Parise, Sutor bring star quality to Wild

John Gilbert

Wild owner Craig Leipold, left, welcomed Zach Parise and Ryan Sutor to join general manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo.  -John Gilbert
Wild owner Craig Leipold, left, welcomed Zach Parise and Ryan Sutor to join general manager Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo. -John Gilbert
Owner Craig Leopold presented Zach Parise with No. 11, once worn by his dad, J.P. Parise, with the North Stars.
Owner Craig Leopold presented Zach Parise with No. 11, once worn by his dad, J.P. Parise, with the North Stars.
Ryan Sutor and Zach Parise handled questions from the media as the Wild’s new assistant captains. -John Gilbert
Ryan Sutor and Zach Parise handled questions from the media as the Wild’s new assistant captains. -John Gilbert


SAINT PAUL --- A couple hundred media folks, some of whom may have even been there for a hockey game, crowded into the lobby of Xcel Energy Center on Monday for a true media happening: the introduction of winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who will make an enormous difference at both ends of the rink for the Minnesota Wild.

   They both pulled on the dark green jerseys of the Wild. Parise will wear No. 11, which his dad, J.P. Parise, wore so well in his hustling days with the North Stars, and Sutor will wear No. 20. Parise didn’t realize both jerseys had “A” inscribed on the upper corner. The jerseys might just as well have been Superman costumes, because if it will take a superhuman effort to lift the Wild into contention, Parise and Sutor are just the two who can do it. “We spent a lot of time last year talking about changing the culture of our club,” said coach Mike Yeo. “Adding two guys who have won so much can only help us get there. What they bring to us goes deeper than just the success they’ve had. They’ll change how we view ourselves as a team.”

   Parise, for sure, is the tireless, high-speed worker who is what former North Stars, Fighting Saints, and Gophers coach Glen Sonmor used to call “an every-nighter.” That means he goes all out, every night. I mentioned how that will fit in so well with what Yeo is trying to promote from his forwards. “And Sutor will do the same thing in the defensive zone,” Yeo added.

 I haven’t watched Sutor as much, but I covered his dad, Bob Sutor, when he played with Mark Johnson at Wisconsin and then on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. His uncle, Gary Sutor, was another star, and Ryan said, “I grew up idolizing him.”

With them sitting up on the stage, I couldn’t resist asking them: “Have you two thought about the irony that right here, in the backyard of Gopher hockey, it’s taken a Fighting Sioux and a Badger to create the biggest press conference in Minnesota Wild history?”

They got a good laugh out of that. “Hopefully everyone can forget both of us didn’t go to play for the Gophers,” Parise said. “That was about 10 years ago...I’ve moved on, obviously; hopefully everybody else can.” A decade ago, in their college days, Parise was a star center for North Dakota, and Sutor was a defensive stalwart for the University of Wisconsin.

   There was a bit of a Twin Cities controversy about Parise, who played for a prep-school program run by his dad, J.P. Parise, at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, and was pursued by all sorts of colleges. The word out of Grand Forks was that Herb Brooks had recommended Parise go to North Dakota. Brooks thought that was a bit of Sioux-boosterism, and told me that he discussed the matter with J.P., the popular former North Star who served as Herbie’s coach for that one long and injury-filled season with the North Stars. Brooks was less than thrilled that the Gophers had veered away from the all-Minnesota solidarity he had helped generate, but he said he advised the Parises that there were a lot of good colleges out there. Brooks told me he added something to the effect that, “if you want to go into business, go to Harvard; if you want to be a hockey player, go to North Dakota...”

There might have been other options, but at the time, the advice worked for Zach, who connected with winger Brandon Bochenski from Blaine and the two led the Sioux for their freshman and sophomore seasons, with Parise, the set-up dynamo, finishing just a point or two behind Bochenski, the scorer, both years. In his sophomore season, Parise was an All-America and runner-up to UMD’s Junior Lessard for Hobey Baker. Lessard had a magical season, although I thought Parise was the best player every shift of every game I saw him play.

