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Wild Kingdom

Minnesota is proving itself to be the true hockey capital of the U.S.

May 12, 2003|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The family gets used to drinking weak coffee and watery hot chocolate from vending machines in suburban hockey rinks with the temperature of a meat locker during their son's marathon Bantam season.

You might expect that a father's first question after getting home from work would be: "Did you finish you homework?" In homes from White Bear Lake to Warroad, it was: "Did you work on your slap shot in the basement?"

Detroit might be called Hockeytown, but the expanses are a little more grand around here, reaching from International Falls in the north to Albert Lea in the south. From peewees to professionals, it's not so much a hockey state but a state of hockey, an embedded part of the Minnesota psyche.

Considering all this, the border separating Minnesota from the surrounding states and Canada is rather easy to imagine, suggests one of the state's leading business executives.

"It isn't hard to reach out because from border to border, a big blue line runs around the state," said Minnesota Wild Chairman Bob Naegele Jr., smiling.

"It's 10,000 rinks here."

Inconceivably, not one of those 10,000 rinks was the home of an NHL team from the 1993-94 season until the expansion Wild started playing in St. Paul in October 2000.

For perspective, it would be about as unlikely as Manchester United leaving England and moving to Germany or the Green Bay Packers pulling out of Wisconsin and putting down roots in Las Vegas.

The consecutive blows of owner Norm Green moving the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas in 1993, followed by the implosion of the North Stars' home building, the Met Center, in Bloomington on Dec. 13, 1994, had hockey supporters believing that the NHL would never return to Minnesota.

"You could feel a big void," said Lou Nanne, a North Star player, coach and longtime general manager and president. "It was really different after so many years of having it. It was a blase winter for those of us who were used to having hockey."

So, when the NHL did return in 2000, it was as though the fans clutched the Wild in a bearhug and refused to let go. In its first season, the Wild had 41 consecutive sellouts and set a league expansion record of 751,452 fans.

Cosmic dominos started to fall on the ice this season.

The Wild rallied from a 3-1 series deficit against the Colorado Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs and then became the first NHL team to twice survive a 3-1 deficit, taking the final three games against the Vancouver Canucks.

After beating the Canucks, the Wild players were thinking about what the accomplishment meant to the community and the state after it had lost a team.

Even after the Wild lost, 1-0, in double overtime to the Mighty Ducks in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, the sellout crowd of 19,350 at Xcel Energy Center ushered them off with a standing ovation.

"People in Minnesota have had to wait such a long time to get a hockey team back and to have something like this happen is incredible," center Wes Walz said.

"We were happy to just bring hockey back to Minnesota after they lost the North Stars."

The Wild has maintained a delicate balance of honoring North Star tradition but establishing a necessary fresh presence.

"They created their own identity," said radio commentator Tom Reid, a longtime North Star defenseman. "A lot of people wanted them to take the name North Stars, but they needed really to create their own identity.

"The Wild took the approach that they wanted to include everybody in the state of Minnesota.

"They did deals going up to Biwabik and International Falls and Warroad, really hit the hockey hotbeds trying to instill a feeling of ownership."

To that end, the Wild has sweaters from the high school hockey programs throughout the state hanging in the concourse of the Xcel Energy Center. The team also has its own curator, Roger Godin, who used to work at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

"The idea of the state of hockey brings everybody into it," Naegele said.

"You saw the sweaters. Our foundation is amateur hockey. The piece that was missing at the top of the pyramid was the NHL, the return of the NHL completes the pyramid."

It wasn't easy. There was lingering bitterness from the North Stars' departure, and the area needed a new building for hockey. A key moment, Nanne said, was when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his expansion committee came to St. Paul for a tour and visited the Civic Center in 1997. Bettman told Nanne, no new building, no team.

"I walked over to [then St. Paul mayor] Norm Coleman and said, 'No building, no team,' " Nanne said. "He said, 'OK, then we'll get a new building.' Just like that.

"He walked over and said to Gary, 'OK, you need a building, we'll get you a building.' "

And now order has been restored at the top of the Minnesota hockey pyramid and then some.

The Wild remains four victories away from reaching the Stanley Cup final.

Loacl television numbers from Game 1 yielded a 33 rating and a 42 share, and the waiting list for season tickets has hit 5,500.

"They don't call it the State of Hockey for nothing," Walz said. "I grew up in Calgary, Canada, and they get the seasonal weather here. The winters are cold. It feels so much like home for me.

"During the winter, you drive home after practice and my son is begging me to take him on the outdoor ice. And every other parent in the Minnesota area is probably going through the same thing. The kids are all out on the ice. You see them playing street hockey. It brings out memories of your own hockey experiences."

For Nanne, the unexpected success and rebirth of the NHL in Minnesota had him thinking of his own hockey past.

"It's just spectacular," he said. "My wife said to me this morning, 'Do you think you're playing the game?' This is big. It's a feeling you can recall as a player, as a manager, as a president. I recall these types of feelings and it's exciting."

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