July 4, 2012 will forever be a turning point in the history of the Minnesota Wild NHL franchise. A state that affectionately billed themselves “The State of Hockey” upon their return to the league in 2000 has a decades long history of dominance and player development at all levels of the sport—from juniors to high school through college—but has never won a Stanley Cup.
Despite this fact, that has been questioned by many out-of-state observers who really don’t understand the label, last Wednesday was a great day and one that will forever shift the perception of this Western Conference team.
As the Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan accurately pointed out, famous athletes in general typically ignore the Minnesota market when deciding where to play. Its one thing to re-sign your own drafted star, which more often than not will end up leaving Minnesota, but it's entirely another to sign the undisputed premier free agent on the market in any given sport—and this time Minnesota got both on each side of the puck.
Why hadn’t this free agent coup happened before in Minnesota?
Its hard to explain why a state with such knowledgeable and passionate hockey fans was never spoiled like this before with a bounty of riches and talent. Why all the good athletes seem to navigate their way to Detroit, or even Chicago lately, instead of taking the chance that both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter did last week.
The easy answer is that the Wild don’t have a history of winning or tradition that either of these two clubs offer. The Detroit Red Wings success and perennial playoff appearances give that team both credibility and hope—things the Wild couldn't offer until now. The Wild are not the fabled North Stars who had a similar history to that of the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild don’t have the natural rivalry nor the 25 years that the two teams had shared before the North Stars were stolen and moved to Dallas by a disgraceful and petty former owner.
The Wild always had to prove their worth before any major free agents would give them notice and now two of them have, and more are sure to follow in the coming years. We just needed someone to roll the dice and it took the combination of three things: two friends willing to team up and try something that has never been done, a couple of Midwest kids looking to return home and do it for all the right reasons and finally, a willing and capable owner and front office who had the resources to pull off such a feat.
The perfect “Midwest” storm/alliance
Parise, an Elk River, Minnesota native, along with Madison, Wisconsin’s Ryan Suter, whose wife is from Bloomington, Minnesota provided that opportunity. Previous owner Bob Naegle, it was known, lacked the financial resources to afford players the caliber of these two, that was not an issue for Racine, Wisconsin native and former Nashville Predators owner, Craig Leipold. Are you noticing a Midwest theme here? The Wild found the perfect storm to make this all happen.
In one afternoon, that appropriately saw Parise and Suter exercise their free agent “independence” from their parent clubs on the national holiday, the team not only effectively erased the offensive void that had been lacking since franchise-pillar-sensation Marian Gaborik took his pouty, big-city attitude East to unforgiving New York City after the 2008 season, but also added the “Marian Gaborik” of defense by signing Suter to a13-year, $98 million deal. A deal identical to what Parise got to captain the offense.
The Wild found their leaders, one on offense and one on defense in a sole afternoon. Furthermore, by signing them to the same deal they not only prevented any locker-room strife in the future (as if hockey players were as selfish as what we see in other sports), but more important they gave the team and its loyal fans a 13-year window to try and win a Cup.
For a franchise that uncharacteristically rotated captains for years on a monthly basis upon returning to the NHL, those days are almost assuredly over with Parise’s presence. In the event that they don’t want to strip current captain Mikko Koivu of this honor, given the fact he did nothing to lose it, an “A” (alternate) will have to suffice for the home-state kid and his new ally manning the defense in Suter.
To make sure the Wild didn’t stick their loyal star in Parise to a Kevin Garnett-eque Minnesota Timberwolves situation where he was a lone star on a team of nobodies, Suter provides stability, familiarity, and reassurance knowing that in a worst-case scenario for at least the next 6 years (Koivu’s contract length) the three will be playing together, thus the team, if healthy, should always be in contention. Next, third- and forth-line players are likely to take less money, as we see in other sports, to come to Minnesota as a place to win and not just a place where hockey dominates on the lower levels.
So which signing is better?
It's no secret that the top player the overwhelming majority of Minnesota fans wanted was the local Parise, but that is because I don’t think many of us saw the real legitimate possibility of being able to afford both he and Suter until the final days before the decision—when the local media really started hyping up this point.
Each player is totally different which is also what makes each intriguing. Parise should be pegged for roughly 30 goals and 50 assists like clockwork given his career trajectory so far. Suter, on the other hand, is a puck-moving defenseman that, while he’ll only light the lamp in single digits, does so much more than that with his passing, decision-making, shot blocking, and vision on the ice. Players simply get better around him, evidenced by Nashville’s top-rated penalty kill last season. I see him getting eight goals and 40 assists but with a +20 +/- , again something that the Wild have never had.
The Wild, quite frankly, have never seen a defensive talent like Suter at their luxury and I could be easily convinced that he will have the greater impact next year. Skeptics have already begun to point out that the Wild’s defensive flaws are lack of depth and experience but they fail to compute that each line now gets shifted down. Parise on the offense kicks Devin Setoguchi to the second line where he belonged all along and where he should be more comfortable. College teammate Tom Gilbert, who the Wild not-so coyly aquired for Nick Schultz at the trade deadline last year in a now-obvious pre-emptive strike, will man the top line with Suter. What’s not to like there?
Marco Scandella and sparkplug Jared Spurgeon will man the second line. What they lack on experience will surely come around under Suter’s toutledge and guidance.
Bottom line, both have already impacted the team at the box office with 1,000 new full-season ticket packages and friends tell me that special temporary workers have been hired to field these calls given the demand.
This is either the start of something very special, or should an injury or lack of chemistry occur, it will be forever known as the summer of 2012 “That year the Wild went all-in, only to come up short."
What’s worse, the fans would be disheartened. The owner, after spending roughly $200 million, could possibility decide never to risk such a bold move again, with the fans knowing full well that this was their chance. And if a Minnesota sport could take such a chance once in being a free-agent destination once, they could surely do it again, and maybe it would resonate across all Minnesota sports teams?
Finally, if this fails, the people who abandoned the Wild simply on the basis that they were not (and never would be) the North Stars, but whom came out of the woodwork to give this sport one last try, would surely disappear forever. So as you can see, one way or another, this market and this team are forever changed for better or worse.
In Minnesota that’s not only how it should be, but how it always should have been. Better late than never, and it just took the right combination of risk takers to see it through. While we haven’t won anything yet, and it will likely take a full year to develop chemistry, the Wild are well on their way for the first time ever.
Somewhere Herb Brooks, the proverbial godfather of Minnesota hockey, is smiling down upon it all.
Information from the Star Tribune:, "Russo's Rants" (Michael Russo's blog in the Star Tribune), MinnPost.com, Wikipedia, and Jim Souhan's column contributed to the content of this article.