There is, perhaps, no greater place to be in Minnesota on a January night, than in a cozy, yet frenzied Xcel Energy Center as the Minnesota Wild are beating an opponent into submission. The roar of the crowd, Nordy firing up the fans and shooting t-shirts into the upper deck, an occasional “Norm Still Sucks” sign in the crowd and the lighthouse shining after a Wild win. You just can’t beat it.
This past Saturday night was no different, although I was looking down at the 19,299 fans in attendance from the Al Shaver Press Box at the X. Though I’ve been writing for The Morning Skate for about 1.5 years already (where did that time go?), this was only my second game working from the press box (my first being in mid-December.) It is a unique view looking down on our boys in green, to be sure. I’m 6’1 and I have to lean forward on my seat to see over the edge of the work desk provided for the press members.
Let’s go back a little before we go forward, shall we? My first NHL game that I worked was on December 18 when the Wild played the Ottawa Senators. Originally scheduled as a date night for my wife Angie and I, turned into a working night for me when I received word that I had received media credentials for the first time. Instead, my daughter took my place and my two hockey ladies were seated almost directly across the rink from my spot in the press box. The Wild beat the Senators 4-2 that night and I was thrilled to have worked my first NHL game.
I was lucky enough to be able to get a pic with Wild GM, Bill Guerin, in the elevator on my way to the post-game press conference (he couldn’t escape.) Though I missed out on the locker room interviews with the players (I wasn’t sure where they were), I did make it to the press conference with Wild Head Coach, Dean Evason.
My introverted nature was telling me to NOT open my mouth during the press conference, but my “to-hell-with-that” adventurous side won out thinking that I may not get the chance again. I asked Coach Evason the last question of that night’s press conference when I asked him when the Wild were on a hot streak as they were currently on (a six-game win streak), if he needed to push the team to fight complacency in the next game, or if that came from the team itself. He replied by saying that it comes from within the team and the organization. Good answer. I did it. I asked a relatively decent question without making an ass of myself. Woo hoo!!!
After the press conference was over, I was walking back to the elevators when I walked right…past… Mats Zuccarello. We said “hi” to each other as he was holding his infant daughter in his arms. I walked past a few Senator players and to the elevator. Holy crap!! Talk about a surreal moment!!!! I know I was talking a mile-a-minute by the time I met up with my wife and daughter. It was awesome!!
Back to Saturday, I once again found my assigned seat (2 seats closer to center ice – I’m movin’ on up!!!) and was stoked to work yet another NHL game. What many people may not realize, is that there are NHL judges that are continuously working every game as well. They were once again sitting in a booth behind and above from where I was seated. Every shot, a judge was talking to someone or into something that was recording all of the stats. For example, if Kirill Kaprizov shot a puck towards the net, the judge might say something like “97 green save” or “green goal 97”. The player’s number, green (or usually white for the visiting team colors) and what happened. Another example would be a shot by a visitor (say #8), which was blocked by Ryan Reaves. The judge would say something similar to “shot by white #8 blocked by green #75. Every shot, pass, goal, penalty, that guy is talking. It was pretty neat to listen to him – it has to be exhausting after a while though.
As for the game, the Wild won 2-1 with goals from Zuccarello and Freddy Gaudreau, just 52 seconds apart. At the time of Zuccy’s goal, the Wild had a 5-3 man-advantage after two Arizona penalties. The Wild made it 2-0 before the Coyotes were at full-strength. Marc-Andre Fleury picked up another win in his legendary career, with 27 saves on 28 shots. Kirill Kaprizov came within about two inches of scoring his 100th goal when he fired a top-shelf snipe over the left shoulder of Arizona’s goaltender, Connor Ingram. After a coach’s challenge by Arizona, the play was ruled offside.
The final fog horn sounded and 19,000 fans walked off into a breezy, St. Paul night, full of smiles (and maybe a few beers). I, on the other hand, had more work to do. I grabbed a notebook and a pen to make a beeline for the press elevator. I piled in with other press members and down to the event floor we went. I don’t think anyone had been that excited to ride an elevator since little Charlie rode one with Grandpa Joe and Willy – I guess that was technically a Wonka-vator. I digress. If that movie reference went over your head, just let it go.
We walked down the long hallway to the area of the locker rooms and waited patiently until a man with a booming voice announced “Minnesota’s open,” which was the cue that we could then enter the locker room. We passed a row of neatly lined-up sticks and entered the Wild locker room. To our immediate right was Mats Zuccarello. He flashed a quick smile, presumably at the media members who he knew by name and then he saw me and gave me one of these looks…
Perhaps I misread his facial expression, but I doubt it. A few of the other members asked him a few questions before I jumped in with my first NHL interview question, “You got Dallas and Winnipeg in front of you in the standings, what do you have to do to catch them? Without missing a beat, he quipped, “win more than them.” He went on to say “go about our business, worry about us and get as many points as we can.” Sounds easy enough. We then went over to talk with “the Flower” Marc-Andre Fleury and Ryan Hartman. Boom, done.
At that point, my brain took an offramp to who-knows-where and even though I followed that up with attending the press conference with Coach Evason across the hall, I was done. I walked out of the Xcel Energy Center a changed man. I can die happily now.
Seriously though, aside from the Wild players and management, there are obviously so many people behind the scenes that are working to host just one NHL game. It’s impressive really. There is no doubt that no matter what hockey team you love, there are people just as dedicated and excited to be a part of a NHL experience as there are in Minnesota. I mean, come on – it’s the NHL!!! So, I just wanted to share a little bit of my experience with you all. I have four more games that I will attend this season, so more insights are to come. Until then, let’s go Wild!!!!