By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
Growing up in the Minneapolis area, I wasn’t always a hockey fan. I was raised on the other three major sports, mostly because all the male authority figures in my life had never played the game before. I moved from Dallas to Minnesota in 1991, the year the North Stars shocked everyone and made the Stanley Cup Finals. Everybody was swept up in Cup fever, and even though I had no idea what I was talking about, I bet my first grade classmates that Pittsburgh would beat the North Stars in the Finals.
Why? I thought the Penguins had the coolest jerseys and I liked their mascot.
Gradually however, I grew to become a hockey fan. The North Stars were still popular and my friends and I would play roller hockey in our neighborhood pretending to be Mike Modano, Jon Casey or Neal Broten. However, a tragedy occurred in 1993: Norm Green took away a little bit of my childhood and moved the North Stars to Dallas – despite the fact that the North Stars were selling out every game and every kid I knew owned team merchandise.
My blossoming enthusiasm for hockey dwindled. I would still play with my friends, but it just wasn’t the same. I would tune into the Cup Finals every year, but it would take me at least three games before I got up to speed on who was on each team. Hockey was almost nonexistent in my life.
That changed in 2000 when the Wild began playing down the road in St. Paul. Kids in the Twin Cities finally had a team to cheer for again. I quickly became a fan and four years ago, I became a fanatic.
I had just started my freshman year at North Dakota, where the hockey bug was firmly implanted in my brain, when the Wild began a miraculous run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Instead of studying for finals, I would stay up late every night watching Minnesota go on to upset the Avalanche, then the Canucks in the second round. When Andrew Brunette beat Patrick Roy in overtime of Game 7, my entire dorm exploded in joy. Even though the Wild got swept by Anaheim in the third round, it was one of the best times of my life.
From there, it’s been a bad road for the Wild. A brief glimmer of success in 2007 – when they won the Northwest Division – quickly disappeared when Anaheim basically ran them over in the first round. With the exception of the 2003 and 2007 seasons, the Wild have mostly finished in the bottom of their division.
The 2011-12 season could be another out-of-the-blue successes. The Wild currently sit in first place and have the best record in the NHL. They are winning both at home as well as on the road. Not only that, they are winning despite scoring just 69 goals, tied with Dallas and Calgary for 21st in the NHL. Nine Wild players are in double digits for points with Mikko Koivu leading the way with 23 (Koivu also leads the Wild in assists with 18) and five players tied for the team lead in goals with eight. Goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are also having solid seasons with GAAs of 2.15 and 2.05 as well as save percentages of .929 and .934. Backstrom also has two assists and two shutouts while Harding has one shutout. The team is riding its third five-game winning streak of the season into Thursday night’s game in Los Angeles.
Will the Wild’s success last? It’s too early to tell. They are off to a great start and their only real competition in the division so far has come from Vancouver. However, it is a long season and the real test will come after the All-Star break, when the push for the playoffs heats up.
In addition to becoming a huge Wild fan at North Dakota, I also became a fan of Canadian hockey. Grand Forks is only about two hours from Winnipeg, so CBC and Hockey Night in Canada became a Saturday night ritual for me. (As an aside, when it’s minus-60 outside and you don’t feel like freezing your nether regions walking to a frat party down the road, your options for entertainment are limited). As I sat watching the games, I often wished that Winnipeg would get an NHL team while I was at school because that would be an awesome road trip. It didn’t happen. (In theory, we still could have road tripped to Winnipeg to watch the Manitoba Moose, but who crosses the Canadian border to watch an AHL team?)
Even though it didn’t happen while I was at UND, it did happen while I was in graduate school. Words cannot express the joy I felt when I turned on ESPN over the summer and found out the Atlanta Thrashers were moving to Winnipeg. I was on cloud nine the rest of the day. Throughout the season, I’ve tried to follow the Jets. They’re my second team.
So how are the Jets doing? The jury is still out. Currently, the Jets sit in third place in the Southeast Division (thankfully the NHL will fix this geographical error next season through realignment) at 11-11-4 after beating defending Stanley Cup champs Boston at home for its second three-game winning streak of the season. At the same time, the Jets are skidding on the road, where they are allowing more goals than they score. There is also a huge scoring disparity: Evander Kane leads the team in goals with 14 and points with 21; Andrew Ladd is second with a distant nine goals. This could be a problem later in the season if the Jets try to make a playoff push.
Playoffs or not, hockey fans can delight in the fact that a city that loves the sport like a religion has the NHL back in town, while a team who gave its own fans a retired number for the rafters is currently the best team in the league.