The office was supposed to be empty.
After all, it was July 4th. Parades snaked through streets across the Twin Cities, and boats huddled in suburban waters underneath an unrelenting sun; the temperature hit a record 101 degrees.
But by afternoon, more than 30 employees showed up at the Wild’s headquarters in St. Paul. They arrived from the golf course and the lake, still decked out in shorts, to answer phones that wouldn’t stop ringing. They fielded more than 1,000 calls inquiring about season tickets that day in 2012 — a response to the news the team had secured the two most coveted free agents in the NHL.
“The energy was palpable in the office,” Wild President Matt Majka said. “[Employees] wanted to come be part of it even if they didn’t work in customer service or ticket sales. It was really a unifying and transformative day for the organization.”
Almost six years have elapsed since the Wild made the biggest news in franchise history by signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts.
Not only did interest in the team soar in the aftermath, with the business operation thriving, but the Wild bolstered its competitiveness after a postseason drought.
For the first six years, the payoff has been a spot in the playoffs ... but that has been followed by struggles, with only two first-round victories.
And the next seven seasons are uncertain; both players are 33 and have suffered serious injuries. There’s a risk of poorer play as they age, and diminished financial flexibility for the team under the strains of the contracts.
Still, there’s great optimism on both sides.
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it in a second,” said owner Craig Leipold. “They changed the dynamics of our team for the better, and it’s one of those moves in life if you don’t make that decision to get both of them, I would have regretted it my entire life.”
Said Parise: “I will never have a regret for the reason I got to spend a lot more time with my dad. So I’ll never have a regret for being able to be close to him and with him at the end where anywhere else I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. I’ll never regret it.”
Boon for business
The Wild was in a rut. It hadn’t been in the playoffs in four years, and Leipold felt the roster was missing a marquee player. He also sensed fans questioning the franchise’s commitment to winning.
Season-ticket sales were at their lowest in team history; the Wild doesn’t publicly reveal its totals, but it was thousands below capacity, which was shy of 16,500 at that time.
There was also an uptick in competition. TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus opened in 2009; a year later, the Twins opened Target Field. Demand for Wild tickets sagged — until Parise and Suter came on board.
“We knew that we would sell every ticket to every game plus standing room only,” Leipold said.
The team sold more than 4,000 season tickets the rest of the summer. That base has since changed to a lower number, to funnel more people through Xcel Energy Center, but it hasn’t shrunk from its limit and there’s a waiting list.
Merchandise sales, corporate sponsorships and TV ratings also spiked, growth Majka said the team has been able to sustain.
“Everywhere we looked, there was evidence of the impact of Ryan and Zach,” he said.
Climbing the standings
Improvements on the ice were also significant.
In six seasons with Parise and Suter, the Wild has yet to miss the playoffs. The team ranks in the top 10 in wins (247) and points (547) during that time.
A core of talented youth and reliable veterans also helped make these strides, but Parise and Suter were the catalysts.
Parise ranks 13th among NHL left wingers in points (275) since his arrival. Only five have a better goals-per-game average (.38). He’s also eighth in game-winning goals (27) and seventh in average minutes (19:03).
“When he gets on the ice,” Leipold said, “there’s no one that works harder.”
No one has logged more ice time in the NHL than Suter since he assumed the No. 1 spot on the Wild’s defense, as he’s averaged a league-high 28 minutes, 4 seconds per game. He tied for the NHL lead in plus-minus in 2016-17 and sits second in defensive point shares (estimated number of points contributed by a player due to his defense) among active blue-liners.
“He’s worth every penny that we pay him,” Leipold said.
The team also noticed their presence boosted the Wild’s appeal around the league, helping its ensuing offseason pursuits.
“It really put us on the map,” said Brent Flahr, senior vice president of hockey operations. “We became a destination where players really wanted to play, which I don’t think we had before.”
While these contributions certainly point to a serviceable six-year start, the effectiveness of the remaining seven years is likely to come into question.
