ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. — As Zach Parise and Ryan Suter made the trek Tuesday afternoon from the ice rink to the locker room at the St. Louis Park Rec Center, they passed a young figure skater with an entire rink to herself, her coach watching observantly from the bleachers.
This is what it’s come to for the two newest members of the Minnesota Wild as they and others wait out the National Hockey League’s lockout.
After signing matching 13-year, $98 million contracts this offseason, Parise, Suter and the rest of the Wild have been forced to find new places to skate due to the current lockout. The NHL’s preseason games have already been canceled and, as recent talks between the players’ association and the league have stalled, there’s an increasingly good chance that regular-season games may also be canceled.
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In the meantime, Parise and Suter will continue to skate several days a week with their new Wild teammates. Joining them on the ice in St. Louis Park were Minnesota forwards Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen and Mikko Koivu, goalie Josh Harding and others, including Minnesota natives Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.
The dozen or so Wild players will do what they can to build chemistry in these two-hour sessions, but they admittedly are eager to resume actual practices at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
When that may happen remains to be seen.
“It is disappointing,” said Suter, who played with Parise for the United States in the 2010 Olympics. “Obviously the players, we want to get out there and play, but we also know that something has to be fixed. We can’t keep going through this every few years to try to come up with something. As players, we want it to be solved right. We want it to be the correct thing for years to come.”
While the NHL lockout has been frustrating for fans and players alike, it’s been particularly frustrating in Minnesota, where the Wild created perhaps more offseason buzz than any other team in the league. After a promising start to the 2011-12 season, the Wild faded down the stretch to finish 35-36-11.
But the acquisitions of Parise and Suter — the offseason’s top two free-agent targets, who signed their identical contracts on the same day in early July — had fans in Minnesota excited. Parise’s No. 11 jersey and Suter’s No. 20 sweater were flying off the shelves in the team’s pro shop at Xcel Energy Center. In a metropolitan area where the rest of the professional teams have largely struggled in recent years, the Wild suddenly became the talk of the town.
At the time of the Parise and Suter signings, a potential lockout seemed to be the furthest thing from any Wild fan’s mind. The sheer euphoria of landing these two prizes had Minnesotans thinking playoffs, something this franchise hasn’t been a part of since 2007-08.
“There’s so much hype and excitement in Minnesota, and for us too,” Suter said. “It is frustrating, but we want what’s best for the players — for every player.”
Added Harding: “Obviously when you add talent like that, you want to get out there and compete. I’ve actually been here for quite a few years now, and this probably is the best lineup we’ve had. We’re itching. We’re excited. But we have to let the process pan out.”
The players and owners are trying to figure out the best way to share the league’s revenues. The last time the two sides had this discussion several years back, the players were given a 57 percent share of the revenue. Now, NHL owners want that number closer to 50 percent.
“It is disappointing. The NHLPA is trying pretty hard to get something done,” said Bouchard, who still isn’t 100 percent after dealing with a concussion last season. “Every offer we make, we’re trying to make it better and better every time and it just seems like they’re getting stubborn and they want to stick to their offer. So we’ll see what happens next.”
For now, all that Parise, Suter and the Wild can do is continue to meet at local rinks, taking part in camps put on by Octagon Hockey. Each day, they hope for some sort of resolution, but they know it’s out of their hands.
“There’s not much you can do, really,” said Parise, a Minnesota native who spent his entire seven-year NHL career in New Jersey before signing with the Wild. “There’s only so many times you can run through the drills and stuff like that. You need to start playing some games and get that competition out there. We’re doing the best with what we’re given right now.”
With each passing day, the players grow increasingly restless. Some have talked about playing overseas until some sort of resolution takes place.
But if there’s one possible perk to the lockout, it’s that the players have some time to do other things that a normal NHL schedule typically wouldn’t allow this time of year.
“My plan was to be up here and skate a few times this week, see the guys and get moved into the house,” said Suter, a Wisconsin native who joined the other Wild players for the first time in their two-hour skating sessions on Tuesday. “Now I go back to Wisconsin and probably do some deer hunting and stuff that I’ve never been able to do. Hopefully it gets ended fast, but in the meantime I’m going to enjoy the fall in Wisconsin.”