Commenter Rocket writes about hockey because sometimes we forget to do that. Rocket?
Is the Wild finally ONE OF US?
Of course, like any great philosophical question, one has to answer a number of smaller questions before you can get to the biggie. For instance, before we can decide that the Wild is ONE OF US, we have to decide what it means to be ONE OF US.
I have three complementary hypotheses that have converged to create the big question. The first hypothesis, which is built purely upon personal experience and anecdotal evidence and is without any empirical research whatsoever, is that your sports allegiances are more or less cemented at the age of 12, give or take a year or two. When I was in the proper age range the Twins won the World Series for the first time and the Vikings made an improbable run through the NFC playoffs that finally died in the empty hands of Darrin Nelson. In retrospect, I now realize that my love for those two teams became a life long affair during that fall and winter. The Timberwolves, who began play a couple of years later – and subsequently just outside of the age window – will always be a team that I follow, and for whom I root, but not with quite the same, unabashed, irrefutable, unexplainable passion.
My second hypothesis builds upon the first: it takes about a generation, coupled with at least some small measure of success, before a team becomes ingratiated into a community. Any new team is likely to be embraced by the community for a while. For instance, the second coming of the Winnipeg Jets is the hottest ticket in Canada right now. But that initial shine can wear off relatively quickly and the casual fan will find it harder and harder to take an interest in a team once the novelty is gone. Thus, what any new team needs once the first wave of good will is gone is patience. It needs to wait about a generation, while the 12-year-olds who fell in love with the team when it was brand new grows up and starts taking their children to games. The new team also needs to have some sort of success – a division championship, a nice playoff run, or even an unexpected playoff appearance or two at the very least – in order to give all of those 12-year-olds a taste of how good victory can be, otherwise they might not stick around and then all truly will be lost. Nonetheless, after about a generation, a “new” team will finally start to feel familiar and part of the community because they will have had a fan base that will have always had the team as a part of their lives.
My third hypothesis is that there are generally ascribable traits to the typical Minnesota sports fan, or ONE OF US. We perhaps celebrate relatively minor accomplishments with greater verve than we should because we know that disappointment is not far behind. In fact, we know that it will end badly. This is without question. And we know this because we have become conditioned by our sports teams to know this. We are occasionally given tantalizing glimpses of what might be, but then Brett Favre throws across his body, or the Twins draw the Yankees in the playoffs or the Timberwolves miss out on the draft lottery again or Michigan comes back against the Gophers in the fourth quarter by running the same play over and over and so on and so forth all the way back to four early Super Bowls and the ’65 Series. We have been beaten into submission by just enough success to make that gut punch really, really hurt.
So, I ask again, is the Wild finally ONE OF US?
Is it time to lump our St. Paul franchise with all of the rest of them on the west side of the river? Is it just as disappointing for all of the same reasons? For a long time, the Wild seemed to stand alone. The franchise was new, had a great facility and even belonged to the other twin city. And perhaps the seemingly natural inclination of the Minnesota fan to already feel put upon for living in “flyover country” was only exacerbated by the fact that most of the country still thinks of hockey as a “flyover sport.” Perhaps that bought the Wild an additional season or two of good will.
Yet, we now seem to be standing at a crossroads with this franchise, and it has made me start to believe that they are truly ONE OF US. If it takes a generation or so, and some success, to become part of the fabric of the community then the Wild is at least very close, if not already there. The Wild has been around long enough for some of their youngest fans on day one to have grown up and possibly have had children of their own. Additionally, the Wild has made one magical playoff run, been to the playoffs a couple of other times and even captured the division once. And now it seems to be disappointing in the same manner as the other Minnesota teams.
This season has been the most ONE OF US of all. Before the season started, I believe that most Wild fans knew that this was going to be another tough year for the team and that a playoff appearance was perhaps a 50-50 proposition at best. Thus, if you showed a Wild fan today’s standings at the beginning of the year not too many would have been surprised. But it is the way the team has gone about getting to this point in the standings that has been so ONE OF US. The Wild was sitting on top of the entire NHL at one point. And not just after one or two games, but two-and-a-half months into the season. Things looked bright, Mike Yeo looked like a genius, the team was scoring improbable goals late in games to win or push it to overtime. It was just plain fun to watch. And it wasn’t going to last.
It’s not so bad that the Wild is currently scuffling and the hope of making the playoffs dies a little more each day. That was somewhat expected, or at least was not unexpected. However, what was unexpected, and what makes it so ONE OF US, is how the Wild has gone about dragging the fans into the quicksand. If the squad had just been kind of bad all year long it would have been sad but not soul wrenching. But this steep and painful descent – all the way from top of the hill to almost no realistic shot of the playoffs – feels almost purposely hurtful and is just so characteristic of Minnesota sports teams and what they do to the fan base.
The Wild has lost whatever specialness it had and is now just like the other Minnesota teams. The Wild will disappoint and hurt you in ways that you never even imagined, because that’s what Minnesota teams do. Congratulations, Minnesota Wild. For my money, you are now ONE OF US.