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Updated: July 4th, 2012 5:34pm
Zulgad: Signings are 'game-changer' for Wild on ice and at box office

Zulgad: Signings are 'game-changer' for Wild on ice and at box office

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

There is no guarantee the Minnesota Wild's decision to give matching 13-year, $98 million deals to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter is going to work out.

Free agent deals of this magnitude have failed before, setting franchises back and backfiring in ways that no could have expected on the day they were signed.

But on Wednesday, as the Wild announced they had secured the services of the two biggest free agents on the market, there was no time for this type of cynicism in the Twin Cities sports community.

That's because on a day in which temperatures soared, the hot topic was a winter game played on ice.

Wild owner Craig Leipold had made the biggest free-agent splash, at least in terms of bringing in players from outside an organization, that Minnesota had ever seen from one of its pro sports teams.

In doing so, Leipold also had thrown the equivalent of a high-tight fastball at the heads of the Twins, Vikings and Timberwolves. The Wild suddenly had gone from a team that hadn't made the playoffs in four seasons to a franchise that will be expected to contend for the Stanley Cup in 2012-13.

The Twins still have Target Field as a selling point, although a 99-loss season in 2011 and another up-and-down year in 2012, clearly isn't helping matters.

The Vikings are coming off a disastrous 3-13 season in 2011 but have the promise of a new stadium in 2016 to try to lure the ticket-buying public.

The Wolves, meanwhile, now feature the one-two punch of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio and should have a remodeled Target Center in which to play in the not too distant future.

A Wild game at Xcel Energy Center was once an assured sellout. In fact, the franchise's honeymoon period probably lasted longer than many team executives expected. But as the missed playoff appearances began to pile up, so did the amount of seats that were empty on any given night at the X.

Leipold, sitting in his suite night after night, saw the empty seats and the losses mount. Given that the owner doesn't take kindly to losing both games and potential revenue, he knew something had to be done.

Give him credit for doing something this drastic.

"I think you're right," Leipold said on 1500 ESPN on Wednesday when asked if he was tired of losing. "We never thought that we'd be getting both of these guys. We went down this road and were hopefully we could get one of them.

"They're both difference-maker kind of players. One is defense (Suter), one is offense (Parise). The dominoes have fallen for us and we were able to get both of them. Our fans are just going to be ... well, we already know. My e-mail is pinging about every 15 seconds. It's obviously the biggest thing that's happened for me in hockey, no question."

Since beginning play as an expansion franchise in 2000, the Wild has had only one player who could be considered a star player. That was Marian Gaborik. Gaborik, though, had contract issues with the team and injuries too often kept him out.

As a result, he never really seemed to be embraced by Minnesota sports fan as one of the heroes in this town.

But the void that has existed is about to be filled.

Suter promises to provide a steady presence on the blue line and play big-time minutes each night. Fans will appreciate his abilities and his work ethic.

Parise, however, will be a guy the fan base will adopt and turn into the Wild's first true superstar type player. He is from Minneapolis, his father, J.P. Parise, played for the North Stars and Zach lives in Orono.

He had a career-high 45 goals with the Devils in 2008-09 and this season had 31 goals and 38 assists in 82 games as captain of a franchise that lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals.

"The opportunity like this presents itself every 10 years that you can get the two top (unrestricted free agents)," Leipold said. "We don't have to give away any assets. Now obviously you have to pay more money. But if you're going for a Rich Nash (in a trade with Columbus), you're going to have give away three great prospects, a number one pick and a good player.

"Here we could make our team incredibly better with these two players and not lose anything by doing that. It costs you money to build a team that way and that's not the way in the long term you want to do it. But with our young prospects and with a core, with Mikko Koivu and now these two guys, you can't say no. Those opportunities don't come and so you've got to (embrace) them when they happen and it happened."

The fact the Wild were able to land Parise and Suter as a package deal gives local sports fans hope during what has been an incredibly rough period for the four major professional male sports franchises in this state.

Top-line players deciding they want to be on the same team and take a run at winning titles just doesn't happen to us here in flyover country. That's the type of thing we read about happening in a place like New York or Miami.

Leipold laughed as he explained that the Wild had eight workers in their ticket office on the Fourth of July fielding phone calls.

What will be interesting to see is how the Wild's decision to spend money will end up making them money. It won't be long before there is talk of a Winter Classic being played at either Target Field or TCF Bank Stadium. The Parise-Suter signings are the types of moves that will cause NBC to take notice of what's going on in St. Paul.

The Xcel promises again to be the place to be this fall - provided a lockout doesn't shut down the season when the collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15 - and that will be true both for fan and corporate dollars.

The Wolves were a hot ticket again when the NBA lockout ended last season and fans flocked to Target Center to see the extremely marketable and talented Rubio.

But a torn ACL suffered by Rubio in March could keep him out at the beginning of the season and if the Wild are playing games, fans and corporate execs who want to impress clients might find it more entertaining to watch Parise fly up and down his wing on the Wild's top line.

"Business wise this is really important," Leipold said. "It's a game-changer for us from a business perspective. Our fans have been clamoring for this kind of day to create a real rallying cry. 'We see it now. We're tired of the future, we're tired of the prospects, we're tired of (the) talking (that) we're going to get better, we're going to rebuild.' We understand that.

"You have to promote what you have and you have to go with it and we had a great team last year. We had some injuries, we didn't have enough depth. Now we've got ... it's a game-changer. Everything is changing. What Chuck (Fletcher, the Wild's general manager) has done in three years it's unbelievable.

"If you look at the team we had then to the team we have now, where we're going, the age of our young players. It's fantastic. And this market, they are really smart, they get it. They know that this is different." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Mikko Koivu
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