Greg Zanon and Cam Barker are locked in an epic battle. Back and forth they go while several teammates look on wondering which Wild defenseman will crack first, and poised for the action to come their way…
A practice scuffle, perhaps? A card game on the team plane? Maybe just an intense staring contest?
No. No. And certainly no.
It’s an hour and a half before puck drop, and the Wild are getting set to take on the Ottawa Senators at the Xcel Energy Center. It’s going to be a big night. Dino Ciccarelli will be honored for his recent induction into the hall of fame. Lou Nanne will be making the traditional “Let’s Play Hockey” proclamation. Underneath the bowels of the arena, the ice crew is making their pregame preparations. Anthem singers, honorary flag kids, and other persons important to the spectacle that will be a Wild home game are getting checked in and instructed on their duties for that night.
Jose Theodore, tonight’s starting goalie, is off in the distance throwing and catching a tennis ball off of a concrete wall to sharpen his reflexes. While he gets into “the zone” he stays oblivious to the chaos around him created by his teammates.
Antti Miettinen bounds out of the dressing room hallway, bouncing a yellow soccer ball in his right hand. Right behind him are eight or nine of his teammates, hollering with excitement to start their nightly ritual. They form a circle, and Miettinen drops the ball onto the instep of his left foot and a hacky sack-like game with a soccer ball begins.
The rules are simple. Don’t let the ball touch the ground. Each player can touch the ball twice if it comes to him, and if they let it hit the concrete, they are out for the rest of that round. The last man standing wins.
Right now, it’s down to Barker and Zanon. Barker pops the ball up with his shoulder and shoots a header in Zanon’s direction. Zanon is more direct, heading it right back to Barker on his first touch. On and on it goes, while the rest of the players watch intently, shouting with every successful pass.
“It’s a fun way to get the blood flowing [before a game],” says Andrew Brunette, one of the eight players who frequently get their night started this way. “It gets everybody feeling pretty loose.”
The Wild aren’t the only team that warms up in this fashion. By Brunette’s estimate, almost every team has a soccer-playing contingent on its roster. Anyone who tuned in for the first episode of HBO’s “24/7” Penguins/Capitals-palooza may have caught a quick glimpse of some of the Washington players having a kickaround.
Brunette’s career began in 1996, but he doesn’t remember soccer entering hockey hallways until several years later.
“Probably about seven or eight years ago, you started to see teams do this all the time,” he says. “It’s one of those things that European players brought with them. They’re all big soccer guys, so they got games going over here.”
Indeed, three of the eight players playing in tonight’s warm up count themselves among the five European-born members of the Wild roster. Another Finnish-born former Wild, Antti Laaksonen, gets Brunette’s credit for introducing the warm-up game to his Minnesota teammates in the early years of the franchise.
There have been epic, and infamous battles ever since. The most famous game in Wild history came during a father-son trip to California. Then-defenseman Petteri Nummelin had his father, Timo, a former pro hockey and soccer player, join the game. Timo famously removed his shirt, and proceeded to put on a clinic.
Brent Burns makes a lunging save with his right toe towards Cal Clutterbuck
, who controls the ball with his right knee and sends a feeble kick towards Miettinen, who, in his haste to save the round, lunges wildly at the ball and plays it off the windshield of a nearby delivery truck. He calmly collects himself, waits for the carom, and pops an easy lob towards Marek Zidlicky…
Ask any player why this method of getting loose has caught on around the league, and one of the reasons given is the adaptable nature of the game. With a ball and a large enough hallway, the players can find a place to play in any rink in the NHL; which they do, whether home or road. Naturally any arena has enough space in its lower level to kick a ball around, so it becomes someone’s duty to make sure the Wild have at least one, if not a few soccer balls available on every road trip.
“That job is for the trainers,” says Mikko Koivu
, with a tone that underlines not only how important said duty is, but also suggests that it has been forgotten. “Sometimes it happens. We always find a ball wherever we go, though.”
Of course there are obstacles to playing in a crowded area. On this Thursday night, the ball goes missing in curtains, underneath the truck, and various other nooks and crannies. The game pauses for a catering cart, balancing several trays of cold cuts and vegetables, to be allowed through the playing area and into the hallway beyond. A stadium staffer tells observers of balls being kicked on top of the truck or even the catwalk that runs 20 feet above the players’ heads and sticking there, making retrieval a tricky proposition.
The players play for about fifteen minutes, and in that time they are able to get in about 10 rounds. Players who make mistakes fall by the wayside, waiting for the next game to begin while the circle of “live” players gets smaller and smaller. On this night, Koivu is a finalist in four or five games in a row, but Brunette says that is nothing new.
“Mikko and [Brent] Burns,” Brunette says ruefully. “Those guys are impossible to kick out because they’re good, for one, but they also argue their way back in. I think they’re both part lawyer.”
Ask Koivu why he’s so hard to knock out of the game, and the answer is slightly different. “That’s what happens when you’ve got skills,” he replies with a smile.
Not surprisingly, the game is competitive, but an observer would notice right away the casual atmosphere among the players. This light-hearted competition provides a nice contrast to the intense atmosphere of an NHL game.
“It’s competitive, sure. We’re always competitive” says Koivu. “But it’s mainly for fun and to get everybody going. You wouldn’t want to get anyone hurt.”
It’s down to the final round. Brunette misplays a ball off of his thigh, curses himself, and turns to jog into the locker room. Barker is next. One by one the players kick themselves out of the game and peel away towards the dressing room. Eventually only Burns and Miettinen remain, and they go back and forth, playing the ball off of shoulders, chests, knees, heels, heads, and thighs until finally Burns can’t keep up. Miettinen collects the ball, and the last two soccer players remaining jog back out of sight.
It’s now 6:00, an hour before Ciccarelli drops the puck, and the Wild have had their fun. Now it’s time to go to work.