Myers: Wild putting on happy faces, but true tests arrive quickly
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Plucked out of semi-retirement to run Team USA's hockey entry at the 2002 Winter Olympics, legendary coach Herb Brooks betrayed his super-serious nature and took a light-hearted approach to the fact that, prior to heading to Salt Lake City, he would have a matter of a few days to prepare his team for the games.
"We'll make sure there's a lot of WD-40 on the hinges of the bench doors and let 'em go," Brooks said before hopping on a plane for Utah, where he directed the Americans to a silver medal.
The Minnesota Wild, with coach Mike Yeo holding the whistle, took to the ice together for the first time on Sunday morning with less than a week to prep for their season opener.
The long lockout and abbreviated 48-game schedule means six days of training camp and no preseason games before Saturday night, when Mikko Koivu heads to the center ice dot to face off against someone from the Colorado Avalanche and the games begin for real.
Perhaps taking a page from the guy whose statue greets fans outside one entrance to the Xcel Energy Center, Yeo smiled and put a positive spin on the quick turnaround, saying he drew up the plans for Sunday's practice a long, long time ago.
"Luckily we've had about eight months to prepare for this," Yeo joked. "I'm really comfortable with the plans we have in place, and I'm sure there are 29 other coaches in the league that feel really good about their first day, but I'm very happy visually with what I've seen from our guys and the conditioning and the work they've put in. I think we've got a really good base."
Sunday's training camp opener came after Saturday's whirlwind, which featured the players finally approving the collective bargaining agreement, a much-discussed memorandum of understanding being filed and, late in the evening, the release of the schedule, which has the Wild opening with three consecutive home games.
That's the good news. The less-encouraging news is that the Wild have the most daunting travel schedule in terms of miles logged among any of the NHL's 30 teams.
Zach Parise has spent all of his pro career in New Jersey, where a 45-minute flight or a 90-minute bus ride to a road game is not uncommon. By contrast, his new team will travel more than 31,000 miles for 24 road games.
Not that anyone in the Wild room was complaining.
"We're just happy we're playing, so whatever schedule is thrown at us, I don't think there will be any excuses," newly-acquired forward Torrey Mitchell said. "Everyone is in the same boat in the whole league. There will be some ups and downs, bumps and bruises, but that's just part of it."
More prominent on Parise's list of things to consider was his first official skate on the Wild's top line, playing wing on the three-man unit with Koivu at center and Dany Heatley on the other wing.
"We've got a lot of potential to be a good line. Now it's up to us to communicate and learn about each other to know where the others like to go on the ice," Parise said.
"Sometimes it takes two days. Sometimes it takes a month. The most important thing for us as a line is to be patient with it because there is a lot of potential here and if things don't go right right away, it's important not to get antsy."
A few members of the national media were in attendance on Sunday, having made the trip to Minnesota on a cold, cold weekend to get a first-hand look at one of the league's most buzz-worthy teams.
Yeo admitted league-wide expectations for the Wild are nowhere near as intense as the local expectations. That point was underscored later in the day on Sunday, when the Wild had to cut off distribution of free tickets for Wednesday night's exhibition game versus their farm club, the Houston Aeros, to ensure that season ticket holders can get in to see the game.
Based on demand, one can realistically expect a crowd of 15,000 or better on Wednesday, for a scrimmage. Suddenly, pro hockey in Minnesota is sounding a lot like those SEC schools where 80,000 show up for a spring football intrasquad. So much for fans being angry and staying away.
Still, Parise said that among the players' first jobs is to apologize to the audience, and do what they can to ensure fans come out and keep coming out to the rink. One reporter even suggested that Parise could go up into the stands on Wednesday night after the scrimmage and sign autographs.
"If you have some skate guards, we could do that," Parise said, grinning.
On this day, when everyone is undefeated, and nobody is injured and no "three road games in three cities in four nights" journeys have been endured, the grins were plentiful.
The regular season ends on April 27, and the true measure of success will be if the Wild, and their hungry fans, are still grinning then.