In one of the most monumental days in Minnesota hockey history -- and indisputably Wild history -- the hometown team shook the foundation of the National Hockey League on Wednesday by landing its hottest two free agents: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
The two were pursued by every heavyweight team in the league, and chose a Wild franchise that has missed the playoffs the past four seasons ... as a package deal in which each player received an identical $98 million, 13-year contract.
"They drove this bus, and we're just lucky they drove it to Minnesota," an elated owner Craig Leipold said.
Within five hours of the signings, Wild officials said the team had sold about 700 new full season tickets for next season. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the NHL will have a full season, since the threat of a lockout looms with the expiration of the league's collective bargaining agreement on Sept. 15.
But that was a distant concern Wednesday as the state's hockey community celebrated the arrival of the coveted free agents, both with local ties.
Parise, who attended Faribault's Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school, is a forward whose father, J.P. Parise, was an NHL All-Star and assistant coach with the Minnesota North Stars. Suter, a defenseman, is a former University of Wisconsin star who is married to a Minnesota native.
Both have played for only one NHL team -- Parise with the New Jersey Devils, Suter with the Nashville Predators.
'It's a great opportunity'
Why the move to the Wild? Family, belief in the Wild's future and the desire to play together.
"Ryan and I had talked throughout the year," said Parise, the type of homegrown, born-and-bred, real-life Minnesota-produced star this hockey market has long craved. "You always say to each other, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a chance to play with each other and to play on the same team?'
"I know how great of a player Ryan is ... and to have an opportunity to play with a guy of that caliber, it's a great opportunity."
The Wild gave them that opportunity.
For two years, Leipold and General Manager Chuck Fletcher have eyed this summer with the hopes that Parise and Suter would become free agents. What helped was the fact that Parise and Suter are great friends from wearing the USA's red, white and blue in international competitions, including the 2010 Olympics.
As free agency began Sunday, the 27-year-old 2003 first-round draft picks began texting each other behind the scenes with the objective of making the reunion happen.
The Wild began working on Parise on Sunday. Parise was sold by Monday on the Wild's future and the impact he could have, but Suter had yet to meet with the team. That occurred Tuesday when Leipold, Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo flew to Madison, Wis., with Suter's agent, Neil Sheehy. Leipold and Suter have a relationship from when Leipold owned the Predators.
On Tuesday night, Parise and Suter had a phone conversation.
"[Tuesday] night into [Wednesday] morning, it became realistic," Suter said.
It helped that Suter is a Midwestern guy whose wife, Becky, is from Bloomington. And the allure of playing at home for Parise, born in Minneapolis and a resident of Orono, was strong. His parents, J.P. and Donna Parise, live in Prior Lake, and he's getting married this month to Alisha Woods and wants to build his own family.
"Just the opportunity to play at home, it really meant a lot to me, it meant a lot to my family," Parise said. "Every kid who's grown up in Minnesota would love to play for the Wild. That's the way it is."
Leipold, who wrote $10 million signing bonuses to each player Wednesday, was ecstatic. It was Parise and Suter who came up with the idea of identical contracts with reasonable $7.5 million salary cap hits so the Wild can have flexibility to get players in future years.
"These guys could go to any team. They were offered more money. We know it -- by a number of teams," Leipold said. "These guys decided this was the team. They spent so much time looking at our prospects, looking at our players and talking to some of the players.
"And they made the decision that they were coming here."
Duo among NHL's best
The signings thrust the Wild onto the NHL landscape after a series of disappointing seasons.
"This is like Gretzky going to L.A., Malkin and Crosby going to Pittsburgh," said Sheehy, Suter's agent. "It's a game-changer. It's huge. It's major league-type stuff. The Wild just got two of the best players in the league at their positions."
In Predators history, Suter, who spent much of his career paired with star defenseman Shea Weber, ranks fourth with 542 games, fourth with 200 assists and tied for eighth with 238 points. Suter's father, Bob, played on the U.S. 1980 gold medal-winning Olympic team and his uncle, Gary Suter, was a five-time All-Star and a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Parise, a former University of North Dakota star, has averaged .82 points per game. Parise ranked fourth in Devils history with 194 goals, ninth with 410 points, tied for fifth with 51 power-play goals, fourth with 37 winning goals and fifth with 1,699 shots.
"Our goal in signing them wasn't to make a splash. It's to make our team better," Fletcher said. "The real work is just starting. If we assume we can just show up in [training] camp and go on the ice and be better, we're kidding ourselves. We have a lot of work to do."