group of Wild execs came into the office eager to interrupt their holiday for franchise-altering news. When word came, the team’s staffers left their lakeside picnics and flocked downtown, still wearing visors and flip-flops, to help field calls from fans seeking season-ticket orders. In one swoop the Wild had landed not just one of the league’s top free agents, but two. “It was transformational,” says chief operating officer Matt Majka. “We all stood a little taller that day.”

To the rest of the NHL, the Independence Day signings of Suter, Nashville’s workhorse defenseman, and Parise, New Jersey’s bulldog winger, to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts announced the Wild as big spenders and serious contenders. Locals felt something deeper. Hailing from Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis, respectively, Suter and Parise are native Midwesterners. And like pro hockey itself, they had returned home.

“That was a moment for Minnesota fans,” says Majka, who has been a Wild employee from the start and whose family owned a share of North Stars season tickets when he was growing up. “These guys chose us. We don’t often get chosen. There was a feeling of pride around that.”

When the North Stars left, Parise was eight. He remembers attending the last home game at the Met Center, against the Blackhawks, on April 13, 1993. “That was sad the way that went down,” he says. “People were ripping stuff off the seats and throwing it on the ice.” After the building was demolished, he rode to the site with his late father, J.P., who played forward for the team in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Together they reached through the chain-link fence and plucked souvenir bricks from the rubble.

Suter, who fondly recalls battling a “feisty” Parise on the interstate youth circuit before becoming his teammate on Team USA’s under-18 national squad, hails from similarly famous hockey stock. Show-and-tell sessions at school were easy because Ryan’s late father, Bob, was always happy to take out his 1980 Miracle on Ice gold medal. Knowing their contracts expired at the same time, Zach and Ryan began toying with the idea of signing somewhere together. But package deals of that magnitude never happen in the NHL. “More of a basketball thing,” says Suter. Only the tug of home made it possible. “Our little secret weapon,” Majka says.

Unlike, say, the Big Three’s mission to South Beach, results haven’t quite matched hopes in St. Paul. But Parise and Suter weren’t signed as finishing touches but as building blocks. The Wild hadn’t made the postseason in four years and had changed coaches twice in that span. In the five seasons since Parise and Suter arrived, the team hasn’t missed the playoffs.

Suter’s offensive production faded after looking like a Norris Trophy contender through the first quarter of the schedule, but he remains in the rare class of blueliners capable of shouldering 30 minutes per night. Parise has had an atrocious string of bad luck this season, including three bouts of strep throat, the mumps, an MCL sprain and recently a wayward stick to the right eye that made him look like an extra from The Walking Dead. But 11 points over his final 12 games has been an encouraging sign, especially if the Wild are to finally blow past their biggest playoff demon. As one staffer put it, “All we want to do is face Chicago.”

The Blackhawks, a bottomless well of young talent, authored the Wild’s demise in 2013, ’14 and ’15, and are still the class of the West. But beyond Chicago, which is gunning for a fourth Cup in the Jonathan Toews–Patrick Kane era, the field is wide-open. The Blues, led by coach Mike Yeo, rocketed up the Central standings and into a juicy first-round duel against Minnesota, the team that fired him in February ’16. Defending conference champion San Jose last month ceded control in the Pacific to Anaheim, Boudreau’s old squad. And no one should discount the Oilers, as they begin to ramp up Hart Trophy favorite Connor McDavid’s ice time. Aside from the defending Cup champion Penguins and the perennially heartbroken Rangers and Capitals, none of the Eastern Conference entrants even made the postseason a year ago. The field seems ripe to produce a dark horse.

So how about the Wild? “I saw what happened when we’d gone to the second round,” Parise says. “It was incredible. I can’t even imagine what it’d be like if we go even further.”

***

They poured into the ballroom, ushered by darkness, and began clearing the furniture to settle the score. A week before last October’s season opener, the Wild held a golf tournament at nearby Edina Country Club, pitting the Americans on the team against the world. A few pairs were still on the course when night fell, so everyone retreated to the restaurant for a putt-off. After video coach Jonas Plumb, a Canadian, sank the winning 30-footer, the international squad exploded. “We were jumping up and down—a few pairs of sunglasses got smashed in the celebration,” goalie Devan Dubnyk says. “We celebrated like we won the Stanley Cup.”

Only one Wild player actually knows what that feels like. Eric Staal was only 21 when Carolina outlasted Edmonton in seven games in 2006, and he led his team with 28 playoff points. In the years afterward, he gradually became marooned on Hurricane island, enduring a rebuild that’s still under way. A trade to the Rangers at last season’s deadline did little to rejuvenate him, but he found a suitor in free agency. “I want you on our No. 1 line,” Boudreau told him over the phone. “I want you to be the big dog again.”

Like his new coach, Staal meshes well with the Twin Cities’ homey, modest lifestyle. He signed for $3.5 million annually, less than half of the $8.25 million he collected in Carolina. On road trips he reads biographies, faith-based texts and most recently a book about the last uncontacted Amazonian tribe. Heck, while growing up in Thunder Bay, Ont., an hour north of the Minnesota border, Staal worked his father’s sod farm and liked it.

In pacing the Wild with 28 goals and anchoring their top trio this season, he has brought a scoring punch that has allowed Koivu to fill a more defensive role on the second line. “With Eric you get that depth that we’ve been looking for since I’ve been here,” Suter says. “That was the, ‘O.K., now we’re for real. Now we have a chance to do something here.’ ”

The rest of the gang is growing up too. Swiss power forward Nino Niederreiter hit 25 goals and 50 points for the first time. Suter’s defensive partner, the smooth-skating, mustachioed Jared Spurgeon, is an underrated, undersized gem at 5' 9". Three years ago Dubnyk was withering in the Canadiens’ farm system, on his third team in one season and staring at the end of his career. Since being traded to Minnesota from Arizona in 2015, Dubnyk ranks second in the league in wins (99) and third in save percentage (.924) and goals-against average (2.17). “No matter how crappy something feels or how frustrated you get, as if you feel like you’re never going to win,” he says, “you realize you’re going to get out of it.”

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Sitting at his locker after a recent practice, Dubnyk might as well have been talking for the entire team. March was miserable, no question. Minnesota averaged 2.5 goals for and 3.0 against, which ranked 20th and 24th in the NHL, respectively. Boudreau called more individual meetings. Fans began booing.

AUGH! BLEAH! *sigh*

But then came April. Scoring droughts ended, and the Wild set a franchise record with 49 victories. They entered the playoffs on a four-game winning streak, their longest since mid-January. The state of hockey in the State of Hockey was strong again. “When you get in these tailspins and they linger, as individuals you start to lose your confidence,” Fletcher says. “Then maybe you start getting away from what makes you successful. We need to just believe in ourselves. Adversity might not be a bad thing.”

Call it the power of good grief.

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