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Wild return
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Fans of the Minnesota Wild can look forward to a new NHL hockey season this fall, after the league and players union agreed in principle on a new contract Wednesday. (MPR file photo)
Word that the National Hockey League and the players' union reached a tentative agreement today is welcome news to the Minnesota Wild and many St. Paul business leaders. If ratified by both sides, the six-year agreement would ensure the start of a regular hockey season this fall. The dispute resulted in a 300-day lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-2005 season. The team and businesses say they're hoping fans return.

St. Paul, Minn. — Wild officials greeted word of the agreement to end the labor dispute with relief and a number of questions for the season ahead. A year ago the team was seen as a potential playoff contender. Now, with draft picks still in the air, the probability of player salary caps and an unknown reaction from loyal Wild fans, General Manager Doug Risebrough says the team will need to reconnect with the community and reenergize the fans.

"The fans can expect consistancy, they can expect a team they'll be proud of, a place they can feel comfortable in, a franchise that responds to the community," he said.

Risebrough says team officials still don't know many of the agreement's details, but they're optimistic it'll end the dispute.

"In here in the office it was truly a chance to start doing things. We've done a lot of planning a lot of talking and now it probably means execution. There's a lot of people in this company that's really passionate about the game and they're happy for the game," Risebrough said.

Outside of the rink, perhaps nowhere in Minnesota is as attuned to the professional hockey season as a community of sports bars, restaurants and other businesses near the Xcel Energy Center where the Wild play.

Ellen Watters is with the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, which analyzed the Wild's impact on the local economy. The study says Wild fans bring some $23 million into St. Paul during the course of a hockey season. She says the local economy didn't fold during the labor dispute, but it could have been a lot better.

"We have a lot going on that I don't think we lost too much momentum. But on the other hand, 44 home games a year have a tremendous impact. There were 44 nights that we didn't have hockey. We might have had some other things but clearly hockey is important to us and that's why we're glad to have it coming back," she said.

The Xcel Energy Center is the predominant landmark visible from the Eagle Street Bar and Grill on West 7th Street. Owner Joe Kasel and his business partner renovated the former antique shop two and a half years ago and so have had one season with hockey and one without.

"You could take any hockey night, any night of the week, and times it by seven or eight on your best Friday or Saturday night. That's the impact that hockey has," he said.

Because the cancelled season, Kasel says he's had to lay off more than half his employees. He's also had to make financing agreements with suppliers and work a lot more.

"You do what you have to to survive. If you gotta work 80-90-100 hours a week you do it. I had a period there from January to April where I saw my daughter (minimally) and it hurt, but I mean I had to be here, I had to work in order to keep the door open. I put everything I had and everything I owned into this and so did my business partner, said Kasel.

Owning the bar and grill is a dream of Kasel's, but he says the past year was an unwelcome lesson in the challenge of restaurant ownership.

"No M.B.A. course could teach you this," he said. "You could go to any school and it's totally different. The hockey strike was not in our proforma as I tell the bank."

Kasel is glad to hear the news of the agreement, but like any good businessman, he's not celebrating until the deal is signed.

"When it will really sink in is moment I gotta bar tend before a hockey game and that first green jersey or that first green, red, white hat walks in the door," he said.

The Wild have more than 16 thousand season ticket holders, nearly all of them renew every year. Officials say they will have to wait until the labor agreement is finalized before setting the next season's prices. Then they'll have a better idea of how many fans will be coming back.

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