ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was an odd sight, seeing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in green Minnesota Wild practice sweaters Monday. Something about it didn’t look right, as if the NHL lockout dashed any hope that those two would play for their new team this season.
One day after the NHL and the players’ association reached an agreement to end the 113-day lockout, members of the Wild took the ice at Xcel Energy Center for a team skate, sans coach Mike Yeo. New additions Parise and Suter were among the 18 players in attendance, quickly developing chemistry with their new teammates. The duo signed matching 13-year, $98 million contracts in July, creating quite a buzz not only in Minnesota but also around the hockey world.
Then the lockout hit and all of that buzz dissipated.
“It’s been tough for everybody — players, management, fans. It’s been a hard, long process,” Parise said Monday. “We’re all happy that it’s over. Now we can just get this thing going and get the season going. We want to play. The fans want to see us play. So we can all move on and forget about this.”
The 28-year-old Parise grew up in Minnesota but spent his entire seven-year NHL career as a member of the New Jersey Devils. Like Parise, Suter had never put on another team’s sweater until Monday, as the 27-year-old defenseman played seven seasons for the Nashville Predators before signing with the Wild.
So while Monday’s skate was exciting for both, it was also like the first day of school as they got to know some of their teammates and skate with many for the first time.
“It was weird,” Suter said. “In the summer you wear the green pants and the gloves, and then you put on the sweater today, it was definitely a different feeling but also an exciting feeling knowing that it’s kind of a new start and just knowing that I’m here.”
After a fast start to the season last year, Minnesota faded down the stretch and missed out on the playoffs. But once the Wild landed Parise and Suter — the two most sought-after free agents on the market this past offseason — the expectations for the team increased dramatically.
Parise gives the Wild another goal scorer. He’s netted 30 or more goals in five of the past six seasons, with the lone exception being an injury-shortened 2010-11 season. Suter instantly becomes the Wild’s top defenseman.
Since signing Parise and Suter in July, all Minnesota has been able to do with its two newest acquisitions is sit and wait while hoping for the lockout to end.
“It’s kind of like having a toy at Christmas that you’re not allowed to play with,” Yeo said. “We’re excited for a number of reasons. We’re excited because of Zach and Ryan. . . . But along with that, we addressed some areas that we needed to improve — speed, toughness — through free agency.”
Parise has spent the lockout in Minnesota, skating regularly at a few Twin Cities rinks with several Wild teammates as well as other locked-out players. Suter, meanwhile, was back home in Madison, Wis., skating with the Madison Capitols, a Midget AAA team coached by his younger brother, Garrett.
“It was my dad’s organization. I grew up playing for it, so it was fun,” Suter said. “My brother’s coaching the team. He got to skate me every day. It was good for him.”
There were plenty of smiles Monday at Xcel Energy Center — including Parise and Suter — as Wild players were happy the lockout was over. But they know that not all fans share their excitement. Many fans were put off by the way the negotiations dragged on, and some felt the players were greedy during the process.
While there are still plenty of Wild fans excited to see Parise and Suter finally play for Minnesota, both players know they’ll have to win some fans back.
“Unfortunately, there is a business side to sports. We’ve seen it in football. You’ve seen it in baseball before. You’ve seen it in basketball recently. And now unfortunately we’ve seen hockey too much recently,” Parise said. “It lasted a while. You apologize and you want to put a great product on the ice and slowly earn their trust back and have them come back and support us.”
Added Suter: “We definitely have to apologize for putting the fans through that. That’s not right. You shouldn’t have to do that. Obviously apologize, and then we have to go out and play our hardest for them and know that if we play our hardest, hopefully they’ll come back.”