- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

MINNEAPOLIS Norm Green, the object of fans' derision, became the Twin Cities' poster child for everything wrong with pro sports when the owner took the North out of the Stars and moved Minnesota's hockey team to Dallas, of all places, a decade ago.
Even when the NHL stepped in shortly thereafter and ensured that Minnesota would get an expansion team, there was a sense that it would take a lot to replace the old one.
If the new team's bosses were going to win everybody back, they would have to do it right. This is a state, after all, in which riots break out after NCAA hockey championships. Hockey is not just a sport here it's a deep-rooted part of the culture.
Three years after the Minnesota Wild's birth, things could not have gone better. The Wild have improved their point total each season to a high of 95 this season the best third-season total of any of the last nine expansion teams.
Minnesota made the playoffs and appeared to get a tough draw against the mighty Colorado Avalanche. The Wild fell behind 3-1 in the series, then shocked even themselves by rallying for three consecutive victories the last two in overtime to reach the Western Conference semifinals.
"We weren't even supposed to win a game against Colorado," Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said.
Now the semifinal series with Vancouver is tied 1-1 as the teams head back to hockey-mad Minnesota for tonight's Game3. There is a sense that anything is possible with this team, both in these playoffs and the future.
It was a long way to have come in a few short years.

Building from the top down
Among the top officials in the organization, there is an amazing amount of continuity and success. It starts with Lemaire, who has more Stanley Cup rings (11) than fingers eight as a player with Montreal, two as an executive with the Canadiens and one as coach of the New Jersey Devils in 1994-95.
General manager Doug Risebrough played with Lemaire on Montreal's four consecutive Cup winners from 1976 to 1979 and was an assistant coach with Calgary when the Flames won it all in 1989. Assistant coach Mario Tremblay played with Lemaire and Risebrough on those four consecutive championship teams.
"[Lemaire] has a tremendous amount of respect from all the players," defenseman Brad Bombardir said. "He has 11 Stanley Cups, so you know that he knows what it takes to win championships. So the respect factor is certainly there right away. We also believe in him."
Said forward Cliff Ronning: "In three years, he has brought a team past the first round that really has just one guy who is a so-called young superstar [Marian Gaborik] and the rest are just a bunch of players who just work hard every night."
All along, though, Minnesota has been building for the future. That the future arrived a year or two early with not only a playoff berth but playoff success is all the more surprising and sweet. But it did not come at the expense of the master plan. Ronning is the highest-paid player at $1.85million a year on a team with the lowest payroll in the NHL at $21million.
That number is sure to grow next season when Gaborik and others command substantial raises, but the Wild's coffers are full thanks to three consecutive years of conservative spending and selling out Xcel Energy Center. It's an organizational approach that has become the envy of much of the league and could fuel a string of playoff runs that are far less surprising.

Building from the bottom up
The Wild have been billed as a cast of no-names, and the description fits in most cases. They are scrappy, and in some cases from the scrap heap much like their baseball brethren in Minnesota.
Three players remain from the 2000 expansion draft, including increasingly steady defenseman Filip Kuba. Gaborik, a 30-goal scorer each of the last two seasons and the team's first All-Star, was the Wild's first draft choice. Two-way center Wes Walz, who has three goals in two games against the Canucks, was a forgotten man playing in Switzerland until the Wild signed him as a free agent.
The list goes on: Defenseman Willie Mitchell and goalie Manny Fernandez, both heroes of the Colorado series, came via trades. Defenseman Andrei Zyuzin was claimed off waivers in the middle of this season and has become a regular.
Between hockey's top and bottom, the Wild have forged a middle ground.
Vancouver GM Brian Burke called the Wild a "cult" because of their unwavering emphasis on structure and system. He was mostly joking. Even if he wasn't, Wild players and fans likely would take it as a compliment.
"They have a total team approach," said Vancouver veteran Trevor Linden, who is seeing it even more in the Western Conference semifinals. "It sounds pretty simple, but it's not in professional sports these days."

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