Wild prepares for the icePublished 9:20am Monday, January 7, 2013
MINNEAPOLIS — After a tentative agreement to end the NHL lockout was reached Sunday, the vagaries surrounding the state of the sport quickly surfaced.
New Wild forward Zach Parise compared waiting for the imminent beginning of training camp to a kid’s anticipation on Christmas Eve: “It can’t come fast enough.”
Parise, who was born in Bloomington but played at North Dakota in college and for the New Jersey Devils before signing in Minnesota in July, indicated that donning a Minnesota sweater some time in the next few days will represent an amazing moment for him.
“Finally,” he said with a laugh.
Parise and other players talked about regaining the trust of fans after a lockout that lasted 113 days.
“It’s not something anybody’s proud about,” Parise said. “You have to do things to earn the fans back.”
Much like Parise, native Minnesotan Matt Cullen came to the Wild as a free agent before the 2010-11 season because he wanted to be a part of a successful home-state NHL team. After two consecutive playoff misses derailed those ambitions, the outlook brightened when the Wild signed Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to matching 13-year contracts on the Fourth of July.
But the fireworks dimmed on Sept. 16 when the league locked out its players.
“It’s been an ugly deal,” Cullen said. “Nobody wants to be a part of anything like that. But we understand we all share responsibility in it and we hope the fans will come back quickly. That’s on us to help bring fans back. All you can do is go out and play and put the best product on the ice that we can and try to win as many games as we can and hope that the fans will come and support.”
While players turned figurative cartwheels Sunday, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher tiptoed around the topic, pleading the necessity to wait until the collective bargaining agreement is approved by both the league and the players association. Until that happens, no date for the beginning of training camps or the beginning of the season or even the sale of tickets can be established. Any comments, he said, would be premature.
While the Wild were idle, Fletcher has been “a hockey dad” over the past few months, driving 12-year-old son Keith to pee wee hockey practices.
Like all NHL management personnel, he was prohibited from contacting his players during the lockout, so when it was mentioned to him that Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom had expressed eagerness to get back to hockey games, Fletcher had a question of his own.
“How’s he doing?” Fletcher asked. “I haven’t spoken to Backy. I haven’t really spoken to any of our players.”
Wild owner Craig Leipold, who was involved in the 16-hour negotiating session that ended shortly before 5 a.m. New York time, declined to talk about the agreement but did say via text message, “Very long night.”
Parise said players had not been notified by mid-afternoon about a schedule to ratify the agreement.
Cullen said he heard teams hope to convene by the middle of this week and begin playing games perhaps as early as Wednesday. Minnesota’s players will report to the Xcel Energy Center as soon as Fletcher puts out the word.
“We’re raring to go,” said winger Dany Heatley, who lives in British Columbia and expects to arrive in the Twin Cities on Tuesday.
Heatley, like others, said the offseason excitement generated by the signings of Parise and Suter and the expected arrival of rookie Mikael Granlund from Finland can be rekindled quickly.
“We’re excited,” he said. “We feel like we’ve got as good a team as anybody on paper.”
Winning will help bring fans back, according to Parise, but the Wild already have a built-in advantage.
“In Minnesota,” he said, “they love their hockey.”
Backstrom was unable to visit a grocery store over the past few months without having fans ask him about the lockout.
“For fans and players, it’s been a long summer, a real long time,” he said. “We have to get back on the ice and play some hockey. It’s finally good to close this chapter and move on.”
Fletcher, too, said he was typically accosted in public by fans seeking answers, noting that it was a good thing.
“It would have been a bigger problem if no one was asking me,” he said.
The Wild coaching staff has been working on contingencies, Fletcher said, while waiting for a go-ahead from the league.
When Fletcher learned that bargaining was making progress Friday, he informed the Houston Aeros to remove Granlund from their lineup for American Hockey League games scheduled Saturday and Sunday to avoid the possibility of an injury.
“He’s played 21 games down there,” Fletcher said. “He’s clearly in game shape.”
The Aeros already were missing defensemen Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin — both are expected to play for the Wild — because of injuries, as well as forward Brett Bulmer. Fletcher said the Wild loaded up the Aeros’ roster with young players this season to give them pro experience.
The lone Wild player unaffected by the lockout has been winger Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who is recovering from concussion symptoms and was exempt because of his injury status. Bouchard has not been cleared to play yet.
“He’s getting closer,” Fletcher said.
Although the impasse has been resolved, everything remained on hold Sunday, pending word from the NHL offices.
Wild chief operating officer Matt Majka issued a statement that said: “We are very excited about today’s news that a tentative agreement is in place. Like our fans, we look forward to the final approval of the new collective bargaining agreement and seeing our team back on the ice. Further information will be provided as soon as we receive it from the NHL.”