December 5, 2002
Postcard: A State of Bliss

I got an offer I could not refuse. Two hockey games in two cities on one day. Is there a better way to spend the day after Thanksgiving? Couldn't think of one, so I decided to embark on the doubleheader. The day would start in St. Paul, where the Minnesota Wild hosted the Colorado Avalanche, and conclude in Minneapolis, site of the Minnesota-Michigan State tilt.

Even as a Minnesota native, I'm sometimes put off by the attitude the state's residents have toward the game of hockey. The game wasn't invented in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but I get the sense the people here feel they perfected it. And they're not afraid to tell you that.

The pervasiveness of this five-holier-than-thou mantra slaps you in the face as soon as you walk into the Xcel Energy Center, the home of the Wild. (As a side note, every hockey fan should take the opportunity to visit this arena. If there's a nicer rink in the country -- no, the world -- I would like to see it. If P. Diddy built a hockey arena, it would be the "X".)

Anyway, upon entering the facility, one becomes extremely familiar with the phrase "State of Hockey", the centerpiece of the Wild's marketing campaign. The slogan not only refers to how the game is woven into the fabric of life in Minnesota, but also alludes to the collective belief of Gopher Staters that they're on the cutting edge of hockey progress.

It occurs to me Michigan, home of the defending Stanley Cup champions, seven Division I teams and more players registered with USA Hockey than any other state, could claim the similar title as could Massachusetts, which boasts the storied Bruins, as slew of Division I teams and a top-notch high school system. But Minnesota got it first, so there.

Walking the concourse, visitors can peruse oversized photographs of area rinks from the 1930s and '40s, read newspaper accounts of state hockey tournament championship games from the 1960s and gaze at sweaters from each of the state's prep teams. After a home team goal, a deep horn blows and fog billows from a lighthouse high above one corner of the rink as its beacon dances around the rink, a nod to Lake Superior, a little more than two hours to the north. I get it -- "State of Hockey", nice tie-in. But it's still a marketing ploy, right?

There were a lot of families at the Xcel Center, at least it seemed that way. Kids of all ages, wearing not just Wild gear, but Gopher jerseys and sweaters from their high school or youth teams, places like Duluth, Red Wing and Apple Valley. Granted, it was an afternoon game, but it was a welcome change of pace from say, Joe Louis Arena, where the demographic is primarily drunken octopus-tossers, or Denver's Pepsi Center, which is usually filled to capacity with nouveau-riche Coloradoans who don't know the difference between Paul Kariya and South Korea.

Kids were also featured on the video that played on the scoreboard as the team took the ice, as was the state's hockey history. The crowd cheered as if attending a game at their hometown high school rink -- let's go WHY-UHLD!!! Then, during the first intermission -- the one featuring a mascot hockey game, as local mini-mites skated during the second break -- came the Wild Anthem.

Rock and Roll Part II this ain't. Set to a tune that sounds like a German drinking song, this ode to Minnesota's hockey greatness features such verses as "The day they try to take this game, Is the day the gloves come off" and "We took our knocks, In the penalty box, Our mother was the referee." Corny as 200 acres of Iowa farmland, it was hard to tell how many fans were actually singing along. But it seemed like the ditty was the state's version of "Kumbaya".

The game had its moments. A 2-2 tie, the contest featured a monster glove save by Patrick Roy 16 seconds into the first period, an Avalanche power-play goal on which the scoring summary (Forsberg from Blake and Sakic) read like a Hall of Fame induction list and a pretty game-tying tally by Antti Laaksonen of the Wild early in the third period. The former University of Denver star picked off a sloppy cross-ice pass in the Colorado end and beat Roy with a backhand.

Before leaving the Xcel Energy Center after the game to make my way to Mariucci, I spent about 15 minutes watching the aforementioned mite team go through a short instructional teaching session with a member of the Wild organization, followed by a scrimmage. The kids were having the time of their young lives, especially during a drill in which the coaches were forced to skate end line to end line if they failed to hit the net from the other end of the ice.

Nice touch, I thought as I departed. I don't know many NHL teams placing that type of emphasis on giving back to youth hockey. Maybe this "State of Hockey" thing isn't as hokey as it seems.

Perhaps the meaning of the game to the state of Minnesota was most accurately -- and unwittingly -- summed up by Wild forward Richard Park, who was born in Seoul, South Kariya...I mean, Korea.

"We are a very close-knit team," said Park, who scored his squad's first goal. "and everyone contributes."

– Mike Eidelbes

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