Wild hockey team celebrates 20th season

Note: Coach Steve Carroll was the editor of Let’s Play Hockey newspaper when the Minnesota Wild started playing in 2000. Here was at the X on the historic opening night and reflects on some of his memories from the early days of covering the organization. 

It seemed like it took forever for the NHL to return to Minnesota after the North Stars bolted from Bloomington in 1993.

Actually, it was only four long years before the league announced that a new NHL franchise would be located in the State of Hockey. The yet to be named club would call St. Paul its home.

A few months later, the team name was unveiled with great fanfare and the Minnesota Wild were born.

For the next couple of years, the organization worked hard at building community support and getting hockey fans ready for the return of pro puck.

And they were excited when it came time to welcome the NHL back. The Wild’s first regular season home game was Oct. 11, 2020 against Philadelphia. The game was played in the sparkling new, state of the art arena, known at the Xcel Energy Center. It was built on the site of the former St. Paul Civic Center.

More than 18,000 fans, many dressed in Wild jerseys, were on hand for the historic contest. As the managing editor of Let’s Play Hockey newspaper, I was among the large contingent of local, state and national media assigned to cover the game.

Before the puck dropped, I wandered the spacious concourses of the new facility. So much Minnesota hockey history and memorabilia to see. Included in that impressive display were replica jerseys from high school hockey teams across the state. A nice salute to an important part of our hockey culture.

As game time approached, I made my way to the Al Shaver Press Box, appropriately named after the long-time, legendary announcer for the North Stars. My assigned seat was a long way from the ice, but the large center ice video board and multiple TV’s nearby made it easy to follow the action.

The Wild skated to a 3-3 tie in home opener, with easily the highlight of the game coming from Richfield, Minnesota star Darby Hendrickson. He electrified the crowd late in the first period when he scored the first goal at the X in team history.

It was fun to interview Hendrickson and other members of the team after the game. They were all so excited about being part of Minnesota hockey history.

But as the inaugural season rolled on, wins were hard to come by for the new kids on the block. The team finished that first season with a record of 25-39-13-5. The 68 points they earned are second fewest in team history.

During that 2000-2001 season, local hockey fans also quickly became familiar the neutral zone trap, a defensive style of play made famous Jacques Lemaire, the Wild’s first coach. It meant for many low scoring games, with limited number of shots on goal by both teams.

While the system was designed to increase a team’s chances of winning, it made it particularly difficult to select the three stars after each home game, which was what I was often assigned to help with.

How do you pick three stars in a 2-1 game, where each team had fewer than 20 shots on goal? Did the goal scorers always get recognized? No, that didn’t happen.

What I learned to do was consider all the players for the three-star recognition, looking for the little things or intangibles they did during a game, in addition to the obvious goal scorers and stand-out netminders.

While I no longer cover the team, it’s been interesting to observe the strategies of the GM’s, styles of the coaches, and skills of the players through the years.

It’s been a roller coaster ride for sure, with some Wild teams doing better than others in their 10 playoff appearances. Wild faithful are ready for the organization to be a regular and legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

As the puck drops on the team’s 20th season, I’ll be watching on a nearby TV. Much like did in the early days.

It’s great to have NHL hockey back in Minnesota.