Parise’s only bit of bad timing came after that 2003-04 season, when he signed to turn pro -- and the NHL failed to sign a new collective bargaining contract and cancelled the season. He spent the season playing at Albany in the minor leagues, but when the NHL resumed, Parise began working his way up to become the trademark of the New Jersey Devils. After scoring 14 goals as a rookie, Parise averaged exactly 30 goals a season for his next six seasons. His best was 45-49--94 in 1908-09, and this past season, his 31-38--69 led the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals, where they fell short of the amazing Los Angeles Kings in a six-game series.
 J.P. Parise wasn’t at the press extravaganza this week, but Zach said he’s been in constant conversation with his dad. “I’ve been speaking with him through the whole process. As I lhave throughout my career. Granted, it was back in the 60s and 70s, but he told me how much he loved playing here. He was excited, when I told him and my mom; that would be an understatement. They didn’t get out to New Jersey very often.”

Parise said in considering various offers, he liked what he’s seen of the Wild and their upswing under Yeo. “The chance to play with a center like Mikko [Koivu], who is one of the best 2-way centers in the game, which I learned from playing against him in World Tournaments,” Parise said. “I always thought he and I would play well together...” Parise then glanced toward Yeo and added, “I’m not trying to drop any hints, but hopefully, I might get the opportunity to.”

Yeo is way ahead of him, already dabbling with line combinations. It’s a virtual cinch he’ll put Parise on one wing and Dany Heatley on the other with Koivu at center at some point, and very likely to start training camp. Heatley and Matt Cullen were both wearing the “A” of assistant captain to Koivu last season, and Yeo said he talked to both of them before assigning the A to Parise and Sutor. “Heater and Cully are the kind of guys who will always be leaders, and I’ll still look to them for any questions of leadership,” said Yeo. “It’s just that the way everything broke here, and these two both having experience as captains, it was the thing to do. It’s the same with these two -- if they weren’t wearing the ‘A’ they’d still be the same kind of leaders.”

   The real connection between Parise and Sutor came in youth hockey, when Parise played for the younger teams at Shattuck, and played against Sutor and the Madison Capitols. Later, when they went to prep school, Shattuck played Culver Academy of Indiana, where Sutor had gone. They were teammates on World Junior and Olympic teams, and they’d become good friends by then, possibly joined by work-ethic. While Sutor’s wife is from Minnesota, so he’s travelled here often. Parise, who was born in Minneapolis, has always been a Minnesotan, and has an off-season home here already.

“It’s not like we were planning this all along,” said Sutor. “We might have joked about it, but leading up to July 1, then we started thinking about it. We felt this would be a great fit for both of us. It just worked out.”
Both had numerous offers from other teams. Sutor, an All-Star defenseman who was the partner of Shea Weber on a Nashville Predators team that eliminated the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, listened to all the offers. So did Parise, who at one point had offers from the Devils, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, and Wild. He kept saying the Wild were in the running, which means coming home to be near his family and his fiance’s family was a more powerful attraction than playing with Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, or Jonathan Toews.

   “I didn’t hesitate,” said Parise. “I knew I wanted to play at home, to end my career at home.”

   In the final assessment, Parise and Sutor talked a lot, and they reinforced their idea to play together when Parise agreed to a lower amount so that he and Sutor would have identical contracts. That’s right, he was offered more than the $13 million for 10 years both of them got. Not bad, for a couple former Fighting Sioux and Badger skaters.

