Minnesota was awarded an NHL expansion franchise on June 25, 1997. There was an event at Aldrich Arena on St. Paul’s East Side on Jan. 23, 1998, when it was announced "Wild'' had been selected as the team’s nickname.
That still seems to have been a reach, until you consider the other finalists for the nickname were the Northern Lights, Blue Ox, White Bears, Voyaguers and Freeze.
The Wild hired three ambassadors a couple of days after the nickname was announced: Neal Broten, Alana Blahoski and Karyn Bye-Dietz. The latter two would go to work after helping lead the U.S. to the gold medal in the first-ever women’s Olympic hockey tournament in February 1998 in Nagano, Japan.
The Wild counted 225 hockey arenas in Minnesota at the time and they set out to put up large cardboard cut-outs of Broten, Blahoski and Bye-Dietz in all of them. The trio made appearances at many of those arenas in the two years before Wild would play a game. The outreach to youth hockey in communities across Minnesota was thorough and inventive.
On Saturday, the arena in St. Paul was bursting was once again with a standing room crowd for a matinee with the Detroit Red Wings.
I was heading across the skyway 45 minutes before faceoff and it was a stampede of 6 to 12-year-old kids in their jerseys, accompanied by Dad or Mom, or more likely both, also in jerseys.
I’ve considered this to be a phenomenon since the Wild played its first game in October 2000: the families of four, all bedecked in jerseys, and with the younger kids basically skipping with joy as they headed toward the entrances.
No pro team in Minnesota has been able to gain the loyalty of that family audience on an every-game basis as has the Wild. On Saturday, I talked with Matt Majka, the Wild’s Chief Operating Officer, about the reach the team continues to have into the youth hockey ranks.
“There was no family crowd for the North Stars … far from it,’’ I said.
Majka offered a reminder as to what helped the Wild gain much of its momentum with families even before the first puck was dropped:
“One big break for us was that we were coming along when girls hockey was starting to explode in the state. It went from a case of Dad bringing Johnny to a game, to Dad and Mom bringing Johnny and Julie to a game.’’
Yes, and the brainiacs at the team’s infancy – including Majka, as a VP for marketing back then – were smart enough to recognize that parents were going to be as vulnerable to pleas to go to a Wild game from a young girl as a young boy.
They captured all the momentum from that first Olympic gold with Blahoski and Bye-Dietz on the payroll, as early, friendly faces of the franchise.
They also came up with the “State of Hockey’’ slogan that, as a brand … well, let’s say that it is had a bit more staying power and effectiveness than did “United We Run’’ or “True Blue.’’
The Wild is telling those parents in Woodbury and Eden Prairie and points in-between that the expense and the time used on having kids involved in community hockey are worth it. The Wild is telling those families that they are part of something noble ... they are part of what makes this the State of Hockey.
It's almost a living, breathing thing in Minnesota hockey circles. The State of Hockey. It's brilliant.
And 15 winters after those cardboard cutouts of Broten, Blahoski and Bye-Dietz appeared everywhere, the Wild remains the face of a brand that endures. The crowd on Saturday was 19,176, over-capacity and the 29th sellout in 36 home games.
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