MINNEAPOLIS – Before everyone settled in for their fireworks on the Fourth of July, the Minnesota Wild put on quite a show themselves.
Eschewing patience and pragmatism for go-for-it-all aggressiveness, Wild owner Craig Leipold shelled out $198 million for free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to get the State of Hockey all amped up for the coming season.
The season, it turns out, almost didn’t come. And now the team that arguably lost more momentum during the NHL lockout than any other is eager to get to work at recapturing it. The NHL and the players’ association reached accord on a new collective bargaining agreement Sunday, the 113th day of the lockout. After lawyers from both sides put the finishing touches on the contract and it is ratified, the players will commence with a training camp and get ready for the games to begin.
“Everyone in our organization, the players, the fans were really excited in the summer,” goalie Niklas Backstrom said in a phone interview Sunday night. “This lockout hurts everyone. Everything was going our way in the summer with the moves we were making. It’s something we can’t really do anything about. It’s in the past. We have to get ready and get back on the ice and start playing.”
The three months of missed games and darkened Xcel Energy Center put further strain on St. Paul bars and restaurants that rely on Wild games for revenue. Dozens of establishments laid off workers and slashed budgets to try to stay afloat while the owners and players haggled over their CBA for the third time in the last 20 years.
“The lockout has had a dramatic impact on our business,” Joe Kasel and Kevin Geisen, co-owners of Eagle Street Bar and Grille directly across from the Wild’s arena, said in a joint statement. “We took the difficult, yet appropriate, measures to ensure our business’s survival through this difficult time. Our staff and our customers are like family to us, we can’t wait to have our hockey family back.”
Laurie Malmgren, manager of St. Paul sushi restaurant Sakura, said the lack of hockey downtown has been devastating to her business.
“This New Year’s Eve was probably the worst one we’ve had in 15 years,” said Malmgren, who usually counts on it as one of the big nights of the year thanks to the Wild’s tradition of playing a home game that day.
Last year the Wild got off to a 20-7-3 start under first-year head coach Mike Yeo, only to collapse in the second half of the season and miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year. With fan interest finally starting to wane, Leipold opened his wallet to show them he was serious about putting a contender on the ice. He was celebrated for his boldness, then cursed through the lockout by fans who were fed up with the labour disputes in their favourite sport.
Backstrom knows the players and league are going to have their work cut out for them when they do return as they try to repair the relationship with the fans once again.
“I know they’re mad,” Backstrom said. “It’s something that shouldn’t have happened. In 20 years we’ve lost probably two seasons if you count all the games. They should be mad. It’s not enough for us to say we’re sorry. There’s a lot of things we have to do to make it right. We have to go out there and play good hockey and worry about the product. We have to do our job to repair the damage. I hope at some point the fans can forgive us and be there for us.
“At the end of the day you need players and you need fans. I hope we have them there behind us like they were before. Time will tell.”
Associated Press Writer Steve Karnowski contributed to this report.