   Bobby Clarke was always one of my favorite hockey players. He joined the Philadelphia Flyers as a rookie in 1969-70, he was an unknown kid from Flin Flon, Manitoba, joining an expansion team in search of an identity. Bobby Clarke gave them their identity. Clarke was always hustling, never taking a game off or even a shift off, and he never cared who got the goals, but was unwavering in his work-ethic, efficiency, and determination. Over a six-year span in the late-60s and early-70s, Montreal won four Cups and Boston the other two, including 1973. The media was astounded when the Flyers became the first expansion team to ever win the Cup in 1974, and they repeated it in 1975. The Broad Street Bullies out-intimidated the Bruins for the ’74 Cup, with the key being Clarke nullifying Phil Esposito’s awesome goal-scoring ability by simply winning all the faceoffs and denying him the puck. After every game, when the reporters approached Clarke, he would deflect them all away to talk to goaltender Bernie Parent, saying he was the reason the Flyers won. Bernie, bolstered by the extra support, kept winning.

  Clarke was not as smooth as Guy Lafleur or Bobby Orr, as powerful a shooter as Bobby Hull, or as prolific a goal-scorer as Esposito, so the best thing the media could say about him was that he “always hustles.” It was true that in his 15 NHL seasons, Clarke scored over 30 goals only four times, never as many as 40. He did, however, score more than 40 assists in 13 of his 15 seasons -- all but his first two. His most assists came in back-to-back seasons when he had 89 assists in both 1974-75 and 1975-76. One of my greatest pleasures as a hockey writer was the special rapport I had with Clarke, ever since his rookie year. After the Flyers won their first Cup, I mentioned to him that he must get tired reading only that hustles while countless other players were far more skilled. And there he sat, with the Cup, while all those high-skilled guys were empty-handed.

   Clarke looked at me directly and said, with a certain degree of pride: “Maybe the ability to hustle every shift is the greatest skill of all.”

   I never forgot that, and I relayed that story to Mike Yeo on Monday. Yeo, the already-impressive coach of the Wild, really liked the story, because his team had just added two players who play the game in the mold of Bobby Clarke.

   Back on Wednesday, July 4, some guy identified as a copy editor wrote a column in the Duluth News-Tribune saying the Wild should hope they don’t sign Zach Parise, because he is not a superstar, and he was asking for superstar pay. The guy went on to rave about how Minnesotans get so carried away, even though they have a perfect example in front of them already of a home-state player getting overpaid for what he can do -- Joe Mauer. I’m sorry, but the timing of the column was wonderful. His venom for Joe Mauer was because he doesn’t always hit .365, apparently, and overlooks the fact that he was headed for the All-Star game, and had stealthily crept up to .323 by hitting in the mid-.400s for the last month. I, in fact, predicted Mauer will win his fourth batting title. You could look it up, to see when the last time a Major League catcher won four batting titles.

   At any rate, to compare Zach Parise to Joe Mauer is high praise indeed. And yes, Zach is a superstar -- for those who don’t measure superstardom by statistics alone. He will be the constant hustler, flying up and down the rink every shift of every game. He will score, and he’s good enough to score whenever there’s an opportunity, and he can do it singlehandedly, although he’d rather do it with the help of teammates. The Wild are in such great need for scoring, that Parise gets the spotlight, but Ryan Sutor can do the same thing for a defensive crew that is varied and talented, but needs precisely the kind of leader Sutor will be.

   There are individual skilled players who are justifiably called superstars, but the Minnesota Wild is a team that has been fabricated to be a work-ethic gang, and their young prospects, even the most skilled ones, have that work-ethic. That sort of team culture can be disrupted by a player who only fits the definition of an observer who lists only points to measure stardom. The Wild needed a worker-bee for their offensive leader. Bobby Clarke is no longer available. But Zach Parise is. And we’ve got him.

   Coincidentally, the Parise and Sutor contract signings came in on Wednesday, the Fourth of July -- the very day the Duluth News-Tribune was printing something that ripped Parise and Mauer. It was left to Wild owner Craig Leipold, the man who OK’d the outlay of money. “On Wednesday morning, the Fourth of July, we got the phone call,” said Leipold. “And the fireworks started early.”

   There will be more, inside Xcel Center.