ST. PAUL -- Showing up is no longer enough, for the Wild or their fans. The State of Hockey is worn out.
For six years, fans packed the Xcel Energy Center to watch Minnesota’s NHL team, often because it was good but sometimes on impulse, returning to the X the way the zombies returned to the mall in “Dawn of the Dead.”
“Some kind of instinct, memory of what they used to do,” one of the survivors surmises while watching the living dead shamble toward the empty shopping center in George A. Romero’s seminal zombie apocalypse film. “This was an important place in their lives.”
Less than 20 games into the 2019-20 season, it’s clear that when the Wild are on the ice, the X is a less important place than it has been. The Wild sold out their opener and have yet to play to another full house, ending a streak of 230 straight sellouts with an Oct. 20 victory over Montreal.
Before that, the Wild hadn’t failed to fill their arena since Dec. 2, 2013 — nearly six full seasons ago.
It was a good run, the confluence of competitive teams and Minnesota’s affinity for hockey. Since joining the NHL as an expansion team for the 2000-01 season, the Wild have made it to just one Western Conference final, but the team has more often than not been good enough play meaningful games in March and win some playoff games.
But after a remarkably bad season on and off the ice, it’s clear that a fan base impatient to hoist a Stanley Cup has slipped quickly into apathy.
The official attendance for Thursday night’s game was 17,079, about a thousand below capacity, but the X was not much more than half full for a 3-2 victory over Arizona. For those who have spent a lot of time watching Wild games at the Xcel Energy Center, it’s a genuinely odd sight to see so many empty seats — more like a high school state tournament than an NHL game.
Obviously, the no-shows are a reflection of the team’s lousy start; the Wild entered Thursday with an NHL-worst 13 points after playing 13 (!) road games. But it’s about more than wins and losses; it’s about the general state of the franchise. After one remarkably counterproductive season under the spell of former general manager Paul Fenton, fans started tuning out.
In less than two months last season, Fenton traded a handful of underachieving but talented players for what appears to be little more than a handful of magic beans. It was so disheartening that owner Craig Leipold fired Fenton out of the blue on July 31, but not before Fenton handled the draft and free agency.
For the first time in years, Wild fans started a season positive their team is going nowhere, and the principals have done nothing to change their minds. They beat a good Coyotes team on Thursday and improved to 4-1-1 at the X, but they haven’t won more than two games in a row this season. Once.
There just isn’t much about this team that promises “Future,” and that’s a tough sell. The coach is playing out the last season of his contract, the oldest players are signed through next season and beyond, the young players aren’t getting noticeably better and brand-new GM Bill Guerin is wondering how long he has to wait before doing things the way he wants to do them.
No one is waiting with bated breath for Joel Eriksson Ek to become a solid third-line center.
So, for the first time in a long time, season tickets are available and game-day tickets can be had for 20 bucks. That’s good for fans who have been priced out of seeing the Wild play in person, but it’s not a reasonable business model.
The fans will come back en masse when there is a contender on the ice, but for now they’re worn out. It’s one thing to shell out for a night watching NHL hockey and another to do it several times a season. That’s not just an investment, it’s a commitment, and this isn’t a team to fall in love with.