Friday, July 13, 2012

Minnesota Goes Wild For A Change

First off, allow me to be goopy and describe unwarranted imagery: Independence Day marks the birth of our nation.  But July 13, 2012 will be remembered as the rebirth of a franchise.

Thank you.  Second off: On a scale of 1 to 10, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signing with the Minnesota Wild’s similarity to LeBron James and “The Decision” – well, hate to break it to Jim Souhan of the Star Trib, but I’d say it’s about a 7, maybe 7.5.

No, neither Parise nor Suter are running into the waiting arms of a superstar after coming so close to winning a title for the teams that drafted them.  All the Wild have are promising rookies who could use some mentoring, and they’re damn well going to get that now.  James carried the weight and eventually broke the hearts of the area he grew up in by leaving home.  Parise is coming home (and Suter kind of is).  Most importantly, Parise didn’t hire belligerent pest Jim Gray and sucker the whores at ESPN (not the ones dedicated to actually reporting the news, and thank Buddha there are still some at the Worldwide Leader) into turning his free-agent announcement into an hour-long humblebrag disguised as a donation to the Boys and Girls Clubs.  Hockey players aren’t ostentatious like that.

Other than that, you damn right it’s the same.  And you know what?  It’s about time we Minnesotans live a little and own the hate some/most parts of Hockey Nation have for us.  Like this bitter dude:

To his credit, he says that is not an authentic jersey but a cheap Chinese one.  Does it come from the same factory as the clothes the U.S. Olympic Team will wear in the Opening Ceremonies?

We are the Miami Heat of the National Hockey League, and we might as well live up to our villain image.  Why the hell not?  It’s time we start being the Minnesota Wild and stop being the Minnesota Mild. 

Think of it like pro wrestling; one minute you’re the face, next minute you’re the heel.  We’ll be back to being the lovable “you betcha” pushovers from that place where it’s cold all the time soon enough.  We’ll be the Triple H of the NHL – the NHHHL, if you will.

The chronology and breakdown of how the Wild managed to beat hockey’s bluebloods and land the two standout free agents in the market are given by both Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Michael Russo of the Star Tribune.  The accounts don’t jive exactly – Goessling said that Parise and Suter signed for a total amount below $100 million each because they didn’t want the stigma of a nine-figure contract, which seems incredibly superficial – but taking the thesis and antithesis of these pieces, I think we can come up with the reasons why they both signed here.  Possibly in order:

Money: Duh.  Did you know that Helen Leipold, the wife of Wild owner Craig Leipold, is an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune?  Both Parise, by far the best forward on the market, and Suter, by far the best defenseman on the market, were going to see how much money they could get.  Without that obvious prerequisite, the Wild’s best acquisition this off-season would have been Torrey Mitchell.

The possibility they could team up: I get the feeling that the relationship between Parise and Suter is closer than even both writers indicate.  They were teammates for the U.S. on Olympic squads in the past, and in their press conference Monday Suter said they wondered in jest a couple years ago what it would be like to combine their Wonder Twin powers.  It was playing basketball for the good ol’ U.S.A. that planted in James’s mind a similar dream of joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Both reporters say that Parise was the one that leaned towards taking the Wild’s offer first, but that he would only say yes to the Wild if Suter did.  Eventually, they would both collaborate/collude and say they would sign identical contracts with Minnesota – 13 years, $95 million total, front-loaded, and paid even if the league is locked out next year.

Playing in front of family and friends: The only other team allegedly able to sign both players was Detroit, and they were pursuing Suter more than Parise because the legendary Nicklas Lidstrom retired after the season was over.  But Parise, apparently already good with the close-to-max offer and intrigued by the chance to play with Suter, also really wanted to come back home to the Twin Cities.  He was born and raised in the area, and his dad, J.P., was a longtime player and one-time assistant coach with the fabled Minnesota North Stars.  Suter is from Wisconsin, but they don’t have a hockey team, so this one is close enough.  Besides, Suter’s wife is from here.

Being a part of a team that could be really good for a really long time: A relatively minor point from what I gather from both articles, but it can’t be denied.  I didn’t think the Wild would be able to sign either free agent, and I was OK with that.  This organization has been so mediocre for so long they have repeatedly drafted high-rated prospects – Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin are the three names Hockey’s Future magazine think will be studs.  Many people believe it’ll be this new wave that by themselves would have turned the Wild’s fortunes around – that is, that Granlund and Coyle will be the next Zach Parise, and Jonas Brodin will be the next Ryan Suter, in five years or so.

Both signings have yet to win a Cup, and they must have at least noticed that this franchise is on the upswing, so they might as well get in front of this rocket to the top before it’s too late.  According to Michael Russo, Parise’s other options were to return to New Jersey or accept a nine-figure offer from Philadelphia.  Guess here is going back to Nashville was Suter’s third choice, with the Wild edging out an offer that his agent wouldn’t name (again according to Russo) but had to be Detroit.

