For the first time since 2003, Minnesota has a chance to host an NHL conference final.
Who knows? The Wild might even play in it.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman revealed plans for a Stanley Covid Cup on Tuesday. The Wild has qualified for a 24-team playoff, and Minnesota is one of 10 areas vying to be one of the two hub cities that would play host to games.
The next time a sports announcer uses the phrase “if the season ended today” you might want to pay more attention.
The NHL regular season officially ended Tuesday, May 26, 2 ½ months after the Wild played its last game. The league tournament will begin on a date to be determined, with little details like, “How can this ever work?” to be figured out, or not, sometime in the near future.
Before a game is played, there will be hurdles and possible setbacks or scares but, for the moment, let’s contemplate a near-future featuring actual hockey, perhaps played at Xcel Energy Center.
This format could benefit the Wild.
Of course, it already has.
Had the NHL stuck to the traditional 16-team bracket, the Wild would have been out. Instead, it will get to play a best-of-five series against Vancouver, perhaps while playing on home ice.
The Wild finished the regular season playing well, with the players responding to interim head coach Dean Evason and Kevin Fiala proving he has the makeup of a star.
The Wild’s older legs, belonging to Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and Eric Staal, will be rested. While the top seeds will play a round-robin tournament to determine seeding, those games probably won’t feature the do-or-don’t fever of elimination rounds.
So if the Wild beats Vancouver, it could have an edge over its next opponent in terms of mental readiness and physical sharpness.
If the Wild played at home, it would miss the fan aspect of home-ice advantage, but its players would be more comfortable than the visitors in the clubhouse and off the ice. Visiting teams will stay in hotels for the entire series.
And while empty stands aren’t ideal, Wild General Manager Bill Guerin said on a Zoom conference call he believes the players will have no trouble ramping up to playoff intensity.
“That will be different, but every time you look at something different you want to pick it apart and say, ‘It won’t be as good,’ ” Guerin said. “But when that puck drops, there’s something inside these athletes, and that switch flips.”
There could even be a benefit to empty stands. Maybe we’d more clearly hear the banter among opponents, and coaches, and the refs. I’d rather hear that than typical fan reactions any day, in any sport.
The NHL always is looking for a better way to market itself to casual American sports fans. Instead of a glowing puck, the NHL could feature flying beeps. The most creative cusser wins a Zamboni.
“It’s a good day today,” Guerin said. “Hockey’s going to be back in the near future.”
Guerin made the logical point that the Twin Cities would be an ideal hub. Xcel Energy Center features six locker rooms, and the Tria Rink is walking distance away. Rumor has it that there are plenty of other rinks in the area, and there are plenty of high-quality, high-vacancy hotels available.
Guerin called this “the biggest, best hockey market in the country.”
Not that he would pander.
And if the Wild has to play on the road, Guerin doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who’s going to whine.
“I don’t think it’s that difficult,” he said. “You just pack an extra suit and a few extra things and let’s go. We’ll be there for a little bit longer than a normal road trip, but we’ve all done it. It’s a matter of accepting what it is and realizing what you’re going through. To me it’s exciting. I just think it’s such a unique opportunity that it could be great.”
For now, assuming the NHL safeguards player health, this could be a promising time for a rising Wild team.