When the general manager or a well-heeled NHL club was asked last month about trading for another team's star who was on the block, he looked like a man who had bitten into a week-old egg salad sandwich. "Why would I possibly be interested in him?" the G.M. sputtered. "He doesn't give a damn. I want players like the Minnesota Wild has. I want guys who care."� Minnesota might have a roster only slightly less anonymous than a 12-step program and ice some forwards with hands as hard as a stevedore's, but it competes with passion in every game. This is the lovably flawed club that shocked the NHL by advancing to the Stanley Cup semifinals last season in only its third year. "When fans come up to me, the first thing they talk about is how hard we play" says Wild general manager Doug Risebrough, whose team was not only the NHL's lowest paid in 2002-03 but also one of its youngest. "The effort always seems foremost. Then after a little while they'll congratulate us on our playoff run."
The Wild was an antidote to the toxins that afflicted hockey in 2003, the yellow smiley face lapel pin on the rumpled suit of the NHL. The game has lately been troubled by a number of things: a possible prolonged labor stoppage when the collective bargaining agreement expires next September, a continued dearth of scoring, shrinking TV ratings, a spate of injuries to marquee players and the passing of 25-year-old Atlanta Thrashers center Dan Snyder because of head injuries sustained in a traffic accident on Sept. 29. The litany of sorrows has overwhelmed such transient pleasures as the subzero fun at the NHL's first regular-season outdoor game, in Edmonton on Nov. 22, the superb New Jersey Devils-Ottawa Senators Eastern Conference finals last May and the breathtaking playoff goaltending of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Jean-S�bastien Gigu�re.
In the long run the Wild's accomplishments could be more than a mood brightener for the NHL. The franchise was a reminder of what hockey used to be and what—once the league gets it economics under control in the next collective bargaining agreement-it could become again in perhaps a dozen other cities. Except for a Stanley Cup, the Wild have it all: a respectable team despite a middling first third of the 2003-04 season, a lean, $25 million payroll, a reported $20 million-per-year profit, a swell new arena and a warm rapport with its hockey-mad community.
It's an easy team to love. The franchise's signature in 2003 was a magical postseason that included two Game 7 upset victories on the road. The Wild's leading man during that stretch was not one of its trivia-answer players but its coach, Jacques Lemaire. The 58-year-old Lemaire, a Hall of Fame center who won eight Cups with the Montreal Canadiens from 1967-68 through '78-79 and another as the coach of the Devils in '95, is the heir to Scotty Bowman as the NHL's wise man.
He is also the most misunderstood man in hockey. While it may be true that in his perfect world games would be played in hermetically sealed arenas with no fans or media in attendance ( Lemaire disdains distractions of any sort), it is wrong to assume that he prefers chalkboard X's and O's to flesh and blood. Lemaire likes his players, even the bargain-basement irregulars he has on the Wild, and he revels in their success. He understands it is his job to put them in position to do well, which is why that position is usually a 1-2-2 forecheck, the dreaded goal-denying system known as the trap.
Still, perhaps the most pivotal moment in Minnesota's postseason came not on the ice but in a hotel ballroom in Denver last April 18. In the first round the Wild was trailing the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche three games to one and facing elimination at the hands of a team paying two players, center Peter Forsberg and goalie Patrick Roy, a combined $18 million, almost as much as the Wild was paying its entire roster. On that day Lemaire gave his club, which finished the regular season 42-29-10-1, one last chance to realize a potential that at that point it seemed like only he could see. Looking out at his assembled players, he began speaking in a trademark baritone that rumbles from his diaphragm—a voice devoid of menace but dripping with portent. First, Lemaire reminded them of what they had already achieved. Then he said, "If you quit now, you will deprive yourself of a chance to find out what's going to happen. Because in sports you never know." The words reached every man in the room, and Minnesota won the next three games, including Game 6 in overtime at home and Game 7 in sudden death in Roy's final NHL match.
The rest of the league was duly impressed. "This isn't a team," said Vancouver Canucks general manager Brian Burke, whose club was set to face Minnesota in the second round. "That's a cult." But in Game 1 on the road, Minnesota blew a 3-2 lead with 1.2 seconds remaining in regulation and eventually fell in overtime. The loss seemed devastating at the time, but Lemaire greeted it with a Gallic shrug. "I think we can find a way [to win the series]," he said the following afternoon, calmly puffing on a cigar before boarding the team bus for practice.
The Wild did find a way. After falling behind the Canucks three games to one, Minnesota came back to win the series, becoming the first NHL team to rally twice from that deficit in one postseason. The long, exhausting run caught up with Minnesota in the Western Conference finals when the Mighty Ducks whipped the Wild in four straight games. But by then Minnesota had already made its mark, and the franchise was well ahead of the schedule plotted by the club's management.
Risebrough, who was an abject failure as the general manager of the Calgary Flames from May 16, 1991, through Nov. 2, 1995, discovered it was easier to build a franchise than to change one. In Minnesota he did it along mathematical lines. Follow the sports math closely. In the NBA, as Risebrough points out, Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson might play 44 of 48 minutes on an average night, handle the ball on most of the Sixers' possessions and take 25 shots per game. Meanwhile, the Wild's most gifted player, 21-year-old right wing Marian Gaborik, might play 18 of 60 minutes, have the puck on his stick perhaps a minute of that time and take about three shots per game. In hockey these days the impact of any one player, short of a franchise goaltender, is relatively modest compared with other sports. With this in mind Risebrough acted accordingly. He built a speedy team that was low on ego and high on eagerness.
Minnesota peddles the game, not the stars. Indeed, the team stood firm while its best scorers, Gaborik and wing Pascal Dupuis, held out early this season in contract disputes. This might have been a calamitous approach in many markets, but not in sensible-shoe, hockey-savvy Minnesota, which has filled every seat for every game in the 18,064-capacity Xcel Energy Center since the Wild's inception.