They were numbers 84 and 85 on a line fueled by 86-proof, waiting in the wee hours last Friday morning for a block of Minnesota Wild third-round playoff tickets to go on sale. The instant the final horn had sounded in Game 7 of the second-round series in Vancouver—at 11:42 p.m. CDT on Thursday—Susan Bakula, 33, of Oakdale, Minn., and her friend Lucy Spina, 37, of Shoreview, Minn., had bolted to downtown St. Paul to queue in the rain for tickets, fortified only with a sleeping bag, a lawn chair and a proselytizer's faith. Spina had told her boss that Minnesota would win and she would need to skip work to buy seats, and her boss had said to go ahead because everyone has to deal with personal addiction. Spina, by the way, is a mental-health therapist.
Wild personnel soon invited everyone into the Xcel Energy Center lobby to keep dry, giving out hot dogs and soft drinks and showing a replay of the miraculous 4-2 clinching victory against the Canucks on television screens. The 4,500 tickets, which went on sale at noon, sold out in five minutes. "This is a cult," Bakula says of the team's faithful. Says Spina, "We've drunk the Kool-Aid, symbolically. Mostly people on line were drinking beer and Bloody Marys. It was dripping down their shirts. It looked like the Wild logo."
The women were among 19,350 white-towel-waving fans in the arena the following afternoon, roaring a welcome home—just 39 hours after the Game 7 win—to a team more Odysseus than audacious. After Ping-Ponging 1,435 miles between the Twin Cities and the west coast of Canada, Minnesota was playing its fourth game in six days, this time against the equally surprising Anaheim Mighty Ducks in a Western Conference finals between start-ups and upstarts.
For the better part of 3� hours—other than a diving stick save by Anaheim goalie Jean-S�bastien Giguere on Marian Gaborik's backhander in the second period, the better parts were a promo for a Fleetwood Mac concert and an on-ice kids' race during the first intermission—the third-year Wild and the seventh-seeded Ducks slogged away until Anaheim's Petr Sykora scored the only goal at 8:06 of the second overtime. The fans rose, not to file out of the arena but to give Minnesota a standing ovation. Anaheim also won on Monday, 2-0, to put the Wild in a two-game hole, but if the past month is any indication, that means Minnesota has the Ducks right where it wants them.
Minnesota does not surrender, a rallying cry gleaned not from Winston Churchill or Madison Avenue but from a team meeting in a Denver hotel last month. The Wild was trailing the heavily favored Colorado Avalanche three games to one in the first round, seemingly ready to hit the links. Then coach Jacques Lemaire spoke. He has an arresting baritone and a manner that alternates between blunt and impish. This night, the 57-year-old Lemaire, who has won 11 Stanley Cups as a player and executive, was blunt. He reminded his players of the good things they had accomplished and then laid out his message: If you quit, you don't give yourself a chance to find out what might happen, and in sports you never know. "You've heard it before," center Wes Walz says, "but coming out of his mouth, a guy who's been through the wars, it meant more."
Minnesota won the next three games (including two in Denver), the final one in sudden death, and when the series was over, Lemaire looked in astonishment at assistant coach Mario Tremblay, who was next to him on the bench. The Wild had done the unfathomable. Then Minnesota did it again in the second round. Following Game 1 in Vancouver, in which the Wild blew a lead in the final 1.2 seconds and lost 4-3 in overtime, Lemaire confided to a reporter, "They're a better team than us, but I think we can find a way." Minnesota fell behind three games to one before rallying to win, making it the first NHL team to make such a comeback twice in one postseason. Lemaire shuffled some of his lightning-quick forwards in and out of the lineup and tinkered with his goalies—this spring Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez are both 3-0 in elimination games and each has won a Game 7—and every bounce and break seemed to fall the Wild's way. The lopsided wins in Games 5 and 6 over the Canucks (combined score: 12-3) turned the Wild from a sweet story of grit by the NHL's lowest-salaried team into a full-blown phenomenon that peaked between 11:30 and 11:45 p.m last Thursday. In those 15 minutes, as Minnesota closed out Vancouver, two of every three TV sets in the Twin Cities that were on during the game were tuned to the Wild.
There was the expected drop in enthusiasm for Game 1 of the conference finals against Anaheim, which played on 42% of Twin Cities televisions that were on at the time. The fatigued Wild outskated, outworked and outshot the Ducks but lost because of a bad pinch by defenseman Filip Kuba. "They play exactly like us except they have more talent," Lemaire said afterward.
Lemaire doesn't revel in his team's shortcomings, but he does little to camouflage them, offering public reality checks for his players. Minnesota's strength, beyond team speed, is self-awareness. Like the NHL's last fairy-tale team, the 1995-96 Florida Panthers, a third-year expansion club that lost in the Stanley Cup finals, the Wild understands its limitations and sticks to its system. "Most of the players are young," Lemaire says. "They haven't had time to get cynical."
The players form a community of shared values and expectations, not unlike the fans who have filled every seat in the Xcel Energy Center for every game—139 exhibition, regular-season and playoff matches. (There are 16,000 season tickets plus 5,500 names on the waiting list, called the Wild Warming House in honor of the ice-fishing huts that dot Minnesota lakes in winter.) The reason for the passion: The Wild is the mirror of Minnesota's best self. The club's payroll ($21.5 million) is a third of the high-salaried clubs', plus the humble team works hard and generally stays on the sports page and off the police blotter. "Quiet quality" says Governor Tim Pawlenty, "is very Minnesotan." There was bound to be a two-season honeymoon in a state with the hockey gene—40% of season-ticket holders play the game—but the connection has mutated into something profound.
The club has cultivated this relationship, tapping into the natural inclinations of the state that provided 13 Olympians to the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, boasts back-to-back NCAA champion Minnesota and hosts a storied high school tournament. The jerseys of all 188 high school hockey programs, boys' and girls', hang in the Xcel Energy Center. Youth hockey teams are invited to sell programs at the arena and split the take with the Wild's charitable foundation. Ticket prices are Midwestern reasonable—the $48 regular-season average ranks 16th among NHL teams—and the team has not gouged its fans in the postseason. Ticket prices for Round 1 were the same as they were in the regular season; in the two subsequent rounds, prices increased 10% to 15% in each series. The Wild is everything the old Minnesota North Stars were not, at least in their final two seasons before owner Norm Green, dogged by allegations of sexual harassment by his executive assistant (the suit was settled out of court) and clashing with chic officials about the arena, alienated everyone in the state before moving the team to Dallas in 1993.