ST. PAUL -- Think back to when you were seven years old.
What was your most prized possession? How long did you have it? For some, perhaps, it's a toy that's typically cast aside by the time they're 8 or 9.
For Brainerd's Stephen Mikkelson, the hockey stick he received at age seven from North Stars legend J.P. Parise was something he kept for more than four decades before returning it to the Parise family at Xcel Energy Center last week.
"The only person who this would mean more to than me is you," Mikkelson told Wild forward Zach Parise before handing over the wooden Wilson stick that belonged to J.P.
How Mikkelson even came into possession of J.P. stick was complete happenstance.
It was actually his older brother, Jon, who was selected along with about 40 other kids in the Twin Cities area, to "Skate with the Stars," a promotion put on by a local steak restaurant back in 1974.
The whole Mikkelson family made the trip, with Jon skating on the Met Center ice for about an hour. All of the kids who were skating got to dress in the North Stars locker room, so while the rest of the kids were on the ice, Stephen waited patiently outside the doors.
"J.P. came walking up the stairway to the locker room and started talking to me," Stephen said. "I don't know if he felt sorry for me because I was standing out there alone or what, but he had the stick he was using. He pulled out a pen, signed it to me and gave me his stick.
"It was the thrill of my 7-year-old life to that point."
Many kids may have brought the stick home and used it, whether on the ice or in the street. But J.P.'s lefty-curved blade didn't mesh with Stephen's righty skills, making it a little easier to preserve over the years.
Wherever he went, the stick usually followed. For years, it resided in his bedroom or living room. People often asked about it, which offered Stephen a chance to tell the story of how he once ran into J.P. outside the locker room.
"I cherished it. J.P. was one of my favorite North Stars, back then especially." Stephen said.
Fast-forward four decades, and Stephen's son Reece was working the check-out line at the Whole Foods in Minnetonka. One day, Zach Parise happened to shop there and finished his visit to the store by going through Reece's line.
Stephen's story had now come full circle.
Reece recognized the Wild star and told him that his dad had a hockey stick that belonged to J.P.
"Does he want to sell it?" Parise asked.
Stephen said Reece wasn't sure if his dad would part with it, but he went home and told him who he'd met that afternoon.
Immediately, the wheels started turning in Stephen's head.
Like Zach, who lost J.P. to lung cancer two years ago, Stephen watched his father pass away in 2011.
"Just knowing what Zach's dad meant to him and having lost my dad a few years ago, I just thought the rightful place for J.P.'s stick is with Zach," Stephen said.
So, Stephen got in contact with Kevin Gorg of FOX Sports North, a friend of Jon's. Gorg passed the message along to Wild media relations director Aaron Sickman, who alerted Parise.
Despite Parise's offer to pay for the stick, Stephen said the money didn't interest him. Over the years, when money had been tight, it would have been easy to part with the piece of Minnesota hockey history for a quick payout.
"That was never a thought," Stephen said. "It's always been with me. The North Stars meant everything to me when they were here, and J.P. was a great player, a fan favorite and my family's favorite. I was never tempted to sell, but it just seemed like everything fell into place when my son met Zach.
"It's going to the one place where it belongs most."
Instead of money, Stephen simply said he'd give the stick to Parise on the condition that he got to meet him, and tell him the story of how he acquired it 43 years ago.
In addition to the stick, Stephen also brought to Parise a photo of him and his two brothers with J.P. the night he got his stick. Front and center is Stephen, a vice grip on his newest prized possession.
"That was pretty unique," said Parise, who had surgery Tuesday and was expected to return to play in approximately 8-10 weeks. "The fact that he's hung onto it all this time, and the condition that it's in, you could tell that it meant a lot to him. So for him to give it to me, it was really generous of him."
In the nearly three years since J.P.'s passing, Zach said he's started to understand the effect his father had on so many kids from that generation. Over that time, a number of things related to his dad -- cards, photos, jerseys, gloves and other personal effects -- have come into the family's possession.
It's things like Monday's meeting with Stephen that help keep J.P.'s legacy strong and the memories special.
"I would say I probably took a little for granted when he was still around," Zach said. "But now ... it definitely means a lot more to have that stuff."
In exchange for the stick, the photo, and the one-of-a-kind story about his dad, Parise surprised Stephen with an autographed jersey and also sent with him an autographed stick of his own, promising that the Parise name will remain a presence in the Mikkelson household for many years to come.
"It was a thrill to come down here and meet Zach and give him that stick and a photo of that night I got it," Stephen said. "It will [be weird to not have it] for awhile. But instead of not having that stick at home, I have the memory of meeting Zach and the story to tell my kids, my family and my friends. That's a pretty good trade-off."