The Wild’s postgame radio show was winding down on the drive home from downtown St. Paul on Tuesday night. I heard a handful of call-ins and two of those were complaints about the lack of exuberance from the crowd for this Game 4 of a first-round playoff series vs. Winnipeg.
The announced crowd was 19,277 at Xcel Energy Center, a number that is 106 percent of what’s now the seating capacity.
There were probably 1,500 Jets followers that made their way into the arena. Other than those folks, there were the usual 95 percent of home team fans wearing Wild jerseys of one color or the other.
That had to be the beer talking when a couple of young men felt the urge to call the great Pat Micheletti to express disappointment with the support from a Wild crowd.
We’ve never seen anything like this when it comes to the backing for a local franchise. The Vikings don’t count – that’s eight home games in the regular season, compared to 41 for a hockey team playing much of its schedule in the middle of winter.
All the nostalgia for the North Stars … that team was never supported remotely as well as the Wild has been, from its inception in the fall of 2000.
There were long streaks of sellouts, and when tickets finally started to become plentiful, owner Craig Liepold pulled the greatest marketing coup in the six decades this has been a major league sports market:
On July 4, 2012, he signed the top two free agents on the NHL market – Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. There was so much gratitude for this among the hockey public that even another NHL lockout could not deter the enthusiasm.
There were a couple of games that weren’t official sellouts once the reduced schedule started in mid-January 2013, but soon the building was being oversold with standing room and it has remained that way for five full seasons.
And now Minnesota’s most-loyal crowd wasn’t in enough of a frenzy for this playoff game?
The Wild went into this series as underdogs, and without Suter, their ironman, 28-minute a game defenseman due to a serious leg injury. And then around 3 p.m. on Tuesday, the shocking news broke that the Wild also would be without Parise.
There was a collision at the blue line late in Sunday’s game as Zach was reaching to knock the puck out of the Wild’s defensive zone. Parise did interviews after the game with no indication of injury.
Then pain arrived, Parise was checked, and it was discovered that he has a fracture in his sternum. And that took away a relentless forward on a goal-scoring roll for the Wild.
The last goal on the roll that Parise scored was a work of art … gritty art. He was in front of the net, apparently tangled, then did a subtle pushoff like a rebounding forward to create a foot of room, and Mikko Koivu hit Parise with a brilliant pass for a deflected goal.
That gave the Wild a 2-1 lead in what became a 6-2 victory and put the series at 2-1 for Winnipeg.
So, there was real hope, and then came the news as the loyal 106 percent showed up to overflow the arena: No Parise, not on this night, not on Friday as the Wild face elimination (after Tuesday’s 2-0 loss), and not for any hockey that miraculously would follow this spring.
As I heard the second caller complaining about the lack of steam in the crowd, my answer would have been, “No Suter, followed by no Parise … the old dabbers were down for Wild zealots. And the Wild is going to need to provide some inspiration to change that.’’
And I was pleased to hear Micheletti, the co-host, offer the same message as a response.
Every other collection of fans in the Twin Cities consists of front runners. The Wild fans are not front runners. They have a love for this hockey team that is almost familial.
And when the team suffers losses like this, Suter, then Parise … well, you can’t expect the ticket-buying friends of the Wild to cheer mightily through their tears.