Tuesday was one of those Minnesota nights when human beings were not meant to get more than a few feet away from a fireplace. Once arrived at home, anyone choosing to venture out again was a candidate to be institutionalized.
This bow to sanity was on display at Williams Arena, where the Gophers’ much-publicized “blackout” for the Big Ten home opener vs. Ohio State attracted an official attendance of 13,185, well below the 14,625 capacity.
Across town, the Wild was playing San Jose in the Xcel Energy Center. The Wild had won only two of its past nine games and was coming off a 7-1 humiliation in Dallas. There was much disgruntlement being expressed on talk radio and in public responses on various articles and blogs.
If they heard or viewed the negative words, the hockey consumers were not swayed. Forty minutes before faceoff, the skyway across Kellogg Boulevard and the atrium at the arena were filled with the usual sight:
Mom, Dad and two kids, somewhere between 6 and 12, all featuring Wild jerseys, smiling, chatting and undisturbed that the family fund was about to take a hit of $300, give or take a couple of 20s.
The attendance was announced at 19,043. This was the 19th home game and the 19th time the Wild had announced more than the official capacity of 17,954. The average attendance at the midpoint of the schedule is 18,958.
Matt Majka, the Wild’s chief operating officer, was asked if much ticket inventory remains for the second half of the home schedule.
“There are selected games, in late March and early April, with some tickets remaining,” Majka said. “We would anticipate, unless something unforeseen were to happen, that we will sell out the entire home schedule.”
The unforeseen would be for the Wild to completely drop from the playoff picture. That’s difficult to achieve in the modern NHL, with the points for overtime and shootout losses having a tendency to create a large middle in the standings.
It is not accurate to say this is part of a nonstop 15-year honeymoon for the Wild and Minnesota’s hockey audience. The Wild had missed the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season in 2012. The jersey-wearing families from Woodbury were figuring out something else to do with those 300 bucks.
“We were at all-time low in season tickets, and in ticket sales in general,” Majka said. “And it wasn’t going to get better, without a dramatic change.”
The change came on July 4, 2012, when owner Craig Leipold approved the $196 million commitment to sign Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Since that Independence Day, the Wild has gone from a first honeymoon with fans that was the equivalent of a weekend in Duluth, to a second honeymoon that’s been a week in the Turks and Caicos.
The good feelings of the Parise and Suter signings survived a lockout and a five-game playoff elimination by the Blackhawks in April 2013. There were 25 sellouts for the 41 regular-season games in 2013-14.
Then came a lively spring, with the comeback vs. Colorado in the first round, and a stout, six-game stand vs. the Blackhawks, and now there’s this:
“Season-ticket sales are almost back to where they were when we started, and the overall demand has been amazing,” Majka said.
To this point, the good feelings from those 13 playoff games of last spring have trumped a half-season of not fulfilling expectations. Plus, Mom and Dad from Woodbury are not going to leave the arena after a loss and say to the kids, “Wow, our boys really stunk it out tonight, didn’t they, Brienna and Bradford?”
Tickets for our current NHLers are more in demand than their predecessors, the North Stars, ever could have dreamed, for a couple of reasons: a terrific arena and an increased Twin Cities population featuring more hockey families and more 30-year-olds who like to wear jerseys and drink beer.
There is also this: The NHL now has a system where fans applaud making the playoffs as an accomplishment.
Go back to the North Stars’ final 14 seasons (1979-93) in Bloomington. For 12 years, 16 of 21 teams reached the playoffs, then 16 of 22 and, finally, in 1993, 16 of 24.
It’s is hard to sell the idea that reaching the playoffs means something when a team has a 33 percent chance or less of missing them.