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My long love affair with the game of hockey has roots to when I was a kid. I’ve rambled off my fan resume in these forums before, but I’ve never really hashed it out in long-form. My hockey fandom was cultivated by many people, but it starts with my Father.
My dad brought me to my first North Stars game when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old. I remember being annoyed as a little tyke of not being able to see, and the loud noise. I had really no idea what was going on. Really, at that time, it was baseball with the Twins winning the World Series in 1991 and Vikings football. Sadly, the only real memory I have of the old Met Center in Bloomington was a Sesame Street Live event held there. Unfortunately, the North Stars moved to Dallas and their lore and history now lives on in Ross Bernstein books that sit in my office bookshelf.
Even though the NHL moved out of the state, there was still a hockey outlet in Minnesota. One that only players move on, but the team will never leave. The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers were on every Friday and Saturday on the old Midwest Sports Channel (MSC). I grew up with the vocal tones of Frank Mazzocco and Tom Reid on the air. Head Coach Doug Woog carried on a long-standing tradition of recruiting home-grown talent. We got to watch kids from the very cities that I had been to grow up and play on TV.
Brian Bonin, Mike Crowley, Eric Rasmussen, Steve DeBus, and Dave Spehar were my idols. They were the players I enjoyed watching. The NHL, to me at this point, was in the background. While the Nordiques moved to Colorado, and the Jets moved the American Southwest, I was deep into the Gopher/Fighting Sioux rivalry. (It helped that I had a cousin in Grand Forks that could fuel the banter back and forth). While Wayne Gretzky made his way to the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers, I was watching something called Mike Legg oust the Gophers in the NCAA tournament with a lacrosse style goal. While Jacques Lemaire led the Devils to a Stanley Cup, I was visiting Mariucci Arena for the first time and hearing the band play the U of M Rouser, the Student Section chants, and booing the St. Cloud State Huskies. I remember, after the Met Center was imploded, the Gophers would move from the U of M campus on the East Bank of the Mississippi River across town to the Target Center for the Badger/Gopher Border Battle and the place would be sold out.
We got the newspaper at school, and I started reading the sports page during my 7th grade study hall. That’s where I heard about this new NHL expansion team coming to Minnesota and they were looking for a name. Among the choices were “Blue Ox,” “Freeze,” and “Voyageurs,” before the ownership group settled in on “Wild,” as the nickname. I remember the picture on the front the of Sport Section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune showing the new jersey that the new Minnesota Wild NHL franchise would wear. The team was awarded to Minnesota in 1997, but because the site of the new arena would be on the site of the old St. Paul Civic Center, the team didn’t have a home. Strangely, I remember being a total rube when I noticed former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman campaigning for US Senate in Shakopee. I walked up to him and thanked him for figuring out the funding to get the Wild to Minnesota. I had zero clue how much or how little he actually had to do with it, but I did it anyways.
The Minnesota Wild was a chance for me to follow and grow up with a team from the beginning. I remember watching on the Fox Sports Net - North (it took the place of MSC on the cable line-up) Mike Goldberg and Tom Reid call the very first goal scored by some 18 year old kid named Marian Gaborik. He was fast, young, didn’t know a lick of English, and now a part of Wild history. I remember watching the inaugural game at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild hosted the Philadelphia Flyers and played them to a 3-3 tie. Former Golden Gopher and Richfield, MN native Darby Hendrickson scored the first Wild goal in the new building. I remember my first game in that inaugural season in November around my birthday. My Dad got Club Level tickets from a vendor of his and I was able to bring along a couple friends. Oh, and they were taking on a terrible Blackhawks team that day. I was slightly annoyed that the scoreboard blocked my view of the lighthouse and the goal horn, but it was awesome being there.
Then Dallas came to town...
I was in the very last row of seats in the arena before the standing rail for this game. It was billed as, “The Next Stage.” Clever marketing by founding sponsor Wells Fargo Bank, who had that phrase as part of their slogan during those years. It was printed on 18,000 white towels that waved all game long. The pre-game hype video on the scoreboard video screen showed highlights of North Star hey-days to a darkened arena. Then came the video of the Met Center getting imploded. A loud, vociferous and collective “BOO” echoed through the bowels of the facility. It was followed by highlights of then owner Bob Naegele Jr. announcing the Wild logo and jersey, early season highlights - the first game; the first win. A spotlight shone on one of the corner stages where Minnesota hockey legend Neal Broten sported an old early 90’s era Stars jersey. He ripped the sweater off and led the frenzied crowd in the now traditional pre-game announcement, “LET’S PLAY HOCKEY!!!”
The Wild summarily trounced the Stars 6-0 that evening in St. Paul. Not that I needed any one moment to be coerced into being a fan of this franchise, but that game - that moment - was one that still gives me goosebumps even today.
A couple seasons later the Wild would shock the hockey world by coming back twice from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Stanley Cup favorite Colorado Avalanche and put Patrick Roy into retirement, and defeat the hated Vancouver Canucks en route to a Western Conference Final showing. They ultimately lost to Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s over-sized pads and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the Conference Final, but that run was so fun to watch.
The Wild’s run to the WCF was around the same time the Gophers won back-to-back national championships. First Matt Koalska and Grant Potulny led Minnesota to a championship at the Xcel Energy Center (essentially home ice) and Kellen Briggs and Thomas Vanek helped get the Gophers over New Hampshire for the second consecutive title. Also happening in 2002, the United States took the Silver Medal in a close game against Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Olympic Games. So much was talked about with regards to the Miracle on Ice team, the US being back on home soil, and so many great names that played for those teams that battled each other in a great game.
The Wild came in a the right time. I already had a knowledge base for the game, and I was excited to be in the position to live through the new memories of a new franchise. But the Wild were just a small part in my love for hockey. The Gophers had success, Olympic hockey is something amazing to watch, and the Wild were showing promise as a fledgling franchise.
I enjoyed playing the game, whether it was floor hockey (Self-proclaimed best floor hockey goalie in Shakopee High School 2003-2005), pick-up ice hockey late at night after work at the Shakopee Community Center till 1:30 in the morning, or just shooting the puck or ball around outside. I couldn’t get enough of the game. That’s why I’m a fan.
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