With all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the NHL off-season, we brought in our special assignemtn NHL writer Steve Sabato for a second edition of his stellar coverage. With the biggest names not only flying off the market, but going to the same team, Steve has an interesting take on what all went down.
This isn’t a normal love story. Rather than ‘boy meets girl,’ this story has an entire region that had a piece of its cultural identity ripped from it, and the struggle to bring it back. It’s a story about how sports mean way more than they should to the people who love them. It’s about kids who learn to skate before they can read, a fan base deprived of a pro sports championship, and how two of those kids can become legends of the highest order in a place that’s been dying for a hero. It’s a story about heartbreak and redemption. It’s a story about Minnesota and hockey, and why part of every one of us should want to see a cup hoisted in St. Paul.
You don’t need me to prove to you that hockey and Minnesota are a match made in heaven. Kids grow up playing hockey in Minnesota, on any of the 10,000 frozen-over lakes throughout the state, and as you’ll see below in an excerpt from Sports Illustrated, the high school and college hockey scenes do pretty well in the state themselves. Minnesota is to hockey what Texas is to football. Thus, it made a whole bunch of sense in 1967 for the NHL to include Minnesota in its six-team expansion. And from 1967-1993 the North Stars were there for the people of Minnesota. They made two runs to the Cup finals while they were in Minnesota, and despite what some dubbed “attendance struggles” and poor financial performance, they had a loyal following. However, the reasons above led the team away from the land o’ lakes.
Here’s an excerpt from Sports Illustrated about the North Stars leaving Minnesota:
The idea that this guy, that anyone, for that matter, could move major league hockey from Minnesota, the American home of hockey, is hard to believe. How could that happen? How could anyone let that happen? This is the state that fills a 16,000-seat arena for the state high school tournament, the state that every four years fills out the roster of the U.S. Olympic team, the state that is the land of lakes, for goodness’ sake, all of them frozen during the long winter, all with kids learning to skate. Dallas? A team from Minnesota would move, after 26 years of residence, to Dallas?
This was an obvious travesty, and Minnesota was awarded a team four years after the North Stars’ departure, one that would begin play in 2000, and go by the name of the “Wild.” They centered their franchise around a small Slovakian forward, Marian Gaborik, who sometimes singlehandedly kept the Wild in contention. Accompanying Gaborik were the likes of Pascal Dupuis and Sergei Zholtok, while Manny Fernandez was a mainstay in net. Gaborik carried the team to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003, in a run that included a comeback from down 3-1 to Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche, capped by a thrilling game 7 victory. It was a franchise-defining victory. However, they were cut down by Paul Kariya, Jean-Sebastian Giguere, and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in their Western Conference run of destiny. They never got that close again. In ’03-’04, Gaborik and Dupuis held out to start the season, and the Wild never recovered. They lost to the Ducks and Avalanche in their only two playoff appearances that followed, despite winning the Northwest Division for the first time in 2008. Gaborik left in free agency in 2009, and the team hasn’t been back to the post-season. They made splashes last season, trading for Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, putting some pieces in place, but still remained post-season averse.
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter joined the Minnesota Wild yesterday. I doubt Parise and Suter spent their time on the US Olympic team conspiring as to how they would join forces when their contracts expired (like some people). Instead, I believe Chuck Fletcher, the general manager of the Minnesota Wild pulled off one of the memorable free agent coups of our time, through exploiting the biggest loophole in the expiring NHL CBA. This sends a pretty strong message to the rest of the Northwest division. This isn’t just “Vancouver’s division to lose” anymore, the Wild have put themselves in strong position to make a run at their division, the conference, and the Cup.
For Parise, this is a chance to return to the place where he cut his teeth as a high school player, at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the place his dad earned his first all-star nod with the North Stars. For Suter, it’s not quite a homecoming, but it’s the next closest thing for the Madison, Wisconsin native. Suter is also married to a woman from Minnesota, giving himself some additional ties to the area. There are roots here, and these guys are in the first stages of building what could be a legacy the likes of which nobody could top in Minnesota.
I’m excited for the Wild. Unless you’re a fan of Nashville or New Jersey, why aren’t you? The usual suspects were in on both of these guys; Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc. While I can’t argue that hockey isn’t great when those teams are good, it’s about time American hockey’s prodigal son returned to prominence. I want hockey in Minnesota to mean something. The closest this team has been to the promised-land is a conference finals defeat at the hand of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. A Disney- owned team, for God’s sake. The good people of Minnesota deserve something better to represent the sport that their state loves the most. If the Minnesota Wild win the Stanley Cup it will dwarf anything the Twins, Vikings, or God-forsaken Timberwolves have ever done.
Isn’t that what we’re supposed to root for as sports fans? After our teams have been eliminated, shouldn’t we be rooting for transcendent victory? Nobody cared that the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup, except for the 15 people who actually rooted for the Kings before the bandwagon got swollen. This is a chance for a state that has had too much heartbreak to be top dog in the sport that’s always been most important to them. I’ve always thought that one of the best things about being a sports fan were the moments where you knew that it meant something. This Wild team has a chance to be truly meaningful to the state of Minnesota.
If part of you isn’t rooting for this Minnesota Wild team, I don’t know what to tell you, except that you’re dead inside. These storylines don’t come around often, homecomings, and chances for people with tangible connections to a region; people who understand the suffering of the fan base they are adopting—to bring it a championship that would mean more than any sports victory in the area’s history. Life’s too short to be bitter, and though they can be heartbreaking at times, sports are too much fun in the good times to hold grudges over. Best of luck in Minnesota, Zach and Ryan—here’s hoping you guys deliver what Minnesota has been pining for since 1967.