Zach Parise has the same routine before every game.
After taking a saw and cutting the knobs of his sticks, after fiddling with the blades and the tape, the Wild’s leader grabs his iPod, tiptoes down the tunnel and into an almost empty arena, sits in the middle of the Wild bench and places one of those Easton composites across his lap.
From there, Parise will spend five or 10 minutes examining every square inch of the ice. He’ll look left, he’ll look right. He’ll look in the corners, to the front of the net, to the faceoff circles. He performs the same mental exercise before every single game.
He’s always alone on that bench. Saturday night though, he looked really alone.
Parise is playing through immense pain right now. Not physical pain, but emotional pain. The stress he’s under, the burden he’s playing with, the sorrow he’s feeling is written across his face anytime you look at him.
J.P. Parise, the beloved former North Star and husband to Donna and father to Zach and older brother, Jordan, is in dire straits. Diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer last January, J.P. spent a month in the hospital earlier this fall due to the effects of chemotherapy.
He finally said enough to the chemo that was causing him so much discomfort and sickness. In the past few weeks, the 73-year-old has deteriorated.
“It’s hard to watch,” Zach Parise said Saturday night, a half-hour after the Wild suffered the worst loss he has experienced during his three seasons with Minnesota — a six-goal defeat at the hands of the relocated franchise for which his father used to star.
Leaning against a wall near the Wild team bus, wearing a blue suit with a backpack flung over his shoulder, Parise tried to convey what he’s going through.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life,” Parise, 30, said. “You try and find that separation, you try to come here and be around the guys and not think about it, and Yeozie [coach Mike Yeo] has been really good and the team’s been really good giving me the day off [Thursday], saying basically, ‘Just show up for games.’
“They’ve been really supportive about it, but the hard part about it is you try to go to the rink and forget about stuff, but the hard part is … this was kind of our thing.”
Parise’s eyes welled and turned red.
“Hockey was our thing,” Parise said. “Him coming to every game or watching every game and talking to him after every game and talking hockey, that’s not there anymore.
‘‘So, so … it’s been tough.”
The Wild has been treading water for six weeks. It has lost 12 of its past 19 games and is digging itself deep into a standings abyss. Despite the season-long strain Parise is enduring, he has still managed to lead the team with 30 points in 32 games, a points per game ratio of .94 that ranks 22nd in the NHL. But after Saturday’s 7-1 loss, Parise beat himself up over his recent play.
Yeo said that’s unfair. He also admitted that the Wild’s play the past six weeks is eating himself up partly because hockey has not been the type of escape it should be for Parise or teammate Ryan Suter, who is experiencing the holidays for the first time without his father, Bob, who died of a heart attack days before training camp.
Yeo said the rink should be a place where Parise feels good, not worse.
“We feel incredibly bad for him and what he’s going through,” Yeo said. “I have so much respect for the way he’s coming to the rink and everything he’s trying to put in to help our group. What’s disappointing for me, right now there’s more stress here.
“I would hope we could turn things around here quickly so when he comes here, it’s hard to completely escape it, but at least he could have some good feelings here to help rather than make him hurt more.”
At this point though, Parise says there’s really no place for him to hide.
“I don’t know how else to put it: it’s been brutal,” Parise said. “It’s been brutal for my mom. You go and see him and you see how he is and the pain that he’s going through, there’s no escaping it, there’s no dodging it.
“I’m trying to find ways to cope with it and I’m not doing a good job. I’m not going to lie, it’s not easy. It’s just always there. Just can’t hide from it. I just hate to see him suffering.
‘‘He doesn’t deserve it.”