In the fall of 1993, the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas. The next seven years, the state of Minnesota was without a hockey franchise. But in the year 2000, Minnesota got an expansion franchise in the Wild.
On December 17, 2000, the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars played for the first time. The Wild was a heavy underdog facing a Stars team that had made two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, having won in 1999.
But that night belonged to the Wild, who defeated the Stars 6-0 at Xcel Energy Center in one of the signature victories in the early stages of the new franchise.
On the 15-year anniversary of the first time the Wild and Stars faced each other, Wild.com caught up with players from each team from that game.
~ The Foreword ~
Darby Hendrickson, Minnesota Wild forward (current Wild assistant coach): It's hard to believe. When you go to different buildings you're like, 'wow, that building, like Chicago's stadium, that's already 20 years old.' It's amazing how quick. But the early years of the Wild were really special because hockey came back, and it sealed this gap of this team. But it seems like it goes so quick, and all of a sudden here you are in your 40's. It's amazing how quick it goes.
Wes Walz, Minnesota Wild forward (current Fox Sports North analyst): It honestly feels like yesterday.
Mike Modano, Dallas Stars forward: The hype was a lot. The result was probably pretty favorable for the Minnesota fans.
Brad Bombardir, Minnesota Wild defenseman (current Wild Director of Player Development): I remember the buildup to it. I remember the media made a lot of it, obviously, and the fans, it was really important to the fans, and we knew that, and we felt that as a team.
Walz: For me personally it was just another game. All of us were just trying to play well every night so you could get a chance to play the next game. We weren't guys in the locker room who were making $6 million a year. We knew that if we had a bad game that we probably weren't going to play the next game. We had a lot of guys in our locker room who were playing from game-to-game.
Hendrickson: I think with Dallas that was really built up from the start of the year. Everybody was not only excited hockey came back, but they also wanted to see that Dallas game. I just remember the hype, and just so many connections from the Dallas team that hadn't been that far to me.
Bombardir: We knew it was a prideful thing for the state, for us to come out and be on top of our game, and be at our best. Warmup even had a bigger crowd than probably 10 of the team's normal games during the season.
Modano: It was really tough. It was hard to come back, it was hard to play, and it was hard to really focus and concentrate.
Bombardir: It is an odd situation, right? Especially when you have that leftover. I don't know what a guy like [Modano] would have been feeling, but I'm sure he has great memories of it. And for those guys to come back and play, I'm sure it would have been somewhat of the same feeling that guys would have had going back to their old teams and playing.
Hendrickson: My dad (Larry) was the strength coach for the North Stars in the late 80's with Herb Brooks, and actually J.P. Parise was an assistant coach. I was around and got to meet a number of North Stars because of my dad being a strength coach. You know some of those guys, there are a lot of North Stars that still live around here, so you are always going to respect them.
Walz: I really don't think that until you spoke with guys like Darby and Jeff Nielsen, and some of the Minnesota boys that we had in our locker room, I don’t think we really got an idea of how important this game was until we spoke with the Minnesota guys.
Bombardir: You could see it because these guys I would imagine were living a boyhood dream, right? To be playing in the National Hockey League, and be playing in the state, and for the state. These guys had grown up watching these North Star battles throughout the years. Absolutely that was fuel for them, and it was fuel for all of us.
Walz: I don't think they got up in front of everybody; it was more conversation the three or four days before the game when you happened to be around the locker room talking, just all the different conversations between players. Everybody knew when that game started how important that game was to the people here. Being an expansion team that year, and the Dallas Stars, with Mike Modano, and (Sergei) Zubov, and Jari Lehtinen, I mean they had a great team. We were probably more concerned about just not getting embarrassed that night.
Hendrickson: I'd say Neal Broten was a guy that I looked up to. When the North Stars left there was a void for that, for kids to have role models that were at the pro level. Certainly I know our state loves college, Gopher hockey and all that, but the pro level is pretty special from that side, and that was a void that was missing. When hockey came back, now you have Zach (Parise), and all the young guys coming into our fold that young players growing up in our state can watch, and want to emulate. That’s what's made hockey being back here so special.
Bombardir: To be here, and be part of Minnesota, and the fabric of the state, and knowing it was important to them, too, certainly we knew it was important for them, and we wanted to make sure we came out and played the best that we could.
Walz: In '93 I didn’t live here. When the team moved, I was in the National Hockey League on a different team. I didn't live here, I didn't feel how everyone felt, but when you had a couple of teammates who grew up here, and they talked about some of the stories about how upset the fans were, all the back-page stories that went on, as a player it gives you more of a better feel about the people that are going to be sitting in the stands watching this game. That really played on our emotions, and made us play even harder than we actually did. Just having two Minnesota boys on our roster that had to live through that in '93.
Hendrickson: You couldn't really believe it. In '91, the North Stars almost won the Cup. They went to the Final, they had a great playoff run, there was excitement here, and there was a long history of North Star guys. And then within two years, the team was gone. There were some varying degrees to it, the team dropped a little bit, and attendance wasn't great in Bloomington at the Met Center, but the fact that it was all said and done was … everybody was shocked.
