Feeling Minnesota: Wild becoming destination team for players

Thomas Vanek was regarded as the top goal-scorer available this summer. Now he's the latest free-agent coup for the Wild.

Gary A. Vasquez/Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota can cling to its slogan as the "State of Hockey."

An adopted son demonstrated, again, the lure of the state and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild in free agency.

For more than a year, Thomas Vanek had his sights set on becoming a free agent, turning down lucrative contract extensions more than once.

When free agency opened Tuesday, Vanek was regarded as the top goal-scorer available and he settled on a three-year contract with the Wild. Vanek signed for less than the extensions he was offered and last-minute deals from teams like the New York Islanders.

"My top priority was to sign here," Vanek said.

Let that sink in.

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While other athletes seem to dream about the first opportunity to leave Minnesota, the Wild have become a destination team in the NHL.

When Minneapolis-born Zach Parise and — why not — Wisconsin-born Ryan Suter decided to "come home," they forever altered the outlook for the Wild.

No longer was Minnesota a fringe team in the NHL world, still clinging to its reincarnation as an expansion team. NHL players began to believe in what Wild owner Craig Leipold, general manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo were building.

Fletcher has said he could sense the difference even in talking to agents for prospective free agents. Players want to come to Minnesota. Perception league-wide, has changed.

"A lot of it also goes to the job that Chuck has done and the knowledge and the awareness of everybody outside our organization that we have an owner that will do just about anything it takes to put a winner on," Yeo said. "And you add in the fact that this is an amazing place to live with a tremendously passionate fan base, it’s not hard to figure out why a lot of people would want to come here."

Yes, Vanek had origins in the state as a star at the University of Minnesota. Born in Vienna, Austria, Vanek has lived in the Twin Cities since college with his family. The state itself was an attraction, in this case.

But Vanek noted views changed with the blockbuster signings of Parise and Suter in 2012.

"I think what intrigued it the most was obviously with Zach signing here and Suter signing here, this team is getting really good and is very good," Vanek said. "About a year ago when I made my decision to go to free agency, this was definitely a team that I had in mind."

The Wild made the second round of the playoffs, a sign to the rest of the NHL of the progress being made. Parise and Suter have made Minnesota their long-term NHL home. Fletcher traded for Jason Pominville, but it was Pominville who agreed to a contract extension last year to stay with the Wild.

Vanek is good friends with Pominville. Former college teammate Keith Ballard is also on the Wild, another Minnesota native who returned home last year. Vanek talked to Pominville and Ballard, but said he didn’t need a "sales pitch."

Wild 2014 Draft Capsules

Return to Minnesota? Sure. But there were hockey-related reasons too.

"I wanted to join an organization that had a chance to win," Vanek said. "That’s why I was willing to sign for three years and not worry about going higher. I have a lot of belief in myself that I can play for another seven, eight years. So to play for an organization that’s willing to trade for guys, sign guys and wants to win, that’s important."

Fletcher’s makeover was focused on the youth; bringing in players like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jonas Brodin, Darcy Kuemper, Erik Haula and Jason Zucker. Parise and Suter took the development to another level.

One key moment, according to Fletcher, was signing Mikko Koivu to a seven-year contract extension in 2010 when Koivu was a year away from becoming an unrestricted free agent.

"That was our flag in the ground," Fletcher said. "I really believe if we had lost Mikko at that point, we would be competing for top-five picks right now. We would be at the bottom and we wouldn’t have anybody. Zach and Ryan came in here in part because there was a player like Mikko. I think Pominville elected to stay here because of the players that were here prior to him, and now obviously Thomas.

"It’s a great marketplace. We have a great fan base. Ownership has stepped up again and again to that commitment to winning, and I think the players see that. But it takes good players to get good players and we’re starting to get some pretty good players here."

Players who want to be in Minnesota, the "State of Hockey."

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