Once upon a time, long before $98 million contracts were given to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and years before the Wild commonly handed out mega-million, multiyear deals to core players, the longest, most lucrative contract in franchise history went to Nick Schultz.

In 2008, when Schultz was only 25 but already had six years of experience, he represented the culture Doug Risebrough created in Minnesota. He didn’t have the lightning speed or lethal wrist shot of a Marian Gaborik, the huge slap shot of a Brian Rolston, but Schultz was a gamer. He was a well-positioned defenseman who’d block shots and could be trusted by Jacques Lemaire during stressful situations.

Schultz’s value was mostly intangible — leadership, steadiness, durability, reliability, character, and he was awarded a six-year, $21 million contract because of it. Wild assistant coach Andrew Brunette, Schultz’s teammate twice, still remembers him as a 19-year-old who “matured into an incredible teammate, leader, husband and father.”

“He was a really underrated player that you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone,” Brunette said. “He just unassumingly does his job. His work ethic, the way he treated everybody — trainers, fans, media, just a solid, solid person and player.”

The first draft pick in Wild history was Gaborik. The second was Schultz. Not bad considering that Jan. 13 when his Philadelphia Flyers host the Bruins, Schultz, 33, the all-time leader in games played in Wild history with 743, is due to play in his 1,000th game. His 998th should come Thursday in St. Paul against the Wild.

Schultz’s career hasn’t been flashy, but it’s been very successful.

“When you’re starting out, you never think you can play 1,000 games in the NHL,” Schultz said. “It’s just a privilege to be playing. To get an opportunity to play this long and be a part of this league, it’s a special feeling and something I’m proud of.”

When Schultz was traded to Edmonton in 2012, he was the longest-tenured pro athlete in Minnesota.

Minnesota was Schultz’s home for 10 years. He played in a conference final here, his appendix erupted here, he bought his first home here, he unexpectedly lost his father, Robert, while playing here, his wife, Jessica, gave birth to all three of their children in Minnesota and Schultz got to take his dad and two brothers, Kris and Terrance, on three father-son trips and his mother, Carol, on the team’s lone mother-son trip.

He basically grew up in Minnesota and credits his career to Risebrough believing in him and Lemaire and assistant coach Mike Ramsey teaching him.

“The reason I have been able to play so long is learning from those guys at such a young age how to play the position and how to play it properly,” Schultz said.

And Schultz will forever be considered one of the most respected and popular Wild teammates.

“He’s probably one of the better professionals that I have ever played with,” said captain Mikko Koivu, Schultz’s former roommate who is 26 games from breaking his Wild record for games played. “He took care of himself, prepared always the right way and always was ready to go when it was game time.

“He didn’t get recognized probably as much as he should have, but in the room, we valued the way he played the game and sacrificed for his teammates. … He’s just a first-class guy.”

That stems from growing up in Strasbourg, Saskatchewan, a town of 800, where his father was a grain farmer and his mom was once the mayor.

“Mum and dad worked so hard for everything they had,” Schultz said. “Those values were instilled in me as a young kid, and it helped having two older brothers looking out for you. But I’m a reflection of having two great parents that raised me and got me to where I am now.”

Schultz one of the good guys

I’ve got several Nick Schultz stories, but my favorite came in January 2012 coincidentally after Matt Cullen’s party to celebrate his 1,000th game at the Downtowner in St. Paul.

I had gone to Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub after a game and parked in the same lot as the players. An hour later, backing out of my parking space, I smacked into the front of a car. I get out and much to my horror, it was a Black Porsche.

As I’m inspecting the scratched hood, I look up and see Jared Spurgeon and his dad, Barry. I sheepishly go, “Whose car did I just hit?” I remember thinking, “Please say Schultzy or Cully,” the two nicest guys on the team because I without a doubt knew there were a couple players I definitely didn’t want Spurgeon to say.

He goes, “I think … … … Schultzy. … I’ll go get him.” As Spurgeon ran across West 7th, I yelled, “Spurge, … uh, uh, don’t make a scene.”

About a minute later, I could hear Schultz laughing as he crossed the street once he realized Spurgeon wasn’t playing a joke on him. Before he even looked at his car, Schultz told me to go home. As I profusely apologized, he just laughed and said not to worry. For the next three weeks, I offered to pay for the damages. For the next three weeks, he told me, “Stop worrying about it. It’s no big deal.”

I’m not just saying this because he let me off scot-free, Nick Schultz is one of the most decent human beings I have covered in 21 years as an NHL beat writer.

WILD’S WEEK AHEAD

Sunday: 5 p.m. at Florida

Tuesday: 6 p.m. at Columbus

Thursday: 7 p.m.vs. Philadelphia

Saturday: 7 p.m. at Dallas

 

Player to watch:

Ryan Johansen, Blue Jackets

The young center, who was 16th in the NHL last season in scoring, has been in John Tortorella’s doghouse since he took over as coach and is the subject of tons of trade rumors.

VOICES

“It’s Edina here, so I think they’ve got fire pits and, who knows, the ground’s heated probably.”

— Thomas Vanek on how the fans probably weren’t that cold at last week’s Wild outdoor practice.