Kramer: Start wildly believing in the Wild
David Kramer | Friday, March 12, 2021
Each year, as water drips from the icicles haphazardly scattered on its roof and streams of melted snow pour down its sidewalks, St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center opens its doors for one last embrace of the winter season.
In the State of Hockey, parents lace up their children’s skates seemingly hours after teaching them to walk. Through stained plexiglass and the thin steam of their coffee mugs, hopeful relatives and babysitters watch as two new pieces of tempered carbon steel wobble and topple for hours on end. Sharing the joy of these early moments pales in comparison to the euphoria that may come years later.
As they develop, young players make the prospect of playing at the high school level their motivation. The glitz and glamor of a local tin can, packed to the brim with untamed adolescent fans, becomes idolized by many as a cultural apex. Intimate relationships between classmates form and so do dreams of a March bus ride to the Xcel Energy Center.
The high school state tournament is everything. Entire populations of small towns in the Northwoods coming out of their otherwise quiet, quiet woodwork for a trek to the big city. The kisses blown from the blue lines of St. Paul to grandmothers and girlfriends and mailmen in living rooms across the state. The long hair and long lines and long benches. For anyone and everyone with a hockey background, the opportunity for victory in such an electrifying environment is everything.
But the coronavirus pandemic will leave this energy out of the Xcel Energy Center, at least in part. This month, St. Paul will host up to 250 fans per game in a high school state tournament unlike any other. Most fans craving the annual thrill of young players turning heads will turn to their televisions.
But all is not lost, as the Minnesota Wild now hold a unique opportunity to recapture a sliver of this lost energy in the coming months.
Plagued with poor playoff performances and underwhelming acquisitions, the Wild have disappointed their otherwise devoted fanbase since the team’s inception in 1997. With little hope for a Stanley Cup victory, the State of Hockey began to follow the high school tournament for some surefire catharsis. The highly coveted high school championship trophy has become a remedy for the curse so obviously placed on Minnesota’s professional teams in the 21st century.
Fans, it appears, have grown numb to the value of a Stanley Cup championship coming to the State of Hockey. To them, the prospect feels distant at best, unforeseeable at worst. But the 2021 Minnesota Wild team holds the assets that it needs to revive the support and energy of its fanbase.
Led by dazzling rookie Kirill Kaprizov, the Wild sit in second place by points percentage in the West division. Their recent surge of success, capitalized by their sweep of a talented Las Vegas club on Wednesday, gives them seven wins in their last 10 games. The insurgence of young weapons like forwards Joel Erikksson Ek, paired with the flourishing confidence of goaltender Kaapo Kähkönen, makes for a level of stability and resilience that no one expected. The team’s off-season commitment to rebuilding and short-term contracts makes its success all the more remarkable.
While carrying the stain of a record-setting 30-year championship drought in Minnesota, Wild head coach Dean Evason displays a profound understanding of the team’s moving parts. His dynamic mid-game adjustments to the Wild’s line pairings create favorable matchups and complement his player’s talents in ways never reached by his coaching predecessors in the State of Hockey.
No hockey fan can deny the significance of momentum moving into the playoffs. The Wild should enter the postseason with momentum unlike that of any Minnesota playoff push before. That is, if Kähkönen continues his unmistakably special rookie performance. If Evason continues to enhance the value of his assets. And, if Kaprizov’s marvelous puck work continues to translate into goals. The future of fans’ renewed allegiance with the Wild as their favorite Minnesota hockey team undoubtedly depends on these three factors.
Look for the Wild to defy all expectations in 2021, and look for fans to channel the forsaken energy of the high school hockey tournament into their support for one of the most promising Minnesota sports teams in years.