Wild, 409-game sellout streak, fall in preseason opener
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- That there were plenty of empty seats inside Xcel Energy Center just 42 seconds into the Minnesota Wild preseason opener on Wednesday was not in itself surprising. Even in hockey-mad Minnesota, a Dodger Stadium-style "late arriving crowd" is not unprecedented, especially with a hard rain snarling traffic en route to downtown St. Paul.
So when perhaps 12,000 fans cheered the goal scored by Martin Havlat on the Wild's first shot of the preseason, it was nothing noteworthy. But an hour later, when the Blues had rattled off five unanswered goals and there were still large swaths of empty seats to be seen inside the rink, it was more than noteworthy. It was historic, and unprecedented.
On Wednesday, for the first time in franchise history, the Wild played a game that was not officially sold out. Dating back to the team's first-ever preseason home game, on Sept. 29, 2000, the allotted 18,064 tickets had been sold every time the Wild and a visiting opponent squared off. That included every preseason game, every regular season game and every playoff game - 409 games in all. On many nights, the team also sold more than 500 standing room tickets, prompting team officials to announce an "overflow sellout crowd" of 18,568.
With a little less than four minutes to play in Wednesday's second period and the Wild trailing 5-1 (the eventual final score), the evening's attendance announcement was made: 16,219 tickets were sold for the opener.
To be sure, such a vast audience would be cheered among attendance-deprived teams like the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes (all of which are commonly mentioned in the "which team will be the next to relocate" discussion). But in the self-proclaimed "State of Hockey" team officials admitted it was a letdown.
"It's a disappointing night on certain levels, but it's also a night to say thank you to the fans. They've been remarkable to us through the years," said Wild chief operating officer Matt Majka.
He pointed to the economy when asked why there were nearly 2,000 tickets unsold, noting that teams in every sport and in every part of the nation are struggling to fill seats. Majka also pointed to the playoff-bound Minnesota Twins surge in popularity and the ever-present statewide passion for the Minnesota Vikings sapping some attention away from the local hockey club. And, despite what economists might tell you, pocketbooks are still being watched very closely.
"I'd start with the economy. That's probably the biggest factor," Majka said. "Fans are making difficult choices with their money these days, and we're caught up a lot in that too. But we're going to get better."
On the ice, a relatively lifeless losing effort by the Wild offered another reason for the unsold tickets, and may have given fans that stayed away some justification for doing so. This is a hockey team that finished 13th in the 15-team Western Conference last season (ahead of only the Columbus Blue Jackets and the league-doormat Edmonton Oilers) and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
And even with off-season additions like John Madden, Eric Nystrom and Moorhead native Matt Cullen, there are few if any in the national hockey circles predicting a Stanley Cup, or even a playoff appearance for the Wild.
A few players, and Wild coach Todd Richards, acknowledged that even they saw plenty of empty seats on Wednesday.
"You noticed it," the coach said, with a shrug. "The fans here are great and they've supported us for nine years, going on 10 years. Even tonight we had great support."
The Wild travels to St. Louis for a rematch with the Blues on Friday night, and hopes to start a new sellout streak on Saturday when the Philadelphia Flyers come to St. Paul. The preseason, and the Wild's 10th season, are just beginning. But after nine seasons with the NHL back in Minnesota, the honeymoon with the fans seems to be over.