ST. PAUL, Minn. – In early July, shortly after he joined the Minnesota Wild, Zach Parise drove up to his new place on a lake about 45 minutes outside the Twin Cities. Somehow the neighbors already knew he lived there, and one house had a poster board attached to its mailbox featuring a Wild logo, red and green streamers, and a message: "WELCOME HOME, ZACH."
It was a good sign. The fans were all rah-rah that Parise and Ryan Suter had agreed to matching 13-year, $98 million deals. Not only were they the top free agents on the market – strong players, character guys – they had local ties. Parise was born in Minnesota the son of a North Star. Suter was from Wisconsin and had married a Minnesota girl. The Wild mattered again in the NHL and the State of Hockey itself.
Sales of Parise and Suter jerseys in July outpaced the sales of last season’s most popular players. The Wild sold the equivalent of 4,000 full season tickets in about a month. A franchise that had missed the playoffs four straight years and had fallen far from its peak – when the arena was sold out and season tickets were capped at 16,500 – was fast approaching that peak again.
"It was unprecedented, and we were just a little bit floored by it all," said Wild chief operating officer Matt Majka. "And then the lockout."
All that anticipation was pent up as the owners and players fought over the new collective bargaining agreement. Wild owner Craig Leipold, who had called the Parise and Suter deals a "game-changer" for his team, was suddenly a CBA-changer for the NHL, a member of the negotiating committee trying to outlaw the kinds of contracts Parise and Suter had just signed.
The Wild gave season-ticket holders two options: receive refunds as games were canceled, or earn 10 percent interest in their accounts. Majka said less than five percent requested refunds and the Wild lost virtually no corporate partners. What would it have been like without Parise and Suter?
"I try not to think about that," Majka said. "It crossed my mind as we were pursuing Parise and Suter, how we would deal with it. I'll tell you that we had business projections in place for if we got neither of them, if we got one of them, if we got both. I'm glad we're looking at the scenario we're looking at."
In the week since the new labor agreement, the Wild has sold the equivalent of 100 more full season tickets. Walk into Gate 1 of Xcel Energy Center, and there is another sign, this one outside the souvenir shop: "Welcome Zach Parise And Ryan Suter To The State of Hockey! Get Your Jerseys Now At The Hockey Lodge!" These guys are directly generating hockey-related revenue.
"This organization has never needed – doesn't need – someone to come in and revitalize everything," Parise said. "I never looked at it like, 'Oh, it's my job and Ryan's job to get fans in the stands.' "
Parise is a modest, team guy, and he and Suter cannot do it alone. But he is not naive. Asked if he knew the Wild had sold 4,000 season tickets after he and Suter signed, he smiled and said: "I heard that."
Now, finally, it's time to give people what they're paying for, and it won't be easy. The lockout means the Wild will have to revitalize everything after four ugly months in the league, not just four down years in Minnesota, and it makes the transition period for Parise and Suter far less than ideal. They will have six days of training camp, a couple of scrimmages and zero preseason games before opening the season with three straight in front of their new fans.
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Welcome home, indeed.
"We have a lot of responsibility on us to go out and perform now," Suter said, "to help the team get to that next level."
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Neither Parise nor Suter has played anywhere else in the NHL. Not only that, they were cornerstones of the only organizations they had ever known. Parise, 28, spent seven seasons with the New Jersey Devils. He captained them to the Stanley Cup final last season. Suter, who turns 28 on Jan. 21, spent seven seasons with the Nashville Predators. He helped them reach the second round of the playoffs the last two seasons, farther than they had ever gone before.
"This is a big change for me – for Zach, too," Suter said. "It's definitely different."
Personally, it's no problem for either of them.
Parise was born in Minneapolis the son of J.P. Parise, who played and coached for the North Stars. He grew up in Bloomington, learned to skate at the Met Center. He moved to Faribault as a sixth-grader when his dad got a coaching job at Shattuck-St. Mary's, and he went on to play there himself. He bought that lake house as his off-season home before deciding to sign with the Wild. He is a Minnesota guy.
