ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — With much of Minnesota settled in at a lake, teeing things up at a golf course or prepping the backyard grill, the Wild offices were busier than usual for a holiday morning on July 4, 2012.
Four days into free agency, general manager Chuck Fletcher and his staff were still pursuing two of the top players on the market, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Some of the business-side leaders came in, too, just in case the dream scenario came true for a team mired in mediocrity since the feel-good overachievement of a Western Conference finals trip in 2003.
Shortly before lunchtime came the news that forever changed a fledgling organization, sent to the world from the Wild’s official Twitter account : WE GOT ‘EM.
“Honest to God, the phones started ringing like they hadn’t since 1997 when the franchise was granted,” chief operating officer Matt Majka said, recalling the waves of employees who retreated from recreation and relaxation to help handle the calls for tickets.
With only three appearances in the playoffs in the Wild’s first 11 seasons, the departure of popular coach Jacques Lemaire three years earlier, sparkling new sports venues opening across the river in Minneapolis and a sunken national economy, touting the team in a crowded market to customers beyond the hard-core hockey niche had become more challenging. After announcing sellouts for the first 409 games in team history, including preseason and playoffs, the streak ended on Sept. 22, 2010.
“We weren’t a very good hockey team for a few years in there, so we had this perfect storm. We knew we had to do something to transform, and we were hopeful for Zach and Ryan,” Majka said. “We were thankful they chose the ‘State of Hockey,’ and it really, literally overnight changed our world.”
The Wild are about to start their fifth straight postseason since Parise and Suter each signed 13-year, $98 million contracts on that Independence Day. They’ve only won two playoff series in that span, but they’ll take their best record and their deepest lineup to the playoffs this time.
“It’s flown by,” Parise said. “It’s fun to see all the players developing and getting better and having good seasons this year. I feel like each season we’re getting better and better, and hopefully that trend is going to keep going.”
This will be the first time the Wild will have home-ice advantage in a series in their five years.
“Hopefully that’ll be the difference for us. We played really solid earlier in the year here, and we’re starting to get that mojo back at home,” said Suter, who has a career-high nine goals from the blue line.
Suter took an NHL-best plus-35 rating into the final weekend of the regular season while again ranking among the league leaders in ice time.
“He never gets upset, never wavers,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “He’s just an absolute rock back there.”
Parise has had more of an uneven season, missing 13 games to injury and illness including the mumps, and struggling to find his scoring touch before the All-Star break. He has 11 points in his last 11 games, and his grit has never gone far from his game. He has a career-high 68 blocked shots.
“I would think if I saw somebody working that hard, I’d want to work that hard, too,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Dubnyk’s performance will have the biggest impact on how far the Wild are able to go this spring. The Mikael Granlund-Mikko Koivu-Jason Zucker line has been the most productive. But there’s no denying the impact Parise and Suter will have as leaders toward their postseason fate.
“They’ve made a huge impact on this team, for the confidence, not just the playoffs,” Koivu said. “At that point when they signed, we had a lot of young guys, guys who are now here as veterans, so that impact on people away from the team, that’s what you guys don’t see.”
Parise and Suter made a significant impact on the Wild’s profile, too, both locally and nationally. In the basement of Xcel Energy Center, there’s a framed cover of The Hockey News magazine from the summer they signed with their pictures and the headline: “Call of the Wild! Suddenly, Minnesota is serious.”
Since Parise and Suter arrived, the Wild have played in an arena that’s 105 percent full with the official capacity at 17,954 fans. The overflow comes from standing-room tickets, and the average attendance this season of 19,071 set a franchise record. The sellout streak is at 147 straight games.
Wild owner Craig Leipold controlled the Predators when Suter played for Nashville. Suter was raised one state away in Wisconsin , and his wife grew up in the Twin Cities area. Parise’s late father, J.P. Parise, played for the Minnesota North Stars .
Minnesota sports fans have long had a bridesmaid complex, stemming from stars preferring to play elsewhere and devastating losses dashing championship dreams. The arrival of this duo, despite their strong ties to the area, raised expectations of sustained success accordingly.
“What it signifies is we’re a really good hockey team that people want to pay attention to, not just in Minnesota but across the country,” Majka said, “and that is a good thing.”
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