October 13th, 2012 was going to be great, a day that I would long remember. Unfortunately, instead of seeing Finnish wunderkind Mikael Granlund play his first NHL game at the Xcel Energy Center, I was stuck at home attending a USHL game in another state away thanks to a very disgusting word—lockout. I was crushed; this was supposed to have been a very belated 22nd birthday present from my parents and now there was no NHL hockey.
The days and weeks dragged on, and it looked like there might be some hope, until the NHL and PA got huffy and took their pucks and sticks and went home. Instead of making his North American debut at the Xcel Energy Center with the Wild, Granlund made his debut at the Toyota Center in Houston with the Aeros against the Charlotte Checkers. Granlund didn’t just survive—he thrived—scoring four goals and chipping in eight assists for 12 point in just eight games until, just after being named the AHL’s Rookie of the Month for October, he fell to an ankle sprain in a game against the Oklahoma City Barons.
This was another near-fatal blow to this South Dakota hockey fan as my family and I had just bought tickets for November 18th to see the Aeros play the Rockford Ice Hogs at the Xcel Energy Center. To make matters worse, not only was Granlund (the Wild’s #1 prospect) out with an injury, but so was defenseman Jonas Brodin (arguably the Wild’s #2 prospect) after taking a hard check into the boards by 2010 #1 overall NHL draft pick Taylor Hall, in the same game no less. Brodin’s injury—a broken clavicle—was worse by far. However, the show must go on and we were determined to see hockey at the Xcel Energy Center no matter what.
November 18th arrived and up to St. Paul it was. I had my heart set on making a stop at Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub—a legendary Minnesota hockey “Mecca” of sorts—and shed a tear or two taking in all the history and remembering those that have passed away far too early: Herb Brooks, Derek Boogaard, Pavol Demitra and Sergei Zholtok. The food was great, the atmosphere incredible and made me feel part of something greater than myself—a passionate close-knit family of people that enjoy the great game of hockey.
Afterward, we made our way back up the two blocks to the “X” to take in what was sure to be a great game between the Aeros and Ice Hogs. The gates opened at 4PM and the first thing to do was check out all the Wild and Aeros memorabilia that was on sale. Anything you could think of was available from autographed pucks, pictures and jerseys to giant banners that were on display for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in Minnesota. Being the poor, starving college student that I am, I was cheap and picked up two grab bags for a grand total of $15. One bag had an autographed picture and puck from 2010-11 goaltender Jose Theodore and the other had autographed game-used goal pucks from Guillaume Latendresse (11-3-11) and Nick Schultz (1-2-11).
On my way to meet my parents at our seats I ran into 52-year old Wild emergency goaltender Paul Deutsch. Needless to say, I had come prepared to the game as I was able to get my In The Game Between The Pipes “One Game Wonder” Deutsch hockey card autographed. Paul was real easy going and joked that they were replacing him now. I reassured him and said not to worry; he’d get picked up by someone real soon.
The game started fairly slow for the Aeros and it was quite evident they were a little unnerved playing in front of a crowd of 11,175 people. Fortunately, goaltender Matt Hackett had played a few games on that sheet of ice with the big club last season and he certainly handled whatever Rockford threw at him. Hackett made save after save and finally former University of Minnesota-Duluth standout Justin Fontaine was able to put one in the net on the power play with assists from 2009 4th rounder Kris Foucault and former University of North Dakota captain Chay Genoway to make it 1-0 Aeros at the end of the first period.
I left my seat to go to the restroom during the intermission and, as I got to the top of the steps leading out of the lower bowl of the arena, I bumped into a face I am quite familiar with both as a fan and hockey card collector—Nate Prosser. Prosser is a young shutdown defensive defenseman for the Minnesota Wild that would be playing with the Aeros if it was not for the new two-year one way deal that he signed midway through last season. He is also one of the most beloved captains in franchise history of the local United States Hockey League Team, the Sioux Falls Stampede. As both a Stampede and Wild fan, I snatched up as many different cards of his as quickly as they could be released until the most common card I have yet to find of his is serial numbered to just 10 copies. I have even been able to add five unique one-of-one cards to my collection of the 18 that have been released and was able to get my Wild hat and jersey autographed by him a couple summers ago when a few members of the Wild stopped through Sioux Falls.
This particular night, however, Nate was stuck in an awkward situation. Instead of playing with the Aeros or playing with the Wild, Nate was stuck attending the game as a fan. Fortunately, I had my camera in my pocket and was able to get a picture with him. We talked some Stampede hockey and he expressed how much he missed playing in Sioux Falls and enjoyed his time there. Being the hockey fan and college Media major that I am, I casually mentioned the hour long hockey talk radio show I host with a couple of current Stampede players on Thursday mornings on the college radio station. I told him we’d love to have him on to talk some hockey sometime and he said he would love that. That’s when the unthinkable happened—an NHL player (who makes millions more than I do or ever will) gave me his cellphone number and told me to text him before we give him a call. I thanked him and continued on my way, completely oblivious of what I was doing at the present as I reflected on what unbelievable luck I had been having.
Five minutes into the second period, 2010 1st rounder Charlie Coyle worked his magic, feeding 2010 2nd rounder Jason Zucker with a beautiful pass from behind the net who then fired on net. Fellow 2010 2nd rounder Johan Larsson then forced the rebound under the pads of Rockford goaltender Carter Hutton for his fourth goal of the season. The Aeros headed into the dressing room at the second intermission with a 2-0 lead thanks to Larsson and the stellar goaltending by Matt Hackett.
The third period was faster-paced as Rockford gained momentum, scoring at the 9:21 mark on the power play. Johan Larsson would strike less than a minute later as he capitalized on a blown tire from an Ice Hogs defenseman to backhand a shorty past a scrambling Hutton for his second goal of the night and fifth of the season. This didn’t faze the Hogs as they would score another power play marker on Hackett just 52 seconds later. However, there was no stopping the “Junior Wild”. This was their turf, these were their fans and Matt Hackett was a wall of highlight reel saves, stopping 34 of 36 shots to lead the Aeros to a 3-2 victory.
After the game, fans were eager to get in line for autographs of the future Wild players. Everyone was especially excited to get Mikael Granlund’s autograph because, even though he wasn’t playing, he had been rehabilitating his ankle in the Twin Cities and was present to sign and meet the fans. I had bought a Minnesota Wild #64 Mikael Granlund Tee at the team store during the second intermission and was itching to get him to sign it. Meeting Granlund was an interesting experience. I immediately had the feeling that this kid is going to be legend in the NHL for a long time. I said something about looking forward to seeing him play in a Wild uniform for years to come and I remember him smiling shyly and saying in a thick Finnish accent, “I hope so”. For so many people, the lines were exceedingly quick and I was able to swing by a couple tables of players to get their autographs as well.
We were some of the last people out of the arena and we saw 2010 2nd rounders Zucker and Brett Bulmer walking by us and that’s when I couldn’t help but inform them that I’m actively recruiting for my three fantasy hockey leagues, which had them laughing. It was an amazing experience and I couldn’t help but feel a closeness that I’ve never felt with any other sport. Hockey itself is an amazingly difficult and historic sport, but there’s something about hockey in Minnesota that seems to draw all its fans together in a way no other sport can. It’s what causes people to rally around Jack Jablonski and his family the way they have. It’s what causes fans to gather together to spontaneously hold a memorial for Derek Boogaard at the Xcel Energy Center. Sure there are rivalries in all of hockey, but we all share a love of this great sport that transcends rivalries. It’s a love that, at the end of the day, unites and bonds us all in one big family unit. Is this Heaven? No, it’s the State of Hockey.