Myers: Wild moves making Minnesota a major NHL market
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - In his most triumphant press conference in the half-decade or so that he's owned the Minnesota Wild, Craig Leipold beamed about his two newest employees, and mentioned that both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter had spurned offers from "major market teams" to come play, in one way or another, at home.
Just don't tell either of the two newest alternate captains for the Wild, or that army of intense hockey enthusiasts in every corner of the self-proclaimed "State of Hockey," that this isn't a major market in the world of the NHL.
Yes, the folks at NBC Sports and the organizers of the Winter Classic will have you believe that beyond the Original Six and the state of Pennsylvania, there's no pro hockey in America, to speak of. That's likely to change, and the results of this latest press conference will have plenty to do with that change.
The Xcel Energy Center's main lobby was packed for Episode One of the Zach & Ryan Show, with media, fans and local dignitaries enjoying a rare midsummer trip to the rink. Much like Camden Yards in baseball, the downtown St. Paul arena quickly became the model for others to emulate when it opened a dozen years ago.
Travel to see pro hockey at the new facilities in Phoenix or New Jersey or Pittsburgh and you'll find yourself in a rink with sprawling open concourses, levels of club seating and suites stacked atop one another and even stages in the corners, just like in St. Paul. In Arizona, and in New Jersey, they even hang all the state's high school hockey sweaters in the main concourse. In the Coyotes' rink there are about a dozen of them. In New Jersey there are three dozen or so. In Minnesota they ring the entire building, and there are more in the upper concourse.
In purely hockey terms, American markets hardly get bigger than Minnesota, home of more USA Hockey-registered players per capita than any NHL state in the union. Parise and Suter admit they both noticed a different feel here when playing in St. Paul for the Devils and Predators, respectively.
And while there is some good to come out of the game's growth in non-traditional hockey markets like Nashville, the folly of the NHL's southern migration in the 1990s was the trend of letting teams leave hockey-crazy communities (Minnesota, Winnipeg and Quebec City) to go to places where the game is far from the forefront on the local sports radar (Dallas, Phoenix and Denver). Already, we've seen a bit of reverse migration with the game's successful return to Minnesota, and the relocation of the Thrashers from an uninterested fan base in Atlanta to hockey-addicted Winnipeg, where they're still glowing over the return of the Jets. Rumors that struggling teams like Phoenix and Columbus could one day end up in Quebec or Hamilton persist, so a gradual return to hockey's roots may continue.
Still, if you point to economics alone, the NHL's big American markets are clearly in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and perhaps Los Angeles. But if sports success were purely about economics, all of those huge markets would field pro football teams, right?
"This is not a major market team. This would be a middle market team," Leipold said, pointing out that Minneapols-St. Paul's television market is 15th in the nation. With seven NHL teams in Canada and 23 in the United States, there are 14 teams that play in bigger TV markets than the Wild's home base. Minneapolis-St. Paul is a larger market than eight other NHL cities (Miami, Denver, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, Nashville, Columbus and Buffalo). Still, you don't see anyone who says a free agent offer sheet from Detroit (11th largest TV market), Tampa Bay (13th), San Jose (6th) or Phoenix (12th) is more attractive due to the number of homes with a TV set.
For Parise and Suter, this move was about coming home, but it might just as much have been less about the number of TV sets, and more about the number of backyard rinks dotting Twin Cities neighborhoods from Thanksgiving to St. Patrick's Day. Parise is a biased Minnesotan, but living in greater New York City for the past eight years, he always wondered why his home state wasn't considered a major NHL market in the purest hockey sense.
"I've always felt like it should be," Parise said. "The building is great, the fans are great, the people are nice, it's a great place to live."
Since the Pittsburgh Penguins entered the NHL in 1967, the often-floundering franchise has twice gone from afterthought to major contender, seemingly overnight, due to the addition of one big-name player. In 1984 it was Mario Lemieux, who eventually brought the Stanley Cup to that town twice. In 2005 it was Sidney Crosby, who has brought the Cup back once, and has the Pens in routine contention for more.
So the roadmap has been written for rapid turnaround of a franchise due to a big-name addition. In the past week the Wild have done that, times two, and the duo hinted on Monday that part of solidifying Minnesota's place in the NHL's big picture will be putting the Wild on that "big market" radar, which could mean more free agent talent to come.
"With Ryan and I coming here, good players want to play with good players, so hopefully that will help influence some people," Parise said. "We have a lot of friends around the league, so hopefully that will help too."
Parise also brushed aside comparisons some have made to the LeBron James free agency gong show, saying that he'd never seek the attention of spending an hour on ESPN announcing his decision. In a bit of irony, Parise was surrounded by cameras and reporters when he noted that both he and Suter are private "under the radar" types, and neither craves the spotlight.
That may be a problem in their new NHL home, where big market or not, the local spotlight will shine brightly, and the national spotlight will be close behind. For so many Minnesotans who spend those seemingly endless winter months dragging kids' hockey bags to and from practice, flooding the backyard rink, and rooting for the local NHL team to make the playoffs, these first days of July may one day be looked back upon as the start of Minnesota's emergence as a true power player in the pro hockey world.
"I think it's a big time market," Suter said of his new home. "I think Minnesota's a great market. I think it's going to get even bigger."