Wild Times Two shocking playoff series comebacks have the hockey-mad fans of Minnesota believing in Stanley Cup miracles

May 18, 2003

They were numbers 84 and 85 on a line fueled by 86-proof, waiting
in the wee hours last Friday morning for a block of Minnesota
Wild third-round playoff tickets to go on sale. The instant the
final horn had sounded in Game 7 of the second-round series in
Vancouver--at 11:42 p.m. CDT on Thursday--Susan Bakula, 33, of
Oakdale, Minn., and her friend Lucy Spina, 37, of Shoreview,
Minn., had bolted to downtown St. Paul to queue in the rain for
tickets, fortified only with a sleeping bag, a lawn chair and a
proselytizer's faith. Spina had told her boss that Minnesota
would win and she would need to skip work to buy seats, and her
boss had said to go ahead because everyone has to deal with
personal addiction. Spina, by the way, is a mental-health
therapist.

Wild personnel soon invited everyone into the Xcel Energy Center
lobby to keep dry, giving out hot dogs and soft drinks and
showing a replay of the miraculous 4-2 clinching victory against
the Canucks on television screens. The 4,500 tickets, which went
on sale at noon, sold out in five minutes. "This is a cult,"
Bakula says of the team's faithful. Says Spina, "We've drunk the
Kool-Aid, symbolically. Mostly people on line were drinking beer
and Bloody Marys. It was dripping down their shirts. It looked
like the Wild logo."

The women were among 19,350 white-towel-waving fans in the arena
the following afternoon, roaring a welcome home--just 39 hours
after the Game 7 win--to a team more Odysseus than audacious.
After Ping-Ponging 1,435 miles between the Twin Cities and the
west coast of Canada, Minnesota was playing its fourth game in
six days, this time against the equally surprising Anaheim Mighty
Ducks in a Western Conference finals between start-ups and
upstarts.

For the better part of 3 1/2 hours--other than a diving stick
save by Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere on Marian Gaborik's
backhander in the second period, the better parts were a promo
for a Fleetwood Mac concert and an on-ice kids' race during the
first intermission--the third-year Wild and the seventh-seeded
Ducks slogged away until Anaheim's Petr Sykora scored the only
goal at 8:06 of the second overtime. The fans rose, not to file
out of the arena but to give Minnesota a standing ovation.
Anaheim also won on Monday, 2-0, to put the Wild in a two-game
hole, but if the past month is any indication, that means
Minnesota has the Ducks right where it wants them.

Minnesota does not surrender, a rallying cry gleaned not from
Winston Churchill or Madison Avenue but from a team meeting in a
Denver hotel last month. The Wild was trailing the heavily
favored Colorado Avalanche three games to one in the first round,
seemingly ready to hit the links. Then coach Jacques Lemaire
spoke. He has an arresting baritone and a manner that alternates
between blunt and impish. This night, the 57-year-old Lemaire,
who has won 11 Stanley Cups as a player and executive, was blunt.
He reminded his players of the good things they had accomplished
and then laid out his message: If you quit, you don't give
yourself a chance to find out what might happen, and in sports
you never know. "You've heard it before," center Wes Walz says,
"but coming out of his mouth, a guy who's been through the wars,
it meant more."

Minnesota won the next three games (including two in Denver), the
final one in sudden death, and when the series was over, Lemaire
looked in astonishment at assistant coach Mario Tremblay, who was
next to him on the bench. The Wild had done the unfathomable.
Then Minnesota did it again in the second round. Following Game 1
in Vancouver, in which the Wild blew a lead in the final 1.2
seconds and lost 4-3 in overtime, Lemaire confided to a reporter,
"They're a better team than us, but I think we can find a way."
Minnesota fell behind three games to one before rallying to win,
making it the first NHL team to make such a comeback twice in one
postseason. Lemaire shuffled some of his lightning-quick forwards
in and out of the lineup and tinkered with his goalies--this
spring Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez are both 3-0 in
elimination games and each has won a Game 7--and every bounce and
break seemed to fall the Wild's way. The lopsided wins in Games 5
and 6 over the Canucks (combined score: 12-3) turned the Wild
from a sweet story of grit by the NHL's lowest-salaried team into
a full-blown phenomenon that peaked between 11:30 and 11:45 p.m
last Thursday. In those 15 minutes, as Minnesota closed out
Vancouver, two of every three TV sets in the Twin Cities that
were on during the game were tuned to the Wild.

There was the expected drop in enthusiasm for Game 1 of the
conference finals against Anaheim, which played on 42% of Twin
Cities televisions that were on at the time. The fatigued Wild
outskated, outworked and outshot the Ducks but lost because of a
bad pinch by defenseman Filip Kuba. "They play exactly like us
except they have more talent," Lemaire said afterward.

Lemaire doesn't revel in his team's shortcomings, but he does
little to camouflage them, offering public reality checks for his
players. Minnesota's strength, beyond team speed, is
self-awareness. Like the NHL's last fairy-tale team, the 1995-96
Florida Panthers, a third-year expansion club that lost in the
Stanley Cup finals, the Wild understands its limitations and
sticks to its system. "Most of the players are young," Lemaire
says. "They haven't had time to get cynical."