There really hasn’t been a signing like this.  The state went crazy when Brett Favre said yes to former rivals the Vikings in 2009 and 2010 – rubes lined up alongside the road with signs welcoming him to Minnesota – but honestly, even though he was one dumb pass over the middle from taking the team to the Super Bowl, he was a man sexting his way down his career peak.  Kevin Garnett and the 2003 Minnesota Timberwolves finally won a series (and reached the Western Conference Finals) by, technically, trading for Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell.  The closest comparison, in fact, might not be a player: Could it be Tubby Smith, who had to escape the hotbox of Kentucky for the much lower expectations of the Minnesota men’s basketball program?  Let’s hope the tenures of both Suter and Parise are much more notable than that of Smith.

But all those guns were hired this side of the millennium.  Maybe this is a sign that Minnesota sports is finally starting to get into the headhunting business.  And even if this is an anomaly, the Minnesota Wild are striking at a time when the local sports scene is ripe for the taking.  The Twins are about to dismantle their woeful starting rotation on their way to the worst record in the American League for the second year in a row.  (Beautiful ballpark, though!)  Exasperation over building the Vikings a brand new stadium still needs to simmer down, and that’s not mentioning that they’re coming off a 3-13 season.  Meanwhile, the Timberwolves vainly try to keep up with the Wild in the sports pages by making off-season moves of their own.  But while Suter’s and Parise’s signings were met with rapturous fanfare that could not be exceeded in any other city with a hockey team, the Wolves went out and got … Brandon Roy and Alexey Shved.  Listen closely enough and you can hear a solitary paper blowout emanating somewhere in the vicinity of Target Center.

The Wild needed to dig out of irrelevance themselves, and this was a hell of a way to do it.  Maybe this is the game-changing moment where they not only become a model organization, but finally reflect the passion many here have for hockey.

There has always been a strange disconnect between grassroots participation in the sport in Minnesota and the support given to the state’s professional representative.  We have more people playing hockey than any other state in the nation, according to USA Hockey.  It’s plausible to say that the University of Minnesota is not a basketball school (it sure as hell ain’t a football school), but a hockey school.  And the Wild’s slogan, “The State of Hockey,” may have been developed in order to sell season tickets, but it resonates with natives because, if you’ve lived here all your life, deep down you know it’s kind of true.

So why isn’t the Wild considered one of the powerhouses of the NHL?  The league was considered dead to some fans when the North Stars were stolen away to Dallas in 1993, and even though the Wild were born in 2000, there is a tangible feeling in some quarters that it’s not the same and never will be the same.  The cruel business of hockey chased those disillusioned fans to amateur and youth hockey.  And you can’t relocate a travelling team of under-16 Minnesotans south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Nevertheless, the return of the NHL to Minnesota brought in a bleep-load of money to founding owner Bob Naegele, Jr.; the Wild announced sellouts for every game, including the preseason, for the team’s first nine years.  And yet they’ve reached the Stanley Cup playoffs only three times in 11 years, won only two series (both in 2003, when they reached the Western Conference Finals), been a spectator the last four postseasons, and, just as importantly, has never had a superstar, or what would count as one in hockey, since first-ever draft pick and Original Wild member Marian Gaborik, whom the franchise let walk and is now scoring (whenever he isn’t injured) for the New York Rangers.

You see, we have always had and/or been plagued with a reserve that comes with being a Midwesterner.  We never go out and splurge for big names.  We don’t want to stick out in a crowd – that’d be too immodest.  We’ll just sit back and respectfully clap when an Original Six team wins the Cup, or grin and say, “Good for you!” when Pittsburgh or Philadelphia gets that big free-agent signing.  And then we just go to bed and pray to God that we get ours soon – as soon as He deems it so.

I think Leipold said to hell with that.  The state with the greatest participation numbers in hockey should have a team that is one of the bullies of the NHL.  It is our place to be a bully in the NHL.  That we are not only doesn’t seem right, it seems downright disingenuous.  We should be throwing our weight and money around to purchase free agents, not playing the “woe is me” card and wondering why no one wants to play here.  If the New York Yankees can do it in baseball, why the hell can’t we in Minnesota?

In many respects the state has already received a much-needed shake-up.  Nothing short of at least one Stanley Cup will do with these signings, but at the very least the NHL and NHL fans are talking about us, possibly for the first time ever.  It might be bad, but bad publicity is better than no publicity, which is what this franchise has had virtually its entire existence.  So in generating buzz, the team is already getting its money’s worth.

Such publicity is also inevitable, like it or not: Parise insisted in the press conference that being called the “Heatles” was “unfair, but I understand it at the same time.”  I believe that you are defined by your enemies.  And trust me, this signing makes this team the bad guys.

So why not embrace it?  Haters gonna hate and motivate, am I saying that right?  I and most other fans here won’t mind the booing and calls this is unfair if the Wild finally brings Lord Stanley’s Cup to the State of Hockey.  Leipold, General Manager Chuck Fletcher and Head Coach Mike Yeo should be commended for doing something un-Minnesotan in order to change the fortunes of this invisible franchise instantly.  And after they win a championship, maybe then they can start working on the next thing that should be on their bucket list: Getting back the North Stars name.

Posted by WilliamSou at 2:44 AM


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Anonymous said: SportsBLOG comment spacer

Bring back the North Stars. Get rid of the those terrible jerseys, terrible name and logo!

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