High energy on both sides of the boards at Wild's team scrimmage

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO
  • Updated: January 17, 2013 - 6:16 AM

Xcel Energy Center was abuzz as fans took in an open scrimmage and scooped up tickets and discounted merchandise.

 

 

If fans in Minnesota were turned off by the NHL lockout, they certainly turned the page quickly.

Before Wednesday was even halfway done, Wild chief operating officer Matt Majka said the team already had its biggest ticket-selling day in franchise history.

Two games, including Saturday's season opener against Colorado, were sold out in the first hour. Hundreds of fans swarmed the three Hockey Lodge locations and emptied shelves during a half-off sale. And 13,096 enthusiastic fans arrived early Wednesday night to watch an intrasquad game featuring, for the first time, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in red Wild sweaters.

"We honestly didn't know what to expect," said Majka, referring to how fans would respond after the 113-day lockout wiped out 17 home games.

"The State of Hockey has responded remarkably. It's just crazy what's going on. We are extremely grateful and humbled, but we know we continue to have a lot of work to do to earn everybody's trust and faith again."

Majka wouldn't divulge Wednesday ticket-sale numbers, but he said the Wild sold 10 times the number of jerseys it would on a normal game night and five times the volume of merchandise sold in the 12 days of the State Fair.

"A lot of happy fans," Majka said.

Brittany Hammer, 22, and her boyfriend, Zak Swenson, 21, arrived at 8:30 a.m., but by that time, the line of people to purchase tickets stretched up the stairs of Xcel Energy Center and into the conjoining RiverCentre.

They struck out on opening-night tickets but got to watch practice, then hit up the Hockey Lodge for a Parise jersey and a Wild hat, blanket and sweatshirt.

Asked if they were surprised that Wild fever is boiling, Swenson said, "No. It's the State of Hockey. We were coming back no matter what."

The couple sat on the floor of Gate 1 for six hours until the doors opened for the scrimmage. When Xcel Energy Center was finally unlocked 30 minutes early because so many patrons were waiting to file in, lines snaked the lower bowl as fans tried to shop in the Hockey Lodge.

Much of Wednesday's excitement centered around the sneak peek of Parise and Suter, but a number of prospects were battling to make themselves seen, too.

One was Jason Zucker, who was celebrating his 21st birthday. He looked good, but because the Wild's spots at forward are all but filled, Zucker likely will have to continue strutting his stuff with the Houston Aeros until an injury.

The 2010 second-round pick has far exceeded the Wild's expectations since being drafted. The Wild loved Zucker's speed, character and work ethic and initially pegged him as a future third-line, two-way forward who could kill penalties and chip in offensively.

But Zucker was a prolific scorer at University of Denver and has eased into the American Hockey League. He is the second-leading scorer among rookies with 33 points in 34 games and third-leading rookie goal-scorer with 16.

"His ceiling is probably higher now than what we anticipated when we drafted him," General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. "It's very rare for a first-year, 20-year-old forward to score at a goal every-other-game pace and point-per-game pace."

Zucker, a native of Las Vegas, spends his summers working out in a private gym filled with MMA fighters. He even gets in the ring with some, including Dan "The Outlaw" Hardy, twice a week.

"My trainer back home pushes me to the limit every day and breaks my body down over the summer," Zucker said. "I know how far I can push myself and feel it's working. Even when the Wild drafted me as a third-line guy, I knew I could score goals. I just needed to develop. They had a vision for me. My goal is to change that."

Zucker feels he's deserving of a roster spot in Minnesota now. But he also understands the shortened training camp means the Wild's all about preparation now, not evaluation.

"My expectations of myself are to come in and play for the Minnesota Wild," he said. "It's a different scenario right now. I really want to get here, but I have to keep doing what I'm doing down in Houston.

"I've got to stay positive with it because I know I will get the chance and when I get the chance I've got to cherish it. I can't go hang my head and think I'm a horrible hockey player and should quit hockey."

  • WILD

    Season opener: 8 p.m. Saturday vs. Colorado

    Xcel Energy Center • TV: FSN (100.3-FM)

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