The players form a community of shared values and expectations,
not unlike the fans who have filled every seat in the Xcel Energy
Center for every game--139 exhibition, regular-season and playoff
matches. (There are 16,000 season tickets plus 5,500 names on the
waiting list, called the Wild Warming House in honor of the
ice-fishing huts that dot Minnesota lakes in winter.) The reason
for the passion: The Wild is the mirror of Minnesota's best self.
The club's payroll ($21.5 million) is a third of the
high-salaried clubs', plus the humble team works hard and
generally stays on the sports page and off the police blotter.
"Quiet quality," says Governor Tim Pawlenty, "is very
Minnesotan." There was bound to be a two-season honeymoon in a
state with the hockey gene--40% of season-ticket holders play the
game--but the connection has mutated into something profound.

The club has cultivated this relationship, tapping into the
natural inclinations of the state that provided 13 Olympians to
the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, boasts back-to-back NCAA champion
Minnesota and hosts a storied high school tournament. The jerseys
of all 188 high school hockey programs, boys' and girls', hang in
the Xcel Energy Center. Youth hockey teams are invited to sell
programs at the arena and split the take with the Wild's
charitable foundation. Ticket prices are Midwestern
reasonable--the $48 regular-season average ranks 16th among NHL
teams--and the team has not gouged its fans in the postseason.
Ticket prices for Round 1 were the same as they were in the
regular season; in the two subsequent rounds, prices increased
10% to 15% in each series. The Wild is everything the old
Minnesota North Stars were not, at least in their final two
seasons before owner Norm Green, dogged by allegations of sexual
harassment by his executive assistant (the suit was settled out
of court) and clashing with civic officials about the arena,
alienated everyone in the state before moving the team to Dallas
in 1993.

It seemed as if the reviled Green had salted the earth in the
Twin Cities and pro hockey would never grow again. The fact that
it flourishes, and is rooted in St. Paul, a decade later is as
impressive as the Wild's on-ice comebacks. Traditionally, St.
Paul has been the less favored twin--"Before I was elected mayor
of St. Paul, my mother in Brooklyn thought the Twin Cities were
Minneapolis and Indianapolis," says Norm Coleman, who is now a
U.S. senator--and there were doubts that the more affluent
suburbs west of the Mississippi would cross the river to support
the embryonic franchise. Coleman was the rainmaker. The mayor,
team owner Bob Naegele Jr. and lawyer Jac Sperling pulled
everything together in 90 days to land the franchise in 1997,
then built the right arena and built the right team for a market
that would not be fooled by the bells, whistles and bright lights
of expansion.

The final piece was Lemaire, who had walked away from prime
coaching jobs in Montreal in the mid-1980s and New Jersey in the
mid-1990s. "There were a series of discussions [general manager
Doug Risebrough and I had] with Jacques about joining us, and
maybe in the last one or two he asked to see our sweater," says
Sperling, the Wild CEO. "He wanted to see if players would be
proud to wear it. I can't imagine what would have happened if he
had thought our logo was ugly."

The logo, like the mostly anonymous Wild roster, begs for a
program. The crest is an impressionistic wildcat that is colored
green for Minnesota's forests, red for the northern iron range,
gold for the wheat fields in the south, and even a white shooting
star that pays homage to the North Stars. The logo has something
for everybody, like the team that rotates captains every month
and goalies every few games, and spreads out ice time because
only the 21-year-old Gaborik, with an NHL-leading 17 postseason
points, is a marquee player. Lemaire's practical and almost
populist approach has spawned believers, even if two months ago
some of them wouldn't have known Filip Kuba from Fidel Castro.

"This team has stirred the human heart and mirrored the soul of
the place where it plays," says Senator Coleman, a Wild
season-ticket holder. "It's been incredible. But I subscribe to
the thinking of David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of
Israel. Ben-Gurion said that anybody who doesn't believe in
miracles is not a realist."

So a toast to 19,350 realists lucky enough to get seats, to
mental-health specialists who know how to get the most out of a
personal day, to quick forwards who know how to beat defensemen,
and to quick-witted coaches who know everything. Let's all raise
a glass of our favorite beverage. Make ours flavored sugar water.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER FLAP PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [COVER FLAP] GOING WILD IN MINNESOTA "This team has stirred the human heart and mirrored the soul of the place where it plays."--Senator Norm Coleman R., Minn.) Right Wing Marian Gaborik COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [T of C] PUCKRAKER Wild winger Marian Gaborik, the playoff points leader, will aim at Anaheim in Game 3 on Thursday (page 42). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO LOOKING GOOD Thanks to Gaborik (opposite), who leads the NHL in playoff scoring, the cult of the Wild is growing. COLOR PHOTO: STEVE WEWERKA [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE KLUCKHOHN HEAD-BANGING BALL Lubomir Sekeras put Jason Krog in an unenviable position during Anaheim's 1-0 victory in Game 1. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO PETR-BILT Sykora ended Game 1 by lifting the puck over the glove of Fernandez in a double-overtime marathon.

Like the NHL's last fairy-tale team, the 1995-96 Panthers, a
third-year expansion club that went to the Cup finals, the Wild
understands its LIMITATIONS AND STICKS TO A SYSTEM.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)