ST. PAUL -- Back in October, Doug Risebrough kept trying to describe to the Minnesota Wild what their expansion season would be like, though he had only a vague notion of it himself.
Then a packed house rose to its feet as the Wild hit the ice for warmups before their home opener against Philadelphia.
"It was hard to sell the intangibles up to then," he said. "That was a tangible night."
The Wild (25-39-13-5) went on to exceed even their own expectations by earning 68 points, though trades and injuries down the stretch limited them to only one win in their final 14 games.
Most of all, the Wild brought the NHL back to the state of Minnesota -- the self-proclaimed state of hockey -- for the first time in seven years. They sold out all 41 home games, setting an expansion attendance record by averaging 18,402 per contest.
"Truly, this was a love affair in the first season with the fans," said Risebrough, a four-time Stanley Cup winner who said this season matched any in his career. "The timing of their standing ovations has given our arena a soul."
The Wild repaid them with an amazing 6-0 victory over the Dallas Stars (the former Minnesota North Stars). They beat the Detroit Red Wings in overtime. They even went unbeaten during an eight-game stretch in December.
Coach Jacques Lemaire patiently taught his players the defensive style that gave them a chance in nearly every game and frustrated opponents. When NHL legend Mario Lemieux said he disliked the Wild's clutching style, Lemaire fired back, saying Lemieux shouldn't have returned if he didn't like contact.
Like Risebrough, Lemaire had little idea what to expect going into the season.
"I thought we would have some downs, where we would be worrying about where we would win a game, or thinking we would have to get better players just to compete," Lemaire said. "That didn't happen at all.
"There wasn't the pain in the way that you lose games and you have no chance at all to win, where you're beat in the first two minutes. That's why it was so exciting. As a coach, you always felt you had a chance to come back."
The Wild found a pair of potential young stars when they traded for goaltender Manny Fernandez and drafted 18-year-old wing Marian Gaborik. Fernandez, who had backed up Ed Belfour in Dallas, set an expansion record by allowed 2.24 goals per game.
Gaborik led the Wild with 36 points and tied Wes Walz and Darby Hendrickson with a team-best 18 goals.
"When Marian first came into training camp, he was all over the place -- didn't know what to do," Lemaire said. "He started to show his potential after about a month of camp. We were amazed he could move the puck like he did and score like he did."
Hendrickson, a Minnesota-born local favorite, scored the Wild's first goal and went on to have a career year.
"We're all very lucky that we've had a chance to play here and be a part of this," Hendrickson said. "The fans from the first exhibition game have been on their feet and supported us, and that's why we've had a successful and winning record here at home. Wow, the crowd has been great all year.
"There's no other place I'd rather play."
Risebrough and Lemaire are hoping this will become a franchise players will want to join. For now, they vow to remain patient heading into Year 2.
"The expansion scenario is all about patience and development for the long term," Risebrough said. "Until guys who are 18 or 20 become 23 or 25 can you shift that. And, really, it applies all the time. It's going to stay the same, probably, as long as I'm here."
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