COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — One week after the Minnesota Wild landed the NHL’s two biggest free agents, their jerseys could be found all over at the Second Annual NHL Charity Game at the Cottage Grove Ice Arena on Wednesday.
Already, Wild fans had purchased the jerseys and T-shirts of forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter and were wearing them proudly as they stood in line for autographs from NHL players.
The list of players participating Wednesday did not include Parise, although the Minnesota native did take part in the inaugural event a year ago. Some of Parise’s new Wild teammates were in attendance this year, however, and they were practically giddy when asked about Minnesota’s new additions.
“I was really pumped,” said Chad Rau, Wild forward and Eden Prairie, Minn., native who made his NHL debut last season. “I think it’s awesome for Minnesota and Minnesota hockey, the whole organization. Especially growing up and being a fan of the Wild, it’s just great for the team.”
Parise and Suter signed identical 13-year, $98 million contracts to play together in Minnesota. While each could have signed for more money elsewhere, the allure of playing together for the Wild appealed to both players.
Prior to their signings, there was plenty of speculation as to where they might land, especially the highly sought-after Parise, arguably the biggest name on the free agent market. Other players admitted to having kept an eye on free agent news surrounding those two.
“A lot of them are your friends. You’ve played against them or played with them so it’s kind of fun to see where guys land,” said event co-host Jeff Taffe, who played briefly for the Wild last season but recently signed with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. “Some of the deals they’re getting now, it’s pretty funny to see.”
Parise and the New Jersey Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals this season, falling to the Los Angeles Kings in the finals. Parise played in all 82 games for the Devils and scored 31 goals and added 38 assists. He also chipped in 15 points in the playoffs (8 goals, 7 assists).
One of the teams Parise and New Jersey beat to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals was the New York Rangers, who were well-represented Wednesday in Cottage Grove. That included one of the event’s co-hosts, Hastings native and Rangers forward Derek Stepan.
“It’s really cool. It’s great for Zach,” Stepan said. “Obviously I’m happy for him. It makes it easier for me because he’s no longer in our division. We don’t have to face him six times a year. It’s definitely something that is cool as a Minnesota kid.”
Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, Stepan’s teammate and fellow Minnesota native, was also at Wednesday’s event. McDonagh drew the tall task of trying to defend Parise during the Eastern Conference Finals.
“He’s a heck of a player,” McDonagh said of Parise. “Wild fans will be ecstatic when they see how consistent he is in his games. That’s what separates him as a player in this league is he’s consistent and he’s always giving 100 percent of an effort and he never takes a night off.”
Wednesday’s event at the Cottage Grove Ice Arena consisted almost entirely of professional players who grew up in Minnesota or played for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Even those that play for other NHL teams know the state of the Wild since the team’s inception in 2000. They’ve made the Western Conference Finals just once and have yet to appear in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The optimism in Minnesota is already abounding after the signings of Parise and Suter, as was evident by the numerous No. 11 and No. 20 jerseys that made their way through the autograph lines. The State of Hockey hopes that adding the highly-touted free agents will help the Wild take a step in that direction.
“I think they really needed it here,” Taffe said. “Obviously, to get two guys like that is phenomenal. It’s just going to complement everybody else on that team, whether it’s (Mikko) Koivu or (Dany) Heatley. It’s impressive. It definitely shows Minnesota people that they want to win. I think that’s what people here at least can respect about it.
“It might not come overnight, but I think they’re making the right moves and the right decisions right now to make a good run at it.”