ST. PAUL, Minn. — April 22, 2003 was the biggest date in the on-ice history of the Minnesota Wild, when Andrew Brunette slipped a puck past three-time Conn Smythe Trophy winner Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche.
In the first playoff appearance in the organization’s history, Minnesota beat Colorado, which had won the Stanley Cup twice in the previous seven years, and Roy, perhaps the greatest playoff goaltender of all-time, in the best-of-seven quarterfinals. With Brunette’s Game 7 overtime goal, the Wild were in the national spotlight for the first time since being named an expansion franchise in 1999.
Minnesota later advanced to the Western Conference finals in just its third season of existence, before losing to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Two more playoff appearances over the next eight years, though, caused the Wild to fade back into NHL obscurity.
All of that changed on July 4, 2012 — the biggest off-ice day in team history.
By signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter on Wednesday, the two biggest prizes in free agency in a package deal, Minnesota flipped the NHL on its head, once again thrusting itself back into the national spotlight for the first time in years.
“This is a great day in the history of the Minnesota Wild,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said.
After four straight seasons without a playoff appearance, the Wild were merely an afterthought year to year. Despite cap room, hometown connections and a staff desperate to pull out all of the stops to sign Parise or Suter, Minnesota’s interest in the coveted free agents was dismissed fairly easily by most national analysts. The Wild were only given a passing mention to the Parise and Suter suitors, well behind the NHL heavyweights like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and others.
Parise and Suter didn’t see it the same way though, and that’s all that really mattered. Because of their decisions, Minnesota now has the attention of everyone in hockey.
The fan base has been re-energized. The Wild had to call in help on a holiday to man the phone lines for season-ticket sales. An already promising future thanks to several elite prospects has received an unprecedented boost thanks to two All-Stars, perhaps the biggest free-agent signings in Minnesota history. Not just limited to the Wild, perhaps the biggest in all of Minnesota pro sports history.
The Wild didn’t just bring in a top free agent. They attracted the two biggest free agents the NHL in the same offseason. Parise, 27, is a five-time 30-goal scorer. His career-best season in 2008-09 equated to 45 goals and 49 assists. Last year, he had 31 goals and 38 assists in the regular season and added eight goals and seven assists as captain for a New Jersey Devils team that advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. Suter, 27, will add a veteran influence to stabilize a young Minnesota blue line. The all-around defenseman had his best offensive season last year with seven goals and 39 assists and he was a plus-35 the past two seasons for the Nashville Predators.
“I don’t think you ever go into it assuming you’re going to land both of them,” Fletcher said. “But certainly we shot for the moon. We tried our best and, again, fortune smiled upon us and they elected to come to Minnesota and we’re very pleased with that.”
The roots of the monumental events on July 4, 2012 can be traced back to another pivotal, yet understated, day in Wild history.
On May 22, 2009, owner Craig Leipold hired Fletcher to turn around the struggling organization that had just missed the playoffs after Leipold’s first year as owner. The talent base had been sapped by several years of failed first-round draft picks. The NHL team was led by the only true superstar in the history of the team, Marian Gaborik, who was headed to free agency and eventually left for the New York Rangers.
But Fletcher started to formulate his plan for rebuilding the Wild. Two strong draft classes and difficult decisions, such as trading franchise stalwart defenseman Brent Burns, were included in the plan.
The final piece was the pursuit of Parise and Suter. A pursuit no one outside of Minnesota gave Fletcher much of a chance of finishing. That was before Parise, Suter, Fletcher and Leipold shook the NHL.
Fletcher’s foresight and vision has altered the direction of the Wild and perception of the organization around the league. And a slumbering fan base has been revitalized in the process.
“These signings will resonate well with our fans,” Fletcher said. “Our goal wasn’t to make a splash. It was to make us better.”
With Leipold, Fletcher, Parise and Suter together, Minnesota will likely be adding more important dates in team history.