Team officials hope to make things right with Wild fans

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2013 - 11:43 AM

Wild representatives are offering apologies for the NHL lockout, but know all will be forgiven with on-ice success.

As the Wild prepares to mend fences with fans after the NHL lockout, it will stick with its longtime slogan -- Let's Play Hockey -- as the theme for this shortened season.

Then there is the unofficial theme being repeated by the team and the league: We're really, really sorry. Don't be mad. Please come back.

That's a little too long to paint on the Xcel Energy Center ice, but be prepared to hear it often from Wild officials and players during the lead-up to Saturday's season opener and beyond. And expect those pleas to be accompanied by the NHL equivalent of chocolates and roses. The Wild will work to soothe fans' wounded feelings by offering discounts, giveaways and a Wednesday scrimmage at Xcel, with free admission and $10 food vouchers.

Other NHL teams are following suit. And it appears many of hockey's relentlessly loyal followers will be quick to forgive, rushing back into the arms of their beloved. Less than 24 hours after the Wild announced Wednesday's free scrimmage, the fervent demand for tickets forced the team to suspend distribution. In cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis and Tampa, thousands of fans showed up to see training camps open Sunday.

Matt Majka, the Wild's chief operating officer, said the team lost few season-ticket holders during the lockout. It will put single-game tickets on sale Wednesday, on the same day it will offer a 50 percent discount on merchandise at its team stores and give away autographed jerseys at the scrimmage.

"Everything's going to be back to normal, not like other cities where I'm sure it will suffer," said Pat Vos of Minneapolis, the first fan to camp out at the Xcel on Tuesday for the ticket sale. "But here in Minnesota, this is a hockey hotbed. It's almost a given anybody that was a fan will return."

All apologies

Majka said the franchise is prepared to offer mea culpas as long as necessary. Though he heard plenty of anger during the lockout, he anticipates the Wild can regain its entire fan base -- and perhaps add to it -- if it follows sincere apologies with high-quality play.

"Most people are pretty happy [the lockout is over]," Majka said. "Some folks feel cheated and are going to want their faith and trust to be earned back. We get that, and we accept that challenge."

The NHL consulted with franchises about post-lockout marketing plans, Majka said, but allowed them to formulate their own strategies to cater to local markets. In addition to Wednesday's activities, the Wild will offer merchandise specials throughout the month, give away T-shirts on Opening Night and award autographed jerseys to selected fans. Season-ticket holders will be offered a 20 percent discount on additional single-game tickets through Feb. 28, and they will be given waivers of some ticket fees, reward-program points and recognition during games.

Other teams are offering free parking, concession discounts and complimentary tickets for kids. Fans have come flocking back in places such as Buffalo, where they bought 31,000 tickets in one day, and in Philadelphia, where the fire marshal had to cut off entry to the Flyers' practice facility when 3,000 people came to watch the team's first practice.

In the Wild's case, team officials knew they had two powerful lures: the hockey DNA embedded in Minnesotans, and the summer signings of free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Majka acknowledged that the state's love for the game gives the Wild a leg up, especially compared to nontraditional hockey markets. The signings of Parise and Suter generated sales of 4,000 season tickets over the summer, and the lockout did not seem to diminish fans' excitement to see whether the Wild can meet heightened expectations.

Hot sales

The Wild does not release season-ticket figures. But Majka said the team is on course to get back to its peak of 16,500 "very quickly," despite the lockout. He added that no corporate sponsors left, and most season-ticket holders did not ask for refunds for cancelled games; instead, they left the money in their accounts to go toward future tickets.

"I'm thankful for that, and I'm a little surprised by that," Majka said. "I know there was some pain ... But I'd rather have a really angry passionate fan than an apathetic fan. I knew they cared."

Opening on Hockey Day Minnesota also was important, Majka said. That yearly celebration, set for Saturday, originally was supposed to include a Wild game along with several high school and college games. The first draft of the NHL schedule did not have the Wild playing at home on Saturday, but Majka said Wild officials worked "super hard" with the league to get a home date that night.

The apologies, and the olive branches extended to fans, will continue for several weeks. The Wild is running newspaper ads this week asking for fans' forgiveness, and players will offer their personal thanks to selected fans before Saturday's game.

They also will continue making amends throughout the season, as the players seek to make it up to people in the best way they can: by making sure the season is worth the wait.

"It's important for fans to know we apologize to all of them," Parise said. "The best way to do that is to put a good team on the ice, a fun product to watch, a team that wins. This state has a great hockey tradition. I hope we can get them back in the stands."

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