Wild's 72 hours of pursuit, anxiety and elation

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2012 - 11:18 PM

Star Tribune reporter Michael Russo goes behind the scenes with the Wild and tells what it took to land megastars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

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Minnesota Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Two simple signatures on July 4th reshaped an organization in search of an identity.

But it wasn't simple to get those pens into the hands of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

Seventy-two hours might not seem like a long time, but when you are the Minnesota Wild and you have invested hard work and hope into landing two of the most targeted free agents in NHL history while competing against powerhouse teams such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago for those players, 72 hours felt like 72 days.

There was anxiety. There were sleepless nights. There were times when they lost hope.

"The first two days were extremely stressful," General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. "I remember thinking well into July 2, 'We're out, we're done, we're dead in the water, we've got to make a trade.' I didn't have any feeling that we were a favorite or on the map. I felt we weren't there."

But suddenly, late Monday into Tuesday, there was traction. Things progressed, then accelerated in a hurry. Nothing was for sure, but the Wild was told that Parise and Suter were talking and leaning toward playing for the same team.

The Wild was on their radar.

"And once those contracts came through on July 4, I just can't tell you the feeling," Fletcher said. "You're relieved, but you're almost numb ... because there was so little sleep, so much worry, so much not in your control."

First contact: agents

The pursuit began with two one-page e-mails from Fletcher shortly after 11 a.m. Sunday, the official start of free agency.

One was delivered to Wade Arnott in Mississauga, Ontario, inside the offices of Newport Sports Management, which is made up of six agents who represent nearly 20 percent of NHL players. Arnott represents Parise, the Minnesota native and star forward of the New Jersey Devils, and Parise had traveled to Ontario to be with his agents.

The other was sent to Neil Sheehy in International Falls, Minn. Sheehy's office is in a high-rise in downtown Minneapolis, but for the past 15 years he has hunkered down at a resort in his hometown to field phone calls for his free-agent clients. This year, one was Suter, a blue-chip defenseman from the Nashville Predators, who was at his large farm outside Middleton, Wis.

In the e-mails, the Wild officially submitted offers, including terms, salary and potential structure.

Fletcher followed with phone calls to each agent but only reached voicemails. Within an hour, he had reached both and confirmed the offers.

Then, the Wild waited.

Assistant GM Brent Flahr called agent Kevin Epp about center Zenon Konopka. In two phone calls, Konopka was signed to a two-year, $1.85 million deal. Fletcher called agent Kent Hughes and signed right winger Torrey Mitchell to a three-year, $5.7 million deal.

And the Wild waited.

Other agents called and offered their clients' services, but the Wild was in a holding pattern.

Fletcher and owner Craig Leipold anxiously waited for the phone to ring.

And waited. And waited.

Finally at 7 p.m. Sunday, Arnott called.

Eight hours had passed since the initial e-mail, an eternity.

There was a lot of that the first two days. There were follow-ups with both agencies on both players. But much of the time, the Wild had no idea where it stood, no idea where its offers fit.

Were they high? Were they low? The Wild got little feedback.

Fletcher read every delay as a negative. When he read that Parise's camp and Suter's camp had begun calling teams to eliminate them, he went from wanting a phone call to begging: "Please don't ring. Please don't ring."

A flood of requests

Why the delays? Why no feedback?

Both agents were flooded with phone calls.

Arnott had eight calls by 5 after 11 Sunday. By the end of the day 20 teams had inquired and 17 had submitted offers for Parise. Sheehy? About the same inquired on Suter.

In Ontario, inside a conference room that Parise dubbed the "war room," the agents meticulously went through every team and offer with Parise. They assessed, deliberated, researched and called back teams for more information.

For each team, there was a list of 12-15 criteria that Parise prioritized -- everything from hockey operations, ownership stability, travel, taxation and lifestyle to the on-ice product and the organization's prospects.

Teams were weeded out.

Every now and then, Parise retired to an office to think and unwind. He would sometimes text Suter, a close friend from USA Hockey whom he immensely respects.

Finally, Parise returned to his hotel. And Arnott, for the first time, let Fletcher know he was still in the game.

On Monday morning, the Wild e-mailed information to Parise about the team and franchise. The Wild never spoke to Parise. The team's pitch was over the phone to his agents, and the team prayed nothing was lost in translation.

