About 1,500 fans waited in the lobby of AMSOIL Arena Tuesday for the opportunity to see their favorite NHL team practice. Supporters of all ages anticipated seeing the Minnesota Wild without a television screen between them, an experience these fans do not often get.
As doors opened allowing fans to trickle into the stands, the excitement was palpable. Maroon and gold seats were quickly filled with green and red jerseys, everyone connected by one thing —Minnesota hockey.
The team was welcomed onto the ice with a “Wild, Wild” from young fanatics huddled around the ramp to the locker room. Among those cheering with excitement were fifth graders Jack and Will.
“We used to go [watch the Wild] a lot, but we don’t go too much anymore because now I’m in school,” said an enthused Jack. “It’s awesome that the Wild came here.”
Goaltending coach Bob Mason, an International Falls native who starred at UMD, understands the importance of bringing live NHL action to fans, especially the littlest ones.
“I remember growing up in International Falls, you’d watch the North Stars, but you never get to see them in person.” said Mason, “But once you did, it was unbelievable. I think if we can get around the state, especially when we’re on the ice, it’s a great thrill for kids.”
Hosting the Wild at AMSOIL was not only important for fans, but also aspiring NHL athletes.
“I think it’s great. With this nice new building, to have the Wild come in here and practice, it’s good for them as well as for us,” University of Minnesota Duluth captain Joe Basaraba said. “Having the chance to watch these guys skate is always a treat. We can always learn something from these guys.”
The Wild held a faster-paced practice Tuesday, showing off a number of different drills and scrimmage situations for its Duluth followers. The fans in attendance not only kept the Wild on its game during the skate, but also helped to give some perspective to the players.
“It means a lot for us, they’re a big part of the game,” captain Mikko Koivu said, who traveled up to Duluth for day two of the trip. “Hopefully they had some fun as well, we give them a little bit of fun out there. It was a good day.”
The trip north was not only important or the fans in the eyes of the team, but also for team bonding, which helped the newcomers get acclimated to their new teammates, including Minnesota native Keith Ballard.
“It’s good before the season starts to have time to do this,” Ballard said. “It’s good to get the guys together, and for me especially, to get to know everyone a little bit more and the other new guys.”
Retreats like this one have become more commonplace in the NHL in recent years, and for the Wild who took a similar trip two years ago to Duluth. It’s not only the fans who appreciate the appearances by their favorite athletes, but also the players also get to see support from all over the state.
“Being close to home for me, and we’ve got quite a few guys from Minnesota on the team, it’s special — for all of us it’s special,” Wisconsin native Ryan Suter said. “Guys were joking after, no one’s ever applauded us for practicing. It’s fun, and it says a lot about hockey in Minnesota.”
Coach Mike Yeo saw the trip as a success, on both from business and team building standpoint.
“There’s a lot of excitement for everybody. It’s a business trip, but it’s a fun trip too,” Yeo said. “We’re about to go to war together 82 times in the regular season, a lot of travel, it’s a grind. When you have a group that you care about and that you want to go and play for, it makes a huge difference.”