A barrage of injuries has hammered Parise since he slipped on a Wild sweater. Most recently, he missed the first half of last season amid back problems and was sidelined the final two playoff games in the spring after suffering a fractured sternum.
“That’s kind of been unfortunate,” said Parise, who’s training this summer as normal and expects to report to training camp without any lingering issues. “But I’m hoping and pretty confident that everything is behind [me].”
Suter didn’t miss a game because of injury during his stint with the Wild until March, when he sustained a severe ankle injury, shattering his talus and the outside of his right fibula. He was still in a walking boot last week, rehabbing for 2½ hours every morning before working out for an hour, and is hopeful he’ll be ready for the season opener.
“I feel like I’ll be able to recover, and the doctor seems to think I’ll be 100 percent,” he said.
Both players have gone through the difficult losses of their famous fathers. Bob Suter, a member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team, died at his hockey rink in Middleton, Wis., because of a heart attack in September 2014. Four months later, former North Stars fan favorite J.P. Parise succumbed to cancer.
And their families have grown. Becky Suter and Alisha Parise both had babies this year, giving the Suters four children and the Parises three.
Having two 33-year-olds under contract for the next seven seasons at an approximately $7.5 million cap hit could stymie management’s ability to add to the roster, a legitimate team concern. Performance also tends to deteriorate with age. The two will be 40 when the deals expire; only two players in their 40s appeared consistently in the NHL last season.
But what seems to ease any concerns is the Wild’s belief the risks were worth the returns and the duo are still in their prime.
“As long as Zach and Ryan continue to have that desire for the ultimate goal,” Leipold said, “then they’re going to be major contributors between now and the end of their contracts.
“Both of these guys are even more hungry than they were six years ago.”
Holding out hope
Only twice with Parise and Suter in the mix has the Wild advanced past the first round of the playoffs, but Leipold is confident the window to capture a Stanley Cup is still open.
So are Parise and Suter.
“We still have some years to go on our contracts,” Suter said. “Hopefully with a little change we can have a chance at it.”
What encourages the Wild is each player’s track record.
When he’s been able to play, Parise has been productive. In 42 games in 2017-18, he scored 15 goals — which would have translated to 29 in 82 games.
Suter has a history of staying healthy through his 13 years, and last season was also arguably his best as a member of the Wild; he set the franchise record for assists in a season for a defenseman with 45 and tied his career high in points at 51.
“[I’m] like a fine wine, maybe,” Suter joked.
Their contracts could become cumbersome. Leipold was uncomfortable with the 13-year term, but since other teams were offering that commitment during negotiations, Leipold felt the Wild had to as well to have a chance.
The contracts were signed shortly before a four-month NHL lockout that changed salary and buyout rules in the league. Leipold said, however, he will never cut ties with Parise and Suter while they’re under contract.
And amid rising salaries, it’s possible the deals become more advantageous as they progress — particularly Suter’s, since the premium on top blue-liners is escalating.
Other elite defensemen carry cap hits of $7.875 million (Victor Hedman), $8 million (Brent Burns), $9 million (P.K. Subban) and $11 million (Drew Doughty).
Pros and cons also exist for players signing hefty contracts; while they do offer security, the trade-off is typically pressure and scrutiny. There’s also the chance they hitch themselves to a team that just doesn’t win.
Neither Parise nor Suter regrets the decision to choose the Wild, they say, but the lack of postseason success is glaring.
“The hard part has been the other teams that I was looking at have either won the Cup or been in the finals,” Parise said. “So that’s a little frustrating to say the least.”
That void also affects how Leipold views the past six years.
“Until we as a team win the Stanley Cup,” he said, “I don’t think any one of us will say we’re happy with the way things have developed.”
But he has hope that the Wild can still capture a title with Parise and Suter as franchise cornerstones, a pursuit that may end up defining how fruitful the next seven years are while also shaping the ultimate legacy of their tenures with the team.
“The stories are unwritten yet,” Leipold said. “So I think there’s more chapters to this great story, and I fully believe that it will end with a Stanley Cup.”