ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. - The Minnesota Wild transformed their team as much as anyone in the NHL this summer, splurging on prized free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to surprise the league, revive their frustrated fan base and put themselves in position to become the Stanley Cup contender they've never truly been.
They have sold the equivalent of about 4,000 new season tickets since the day the 13-year, $98 million contracts for Parise and Suter were revealed, signalling the most-anticipated season in the franchise's 12-year history. Thanks to the NHL lockout, the buzz has been put on mute.
"There's so much hype and excitement in Minnesota, and for us, too," Suter said. "It is frustrating, but we want what's best for the players, for every player."
About a dozen members of the Wild have been gathering almost daily for skills work and pick-up games at the St. Louis Park Rec Center in the Minneapolis suburb, joining other NHL players who live in the Twin Cities area. From Parise to Suter to Mikko Koivu to Tom Gilbert to Niklas Backstrom, the core of this promising Wild team clip-clopped off the ice on Tuesday at the conclusion of another session, just like after a regular practice at Xcel Energy Center.
The glaring difference, though, was that they've been gliding around to stay sharp and sane, not to prepare for a specific opponent. After another unproductive bargaining session in New York between representatives for the owners and the players, the postponement of the Oct. 13 season opener and more appeared imminent.
"Everyone's just wishing that this would be more for real and we were actually playing ... but unfortunately that's not the situation we're in," Parise said. "So hopefully we'll get it resolved soon."
He added: "There's not much you can do, really. There are only so many times you can run through the drills and stuff like that. You need to start playing some games and get that competition out there. We're doing the best with what we're given right now."
Parise and Suter, who joined the group Tuesday for the first time, have at least gotten to know their new teammates better. Developing chemistry between lines and defensive pairs is hard, though, when the coaches aren't there and neither is the full roster.
"Obviously when you add talent like that, you want to get out there and compete," goalie Josh Harding said. "I've actually been here for quite a few years now, and this probably is the best lineup we've had. We're itching. We're excited. But we have to let the process pan out. After that, when they say it's time to go play hockey, we'll be ready."
Pierre-Marc Bouchard is one player who's not technically locked out, because he wasn't cleared to return from his concussion when last season ended. Bouchard hasn't been allowed to take part in full-contact scrimmages yet, but he has been skating with the group and said Tuesday he's "probably about 95 per cent." Because he's not locked out, Bouchard has regular contact with team physicians as his progress from his injury is monitored. He's hoping there'll be hockey games for him to resume once he's back on the ice at full strength.
"When you see those big acquisitions we made over the summer, it's pretty exciting, so for sure we want to play. But we want to make sure we get a good deal," Bouchard said.
Skate. And wait. That's about all the Wild and their peers around the sport can do until the two sides agree on a new collective bargaining agreement.
"My plan was to be up here and skate a few times this week, see the guys and get moved into the house," Suter said. "Now I go back to Wisconsin and probably do some deer hunting and stuff that I've never been able to do. Hopefully it gets ended fast, but in the meantime I'm going to enjoy the fall in Wisconsin."
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