Minnesota has never been ”flyover country” to Zach Parise.
The star forward grew up here, honed his hockey skills here and built a house here to make sure his roots remain in Minnesota for the long term.
Yet even in hockey-mad Minnesota, where the passion for the sport may only be rivaled by the country on its northern border, the Twin Cities has always been considered a medium-sized market that doesn’t have enough sizzle to lure the biggest names in the game.
When Parise and fellow blue-chip free agent Ryan Suter decided to sign matching 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Wild, part of their aim was to turn Minnesota into a destination for the best pros in the league.
”I think at the end of the day, hopefully, with Ryan and I coming here, good players want to play with good players,” Parise said Monday when he was introduced along with Suter at a news conference. ”Hopefully that helps influence some people if they need some and we have a lot of friends around the league so hopefully that will help, too.”
There’s a certain chip on the collective shoulder of sports fans in these parts who have grown tired of being overshadowed by the big cities and seeing their teams passed over time and again by the most high-profile free agents in favor of sexier locales.
So to see a team in their state score the two best players on the free-agent market, and spend a truck full of money to keep them away from the deep pockets in New York and Chicago, stood as one of the bigger days in Minnesota’s proud sports history.
”Free agents of Zach and Ryan’s caliber are often attracted to the major markets where there is more attention, brighter spotlights, and frankly, more money,” owner Craig Leipold said. ”These two chose Minnesota over those things and, in doing so, they have transformed our franchise. We’ve all walked a little taller since July 4.”
The goal is to keep that swagger going for years. The Wild lost the only other true star the franchise when Marian Gaborik left for the Rangers in 2009.
Since then, the Wild have spent good money on winger Martin Havlat, who never fit in with the team and was traded to San Jose, to extend center Mikko Koivu and keep the franchise building block from leaving and added Dany Heatley in a trade last summer.
But nothing like this. Parise, the captain of the New Jersey Devils, was the most sought-after forward on the market. Suter was the most prized defenseman available.
And the Wild got ’em both.
”This just takes it to a whole new level,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. ”Anytime you can attract players in the prime of their career, two premiere free agents who had many options where they could go and they chose to come together and come here. As we get better, we hope that we’ll be a place that every free agent will at least consider.”
In hockey circles, Minnesota can in some ways be considered a major market. The Wild have a beautiful arena, a dedicated fan base and a hockey heritage where children sometimes are put on ice skates before they can walk.
But 12 years into the franchise’s existence, the fans were getting restless while watching a starless team miss the playoffs year after year.
The franchise was desperately in need of an adrenaline shot. It got two.
In the days since, fans have burned up the phone lines, gobbling up nearly 2,000 season tickets and buying every piece of memorabilia with ”Parise” or ”Suter” on it that they can get their hands on.
”We were not expecting this,” Leipold said. ”We knew there would be a great reaction. We just didn’t know it would ever reach this size.”
Now the challenge is to keep the momentum going. Winning games, of course, will probably be the biggest key to making Minnesota an attractive destination for future free agents.
But seeing two stars choose Minnesota over Detroit, New Jersey, New York and Chicago, and seeing a fan base respond to a sport that is not as high profile as it once was will certainly grab attention as well.
”I think people see the warm welcome we’re getting right now,” Suter said. ”They see how much commitment the owner shows. That says a lot for players. We’re going to try to help get as many free agents here as we can.”
This is only the beginning, Suter said. ”I think Minnesota IS a big-time market,” he said. ”I think it’s going to get even bigger.”