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The whole day was surreal, in a good way. Never before have so many hockey fans in Minnesota gathered together in such a venue as TCF Bank Stadium as last Sunday, when the Minnesota Wild – just back in town after an amazing three-game winning streak under new coach John Torchetti – skated out onto the official-size ice rink plunked down in the middle of the football field.
Then they made it four in a row by blitzing the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks 6-1 to the delight of 50,426 fans. I feel bad for the media cynics who scoffed at the worn-out idea of playing a game outdoors, as though able to recreate the feeling these NHL stars might have had as kids, playing their favorite sport outdoors. Those who were cynical enough to stay away have no idea what they missed, even if they watched on television.
The day for me began while slithering up Thompson Hill on a slippery freeway that remained that way until just past Cloquet. Driving into Minneapolis along University Avenue, the crowd thickened by the block. Some folks parked a mile away from the stadium, reacting to signs of “Park here, $25,” as though that was a good deal. Smarter folks might have parked farther away for free and ridden the new light-rail line right up to a slapshot away from the stadium.
I drove past it and somehow got over past Dinkytown and, on my third time around the neighborhood, found a small half-block plot with no meters. Free parking, in exchange for about a mile-long walk. I appreciated my press credential, earned after 30 years of covering the NHL for the Minneapolis Tribune. Six floors up by elevator, there was hot food and three long rows of press seats. I happened to have seat No. 2 – front row, far left. Perfect spot.
The Wild, mired in an eight-game winless streak of futility, fired a very good coach in Mike Yeo because that’s what happens in pro sports when a team gets into such a rut. Yeo had brought the Wild out such slumps every year, and I remain convinced he would have done it this season, too, but it got to the point where a new voice was required to rally the troops. Nobody could have envisioned that the Wild, unable to score enough to win, scored five in Vancouver, five in Calgary and five in Edmonton before coming home. Then Sunday, starting with a temperature of 35.6 degrees, they didn’t score five in the big stadium against the Blackhawks; they scored six!
“It wasn’t easy getting ready for this game,” said Mikko Koivu, the captain, unwilling to take the constant bait from the media about what a changeover the team has made because of Torchetti’s arrival. “We always wanted to play good, but every time you struggle through tough times, when you finally get out of it, you want to keep building on it. The deeper and deeper you get into it as a player, you know we’re all responsible for what was happening.
“Coming here and seeing all the fans tailgating, it was really special. You could hear all those fans cheering, and I’m really happy for the fans here. They really deserved this.”
After the Duluth-based jet flyover and the National Anthem, the Wild entertained the big crowd with a rousing start. Three minutes in, former UMD star Justin Fontaine gained possession on the right boards in his end, made a move, then drilled a long, diagonal pass that sprung teammate Ryan Carter, who grew up in White Bear Lake, and he was gone on a breakaway. Familiar nemesis Corey Crawford blocked his shot and his follow-up, but couldn’t stop defenseman Matt Dumba who had raced up close to smack in the second rebound.
Four minutes later, on a power play, ex-Gopher Mike Reilly and Jason Pominville worked the puck and Thomas Vanek, another ex-Gopher, deflected Pominville’s shot past Crawford and it was 2-0.
Second period, after Cheap Trick serenaded the crowd, a superb bit of sleight-of-hand saw Pominville behind the net pass out to the slot where ex-Gopher Erik Haula had a one-timer, but instead passed crisply to the right edge where Nino Niederreiter had an easy conversion for a 3-0 lead. Eight minutes later, Haula and Niederreiter collaborated to feed Pominville for a blast from the slot and it was 4-0.
Third period, and Ryan Carter jammed in a rebound and it was 5-0. Finally, Patrick Kane deflected in a Chicago goal at 12:05 of the third, but barely a minute later, when Hawks coach Joel Quenneville pulled Crawford for an all-out rally, Haula broke free and was off on a breakaway at an empty net, and when he was rudely hooked down, the refs promptly awarded an automatic goal. The final was 6-1.
All the players bubbled over with accolades afterward. They know it was just one more game in an 82-game season that is far from over. But this one was special.
“Being back on campus was incredible,” said Haula. “And to get a win, in front of 50,000 people, it was something.”
Carter, who is from White Bear Lake, said: “I looked up in the stands and I saw a bunch of White Bear dudes. It was kind of like a time warp.”
Ryan Suter, from Madison, noted the hometown feeling he got, and intends to remember. “Standing on the blue line for the National Anthem, I looked all around at the people in the stands and I wanted to soak it all in. And all through the game, at every TV time out, I looked up into the stands to make sure I’ll never forget it.”