The most loyal audience for professional sports in the Twin Cities is the one that follows the Wild in St. Paul. This could be argued by Vikings zealots, but they only have to prove that loyalty eight or nine times annually, and generally on Sunday afternoons.
What else do people have to do on Sunday afternoons?
Wild customers have to prove their loyalty a minimum of 41 times, with the largest share of those on cold, dark nights of winter here in our Frozen Wasteland.
There was amazing proof of Wild loyalty in January 2013: The NHL had lost an entire season with a lockout in 2004-05, and the owners were back at it again for the start of the 2012-13 schedule.
The strong-arm tactics did not work until the season's start had been pushed back to January and the schedule reduced to 48 games. There was bitterness over this with many fan bases, but not Minnesota's.
Owner Craig Leipold had signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, two top free agents, on July 4, 2012. He gave them twin 13-year contracts, then did battle with the owners vs. the players to eliminate future contracts that exceeded eight years.
The Wild was nine years removed from its one serious playoff run – the spring of 2003 – and it was finally losing a significant number of customers at the end of a dreary 2011-12.
Yet, when hockey resumed in January 2013, the fans had been reignited by the presence of Parise and Suter and again swarmed Xcel Energy Center. There were a couple of early crowds a fraction under the sellout number, then the Wild went on an elongated sellout streak, even without significant playoff success.
There were some empty seats appearing again during an uninspiring 2019-20 season. Coach Bruce Boudreau was fired by new general manager Bill Guerin after 57 games, and the schedule was stopped in March after 66 games by the pandemic. Twenty-four teams went to a Canadian bubble months later, and the Wild lost 3-1 to a bland Vancouver team in a preliminary round.
The 2020-21 season was delayed until mid-January. It took until late in the 28-game home schedule to get permission to host COVID-reduced crowds of 3,000, and then 4,500 for the three playoff games vs. the Vegas Golden Knights, which Vegas won in seven.
It was mostly TV that showed off rookie Kirill Kaprizov and Evason's 35-16-5 squad to the Wild faithful. And it was not until Tuesday night that an unlimited crowd could show up again for a regular-season home game.
There had been a tragic death during a shooting spree by two men at a bar near the arena 10 days earlier. Bar, restaurant and other business owners interviewed openly talked about a new, dangerous element appearing on West Seventh Street, the avenue that relies on hockey crowds to be sustained.
"The people aren't showing up,'' became a refrain for three exhibitions.
Turns out, people weren't showing up primarily (not exclusively) because the games were weeknight exhibitions.
I ran into Steve Darwitz, uncle to a former hockey star, now Gophers assistant Natalie, on West Seventh. He was getting ready to choose a stop for a beer. This was a couple of hours before the opening faceoff. The sidewalks weren't full of people in Wild jerseys, but they were getting there.
"This is hockey,'' Darwitz said. "This is the Wild. People love the Wild. They aren't staying away.''
Correct. The announced crowd for what became a long, astounding game was 18,156, back over capacity, and destined to stay there with this team – with the possibility of providing repeats of the explosive game played on Tuesday night.
Evason has his athletes playing fast. It's the neutral zone dash, not the trap.
It created scoring chances, and with goalie Cam Talbot having a substandard night (the quick, early goal was a true stinker), the Wild was going to get beat on an empty-netter with 1:14 remaining.
And then the Wild wasn't.
Winnpeg's Kyle Connor, already with two goals, had mindlessly drifted offside across the ice from the play. It was caught by the Wild's replay coaches watching in the underbelly of the arena. The goal was wiped out, the Wild tied the game at 5-5 only 16 seconds later and then won in overtime . . . with a third goal by Joel Eriksson Ek.
Minutes later, and lasting for a half-hour, there were reports of maddened, delighted fans pouring down West Seventh, and in other directions, shouting thunderously, "Let's go, Wild!''
Way too often, in my non-puck fanatic opinion, you see a 2-1 game with about 20 total chances in 60 minutes, and the true believers will say, "What a great hockey game!''
And they're wrong. Home team 6, visitors 5. This was a great hockey game. It was the most NHL fun I've witnessed since we had Neal, Dino, Bobby and the fellows trying to outscore opponents 6-5 in the early '80s with the North Stars at Met Center.
There was even a fight worthy of the "Secord sucks'' days: the feisty Marcus Foligno and Winnipeg's Brenden Dillon trying their best to unleash haymakers late in the first period.
And way up in the press box, it looked like Foligno decided — with the hockey crowd back in unlimited numbers for the first time in 595 days (March 3, 2020 vs. Nashville) — that those loyal fans deserved a dang good fight to talk about along with everything else.
All in all, it was a brilliant return of the masses to downtown St. Paul.