The honeymoon between the Wild and the team’s ticket buyers survived the owners’ lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. Officially, it lasted from the fall of 2000 until the winter of 2010-11, when the sellout streak ended at 409 for regular-season, exhibition and playoff games.
Mike Yeo came in as the team’s third coach for 2011-12 and, miraculously in retrospect, the Wild had the best record in the NHL after 30 games: 20-7-3. And then reality arrived, with a 15-29-8 finish to the season, and numerous non-sellout crowds.
It was tough to blame the fans for no-buying and no-showing. Poor old Dany Heatley was the leading scorer with 53 points. The Wild scored 177 goals, the fewest in the 30-team league.
Matt Majka, then the CEO and now the Wild president, said this week: “I don’t think most people outside the organization understood how difficult the situation could have been for us [selling tickets] that season, with the poor finish and the lockout in the offing.’’
Craig Leipold was approved as the Wild’s second owner in April 2008. And with the same prospect of empty sections that he had experienced previously as Nashville’s owner, Leipold pulled two rabbits out of an oversized hat July 4, 2012:
He agreed to the twin 13-year, $98 million contracts with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
These weren’t cottontails. This was a pair of Arctic hares. Big fellas, an exacta of the NHL’s pre-eminent free agents of the moment.
“Signing Zach and Ryan changed people’s opinion toward the organization,’’ Leipold said. “Most important, those signings got us back in the playoffs. They were a game changer in every way.’’
Nowhere more so than in ticket sales. The Wild had a couple of non-sellouts when the lockout ended in January 2013, and then the building was bursting again. The last non-sellout for the Wild was Dec. 2, 2013 — a couple of hundred under capacity on a Monday night against Philadelphia.
The current sellout streak for regular-season games stands at 229. That figures to end early this season, which opens on Thursday night in Nashville.
The Wild is coming off its first non-playoff season since the arrival of Parise and Suter. They were 28th in a 31-team league with 211 goals.
You add dull to subpar results and that will put an end to the passion of a second honeymoon, even in the State of Hockey.
“And there’s no rabbit or two to pull out of the hat this time,’’ I said to Leipold this week.
He smiled and said: “I think that I already pulled a rabbit out of the hat.’’
Who might that be?
“Bill Guerin, as our new general manager,’’ Leipold said. “I think he’s going to be great.’’
What’s happened, though, is those consortia of hockey families that have shared season tickets for years — four families, four tickets, 10 games apiece — have lost some members.
That comes from anecdotal evidence, and I don’t see the dropouts contacting their former partners to say: “I want back in, because Bill Guerin is the general manager, and he played 1,300 games in the NHL.’’
Guerin is Leipold’s third general manager. He hired the second, Paul Fenton, on May 21, 2018, and fired him on July 30, 2019.
Supposedly, Fenton trusted few people and was noncommunicative. The same grumbles were heard when Tom Thibodeau was fired as the Timberwolves basketball boss halfway through last season.
Here’s the deal:
The basketball fans watched Thibodeau as the coach, turned against him by a large percentage numbers and now the Wolves are incessantly selling a new “culture’’ (meaning, No Thibs).
Try as the Wild might to sell that same angle, the hockey crowd didn’t see or hear enough of Fenton for his departure to have more than minuscule impact in fan interest.
There is only one avenue to quickly reignite the embers of the second honeymoon for 2019-2020: Win, and score more than 2.5 goals per game while doing so.
“This is a lot better roster than what we had before signing Parise and Suter in 2012,’’ Leipold said. “That was not a good team. I like this team. Having [Matt] Dumba back, that alone makes us much better.
“I’m an optimist. People will say this is salesmanship, but I’m confident this is a playoff team.’’
As a less-than-ardent hockey observer, one item that has amazed me about the Wild’s two decades (and two honeymoons) of popularity with ticket buyers is that the team has never had “the guy’’ — the light-up-the-arena offensive player, a McDavid or Matthews, or even a Tarasenko — that by himself makes you want to be there.
“Maybe next year, if [Kirill] Kaprizov is here from Russia,’’ Leipold said. “He has a very good chance to be one of those players.’’
For now, Wild faithful, you will have to settle for the star potential of a healthy Dumba to excite you.
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and including his name in the subject line.