Wednesday night, only sixteen thousand people showed up to watch a mid-September exhibition hockey game. This does not seem notable, but it is; for the first time since the Wild franchise began, the Xcel Energy Center's 18,064 seats weren't sold for an NHL game, whether exhibition, regular season, or playoff. 409 games had been held in team history, and every ticket had been sold, along with a plethora of standing-room spots - but that streak has come to an end.
SBN's Bryan Reynolds reported the following statement from Wild COO Matt Majka: "The Wild is proud and humbled by the great support fans have shown for the team since 1997. Our streak of 409 consecutive games sold out establishes a new mark for an expansion NHL franchise. The Wild will continue our commitment to building a Stanley Cup-contending team, providing fans a first-class experience at Xcel Energy Center and look forward to starting another sellout streak."
I'm proud that I was a part of that sellout streak. I'm proud that Minnesota is the home of American hockey. I'm proud that here, hockey is a major sport, not a punch line to a inside joke that everybody wants to be a part of. But honestly, I think the end of this sellout streak is for the best.
Since big-league hockey returned to Minnesota in 2000, the overarching narrative that the team has sold has been something along the lines of, "Hey, look - hockey's back!" From the first, the Wild's marketing efforts have endeavored to make the team seem like a natural, inviolable part of hockey in Minnesota. They were the ones who invented the "State of Hockey" moniker. They've spent hours of effort trying to position St. Paul as the "real Hockeytown" and the Wild as the unshakable cornerstone of hockey in the state.
Now, that's fine, but the undercurrent of all of that marketing was one implication: "Look, everybody - just be happy that you have a team again. Never mind if we're not very good. Never mind if we lose. Hockey's back in Minnesota, and while this may be a great place for hockey, you're nothing - nothing at all - if you don't even have an NHL team. Norm Green took that away once. Just be happy we're not Norm Green."
Again, that's fine, and for ten years and nine seasons, the fans here were more or less happy. The rink was filled beyond capacity every night and merchandise flew off the shelves, and it hardly mattered that the team finished last in the Northwest four out of its first five years, or that the team made it past the first round of the playoffs once in nine seasons.
But maybe we've now reached a tipping point. The economy's bad, the original Jacques Lemaire-Doug Risebrough regime is over one year gone now, and fans have made themselves heard, just by not making themselves heard. Being the chief marketing arm and crown jewel of the "State of Hockey" may not be good enough, any more.
Wednesday's non-sellout is a milestone of sorts for the franchise, and to me, it represents the end of the first act of the Wild franchise. The days of "We're just happy to have hockey back" are now over. Now begins the second act - when the team will actually have to be good for fans to come out to St. Paul.
I think it's for the best. That new-rink smell is gone, replaced by the wonderful smell of hockey - that unmistakable combination of Zamboni exhaust, refrigerated sweat, and old beer. The focus isn't on just having a team, now. It's on the team itself. It's a chance for the Wild to stop being what they've been for ten years - the feel-good fuzzy good-to-be-back team in St. Paul - and to start being a team that deserves fan attention for the right reasons.
And if they're not - then you can expect "only" 16,000 fans to show up, this time for a game that actually counts.