When the general manager of a well-heeled NHL club was asked last
month about trading for another team's star who was on the block,
he looked like a man who had bitten into a week-old egg salad
sandwich. "Why would I possibly be interested in him?" the G.M.
sputtered. "He doesn't give a damn. I want players like the
Minnesota Wild has. I want guys who care." ¬∂ Minnesota might have
a roster only slightly less anonymous than a 12-step program and
ice some forwards with hands as hard as a stevedore's, but it
competes with passion in every game. This is the lovably flawed
club that shocked the NHL by advancing to the Stanley Cup
semifinals last season in only its third year. "When fans come
up to me, the first thing they talk about is how hard we play,"
says Wild general manager Doug Risebrough, whose team was not
only the NHL's lowest paid in 2002-03 but also one of its
youngest. "The effort always seems foremost. Then after a
little while they'll congratulate us on our playoff run."
The Wild was an antidote to the toxins that afflicted hockey in
2003, the yellow smiley face lapel pin on the rumpled suit of the
NHL. The game has lately been troubled by a number of things: a
possible prolonged labor stoppage when the collective bargaining
agreement expires next September, a continued dearth of scoring,
shrinking TV ratings, a spate of injuries to marquee players and
the passing of 25-year-old Atlanta Thrashers center Dan Snyder
because of head injuries sustained in a traffic accident on Sept.
29. The litany of sorrows has overwhelmed such transient
pleasures as the subzero fun at the NHL's first regular-season
outdoor game, in Edmonton on Nov. 22, the superb New Jersey
Devils-Ottawa Senators Eastern Conference finals last May and the
breathtaking playoff goaltending of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks'
In the long run the Wild's accomplishments could be more than a
mood brightener for the NHL. The franchise was a reminder of what
hockey used to be and what--once the league gets it economics
under control in the next collective bargaining agreement--it
could become again in perhaps a dozen other cities. Except for a
Stanley Cup, the Wild have it all: a respectable team despite a
middling first third of the 2003-04 season, a lean, $25 million
payroll, a reported $20 million-per-year profit, a swell new
arena and a warm rapport with its hockey-mad community.
It's an easy team to love. The franchise's signature in 2003 was
a magical postseason that included two Game 7 upset victories on
the road. The Wild's leading man during that stretch was not one
of its trivia-answer players but its coach, Jacques Lemaire. The
58-year-old Lemaire, a Hall of Fame center who won eight Cups
with the Montreal Canadiens from 1967-68 through '78-79 and
another as the coach of the Devils in '95, is the heir to Scotty
Bowman as the NHL's wise man.
He is also the most misunderstood man in hockey. While it may be
true that in his perfect world games would be played in
hermetically sealed arenas with no fans or media in attendance
(Lemaire disdains distractions of any sort), it is wrong to
assume that he prefers chalkboard X's and O's to flesh and blood.
Lemaire likes his players, even the bargain-basement irregulars
he has on the Wild, and he revels in their success. He
understands it is his job to put them in position to do well,
which is why that position is usually a 1-2-2 forecheck, the
dreaded goal-denying system known as the trap.
Still, perhaps the most pivotal moment in Minnesota's postseason
came not on the ice but in a hotel ballroom in Denver last April
18. In the first round the Wild was trailing the powerhouse
Colorado Avalanche three games to one and facing elimination at
the hands of a team paying two players, center Peter Forsberg and
goalie Patrick Roy, a combined $18 million, almost as much as the
Wild was paying its entire roster. On that day Lemaire gave his
club, which finished the regular season 42-29-10-1, one last
chance to realize a potential that at that point it seemed like
only he could see. Looking out at his assembled players, he began
speaking in a trademark baritone that rumbles from his
diaphragm--a voice devoid of menace but dripping with portent.
First, Lemaire reminded them of what they had already achieved.
Then he said, "If you quit now, you will deprive yourself of a
chance to find out what's going to happen. Because in sports you
never know." The words reached every man in the room, and
Minnesota won the next three games, including Game 6 in overtime
at home and Game 7 in sudden death in Roy's final NHL match.
The rest of the league was duly impressed. "This isn't a team,"
said Vancouver Canucks general manager Brian Burke, whose club
was set to face Minnesota in the second round. "That's a cult."
But in Game 1 on the road, Minnesota blew a 3-2 lead with 1.2
seconds remaining in regulation and eventually fell in overtime.
The loss seemed devastating at the time, but Lemaire greeted it
with a Gallic shrug. "I think we can find a way [to win the
series]," he said the following afternoon, calmly puffing on a
cigar before boarding the team bus for practice.
The Wild did find a way. After falling behind the Canucks three
games to one, Minnesota came back to win the series, becoming the
first NHL team to rally twice from that deficit in one
postseason. The long, exhausting run caught up with Minnesota in
the Western Conference finals when the Mighty Ducks whipped the
Wild in four straight games. But by then Minnesota had already
made its mark, and the franchise was well ahead of the schedule
plotted by the club's management.
Risebrough, who was an abject failure as the general manager of
the Calgary Flames from May 16, 1991, through Nov. 2, 1995,
discovered it was easier to build a franchise than to change one.
In Minnesota he did it along mathematical lines. Follow the
sports math closely. In the NBA, as Risebrough points out,
Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson might play 44 of 48 minutes
on an average night, handle the ball on most of the Sixers'
possessions and take 25 shots per game. Meanwhile, the Wild's
most gifted player, 21-year-old right wing Marian Gaborik, might
play 18 of 60 minutes, have the puck on his stick perhaps a
minute of that time and take about three shots per game. In
hockey these days the impact of any one player, short of a
franchise goaltender, is relatively modest compared with other
sports. With this in mind Risebrough acted accordingly. He built
a speedy team that was low on ego and high on eagerness.
Minnesota peddles the game, not the stars. Indeed, the team stood
firm while its best scorers, Gaborik and wing Pascal Dupuis, held
out early this season in contract disputes. This might have been
a calamitous approach in many markets, but not in sensible-shoe,
hockey-savvy Minnesota, which has filled every seat for every
game in the 18,064-capacity Xcel Energy Center since the Wild's
One day the Wild may lose its grip on Minnesota. The players
could get jaded or Lemaire may retire and slip away to his boat
in Orlando--or Risebrough could make a wacky trade-deadline deal,
a victim of fans' rising expectations for a championship, and
throw the franchise off course. But last spring the Wild made
hockey bloom, and that will never be forgotten.
COLOR PHOTO: ELSA/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES WILD RIDE Led by Gaborik, Minnesota twice fought back from 3-1series deficits to advance to the Western Conference finals.