Hockey heads back north. How natural.

In Minnesota, fans play the sport themselves

It's more than a game in Minnesota.

When the Minnesota Wild takes to the ice against the Philadelphia Flyers in their Oct. 11 home opener, they'll bring with them all the uncertainties of an expansion team in the National Hockey League (NHL).

But however they fare against the Flyers, the Wild is sure to be feted across Minnesota, "the state of hockey." The NHL, whose season opened Oct. 4, has returned to a place where ice hockey may be the most popular sport of all.

How big is hockey in Minnesota? Some 75 alumni of the NHL reside in the Twin Cities. The United States Hockey Hall of Fame is housed in Eveleth, up north on the Iron Range. An estimated 70,000 youngsters play in organized leagues throughout the state, including 7,000 girls.

And Minnesotans are lifelong hockey players. When Charles Schulz, the late Peanuts cartoonist, moved to California from St. Paul, he built an indoor rink and organized a hockey league to play in.

The Wild is banking on the passion of Minnesota hockey fans as it introduces an expansion team to one of the most crowded sports markets in America. The Twin Cities already hosts big-league teams in baseball, football, and basketball, as well as a major college sports program at the University of Minnesota.

Still, the outlook seems bright for the Wild. Back on Sept. 16, tickets for the home opener sold out in two minutes. A full 17 months before their first game in their new arena, the team received its 12,000th deposit for a season ticket. Team officials invited the fan to stop by for a photo.

They were delighted when Brian Jaskowiak showed up with his wife and two children. The Twin Cities have the highest percentage of families with children of any metro area its size in the nation, so the Jaskowiaks seemed perfect to represent Minnesota hockey fans.

Mr. Jaskowiak is a former high school hockey player who still plays the game with his kids. A survey of other season ticketholders found that 56 percent play hockey at least once a month, and 47 percent have an ice rink in their backyards.

Jac Sperling, chief executive officer of the Wild, is a veteran sports attorney who played a major role in launching the Colorado Rockies baseball franchise in the early 1990s.

"There are probably more baseball fans than hockey fans throughout the country," he says. "But our premise is that the average hockey fan has much greater passion for the sport. People have played the game. They've shoveled snow off the ice. It takes a lot of effort to go play hockey."

The Wild is banking on fans loving its new, $170 million arena, the Xcel Energy Center, as well. The facility is in downtown St. Paul, a bustling center of business and entertainment.

For Minnesotans, the home opener will mark their second venture into the NHL. The Minnesota North Stars debuted in Minneapolis Oct. 11, 1967. Plagued with ownership problems and an out-of-date facility, the franchise left for Dallas at the end of the 1993 season.

Fan support, however, was never a problem. "The arena was 90 percent full when the North Stars left town," notes one Wild official.

For the NHL, the return to a northern state is a new departure. In recent years, the league has been seeding hockey teams in Southern states, where most fans have never played the game. Many of the new franchises have been skating on thin ice, financially.

Why did the league move south? According to Steve Sander, a Denver-based sports marketing consultant, it was because of TV. "The NHL is trying to sell itself as a national sport," Mr. Sander says. "But it doesn't have a national audience the way football or basketball have. Hockey teams are more like baseball teams; they appeal to regional markets. So, the NHL is trying to fill in a footprint of nationwide, regional teams to boost their television contracts."

As a result, there are nine NHL teams south of the Mason-Dixon line (extending to the West Coast) compared with only six in Canada, where the sport is the national pastime. The Wild is the first new franchise to venture northward since the Flames moved up from Atlanta to Calgary, Alberta, 20 years ago. (Last season, Atlanta got the expansion Thrashers.)

It may be some time before the Wild can match up against the North Stars, now the Dallas Stars, who played for the NHL championship last year. But at least the Wild play where fans can find plenty of ice that doesn't have to be manufactured.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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