Even during the lockout, he soaked it up – the outdoor rinks, the importance of high school and college hockey, the way people recognized him but were respectful in grocery stores and restaurants, saying nothing but nice things if they bothered him to say anything at all.
"It's a different mentality here towards hockey than I'm used to, than we saw in New Jersey," Parise said. "It's just, people love their hockey here. We had great fans in New Jersey. But here … This is hockey here. It's great."
Suter is from Madison, Wis., where he lives on a farm in the off-season. But it's the upper Midwest, and his wife is from the Twin Cities. He had visited the area to see family many times before deciding to sign with the Wild. This is a perfect market for him – a place where hockey is part of the culture, but where the media attention isn't as all-consuming as it is in Canada. It feels like home.
"Everything's good," Suter said.
But professionally, it's a challenge for both, especially Suter.
"They have habits that have been ingrained for years and years and years," said Wild coach Mike Yeo. "And so it's going to be up to us to do whatever we can, on the ice, off the ice, to speed up that process for them."
Parise is skating with Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley. It could be a potent combination of speed, skill and size, a line that can execute off the rush and pin opponents deep, if and when it clicks.
"Sometimes it takes two days, sometimes it can take a month," Parise said. "I think the most important thing for us three as a line is to be patient with it. It's got a lot of potential, and if things don’t go right right away, it's important not to get antsy and to start questioning anything, because that's when you start to make some plays that are uncharacteristic."
But at least Parise is a winger, at least he went through coaching changes in New Jersey and at least the Wild has a similar forechecking system to the one the Devils played last season.
Suter is a defenseman, whose mistakes will be more glaring and costly. He played for the same coach the entire time in Nashville, Barry Trotz, and he played with the same partner, Shea Weber. He knew the system and his partner so well, he didn't have to think. He just played and excelled.
Now he's in a different system, has been learning tips from his new partner and has been skating with that new partner for only a few days. And no offense to Jared Spurgeon – Yeo paired him with Suter because of his skills and smarts, and he called him "Boy Genius" in his role as a Suter tutor – but Jared Spurgeon is not Shea Weber. Spurgeon is a 23-year-old sixth-round pick with 123 games of NHL experience. Weber has been a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman.
Suter caught himself screwing up drills during the first practice Sunday, reverting to the Predators' system when he should have been executing the Wild's. He felt sore, the kind of sore that is normal for September, but not for January. He just felt out of sorts.
"Obviously it's going to take some time adjusting to the system," Suter said. "I'm having a hard time – not a hard time, but it's just different. The system will come. I think it's just … I'm not feeling comfortable with myself right now. Just got to get that going. So much time off and right back into it."
* * * * *
How good is the Wild? Hard to say. This is a team that shocked the NHL with a hot start last season, leading the entire league as late as December. This is also a team that suffered a series of injuries, struggled to score and plummeted out of the playoff picture, confirming the suspicion of the advanced-stats crowd that its early run was more of fluke.
The Wild has more high-end talent with Parise and Suter. It has up-and-coming youngsters like center Mikael Granlund and improved depth. The team should score more. It should weather injuries better.
But will the Wild make the playoffs? Yeo and general manager Chuck Fletcher won't set the bar that specifically, especially because of the unpredictability of this chaotic, compressed season. Making matters worse, the Wild has a brutal travel schedule and will have little practice time.
"We just expect to be a competitive team and certainly to be considerably better than what we were last year," Fletcher said. "I think it's everyone's goal to make the playoffs. But in this type of season if you start just saying, 'That's our goal,' I think you miss the point."
Yeo and Fletcher talk about that nebulous "next level," focusing on the process in the short term and developing chemistry as quickly as possible. They can feel that expectations are much higher locally than they are nationally. They have to manage those expectations while they embrace them. It's a nice problem to have. What would it have been like without Parise and Suter?
"My experience here in Minnesota, every time I went out in the public [during the lockout], I never encountered a negative thing from one person," Yeo said. "Certainly everybody had the same feelings that we want to get this going, let's get this thing solved. But having said that, all anybody talked about was how excited they are for this team and I think how proud they are. As the State of Hockey, we have a team to be proud of right now."
Welcome back, Wild.
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