As the soccer ball makes its way from player-to-player in the Minnesota Wild's circle, the pregame ritual has begun.
Hockey players are creatures of habit, and the Wild, like so many teams around the NHL, has adopted soccer into its warmup routines.
After all, it is the world's game, and the NHL boasts players from all around Europe, where soccer's popularity knows no bounds. In the United States, and in Minnesota, interest is growing, and an American, a Swede, and a Swiss have taken notice.
"It's cool to see that soccer is getting more and more popular in the United States," Nino Niederreiter said. " Growing up, we always played soccer, so it's just a part of growing up."
Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin, and Niederreiter recently attended a Minnesota United FC game. The former is only beginning to find his interest in soccer, while the latter two have been fans for much longer.
"I played soccer until a point at which I had to make a decision between hockey and soccer," Niederreiter said. "I chose hockey, obviously."
On Saturday, the Wild will host a group of Minnesota United FC players who will join the pregame soccer circle, and do the "Let's Play Hockey" announcement.
It's a smaller introduction to the team to Saint Paul, with a much larger one expected to come in the future.
Minnesota United recently pledged to build a 20,000 person capacity soccer stadium in the Snelling-Midway area, with eyes on bringing an MLS franchise, which would give Saint Paul its second professional team. The team currently plays in NCS Stadium, located in Blaine, as a member of the North America Soccer League.
"It would be awesome. I would have a lot of fun going to those games for sure," Zucker said of a potential move to MLS. "The Minnesota United game I went to I had a great time. The fans are crazy, and it's just a lot of fun, so I would really enjoy that."
Zucker has become friends with Jamie Watson. Zucker's fiancée and Watson's wife became friends. The hockey and soccer players occasionally tweet words of encouragement to each other when they're not taking in a game as a fan.
"I actually returned the favor and brought him to a game a few weeks ago," Zucker said.
Niederreiter has become friends with Christian Ramirez, whom Niederreiter met when the two forwards were at WCCO for interviews.
"He's one of the star players, and he's a cool guy," Niederreiter said. "He plays very well."
Ramirez led Minnesota United in goals (13) and assists (six). When Zucker, Niedereiter, and Brodin took in a game earlier this season, Ramirez scored in front of his friend in a 1-0 victory against the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
About three weeks later, when Niederreiter had Ramirez at Xcel Energy Center, he reciprocated the goal in a 3-2 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I'm just more watching as a fan, especially seeing how talented those guys are," Niederreiter said. "It's a lot harder than a lot of people think it is. As a forward you probably run almost 10 kilometers a game, which is a lot.
"It's impressive, an impressive game, and if you see star players in the European leagues, it's phenomenally impressive what they do."
Niederreiter mentioned Brodin when asked who the Wild's best soccer player is. Those circles, while fun ways to warm up prior to a game or practice, can still get competitive.
"There are a lot of (good) players, and you can tell the more you play two-touch, the better the guys get," Niederreiter said. "We get a really good, quality game out there."
Two-touch is when players pass the ball in the air around the circle without letting it bounce. Each player is allowed two touches on the ball to get it to another player. A bad pass or a missed ball means an exit from the circle.
While pride is on the line, Zucker said he hasn't picked the brains of Brodin, Niederreiter, or Watson just yet.
"For me, mainly it's just using it as a warmup before games, and just trying to have some fun with it," Zucker said.