It’s hard to argue with the relative success the Minnesota Wild achieved the last decade. While they have never won a Stanley Cup, making the postseason for six consecutive seasons is a success on its own. They have broken franchise records, were selling out games and rose to relevance across the NHL.
The Wild won a couple playoff series, including their first clinch at home in franchise history. If it feels like I’m trying to paint a rosy picture of an underachieving franchise, it’s because I am.
The truth is that the Minnesota Wild as a team, organization and brand has become stale. A death sentence for any brand, let alone sports franchise, is apathy. When fans no longer care, it’s difficult to get them back.
‘It’s something in the culture and we need to change it’
The Wild lack buzz around their brand and the team. However, with the arrival of Kirill Kaprizov last week and the emergence of Kevin Fiala, GM Bill Guerin doesn’t just have a chance to put his stamp on this team — he has the opportunity to completely re-make the culture of the team. And frankly, it’s time.
The Wild locker room is weird. Those with access to the room have said both on-record and off-record that the dynamics of the room are different from other locker rooms. It’s not that the players don’t get along or are having in-fighting within the group. It just lacks that “It” factor — that kinship, or closeness — where each player is buying into the success of the greater whole.
This has manifested several times the last few seasons.
The first real acknowledgement that a divide in the room existed was back when Mike Yeo was fired:
“I think that there was … a disconnect. But this has gone on for a little while between older guys and younger guys. And I don’t think it’s one sided. I think every team in the league has some issues, and I think that we dealt with things fairly well for the most part, but obviously they became bigger once we started to lose,” Yeo said in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “It just felt like there were almost two groups. There were younger guys and there were the older guys. It wasn’t just a group.”
It was clear that former GM Paul Fenton exacerbated any organizational fracture. Players that were popular in the locker room were traded away, new players were left to fend for themselves, and losing continued:
“The culture wasn’t the same,” owner Craig Leipold said after dismissing Fenton after just 14 months. “I didn’t have the same vibes with our employees in hockey ops, and I think the attitude of some of the players and all the people in the coaching and the locker room and the training room, it was just a feeling that we didn’t have the right leader for our organization.”
Much was made prior to this season of the team outing in Vail, Colo. and just how close the team had been after some white water rafting. In fact, the team adopted a player of the game tradition following each win by handing a red rafting helmet to a deserving player. But the Wild still have signs of the fracture.
Guerin fired fan-favorite coach Bruce Boudreau on Valentine’s Day. Jason Zucker was traded in February as well. Even as the team got hot down the stretch, there was still an acknowledgement that there is a divide in the room.
Bill Guerin knows he has to change the culture of the team to make it a winner. On Michael Russo’s Straight From the Source podcast, Guerin mentioned a problem that’s far more than players and front office personnel:
“What’s the issue? Why have we been falling short? That’s the part I’ve got to figure out. The teams are good. The guys play hard. But there’s something rooted here that’s not working. And it’s not just trading players or changing the GM and things like that. It’s something in the way we operate everyday. It’s something in the culture and we need to change it.”
The question is how?
How does someone create a winning, championship-caliber culture when the traditions of the team do not include winning? The Wild, in general, are a conservative team that prides itself on professionalism, tradition and blending in with the Minnesota hockey culture. They are never a team to set a trend, break hockey norms or have fun if it’s not winning.
To break the deeply rooted culture this team has is going to take time and a lot of effort. The Minnesota Golden Gopher football team was not a losing club. The program had its mild ups and devastating downs over the years, but since the team hired Jerry Kill, the program was on an upward trajectory. Once Kill was no longer fit to coach the team due to health concerns, the university called on P.J. Fleck to re-make the football program.
Fleck has admitted that his “Row the Boat” mantra, catchphrases and salesman approach can rub folks the wrong way. He has also maintained that his words are not meant for the geriatric Gopher fanbase. Instead, it’s for his players in the locker room and the high school seniors across the country looking at playing Division I college football.
Even while people and media outside of the program criticized Fleck’s approach, he remained true to his cultural reform. Even while winning on the field was slow to come — they won only five games in his first season — he remained true to his mantra. Now that they are coming off an 11-win season and a New Year’s Day bowl game win over Auburn in just his third season, fans are rowing the boat. There’s a buzz and excitement for Gophers football that has not been seen in Minnesota for generations.
Guerin doesn’t have to take the same approach as Fleck. Very few people can take the approach that he does. But if Guerin can push the right buttons, acquire the right players and foster a buy-in from players that can rival the kind of shift seen in Dinkytown, the Wild can shake the cynical and apathetic fans from their dismay.
If the team is having fun on the ice, in much of the way the Carolina Hurricanes have shown, fans will notice. If winning results can support the culture shift, then this team can be closer to a championship than they have been the last decade. Guerin knows what he needs to change. But until this team can answer the questions about its culture and identity, the question is always going to be whether or not Guerin was the right guy to make that change.