Walz: Any time that we went into a game in our early years, when you're playing against teams that had $80, $90 million payrolls, we just didn't want to get embarrassed. That's why we had the success we had our expansion year, just simply because we were scared to be embarrassed. We played really hard in front of our fans here all the time, and obviously that was one of the signature wins for myself as far as when I wore a Wild uniform.
Hendrickson: It was a little bit from a personal thing. You grew up watching [the North Stars], and some of the guys were still there that you watched. It was a new era, too. The Wild was new, there was something fresh and exciting about that, and that was taking off. But the history and the connection there … yeah, I think personally it was a big thing. You could feel the energy from the people.
Modano: You knew how excited the Wild team was against that scenario, and the fans were going to be against us. There were a lot of things tilted in favor of the Wild that night, but I knew that when we circled that date on the calendar leading up to it that it was going to be quite a night.
~ The Game ~
Bombardir: I remember the win.
Modano: Just waiting in the tunnel going out there the final four, five minutes before we headed out, it was like a Stanley Cup game. The buzz was amazing: the afternoon in the hotel, the lead-up to the pregame skate, and the whole thing. Fans were outside the hotel.
Hendrickson: I do remember before the game Neal Broten did the "Let's Play Hockey" with a Dallas jersey on, and he took that off, and the place just went crazy. And Neal was the kind of guy you looked up to, and that just kind of set the tone for the whole night. Rick Wilson (current Wild assistant coach) was on the bench, Darryl Sydor (current Wild assistant coach), they were on the other side, and they probably don't want to talk about it too much.
Modano: Once we headed out to the ice, it was just bedlam. We knew it was going to be a tough building to play in that night.
Walz: I still remember the game-winning goal. It was maybe five or six minutes into the game. The puck was in the corner and I happened to make a little backhand pass out to Jeff Nielsen, so it was kind of fitting that a Minnesota kid got the game-winner that night.
Bombardir: You remember the energy right off the bat. I'm telling you, this was a different feel. It was absolutely a different feel in the building; it was absolutely a different feel even through warmups, and at the beginning of the game.
Hendrickson: I think it was a five o'clock game. I just remember the intensity early was bigger than anybody.
Walz: It wasn't just like every chance we got, we scored on, we were basically in their zone. I remember the first period we were pretty much in their zone the whole period, and I don't remember too many games back then with the skill level we had, which was not as good as some of the other teams, there's no doubt about it, but we just worked so hard. They probably had to spend three-quarters of the first period in their own zone because we were just so excited to get out.
Bombardir: I'm sure Jacques was sitting on the bench thinking, 'I hope we don't use all our goals up for this month.' As the game went on, it fueled our confidence. I remember that. I remember sitting there thinking, 'Jeez, we got a good chance here. We're going. We're playing our game.'
Walz: I don't remember exactly how early the goal was, but the one thing that was really neat was scoring first. I was standing down in that corner right there (points to corner), and I passed it out to Jeff Nielsen in the slot and he buried it over the goalie's shoulder. I just remember looking at him in the slot, and you could see all the fans in the background, and I just remember the whole building just exploding. And I was like, 'whoa, wow.'
Hendrickson: Everything just kind of … we came in with the right attitude. They probably weren't as fired up or felt the energy we did. And everything just kind of went our way. And we got better, and they got more frustrated, and it was just the timing of the night. It was fun to be a part of. But, I don't know, just so many different emotions from different people. But it was a night that went our way.
Bombardir: They were a little off, and we took advantage of us being exceptionally prepared, and maybe they weren't quite ready for what had built up in the weeks ahead, or the days ahead of what this series meant to everyone around here, and then meant to us, and fueled us coming into that game.
Walz: Winning 6-0 allowed the fans to pretty much celebrate right from the beginning of the game to the end. They knew that once we had made it 3, 4-0, the game was probably over. It wasn't like it was a nail-biter.
Hendrickson: Wes Walz I think set up a goal early or did something, too, in the game. Maybe he had a shorthanded goal.
You scored two goals.
Hendrickson: I remember a great pass from Laaksonen on the first one. Just was a rush, and Belfour got caught out of position, so it was really a good setup. The other one actually hit me. I was just net-front, and I think Sean O'Donell hit me in the hip or something.
Walz: You couldn't have drawn it up any better.
Bombardir: The number one thing about that entire year is the appreciation the people had for just you coming out and playing hard. The fans here, their expectations weren't to win games, they were for us to come out, and be competitive, and we wanted to represent individually and collectively the team that we stood for. For the fans too, they wanted us to represent what they stood for, and that was honest, hard work, and to show up, and whatever you have, give it.
Hendrickson: It was fun to be a part of the first couple of years because of that, and how things came together. I played college hockey here with the Gophers, so you weren't a North Star, but you were around that era, and supported them, and liked them. And then the Wild at the start, we didn't have many Minnesotans — Jeff Nielsen was another guy early. But it was fun, it was fun to be around those different chapters, from opening night, to Dallas, to in year three we were in the playoffs. It was an incredible group the early years. And the city, the support, the surrounding part of Saint Paul made it awesome.
Bombardir: We unleashed the fury there, and hopefully their expectations didn't change too much, because I'm not quite sure where that came from, but it was a great day to unleash it, no doubt.