Philadelphia, PA – They may call it "The State of Hockey," but Minnesota has rarely been the center of attention in the world of the NHL.
That all changed this Wednesday when the Minnesota Wild managed to land the two biggest prizes of this year's free agency class, signing forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.
In what certainly will go down as a memorable Fourth of July for both the franchise and the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Wild managed to drastically alter the perception of their organization with the daring decision to sign Parise and Suter as a package deal.
Hockey pundits will argue that the Wild spent a ton of money on two guys and still aren't legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. That's probably true, but for a franchise that only has won two playoff series since entering the league as an expansion club for the 2000-01 season, Wednesday's signings still were a major coup.
The NHL worked hard to get a franchise back in Minnesota after the North Stars departed for Dallas following the 1992-93 campaign, and the Wild have been a successful replacement franchise -- at least in terms of ticket sales.
Minnesota sold out its first 400 games at Xcel Energy Center before the sellout streak ended during the 2010-11 campaign. Last season, despite missing the playoffs for a fourth straight spring, the Wild sold over 98 percent of available tickets and the club's average attendance was 17,772.
Yet, for all the love that the Twin Cities have shown their expansion team, the Wild have done little in return for the people who so passionately support the franchise. Those fans watched as winger Marian Gaborik -- the one legitimate star player in the team's history -- left to sign a mammoth deal with the New York Rangers in the summer of 2009. Last offseason's trade for winger Dany Heatley was a move in the right direction, but it pales in comparison to what general manager Chuck Fletcher was able to pull off on Wednesday.
"This is a great day in the history of the Minnesota Wild," Fletcher said on Wednesday. "We view this as a rare opportunity for us to transform our franchise by adding two marquee players, who are both in the prime of their careers, at the same time."
Fletcher and the Wild are hoping July 4, 2012 will go down as a turning point in the franchise's history. Whether the signings lead to an eventual Stanley Cup title or not is an important factor in judging the success of the moves, but at the very least, the Wild finally sent the right message to their fan base. The franchise seems to be saying that it's no longer content to simply count on people to show up at the Xcel Energy Center because hockey is popular in Minnesota. After more than a decade in existence, the Wild are ready to take a more active role in putting a good product on the ice.
For Parise and Suter, who are longtime friends and former Team USA members, the decision to join forces and pick a team together is one that seriously improves the Wild. But, how much better will they be? After all, the team is coming off a disappointing 81-point season -- the worst total for Minnesota since 2001-02 -- and even with the new additions, the Wild still have depth issues on both ends of the ice.
For Parise, a Minneapolis native, this move was all about location, so winning immediately may not have been the top priority for the former New Jersey Devils captain.
"The opportunity to play at home meant a lot to me, and my family," Parise said. "Every kid that's growing up in Minnesota would love to play with the Wild. Now, I'm lucky we were able to make that happen."
Meanwhile, Suter comes to Minnesota after seven seasons in Nashville, where he was best known as Shea Weber's defensive partner. The Madison, Wisconsin native will be counted on as the undisputed No. 1 blueliner in St. Paul and it'll be interesting to see how he fares outside of Weber's shadow.
Everything Parise and Suter said Wednesday about Minnesota's future indicated that they know the Wild still have a ways to go in becoming a serious Cup contender. The duo heaped praise upon the franchise's "good, young players" and Parise and Suter hope to join forces with that largely inexperienced nucleus to form the makings of a future Western Conference power.
"Ryan and I talked about this: We like what they are doing here in Minnesota," Parise said. "We like the pieces. Our hope is that we can come in and help this team get to where we want to go."
Where the Wild want to go is all the way to the top of the NHL heap. Time will only tell if Parise and Suter are the cornerstones to a future championship or merely a pair of guys who will sell a lot of jerseys.
If nothing else, after more than a decade of playing it safe, the Wild finally gave their fans something to be excited about.