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Fans rush to St. Paul to go Wild

by John McGourty
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The fans come from all points in the State of Hockey, formerly known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and from across the Iowa, Wisconsin and North Dakota borders to watch the Minnesota Wild.

Game after game, "the team of 18,000" turns out in force and they've never failed, since the Wild first took to the ice in 2000, to sell out the Xcel Center.

That's 327 consecutive preseason, regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games.

The fans begin arriving hours earlier at the surrounding clubs and restaurants, Tom Reid's, Eagle Street Pub and Grille, McGovern's, and Bennett's Chop and Railhouse, along St. Paul's West 7th Street to meet up with friends and hash over today's hockey stories in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star-Tribune. What hockey writers Mike Russo, John Shipley and Sid Hartman have to say is more closely and passionately followed than the distant utterings of Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan and Warren Buffett. Jimmy Buffett plays on the jukebox.

"Cheeseburgers In Paradise?" This is paradise for a hockey fan, where the sport is as ingrained in the community as much as in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver or Ottawa.

"That's the brilliance of putting the team in St. Paul," said Wild spokesman Aaron Sickman. "Minneapolis has the Vikings, Twins, Timberwolves and the University of Minnesota, but St. Paul has the Wild. We're fans of the other teams, but this team is ours."

The architectural grandeur of the Cathedral of St. Paul towers over the area, but the fans have come tonight to observe Minnesota's other "religion," hockey. Four of Friday's seven sports pages in the Pioneer Press were devoted to hockey. Articles begin with local grounding, "North St. Paul's Bret Hedican signed with the Anaheim Ducks," "Former Golden Gopher Thomas Vanek leads the NHL in scoring," "Minnetonka's Bob Naegele Jr. to be honored," "Bloomington Jefferson's Mark Parrish back with Islanders."

"Hey, look, it's Doug Woog!"

Remember Herb Brooks? Folks here won't let you forget him. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, two of America's greatest authors, lived on Cathedral Hill, but the city is most proud of Brooks.

And they have their priorities in order. There's a statue of the architect of the "Miracle On Ice" behind the adjacent River Center and his accomplishments are listed in order of local importance: He led St. Paul Johnson High to the 1955 state championship under coach Lou Cotroneo. He coached "the U of M" to three national titles in seven seasons. And, he coached a gold-medal winning Olympic team in addition to playing earlier on two Olympic teams.

Brooks, sadly, is gone five years now, but his passion continues to fuel the Wild world.

Cindy Gieseke of Ramsey, Minn., and her friend, Laura Gutzwiller of Isanti, Minn., have been driving the 40 or so miles to St. Paul as season ticket holders since the Wild opened for business in 2000. They said the reason for the passion is simple.

"It's because hockey came back and it was gone for so long," Gieseke said. "When it did come back, it was huge for St. Paul. I was a North Stars fan, but I didn't go to games because I was little young for that back then."

This team was embraced from the moment it was announced in 1997 that the NHL was returning. They sing a song at intermission, a defiant song, "The State of Hockey."

"We were raised with a stick and a pair of blades,
On the ice we cut our teeth,
We took our knocks in the penalty box,
Our mother was the referee,
This sport was here before we came,
It will be here when we're gone,
The game's in our blood and our blood's in the game,
Lay us down under a frozen pond,
We will fight to the end,
We will stand and defend our flag flying high and free,
We were born a child of the strong and WILD,
In the State, The State of Hockey,
A big blue line runs around our state,
A line that can't be crossed,
The day they try to take this game,
Is the day the gloves come off,
We will fight to the end,
We will stand and defend our flag flying high and free,
We were born a child of the strong and WILD,
In the State, The State of Hockey! Go Wild!!"

"There's a lot of devotion to this team, definitely," Gutzwiller said. "The team has been very successful, but we'll come no matter what. It's the one sport we enjoy watching because it's the most action-packed.

"I think the crowd inside the Xcel Center is the most fun. Everyone really gets involved in it. The building is great, really nice. I enjoy coming here. The seats are very comfortable and the people that sit next to us are very friendly. Everything about the Xcel Center, including all the high-school and college jerseys on the walls, is great.

"If people don't own a Wild shirt, they'll wear any uniform jersey that they have that is Minnesota hockey related," she said. "Be it their high-school team, their college team, PeeWees or Bantams. People wear whatever they have, just to prove their Minnesota hockey loyalty. They're saying, 'I'm here, watching Minnesota hockey, and I'm going to enjoy it."

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