Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
**Ed. note -- this edition appeared in Sunday's issue of St. Louis Game Time. Since there's no home game for a bit, there won't be another issue published before Thursday night. Ergo, the Minny history. Carry on.
Back in the day when the (Chuck) Norris Division of the NHL, aka the Black and Blue Division, flourished, the team from Minnesota came to our town sporting beautiful green jerseys with a golden North Star on the crest. The likes of Neil Broten, Bobby Smith, Dino Ciccarelli, Brian Bellows, Craig Hartsburg and Willi Plett would come to do battle at the Old Barn on Oakland with Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter, Rob Ramage, Perry Turnbull, Mike Zuke and Larry Patey. Dueling goaltenders would feature Gilles Meloche versus Mike Liut. Of course, the club with the ugly logos and jerseys visiting tonight from Minnesota (the Wild came into existence as an expansion franchise in 2000) is not the same as the old North Stars, who are now the Dallas Stars, the team the Blues played just last night in Texas.
The Minnesota North Stars became the Dallas Stars in 1994 when owner Norm Green moved the franchise south to the Lone Star state. Average, boring teams, losing seasons, dwindling attendance and the failure to reach an agreement with either Minneapolis or St. Paul on a new arena deal were cited as reasons for the relocation, although a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Green (that resulted in an ultimatum from his wife to move out of state or else) might have been a factor as well. So, both cities were now without NHL hockey and the fans were livid with outrage and felt betrayed.
Minnesota has a rich hockey heritage and even high school matches sell out the Xcel Energy Center. University and college clubs are well supported and local rinks, both indoor and outdoor, are busy almost 24/7 as children and adults of both sexes participate in amateur hockey leagues. They don't call Minnesota "The State of Hockey" for nothing, you know. So, it only took three years for an NHL franchise to return to the Twin Cities. An investment group headed by the Mayor of St. Paul applied for an expansion team and in June, 1997, Minnesota was awarded a franchise. A contest was held and the finalist team names (Freeze, Northern Lights, Voyageurs, Blue Ox, White Bears and Wild) were announced in November. The best of a sorry lot was chosen and the Minnesota Wild was proclaimed in January, 1998, at a gala unveiling, with Steppenwolf's "Born to be wild" blaring on loudspeakers. The Wild worked out sweetheart deals with both the state of Minnesota and city of St. Paul to build the new downtown rink and a working agreement with the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission was reached, the first partnership of its kind between a private professional sports team and a public amateur sports organization. Doug Risebrough was named General Manager and Jacques Lemaire was hired as the first Wild coach.
On opening night in October, 2000, the Wild retired jersey #1 in honor of the "Wild Fans" as a public relations/good-will gesture for supporting the new NHL team after the anger and bitterness caused by the old NHL team leaving the Twin Cities. The Wild featured a mixed and motley group of misfits including #1 draft choice Marian Gaborik, former Blue Scott Pellerin (the first season's scoring leader), little Wes Walz and goaltenders Manny Fernandez and Jamie McLennan, another former Blue. They finished last in the division out of the playoffs and would do it again the following year. In 2003, however, they not only made the playoffs, the Wild went all the way to the Conference Finals, behind the stellar play of Andrew Brunette, Gaborik, Walz, ex-Blue and fan-favorite Cliff Ronning and goaltender Fernandez. The next two years were lost; one to a horrible team and the other to a horrible year-long lockout. They made the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, yet mediocre teams lost in the first round both years. And the Wild hasn't played in the quest for Lord's Stanley's Cup since.
Despite that mediocrity on the ice, avid fans from the Twin Cities still flock to the rink and fill it to near-capacity. In fact, every single game during the first ten years of the team's existence was over capacity. It wasn't until 2010-11 that the yearly average attendance dipped to just under capacity (18,012). Last year's average of 17,773 was the lowest in franchise history in the 18,064 seat Xcel Energy Center. Perhaps that's why the current ownership group (headed by ex-Nashville owner Craig Leipold who purchased the Wild in 2008) shelled out huge, lengthy contracts to Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to try and drastically improve the team for playoff contention -- and sell a few more tickets, of course.
The Blues will have a full plate tonight with this Wild bunch, who are also off to a decent start. However, the Blues overall depth and superior defense combined with the excellent work of the power play and penalty killing squads should provide the margin for victory.