Even with the Wild mired in some early season mediocrity, watching the brilliantly blazing tire fire in progress across the river, Wild fans may feel like they have something to be thankful for. The Wild have virtually never had any drama worthy of national headlines, no embarrassments that make people shake their heads decades later, no scandals that left a black eye. The also haven’t had any heartbreak, relative to other teams in the market.
Without a cratering low point, but also without a high point worth hanging in the rafters, Wild fans still find themselves hurting without having as much to lament like their other Minnesota counterparts. But they still hurt, and it’s not to be discounted, because it’s been a litany of minor pains since the team started play in 2000.
Things probably started off on the wrong foot, with an ambiguous, non-plural name, and Christmas colors that weren’t well received and have barely grown on fans. These are important decisions that shape the future of any franchise, and the late 90’s were not kind to many sports teams in that regard. But over-thinking and groupthink ran its course as many Minnesota hockey fans were left scratching their head. Compounding the issue was the ridiculousness of retiring a number before the first puck was even dropped, not for a legendary player, but rather for modest folks that love the game and didn’t need to be embarrassingly pandered to.
It’s not the most painful things a sports fan has ever had to endure by any stretch, but a papercut or two. A cut or two that started a long, drawn out existence of papercuts that have bled Wild fans dry to the point of ambivalence or apathy.
After starting off the franchise on the wrong foot, the Wild did very little to curb the issue. Drafting for defense and hiring trap aficionado Jacques Lemaire as the first head coach, Wild fan were subjected to some rather boring hockey, in conjunction with the bad hockey typically played by expansion teams. But even that early era of the Wild had its high points, like the 2003 playoffs, where a scrappy team fought back from two 3-1 deficits and found itself in the Western Conference Finals. Instead of a prideful showing, however, the Wild failed to even show up for the series, getting swept and almost entirely shutout by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Not exactly soul-crushing, but a deep papercut to be sure, watching a magical team run out of magic.
Further example of the plight was the ballad of Marian Gaborik. Gaborik was the highlight of that era, literally and figuratively, but even his career piddled out in the most unsatisfying way possible. Gaborik wowed Wild fans for years with his blazing speed and lethal shot, but a litany of injuries kept him from being the star he could’ve been, and his final season was no exception. An injury prevented him from being traded for future assets, and he signed with the Rangers in a move so inevitable no one even bothered to care.
Fast forward a few years, Jacques Lemaire left and Todd Richards came and went. Zach Parise decided to sign with his hometown team and Ryan Suter joined as well, bringing the biggest free agent signings in Minnesota sports history. But in true Wild fashion, even signing two All-Star players in their prime failed to lift the franchise to anything meaningful, winning two playoff series in six seasons.
Having a young upstart team lose to a budding Blackhawks dynasty? Papercut.
Taking those same Blackhawks to the limit, only to lose because of a stanchion? Papercut.
Getting blown out by those same Blackhawks again the following year? Papercut.
Three straight years of first round exits, each more disappointing that the last?
That’s where the Wild are now. A franchise perpetually on the cusp of competing, but never getting beyond the second round of the playoffs. The saddest part of that is the expectations are created by having enough talent to be on the cusp. The pressure in St. Paul is very real, and the team has failed to deliver in the Parise and Suter era, costing a few people their jobs already. If the team was a perennial laughingstock, no one would care, as evidenced by waning attendance during the Todd Richards years. But fans have had a taste of playoff hockey every year now for a little while and aren’t just content with showing up anymore.
Even the Wild game ops is a papercut at this point. Dumping Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ as a goal song, and reinstating the ultra generic, lemming-like ‘Crowd Chant’ is a disappointing sapping of personality from the team that desperately needs a personality. The goal song is a minor issue, but it’s a microcosm of the issues that the Wild have had with forging an identity with their fans. Instead of allowing things to grow organically as other teams have done, the Wild force the issue, but without any other personality aside from constantly reassuring fans that everyone knows they love hockey. Yet another papercut.
So where does all of this leave Wild fans? Nearly bled out at this point from papercuts, something has to give at some point. The magical ointment that is winning seems depressingly out of reach, while acceptance of the darkness from all the papercuts seems a tad on the dramatic side. Wild fans don’t want to give up but haven’t been given any reason not to, so they take whatever little band-aids their psyche and the team can afford them and try to cover up as many of the papercuts as they can.
The team doesn’t look to be producing the meaningful wins needed to stop the bleeding, and the fans seem destined to endure more papercuts if they hold on. The fair question to be asked, then, is fairly obvious.
How much longer do they hold on?