The Wild starts the fourth season of its second honeymoon with its corporate customers and the hockey families of Minnesota on Thursday night in Denver. There will be 82 games in 184 days, all to determine seeding that’s only mildly important in the unpredictable world of the NHL playoffs.
The Wild arrived in St. Paul in fall 2000 and the sellouts were basically automatic over the next seven seasons. Even the lockout of 2004-05 didn’t have much of a negative effect on ticket business for the Wild.
The St. Paul lads were the winners of a division — the five-team Northwest — for the only time in 2007-08. Craig Leipold and his then-partner Philip Falcone agreed to purchase the team from the Bob Naegele group during the middle of that season.
No way Leipold could have guessed what lay ahead (or Falcone, for that matter).
The Wild won 40 of 82 games and missed the playoffs in 2008-09. Jacques Lemaire resigned as coach and Leipold fired Doug Risebrough as the team president and general manager.
The hockey replacements were Chuck Fletcher as general manager and Todd Richards as coach. The Wild missed the playoffs in 2009-10 (38 W’s in 82 games) and 2010-11 (39 W’s in 82 games).
Richards was fired and Fletcher convinced Leipold to allow him to hire Mike Yeo, the young coach with the Wild’s Houston farm club. The Wild played well for 30 games and then went completely in the tank.
The 2011-12 Wild won 35 of 82 games. Yeo’s losers finished with the franchise’s second-lowest goal total, 177, and with its second-worst goal differential at 49. The arena was dead for the second half of the schedule, another lockout was in the offing, and a high percentage of season tickets were not being renewed.
The honeymoon with the customers had ended by the finish of the 2008-09 season and now it was turning into a divorce. Then, on July 4, 2012, the Wild announced the signings of free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching, 13-year, $98 million contracts.
Even with a lockout looming, Parise and Suter were the hockey fans’ equivalent of a couple reigniting the embers with a second honeymoon on Turks and Caicos.
The Wild has reached the playoffs in the three seasons of Parise and Suter. The St. Paul lads won 26 of 48 games in the lockout season of 2012-13, then lost to Chicago 4-1 in the first round.
The league’s new divisional and conference alignment (14 teams in West, 16 teams in East) arrived in fall 2013. Since then, the Wild has won 89 games and lost 75, won two first-round playoff series and lost in the second round to the Blackhawks (2-8).
Tickets sold compared with capacity were more than 102 percent last season. The embers are reignited, and then some.
“You couldn’t keep people away from this place if you had fire hoses,’’ I said to Leipold during last week’s exhibition vs. Buffalo.
The owner said: “We never take our fans for granted. The staff does a great job making sure it’s a good experience in the arena. And Chuck [Fletcher] and his people are responsible for putting a strong team on the ice.’’
Are you optimistic?
“I think we’re better,’’ Leipold said. “We have our goalie from the start [Devan Dubnyk]. And even in the preseason, you can see some of our young guys ready to take a step forward.’’
Right about then, Matt Dumba left a defender looking like a 6-foot-high pylon and went zooming into the offensive zone.
“Like Dumba,’’ Leipold said. “He’s going to be special.’’
Mike Russo arrived at the Star Tribune from Florida in September 2005 to provide information on the fastest version of the fastest game on ice. In Wednesday’s print edition, he made his forecast for 2015-16 and had the Wild fourth in the West.
That could be a touch more optimistic than the average hard-core fan. There was grumbling in the offseason that the Wild didn’t do more to reinforce the roster.
There’s one rookie in center Tyler Graovac. Defenseman Mike Reilly, of Gophers notoriety, will be back from Iowa eventually.
Not much new here, though.
If the Wild finishes fourth among 14 in the West, it will be because the powerful, extra-talented Nino Niederreiter, the swift goal-scorer Jason Zucker and did-you-see-that defenseman Dumba take that large step forward to become difference-makers.
There are other young players who should improve, but if the Wild is going to approximate Chicago’s Toews-Kane-Keith nucleus in the foreseeable future, these are the three.