As Andrew Brunette and Darby Hendrickson sat in the lobby of the Calgary Westin on Tuesday, they teased their often-manic pal and former teammate, Wes Walz, from afar.
“Rumor has it he’s at Cottage Grove’s rink right now bag-skating himself,” Hendrickson said.
“No, he’s probably in a sauna trying to lose 10 pounds,” Brunette said.
The joke, of course, is that the ultracompetitive Walz is taking Saturday’s North Stars/Wild vs. Blackhawks Alumni Game at TCF Bank Stadium so seriously, he has been secretly training furiously behind the scenes.
The Wild assistant coaches might kid, but they are also not too far off. Walz has been skating for a couple of months with Erik Rasmussen’s Fit Hockey group at St. Thomas Academy. Always finicky about his gear, particularly his skates, Walz has been working in his boots and gloves for weeks.
“I was talking to [former NHL defenseman] Bob Beers, who has played in these games, and he said the first half of the first period, you can see it’s not overly serious,” Walz said. “But as the game goes on, it turns into an NHL hockey game. Guys’ juices get flowing a little bit.”
Heck, in a Rangers alumni game a few years ago, Mike Keenan benched former captain Dave Maloney, who still is angered by it.
It’s fair to say that most the excitement regarding this weekend’s Stadium Series festivities surround the alumni game, not Sunday’s latest Wild-Blackhawks clash.
North Stars diehards can’t wait to see their childhood heroes such as Dino Ciccarelli play on the same line as Neal Broten and Tom McCarthy, Bobby Smith play on the same line as Steve Payne and Willi Plett, Mike Modano skate on a line with Brian Bellows and former Wild sniper Brian Rolston. Defensemen such as Brad Maxwell should be paired with Craig Hartsburg; Gilles Meloche and Don Beaupre will be in the cage.
But for Walz, Brunette, Hendrickson, Richard Park, Antti Laaksonen and Brad Bombardir — six members of the 2002-03 Wild team that captured Minnesota’s imagination and stunned the NHL by advancing to the Western Conference finals in the franchise’s third season — they are humbled to be included.
“It’s more of celebration of the North Stars than the Wild,” said Brunette, who scored seven goals and 13 points during the 2003 playoffs and scored the first round-clinching goal at Colorado in overtime of Game 7. “I grew up in the old Norris Division watching the Leafs play and I liked the North Stars. You loved the rivalry with them and the Blackhawks. You grew up watching them. And being a nerd hockey fan, I always remember those guys.”
“He’s still a nerd,” chimed in Hendrickson.
Hendrickson, the former Gopher and Richfield High star, grew up a North Stars fanatic. He won the Minnesota Mr. Hockey award in 1991. Months later, he watched guys such as Broten, Modano, Smith and Bellows lead the North Stars to the Stanley Cup Finals.
His dad, Larry, was their strength coach when Herb Brooks coached in 1988, so Hendrickson got to meet stars such as Broten as a teenager.
“Neal was just a natural who did it all at every level,” Hendrickson said. “Grew up in northern Minnesota, he’s always humble and he just played the game. He never had an ego. The way he played the game was kind of how you want to be. Nobody could duplicate his natural abilities for the game.”
Lou Nanne, who will coach the North Stars and Wild alumni team with Mike Ramsey and Tom Reid, plans to skate Brunette and Hendrickson on the same line with Modano, Broten and Smith, who will be double-shifted as centers. Walz will skate with Laaksonen and Park on an all-Wild line.
Walz, who coaches at East Ridge now and is a Fox Sports North analyst, chased Modano around an NHL rink for eight years. But when Walz was 16, his first game with Prince Albert of the Western Hockey League came on the same line with Modano.
Walz still remembers being 10 years old and meeting Smith in Calgary.
“He said, ‘Hey son, come here,’ and he shook my hand and said, ‘I’m Bobby Smith, what’s your name?’ ” Walz said, smiling. “I’ll just never forget when he shook my hand and his hand swallowed like half of my forearm. Ever since that I was always a Bobby Smith fan.”
Walz, Brunette and Hendrickson are honored to be part of all this. It will be a special reunion for some special players from that special 2003 Wild team.
“After we lost to Anaheim in four games [in the conference finals], we were out in the community and you couldn’t walk anywhere without someone giving you a hug,” said Walz, who scored seven goals and 13 points during the 2003 playoffs. “We really didn’t realize what we accomplished. We didn’t have Twitter and social media. I’ll never forget the scene in the locker room in Anaheim before the media comes in. I just remember more than half the guys had tears in their eyes.
“It was an amazing run. It was a group of guys … you know you hear guys say they care about each other, but we really did care about each other. We didn’t have, other than Marian [Gaborik], maybe a superstar. It was just a tight-knit group of guys.
“We didn’t have a $50 million payroll back then. Everybody recognized that, ‘If I wasn’t ready to play, there was a good chance we weren’t going to win tonight.’ It created such a bond between the players. It’s difficult to explain to people. But it will always be a bond shared between all of us.”