A couple of weeks ago, John Munson reached out to me on Twitter with this sentiment:
Yo @RandBall why doesn't someone analyze the impact of grief in The Wild's undoing. There is a story there beyond memorializing JP methinks.
I go a ways back with John — 15 years now — to a time when one of us was a young writer covering general assignment sports for the Star Tribune and the other of us was the bass player for a little band called Semisonic. We were both part of a strange and wonderful pickup basketball game that ran every Tuesday and Thursday, comprised primarily of local journalists and local musicians. (Don't let that description fool you; the quality of the ball was strong, and the games were always the right mix of intense and fun). The two of us chatted sports often during the breaks and down times of those games, and John's sports opinions have maintained value through the years. He's a sports fan who tends to think of things from a different — more human? — perspective than a lot of us.
I've thought about his tweet pretty much every day since he sent it, trying to get a better handle on it. Munson was referring to both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, two of the Wild's best players, who have both lost their hockey-playing fathers in the past six months. Bob Suter — whom Ryan described not just his dad but his best friend – died a month before the season started of a heart attack at age 57. J.P. Parise died earlier this month after a battle with lung cancer at age 73.
Media members and fans have spent ample time dissecting the Wild's coaching, the Wild's goaltending, the Wild's physical health — whether it's on-ice injuries or the bizarre but impactful battle with the mumps. But true grieving? The loss of fathers? That's much heavier, harder to quantify stuff. It doesn't mean we shouldn't think about it or ask about it even though the questions are hard.
So when I caught up with Parise on Thursday at a promotional event, I told him about Munson's tweet and listened to him speak earnestly, again, about how tough things have been.
"It's been really hard. I can't speak for Ryan, obviously. I can only see what he went through," Parise said. "But for me personally, it's been really hard the last couple of months just seeing everything, and the way everything happened. It's been awful. A lot of times at the rink, my mind wasn't there."
This is where we can all be reminded that athletes are humans. They are not a set of statistics to write in ink or a set of expectations to be mandated. Fans want answers and hate excuses, but life events are not excuses in the way that breaking a stick or having a puck take a funny hop are excuses. Life is a thing we are all living.
We are all fragile. We have all dealt with difficult things in our personal lives, and most of us have been asked to continue working or going about our day-to-day lives while also processing those difficult things. Most of us probably would agree that's very tough. It's not the kind of thing you'd be able to label and say it impacted you X percent at your job, but you know it did.
This is not even to say that the performance of Parise or Suter has declined this year. Parise leads the team with 19 goals; Suter, despite a recent hit to his plus-minus rating, is the team's lone All-Star. Sometimes personal tragedy can be channeled into great performances, as sports history has shown us many times.
"That's kind of the cool thing about hockey," Ryan Suter said in September, when he talked about his father's death for the first time. "You get to get out on the ice and you don't really have to think about anything. You can just go out and be in your own little world."
But sometimes life creeps back in, and we should all remember that. Getting back to Munson's original tweet, the impact of grief on the Wild's season … the only conclusive thing I would ever say about it is that it caused pain. Parise's loss is the freshest, and he's still working through it.
"It was hard to separate myself from what was going on. Mentally, I just wasn't there and it was hard to play," Parise said. "But it's getting better, and hopefully it will continue to."