Fans, not to mention a few general managers, in some of the more marquee markets might not be too happy about it, but Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signing in Minnesota is good for the NHL and the game of hockey as a whole.
The two biggest stars on the free agent market spurned the lure of the big market teams that usually dominate the top rung of players available each July. The spotlight, marketing opportunities and deeper pockets of New York Rangers were too much for Brad Richards to pass up last summer. Marian Gaborik, who actually left Minnesota for the big bucks in the Big Apple a few years earlier, couldn't resist either. Marian Hossa likewise leaped at the chance to play in Chicago, completing his mercenary bid for a Cup there after failed chases in Pittsburgh and Detroit.
But Parise and Suter didn't follow that path. They chose family and geography over maxing out the numbers on their paychecks. Sure, they're not exactly going to have to worry about clipping coupons after signing identical 13-year, $98 million deals with the Wild, but the fact is they could have signed for even more money elsewhere.
Not even Wild owner Craig Leipold denied that when he noted, "I know they both had numerous, attractive offers (some higher than ours)." That was part of Leipold's statement in what he termed "An Open Letter to the Fans of the State of Hockey" posted on the Wild's web site. He went on to call the Minnesota fans a "secret weapon" in the club's recruitment of the two stars.
Those fans have been loyal despite the club's lack of success on the ice and the fact that they've already had one NHL franchise ripped away from them when the North Stars bolted for Dallas. Since joining the NHL as an expansion team for the 2000-01 season, the Wild have made the playoffs just three times, the last appearance coming in 2008. They've advanced past the first round just once, reaching the Western Conference Final in 2003.
Yet the Xcel Energy Center continues to be filled almost every night. Minnesota's fourth straight failure to qualify for the playoffs last year did see the average attendance drop under 18,000 for the first time in franchise history, but the Wild still played before 98.4 percent capacity for the season with an average crowd of 17,772.
And it's not like the Wild have a monopoly on the hockey market in Minnesota. High school and college programs remain as popular as ever across what has been aptly dubbed "The State of Hockey."
Now that faith has been rewarded with new hope, Suter and Parise alone won't suddenly turned the Wild into Cup contenders, but Minnesota does have other pieces in place with Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley up front, Niklas Backstrom in goal and a strong group of prospects on their way.
That support for hockey at all levels has also helped lay the foundation for these signings. It was Parise's desire to come back to that environment after growing up in Minnesota, where his father J.P. played and coached for the North Stars, that was the driving force of the decision. Suter hails from rival Wisconsin, but at least married into a Minnesota hockey family, so he too was quite familiar with the lure of playing in such a hockey hotbed.
"The opportunity to play at home meant a lot to me, and my family," Parise said during his introductory news conference. "Every kid that's growing up in Minnesota would love to play with the Wild. Now, I'm lucky we were able to make that happen."
There's no doubting that the arrival of Suter and Parise will further enliven that passionate fan base and give the Wild a better chance at sustained success on and off the ice. But it is also gives hope to other small market teams that they can compete with the big boys. That it's not always just about who can throw the most money around.
Sure, Predators fans might have a beef, as Nashville isn't exactly a giant metropolis like a New York or an established hockey power like Detroit. But Nashville didn't lose Suter because they couldn't afford him. They were not simply outbid by a franchise with greater resources. Suter made a choice for family reasons.
And now Minnesota sits with the second highest payroll in the league, behind only Boston. The Wild have $67.3 million committed to next year's cap, while the Rangers sit barely over the cap floor at $54.4 million and the Red Wings are actually under the floor at $53.4 million. The Flyers ($59.8 million), Penguins ($59.7 million), Maple Leafs ($57.8 million) and Blackhawks ($62.4 million) all have tons of cap space as well, but with little left on the market to spend it on.
It's a rather remarkable turnaround from past years in the NHL. It's also how it should be in a salary cap world. The cap system was supposed to even the playing field for the smaller markets. There's still a long way to go in that regard with some teams struggling to afford reaching the floor, let alone pushing close to the ceiling. And there's certainly room to question just how much "cost certainty" the cap has brought when $98 million deals are being handed out.
But owners can pay that kind of money because the NHL is a booming industry that hauled in $3.3 million worth of revenues this past year. And every once in a while, even a small market team can beat the big boys and land the prize catch on the market.
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