This past weekend I made a visit to the Minneapolis area and quickly turned my car radio to a certain station I had heard about known as KFAN.
I soon realized that a sport known as hockey is kind of a big deal up there, even on an increasingly warm summer Sunday morning.
The lead topic was the July 1 opening of the National Hockey League free agent market, and the Minnesota Wild’s chances of landing either Zach Parise or Ryan Suter, either of which would be a coup for the 12-year old franchise.
The radio hosts sounded optimistic about the team acquiring Parise. They had information that the Wild had offered Zach a front-loaded contract, particularly over the first two years, which would be hard for other organizations to match. They then noted that if Parise opted to go elsewhere, it would be preferable for him to make his decision sooner rather than later so the team could turn its attention on Suter as a Plan B.
The possibility of both players landing in the Cities in a package was not really discussed, and the hosts tempered their optimism on Parise, noting that even if he is from the area and has family, he could still visit during the off-season while raking in millions and playing for an established contender elsewhere.
So much for that.
On the warmest Fourth of July ever to hit the Upper Midwest, the Minnesota Wild suddenly became relevant, landing both Parise and Suter to identical 13-year/$98 million (U.S.) contracts. One Minneapolis paper immediately called it the biggest sports signing in the area since the Vikings landed Brett Favre.
Please – this is much bigger.
Twin Cities, Twin Blockbusters
Since coming into the league in 2000, the Wild have been … okay.
Even in its first two seasons the team was respectable, before having its first winning season and making a surprise run into the Conference Finals in 2003. Since then, the team has been around average, while playing an unexciting brand of hockey.
The formula by original coach Jacques Lemaire and GM Doug Risbrough had been the same since the Wild’s inception: build around a nucleus of character (translated: affordable) players and focus on defense and goaltending, basically a glorified AHL team. The ultimate goal was to sneak into the top eight in the Western Conference and then make noise in the playoffs.
At the end of the 2008-09 season both Lemaire and Risbrough departed, but the on-ice product remained the same – solid team that finished around .500 but fell short of the playoffs.
At the gate, the team has been an incredible success, selling out virtually every game over a decade-plus. This is especially noteworthy considering the battle for the local sports market (Twins/Vikings/T-Wolves/Gophers). Still, there has never been a national profile for the Wild outside of the Minnesota market. Marian Gaborik (no longer with the team) and Mikko Koivu had really only been the only two dynamic non-goaltending players the Wild have ever had.
Immediately on Wednesday pundits compared the Wild’s dual harvest to the infamous LeBron/Chris Bosh ‘Decision’ of two years ago, which is apples to oranges. In the NBA, when two star players join Dwayne Wade you have an instant contender, 60% of the starting lineup.
Hockey is vastly different. You can sign two studs, but you still have 18 different slots to fill on the roster, all of whom see the ice on a given night.
Parise was amongst the leaders in ice time amongst forwards last year, averaging 21:25 minutes per game. Suter meanwhile combined with teammate Shea Weber to produce one of the most formidable first-line defensive tandems in the league in 2011-12, averaging 25 minutes per night with the Nashville Predators.
As U.S. born players, Suter and Parise both instantly become icons in the Twin Cities market. And it isn’t like either player did not have other options. Even if I throw out the Canadian franchises (and the fishbowl environment that comes with playing for the Leafs or Canucks) there were intriguing possibilities.
- The Pittsburgh Penguins were considered the frontrunners by many to land Parise, and playing wingman to Sidney Crosby (when healthy) would never be a bad gig.
- Meanwhile, Suter had been mentioned as the number one target of the Detroit Red Wings, who had an opening with the recently retired Nicklas Lindstrom.
- Suter and/or Parise could have also stayed close to home to be on a contender in a big market with the Chicago Blackhawks.
- Coming off a season where his team made the Stanley Cup Finals, staying put with the New Jersey Devils also would had worked for Parise, and the Devils were reportedly the only other team he was interested in signing with.
- Or the Los Angeles Kings could have used the momentum of their newly-minted championship to lure Suter or Parise to the West Coast.
- The Boston Bruins sound good on paper, but they are currently strapped against the salary cap.
- The Montreal Canadiens conceivably could had been in play for Parise. He is of French-Canadian descent (his dad on the Minnesota North Stars staff when he was born) so their fan base would had gladly accepted him.
But both players cut out the drama and signed with Minnesota, and the Wild get both players at the peak of their careers as both are age 27.
There are some other pieces already in place – Mikko Koivu will join Parise on the first line, and Dany Heatley (like Suter, a University of Wisconsin product) and Devin Setoguchi make up a nice number two line.
The question will be whether Heatley will accept a second-line role or request a trade for the 19th time in his career. Dany is the Gary Sheffield of the NHL, and along with Todd Bertuzzi the most booed player at opposition rinks in recent times.
The larger picture is that the profile for the franchise has just changed dramatically.
The goal is no longer to be competitive and vie for a playoff spot – the new goal is now simply a Stanley Cup at some point before the end of the decade. That is easier said than done. The franchise’s predecessor, the North Stars, never quite reached the promised land and even the LA Kings couldn’t win it all while they had a guy named Gretzky on the roster. Even if the Wild ultimately fall short, they now can’t be faulted for not trying, and the team will now finally get national exposure and at some point host the outdoor NHL Winter Classic.
There is also the issue with the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement, with plenty of poker to be played between Donald Fehr (remember him baseball fans??) and Commissioner Gary Bettman over the next several months. Smart money says the beginning of the season could fall due to another lockout, but I do not envision a repeat of the 2004-05 season being lost. With 110,000 slated to pack Michigan Stadium for a Leafs/Red Wings game for the 2013 Winter Classic, the two sides will come to an agreement, after about 50 bluffs, by the time Christmas rolls around.
But it is sure nice to talk about the frozen pond on a 100-degree day, and about two individuals who decided to take their talents far, far away from South Beach.