Friday, August 23, 2019


The Wild welcome fans back

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The Minnesota Wild hockey team took the ice for their home opener Wednesday night at the Xcel Energy Center. They wore special warmup jerseys that read "Wild fans 1." (MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
A record crowd of more than 19,000 fans squeezed into the Xcel Energy Center Wednesday night to see the National Hockey League's return to Minnesota. The Wild treated the home fans to a 6-3 victory over the Calgary Flames in Minnesota's first NHL game since a labor dispute forced cancellation of all of last season.

St. Paul, Minn. — Bob Naegele, the chairman of the Minnesota Wild, won't be specific about how much money his team lost by sitting out an entire season. Instead, Naegele describes the cost by drawing an analogy.

"Let me put it this way," Naegele says. "If you had a beautiful farm with a ranch house, and a barn, and a wonderful white rail fence -- and one morning you woke up and it burned down and you had no insurance. That's what it was like."

Fresh from the ashes of that lost season, Naegele watched as 19,398 hockey fans helped put his farm back in business. That's the largest attendance ever for a Wild home game.

Some of those fans chatted with the team owner and snapped pictures with him on their way into the Wild's St. Paul arena.

Fans like Gene Hetherington of St. Paul seldom miss a Wild home game -- when the games are played, that is.

"Thank God it's back," said Hetherington. "Tonight's like a family reunion. To see people you haven't seen in a year and a half, to renew old friendships, just walking through the gate with the security people. It's really awesome. It's good to have it back."

The NHL is back, but it's not the same game that left us a couple of years ago. The league has adjusted some of its rules and committed to enforcing some others more diligently -- all in the hopes of generating more scoring.

Goals had become more scarce in the NHL, and the thinking around the league was that talented scorers were too often impeded by overly physical defenders, and by rules requiring them to move the puck down the ice in small increments.

In the new NHL, the prohibition on long passes that cross two lines has been lifted. And goaltenders like Minnesota's Dwayne Roloson are limited in how far from the net they can stray to help their defenders. Also, there's been a surge in penalties for obstruction, interference, and hooking as referees try to give would-be scorers more room to maneuver.

Hetherington is one fan who gives the revisions a mixed review.

"Eliminating the (ban on) two-line passes is good," he says. "I like that. It opens up the ice for wide-open passing and more scoring. The crackdown on obstruction, I don't like that. It's part of the game."

Other fans like Terri McGowan of Brooklyn Park don't hesitate to give the changes a thumbs up.

"It looks good," she said. "Actually, they've been scoring a lot more. There's two line passes and Rollie will have to be hanging around the net for a little bit."

When game time finally arrived, Gov. Tim Pawlenty led these hungry Minnesotans in uttering the three little words they'd been longing to hear for so long: Let's Play Hockey!

Less than two minutes after the opening faceoff, the Wild's Marc Chouinard found himself facing an open net, as Calgary's goaltender struggled to get back into position. And a 17-month scoring drought was ended.

After the game, Wild coach Jacques Lemaire emphasized the importance of scoring an early goal.

"It gives you a lift," Lemaire said. "There's no doubt. By scoring the first goal, the fans -- they are behind you. It gives a push to the players."

Minnesota controlled the action through the first period, scoring two goals on 16 shots, while the Flames managed only three shots.

By the middle of the third period the Wild held a 4-1 lead. But Calgary then scored two quick goals and kept sustained pressure on the Minnesota net.

Goaltender Roloson credited some veteran defensemen with helping the Wild's young players maintain their composure.

With just over three minutes remaining, Todd White scored Minnesota's fifth goal. Then, in the game's waning seconds, Chouinard scored into an empty net. It was his third goal of the game, and dozens of caps rained onto the ice in the time-honored hockey tradition that marks a hat trick.

Coach Lemaire agreed after the game that in the old days, Minnesota's 4-1 third period lead would have been pretty iron clad. He says the Calgary comeback that kept the game close is an example of the momentum swings that will be more common under the NHL's new look.

The crowd of 19,000 Minnesotans seemed happy to be looking at an NHL game that could help them bury the ashes of a season that never was.