The Wild then waited ... more.

Teams around the league signed free agents, and the market got thin.

Fletcer worried.

Before free agency, he had had serious trade conversations. He came close to making a deal at the draft. Why not? It would have ruined the Wild's ability to sign both Parise and Suter.

So Fletcher considered alternatives. But he knew a trade would cost the Wild a young player on its NHL roster and likely a top prospect or two.

Leipold and Fletcher decided it made no sense to bail out. If the team struck out on Parise, Suter or both, it would see what was left on the free-agent market or go the trade route.

It was a stressful afternoon. The team increased its offers to both players by midday.

Finally, after more communication with both agencies, the Wild realized Parise and Suter were seriously considering playing in the Twin Cities.

Stars finally converge

Monday afternoon, Arnott educated Parise about the Wild's blue-chip prospects, from Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle to Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba.

"When you're looking at committing the next 13 years of your life, you have to think bigger picture than just the current NHL talent," Arnott said. "How will things look five, six, seven, eight years from now?"

Late Monday afternoon, 36 hours in, Parise said to Arnott: "You know what? I think now's the juncture I'd like to really check in with [Suter] and see what he's thinking."

Parise left the office, and Arnott announced to media outlets that Parise had narrowed his list to a "small select group" and would return home to Minnesota the next day.

Arnott called Fletcher to assure him the Wild was part of that group.

You see, all along Suter was intrigued about playing for the Wild. By this point, Parise was sold, too, but only in a package deal with Suter.

So Tuesday morning, Leipold, Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo boarded a plane in St. Paul, picked up Sheehy in International Falls, and flew to Madison, Wis., to meet face-to-face with Suter.

Suter was receptive. The Wild flew back to Minnesota optimistic.

Suter and Parise spoke, and late Tuesday night Fletcher got the call he wanted.

It was Arnott. Both players would accept identical contracts. It was Parise's idea.

The numbers turned out to be 13 years and $98 million. The contracts included identical signing bonus structures ($25 million the first three years) and no-trade clauses. Both players could have made more elsewhere. Parise reportedly had been offered $110 million by Philadelphia. Suter was offered more than $100 million by a team Sheehy wouldn't identify.

To make the Minnesota contracts identical, Parise actually took less than the Wild had offered him.

In the wee hours Wednesday, Fletcher and Leipold knew it was all but done.

But there was no paperwork. No signatures were on contracts. Small issues remained to be worked out, and small things sometimes become big things if there is a misunderstanding or a change of heart. Fletcher was confident but uneasy.

By midmorning on July 4th, Fletcher had a signed document from Suter in his hands. But nothing from Parise. He had left for a workout at 9 a.m., the contract unsigned and undelivered.

Two hours later, Fletcher received the fax he had been waiting for. And it had Parise's signature on it.

In their offices in St. Paul, Fletcher, along with Yeo, Flahr and Wild executives Jim Mill and Shep Harder, congratulated one another.

They had both Parise and Suter under contract.

Fletcher had one call to make. He dialed Leipold on the speaker phone and told the Wild owner: "We are good to go."

Preparation -- plus luck

The Wild has lost a lot in the past few years.

But the team drafted well. And when it chose not to re-sign Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen and to trade Eric Nystrom and Marek Zidlicky, it created oodles of salary-cap room.

In an attempt to make itself more desirable and accelerate the building process, the Wild traded popular Brent Burns for the equivalent of three first-round picks in Devin Setoguchi, Coyle and Zack Phillips.

All this set up the Wild to sign Parise and Suter.

Yet, the Wild still got lucky.

It was fortunate New Jersey and Nashville weren't able to re-sign them. It was fortunate they were good friends. It was fortunate they respect each other's game. And it was fortunate they have ties to the Twin Cities; Parise is a native, and Suter's wife grew up in Bloomington.

"You can plan all you want, you can present everything to the players as perfectly as you want, but nobody can be arrogant enough to think you can actually sign both players in free agency," Fletcher said. "I'd love to say we envisioned all this a long time ago exactly the way it happened, but that would be an overstatement.

"We are very lucky. A lot of things had to go our way. They never struck us off the list."

And the Wild got those two simple signatures.

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