Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Day After: A New Dawn

by NiNY

If you're not from Minnesota, you just don't know what it's like to have hockey be such a large part of your identity, yet none of your State-produced biggest moments in the sport were at the NHL level. Minnesotans have this binary identity when it comes to hockey.

High school, college, Olympics, yeah we got that. But we've suffered the manifold humiliations of exporting many Sons of Minnesota - most of whom never amount to much at the NHL level, of never winning a Cup when we had team #1, then losing said team #1 (the blame for which, if we're being honest with ourselves, is at least partially our own fault), then watching team #1 move to, of all places, Dallas, then watching team #1 'win' a Stanley Cup in Dallas, then getting a new team #2, then experiencing a thrill in '03 with team #2 but knowing that was just a fluke, then seeing team #2's GM #1 grandly fuck up team #2 before owner #2 finally got wise and deep sixed him, then seeing team #2's GM #2 come in and find that both of his hands and one of his feet are tied behind his back and start the process of rebuilding without being allowed to use the word "rebuilding". Everything pertaining to our NHL-level experience with hockey is painted in some combination of the shades of embarrassment, underachievement and disgrace. That drove us crazy.

For example the first round draft picks for the Wild from 2004-2009 were:

04 AJ Thelen
05 Benoit Pouliot
06 James Sheppard
07 Colton Gillies
08 Tyler Cuma*
09 Nick Leddy**

*Still with the organization, jury's still out
**Traded by Fletcher in the unfortunate Cam Barker fiasco

You want to understand Wild fan angst, there it is.

But, as Minnesotans or fans of Minnesota teams, our misery is such that it's not just the local pro hockey team that haunts us. It's all the goddamn teams! The Twins have provided the best experience. But that experience appears to have peaked in 1991. There's a team called the Timberwolves that plays bouncy ball that showed a bit of a pulse last year from what I've gathered and might be on the upswing. Might. And don't even get me started on the Vikings. Only Bills fans get to talk to me about how shitty their experience with their team has been.

We don't just expect the worst, we know it's coming - because it always does. Every win is (or should be unless your powers of self-delusion are Biblical in magnitude) mitigated by the certainty that the team will figure out a way to undo the benefits and good feelings from that win sooner or later, and probably sooner.

It took my New York team-rooting wife years to understand my sports gestalt. When you've grown up with the Yankees and Rangers free agency is like the old joke about being on a 'seafood diet': when you see desireable free agents, you sign them. Same thing, at least in the Yankees' case, with championships. Not so, Minnesota teams fans.

Legitimacy in hockey, in other words, is something Minnesotans have been craving forever. Herb Brooks and the '80 team is great and a treasure and all that. But that's not purely a Minnesota accomplishment. We needed some kids from the likes of Massachusetts, for example, to make that happen.

Imagine if one of the things you prided yourself on wasn't recognized on that thing's biggest stage? You get cast as a quaint little addendum to that thing's living history. A footnote. A Vice President. That smarts. Why hasn't Minnesota - as natural a choice for a Winter Classic as there is in America - gotten one yet? The answer, we're told: not enough star power. Ouch. It's not enough that Canadians consider us Canada-south in terms of hockey passion, knowledge and participation? We don't have enough fair-haired, made-for-TV boys on the squad to warrant consideration?

So you'll forgive Wild fans if we've had a chip on our shoulders when it comes to hockey. We know more about the game than you do, but we never mattered on the scene enough to show it off.

Chuck Fletcher, I am reliably informed, is not from Minnesota.

As mentioned above, he inherited one big pile of dog shit of a team, and he should be able to look himself in the mirror today and honestly say that he's done one hell of a job rebuilding it.

He left a franchise that was given Sidney Crosby on a silver platter, and came to a franchise that had indelibly scorched the earth between the best player they had and a new contract for his continued services.

Learning that the stunning signings yesterday fit into the plan on which Fletcher sold Mikko Koivu when he re-signed two years ago(!) was mind-blowing to me. Foresight alone indicates a stark departure from his predecessor. But then the chutzpah (and, obviously some luck) to pull it off as well? Eat your heart out, Riser.

Because part of the fabric of being a Minnesota sports fan is this maxim: marquee free agents do not sign with your teams, at least not when their careers are still waxing. Brett Favre, yeah, but that was well into his wane and after he'd exposed himself in a text message, to boot.

So yesterday was about redemption and justification all in one. Think about that. Wild fans had been convicted of murder and spent time in prison, and yesterday our conviction got overturned and we got let out of the clink.

This sounds like I'm piling on. Like it can't possibly represent this much angst. But it does. And who knows, maybe they lock themselves out and lose the season. Maybe both players break their legs getting out of a golf cart. Maybe one of them finds Jesus and gives up hockey to go spread the good word. We don't know what the future will bring.

But, regardless, yesterday was a watershed moment in the psyche of Minnesota sports fans.

We who love this game of hockey so much, invest so much time and resources into the proliferation of it over the entire course of our lives, and have felt so repressed because even Corpus Christi, TX has its Brian Leetch, but all we had was the personal injury law firm of Parrish, Broten and Richards. Hey Parise said it himself: every kid who grows up in Minnesota wants to play for the Wild. It's different when it's some journeyman fourth liner saying that. But, when it's The Marquee Forward in an entire year's free agent class?

Now, all of North America knows about Minnesota and hockey.

And it was also a coming out party for Wild fans. We no longer have such a gaping hole in our first round pick history, if you think about these two players from the '03 draft's first round making up for a Thelen and a Sheppard, for example. Between Mikko and Zach and Dany and Mikael and Devin, we've got the makings of a legit first line. Roll that one around in your brains, Wild fans. Yeah our defense is still sub-par, but at least we have a clear #1 now - and a guy in Ryan who would be a #1 on many teams in the league - not just a guy who would only be a #1 with the Wild, the Isles and the Blue Jackets anymore. We have a general manager who, since the season ended, has upgraded all four of our forward lines and our top pairing on defense. Literally no other team in the NHL can say that.

Now all of North America knows about the Wild.

To the rest of you Minnesotans. You Vikes and T'Wolves and Twinkies fans who know about hockey, but for whom the Wild was just the team that plays over in St. Paul, and you go to Gopher or Bulldog or Huskies, or high school games for your hockey fix. It's okay to be a fan of the NHL. Maybe you got burned by the North Stars. Or maybe you've only ever needed high school hockey. Either way. We've got some great young debutantes, a good core of 3rd and 4th liners, and now, finally, some star power.

Hockey is what we do. Texas has its football. California has its baseball. Minnesota does hockey. Does it well enough to be proud of it. The Wild now, finally, embodies that pride.

It's a great day for hockey.


Anonymous said...

Very well said. I've been watching the wild every year since the 03 run and it has been tough. besides gabbys 5 goal game, that play off run, and a few comebacks there has been very little to be proud of. Now we have an actual team. Seems too good to be true but it's happened. Thank you chuck fletcher

Nick in New York said...

Agree. Granted not all of Fletcher's moves have worked out, but I think the team - from NHL to juniors - is undeniably better now than when he took over.