|Chuck Fletcher, general manager of the Minnesota Wild looks on as Ryan Suter #20 and Zach Parise #11 speak during a press conference on July 9, 2012 at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minnesota.
ST. PAUL, Minn. – Somebody forgot to tell Minnesota Wild fans they were supposed to be bitter about the NHL lockout. Apparently that’s what happens when your team signs two of the biggest stars from the last U.S. Olympic Team just before the doors shut.
On the Fourth of July, the Wild woke up the State of Hockey with news that American defenseman Ryan Suter and left wing Zach Parise — a Minneapolis native — were joining the team, immediately making the 2012-13 season the most anticipated here since the Wild’s inaugural season in 2000-01.
So when the 119-day lockout ended and Wild finally opened up the doors Wednesday for an inter-squad exhibition — an exhibition! — fans snapped up the 13,000-plus free tickets and were lined up just to get into the team store an hour before the puck dropped.
This season has given a whole new urgency to the Wild’s pre-game rallying cry: “Let’s play hockey.”
"Being from Minnesota, being a Wild fan, no, you don’t hesitate: you show up,” St. Paul resident Kevin Barrett, dressed in a black No. 20 Suter jersey-sweatshirt, said between periods Wednesday at the Xcel Energy Center. “You know it’s not the players’ fault, you know it’s not the team’s fault. It’s a business. Business is business.”
Similar attitudes have apparently taken hold in other cities too, with estimated crowds in the 5,000s showing up to open practices in St. Louis and Tampa; a reported 3,000 showed up in Philadelphia, 2,000 in Detroit and Pittsburgh, plus a “capacity” 1,200 in Columbus. Though Minnesota’s announced 13,096 trumped them all.
|Zach Parise and Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild
pose for pictures on July 9, 2012 at Xcel Energy
Center in St Paul, Minnesota.
Of course not all fans will be as forgiving when the NHL finally kicks off its abbreviated 48-game season Saturday with a slate of 13 games across North America. But there are plenty of storylines for American hockey fans to be excited about.
Since Team USA’s silver-medal performance at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, a new generation of Americans has grown up in the NHL. Besides Parise and Suter, Americans such as Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks have cemented their statuses as bona fide NHL standouts.
Meanwhile, the brick wall put up by Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick in his team’s run to the 2012 Stanley Cup confirmed that the United States has another elite goalie to go with 2010 Olympic sensation and Buffalo Sabres netminder Ryan Miller.
And then there’s the next generation: Earlier this month, the U.S. Under-20 team upset Canada in the semifinals and then beat Sweden in the final to claim the IIHF World Junior Championship title in Ufa, Russia. It was only the third victory in that tournament for the United States. The first one? That was in 2004, with future Olympians Parise, Kesler, Kessel and Suter on the roster.
Perhaps the next big American star was on this roster? Try Seth Jones, an 18-year-old defenseman who is expected to be the top pick in the NHL Entry Draft this summer.
“It’s going the right direction,” Parise said of American hockey.
The next big question, of course, is whether that direction includes NHL players taking part in the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. NHL players have played in every Winter Games since 1998, but the lockout agreement didn’t address the situation for 2014.
“I sure hope so,” Parise said of going to Sochi. “Just from the great, awesome experience we had last time, I sure hope we get the chance to.”
For now, though, the focus for most fans is on the much more immediate future, especially in Minnesota. The Wild’s passionate fan base had become anxious after the team missed the playoffs in each of the past four seasons.
Signing the two prize free agents — including the local boy done good — did just the trick.
Wild fans had dreamed of luring Parise home long before he became a free agent. The son of former Minnesota North Stars standout J.P. Parise grew up in Minneapolis and played college hockey for North Dakota before spending his first seven NHL seasons with the New Jersey Devils.
Also getting Suter, who hails from nearby Madison, Wis., was a game changer. And like Parise, Suter also has impressive hockey pedigree. His father, Bob, was a defenseman on the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic gold-medal winning hockey team in Lake Placid.
With Parise and Suter, the team and the city are talking about doing much more than just making the playoffs this season.
That anticipation was apparently enough for most local fans to quickly forgive and forget the lockout: The Wild’s season opener Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche has already sold out.
“Around here, throughout the whole lockout you’d see people in the grocery store and in the gym, and all of them said, ‘We can’t wait for you to get back on the ice,’” Parise said. “I never had an encounter with anyone that had hard feelings towards anything. I understand that some fans do, and they have every right to, I understand that. It was an ugly thing. But now it’s up to us as players to go out and work hard and have a good team on the ice.”
For Wild fans like Jeff Barak, a Minneapolis native who writes a blog based around hockey jerseys at thirdstringgoalie.com, that couldn’t come soon enough.
“We’ve been waiting since July to see these guys in action,” he said, wearing a USA No. 11 jersey with Parise’s name from a previous World Junior Championships. “We were forced to wait, what, another three and a half months for the season to finally start? So I think everyone is really anxious to see how our team is going to do.”
The wait is finally over.
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.