ST. PAUL, Minn. — Zach Isenor was one of the thousands of fans to show up at the Xcel Energy Center Wednesday night, courtesy of the free tickets given away by the Minnesota Wild. He waited in line, like many others, for the chance to enter the Hockey Lodge and purchase team gear that was 50 percent off during Minnesota’s “Wild Wednesday” promotion.
For Isenor, who lives in South St. Paul, there was no doubt his fandom wasn’t going to change despite the NHL’s lockout.
“Didn’t sway us at all,” Isenor said Wednesday during the free intrasquad scrimmage.
But Isenor has seen the other effects of a lockout. The Minnesota native lived in Florida when the NHL went through a lockout in 2004-05 that wiped out the entire season. Isenor enjoys hockey, so he returned then, just as he has now. But Isenor said many fans didn’t return, at least not immediately, in the sunbelt.
“It wasn’t the same deal,” Isenor said. “It was an empty stadium. You were there kind of just because it was hockey. In Minnesota, hockey’s a different animal.”
Yes it is.
As part of a weeklong training camp, the Wild had their minor-league team, the Houston Aeros, in Minnesota to help prepare for the season, which kicks off with a home game against the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night. Combining Houston’s team with the Wild’s training camp roster, Minnesota had a full scrimmage Wednesday night, pitting a Red vs. White team, and handed out free tickets. More than 13,000 fans made their way to the arena for the scrimmage.
“It was great to come out there for warm-up and see that many fans and to come out for the starting lineup to see it even more packed in,” said defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who scored two goals in the scrimmage and added a score in the shootout. “It was awesome to see we still have that support even though we have that long wait.”
The excitement reached a fever pitch last summer when Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter were the top two free agents and created a frenzy in which there were probably more teams linked to the two stars than not. But it was Minnesota that snagged both of the free-agent prizes. Interest in the Wild was as high as it had been since 2003, when the team made a run to the Western Conference finals.
Then the lockout took hold, and Minnesota had to wait months to see Parise and Suterin Wild sweaters for the first time since their introductory press conferences.
The fans got that chance Wednesday. The scrimmage began with the customary “Let’s Play Hockey,” but this time it was more symbolic. The Wild actually had their team on the ice ready to play hockey.
“Pretty excited, glad for it to finally be back,” said Shawn Westling, from Shakopee. “Been waiting for it.”
Westling is on the Wild’s season-ticket waiting list. He didn’t purchase tickets right away.
“Been waiting for them to come back before I bought,” Westling said.
Single-game tickets went on sale at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Pat Vos, from Minneapolis, didn’t want to lose his shot to buy single-game tickets. He was in line, waiting in the Xcel Center lobby, at 8:15 a.m. Tuesday. He arrived so early that arena security wasn’t sure where to make him wait. After some phone calls, he was eventually allowed into the lobby and was set up with his folding chair, where he waited patiently.
Vos, who says his claim to fame is being the first person in line for single-game tickets five straight years, took Tuesday evening off work at the University of Minnesota to begin his wait.
“It was a tough pill to swallow there at first,” Vos said of the lockout. “Nobody wanted to believe it, especially this being the State of Hockey and stuff. I was finding myself with a lot of idle time not going to the games.”
But Vos returned as soon as the Wild did and knew Minnesota fans would follow.
“I think Minnesota fans are pretty much on board with coming back,” Vos said. “I would think 90 percent, as opposed to some of the slower teams down south. This is a hockey mecca, pretty much, so to speak. If fans don’t come back here, they wouldn’t come back anywhere I wouldn’t think.”
Such as Florida. Isenor has seen what can happen in areas where the game isn’t adored as it is in Minnesota. However, he is happy for any season, even if it’s a condensed, crazy 48 games in 99 days.
“The team’s the real deal this year,” Isenor said. “I understand (fans being upset with the lockout), but I think this environment and this atmosphere is so fun that you can’t give up on it. How can you? I don’t know. That’s my feeling.”