Passionate supporters of the Wild can be found throughout Minnesota. The team’s fan base goes from the Northwoods through the Iron Range, down the Mighty Mississippi to the southern plains. But the passion for the club goes beyond the borders of the State of Hockey.
Australia isn’t particularly known as a hotbed of hockey. In fact, Minnesotans might know it best for being a place that’s, well, hot. However, for one Wild fan down under, Australia is home.
Joel Willis, a native of Sydney, Australia, fell in love with the sport the first time that he watched the game on television with his father, Adam.
“My dad has always liked the Detroit Red Wings,” Willis said. “He didn’t follow it too closely, but whenever he’d catch a game anywhere, then I’d see it, and I just fell in love with the sport.”
Eventually, his love of the sport would lead him to the state where hockey is its most beloved game. In 2007-08, he began to follow the Wild and decided that would be his team.
“It sounds weird being in Australia and everything, but I saw a lot of potential in the team, I really did,” Willis said. “I took a big liking to Mikko Koivu. Started following him and started thinking, yeah, this is the team I’d go for.”
While Minnesotans might’ve dreamed of visiting Australia during the cold winter months, Willis imagined coming to the Land of 10,000 Lakes to watch the Wild play at Xcel Energy Center. That dream became a reality on Tuesday on Tuesday as the Wild hosted the Boston Bruins. Willis made the more than 9,400-mile trek to Minnesota with the sole purpose to watch the game. His timing was impeccable, as the Wild clinched the seventh-seed in the Western Conference with a third-period comeback and shootout win, 4-3. He also was in the stands yesterday as Minnesota beat the St. Louis Blues, 4-2.
Willis began plotting the trip a couple of months back. Through Facebook, his mother, Linda, reached out to a childhood friend David Ruppert, who now lives in Eagan. Joel and David had never met, but he picked him up and opened up his home.
“His mom messaged me and said he’s a huge fan,” Ruppert said. They attended the Boston game through Ruppert’s work connections at Warner Electric.
“His very first game was in a corporate suite, so he’s going to get a little spoiled,” Ruppert joked.
Back home, the 18-year-old’s love of the sport is infectious. Willis gets friends into the game through NHL 14 on Xbox. He plays street hockey with his younger brother, Lachlan, who is a Bruins fans. He and his girlfriend, Dana, go inline skating and watch games together when they can.
“She was a little disappointed she couldn’t make the trip,” Willis said. Dana is a hockey fan who roots for the Toronto Maple Leafs. “But she was excited and happy for me.”
The Aussie watches games online, but the 17-hour time change can make it difficult.
“Usually it’s in the middle of the day for me, so if I’m at work, I miss the game,” Willis said. “So I try to catch up on the scores whenever I can.”
While its still not that popular amongst the locals, the game is growing thanks in part to the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL). However, finding ice is still a problem for anyone trying to learn the sport.
“The closest rink is either two hours north or three hours south,” Willis said. “I can’t just be like ‘Come skating with me’ to friends.”
Despite the hurdles in following the Wild from afar, he felt compelled to see the game live and in person; though, his experience with winter and the sport wasn’t limited to the ice on the rink while in Minnesota. Not only did the Sidney native catch his first game, he also experienced his first snowfall. He flew in during the April 3rd snowstorm and the plane had to circle the runway before landing. He even made, or attempted to make, a snowman.
“It didn’t work,” Willis laughed. “Probably the ugliest snowman you’ve ever seen.”
Even if his snowman wasn’t memorable, his first trip to Minnesota created memories that will last a lifetime.
“It was absolutely incredible,” Willis said after the game against Boston. “Easily one of the best experiences of my life so far.”