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Minnesota Wild hockey player Chad Rau signs the t-shirt of Sophia Bellig at the Wells Fargo Minnesota Wild Road Tour on Tuesday afternoon. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Boys of Winter: Wild's annual summer visit always a hit with local hockey fans

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BEMIDJI - Justin Falk and Chad Rau might not be the most recognizable members of the Minnesota Wild, but that didn't seem to matter to the hundreds that gathered at Marketplace Foods Tuesday. They were just glad to get a minute or two with a real live NHL player.

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Falk, a Wild defenseman, and Rau, a center, stopped in Bemidji as part of the Minnesota Wild Road Tour.

Former Wild captain Wes Walz, currently a broadcaster on Fox Sports North, new TV play-by-play man Anthony LaPanta and radio broadcaster Kyle Falness joined the players in their annual meet-and-greet with fans.

And all of them agreed that Bemidji has always had strong support for the Wild.

"It's been a lot of fun," said Walz, who played for the Wild from 2000-2008 before retiring.

"We get a lot of support from people all over the state of Minnesota. Sometimes it's a five or six hour drive and they can't always get to the Xcel Energy Center, so it's nice for us to reach out and go out and visit the different towns to give back."

Falness estimated around 300 fans showed up to Tuesday's event in Bemidji, which was the fourth stop on their four-day, seven-location caravan.

"Bemidji's always been a great place for us to come," Falness said. "To think we have this many hockey fans here on a summer afternoon, it's great."

It was Eden Prairie native Rau's first time in Bemidji.

"I can't remember being up here before," he said. "Maybe when I was little, but certainly not recently. But it's pretty nice town from what we've seen."

The bus' first stop, of course, was a photo with Paul and Babe before heading to the meet-and-greet, where eager fans brought myriad items to sign.

Youngster Lincoln Huerd came with Chase and Paige Sundvall and their dad, Troy.

Although Huerd's favorite Wild player is Mikko Koivu, he was just as excited to meet Falk, Rau and Welz.

"It's really fun to meet these guys," he said.

Troy Sundvall says he brings the kids every year.

"It's great for the kids," he said. "We haven't been to many games in the last couple years but they still like to see the players. But I certainly didn't have to drag them out here. They love meeting the players."

Huerd brought his red Wild jersey to get an autograph or two, while Chase Sundvall went old-school and asked them to sign his Minnesota North Stars cap.

Other fans brought decidedly less conventional items to sign.

Stephanie Masten, for example, is now the proud owner of a Minnesota Wild lawn gnome, autographed by Rau, Falk and Welz.

"They said they've never been asked to sign a gnome before," she said with a laugh. "So that's pretty sweet. I bought it at either Target or Kmart... I can't remember, but it was only a dollar. Now I have some autographs on it, so it was worth the dollar."

And to think, Masten isn't even a huge hockey fan.

"I'm getting there," she said.

Teresa Porter took credit for dragging Masten to Tuesday's event.

"Me and my brother have both kinda pulled her into it," Porter said. "We're making her a Wild fan."

Although both women wore identical green Wild jerseys, Porter one-upped her friend on the "stuff to sign" scale: A stuffed turtle she built at the Build-A-Bear Workshop. It is dressed full Wild regalia, including a helmet and skates.

"I got it about two or three years ago and just started carrying it around to all the signings," she said.

Now it's full of autographs. Porter took pains to point out the signature of "her guy," Cal Clutterbuck.

Porter said she looks forward to the Wild visiting every year since it's hard for her to make the trip to St. Paul for games.

"I've never been to a game but I went to a practice last year, and I've been to every signing I can make it to," she said. "Basically, I look forward to this and go every chance I can get."

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is a sports reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on Bemidji State but also covering area high schools. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at http://thebeaverblog.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.
(218) 333-9772
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