On one of the balmiest days of a bleak spring, about 500 fans turned out to think about hockey.
They lined up to get an autograph, enter a drawing, munch on a hot dog, have a soda and check out the Wells Fargo Minnesota Wild Road Tour.
Left wing Matt Johnson, Wild radio analyst and former Minnesota North Star Tom Reid and former North Star and current Wild hockey advisor Neal Broten stopped Friday at Brainerd Area Civic Center to express their appreciation to fans.
"It's a great opportunity to see different parts of the state," Johnson said of the tour, "and thank the fans that have supported you and the team over the years."
Johnson, a 10-year NHL veteran, completed his fourth season as the Wild's enforcer. He also has played for the Los Angeles Kings and Atlanta Thrashers.
"Personally, it's the best place I've played, it has the most fan support, it's the most exciting place to play," he said of Minnesota.
Johnson has been following the Stanley Cup Finals closely. The Calgary Flames lead the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 with Game 6 Saturday night.
Unfortunately, NHL playoff TV ratings have been about one-fourth the number of households that have been watching the NBA playoffs.
"It's smaller markets," Johnson said of the discrepancy. "It's not like it's New York, Los Angeles or Chicago are playing. I think that's a factor.
"It's great hockey. It's hard-fought. It's exciting to watch."
Minnesota Wild left wing
6-foot-5, 235 pounds
28 years old
One of six original members remaining with the Wild.
Established career highs in goals (7) and plus-minus (+4) in 2003-04 season.
Wild's all-time leader in penalty minutes (628). Has 1,523 penalty minutes in his 10-year NHL career.
Unfortunately, fans may not be watching the NHL next season. A lockout by owners is likely and rumors abound that the league could be shut down for much, if not all, of the 2004-05 season.
"It's a definite possibility," Johnson said of the lockout. "Obviously, as a player, I want to play hockey. There seems to be issues that need to be resolved.
"It's not going to be good for the game. That we know for sure."
The Wild finished last in the Northwest Division last season with a 30-29-20-3 record. That came on the heels of a trip to the Western Conference finals the season before.
"It's a huge challenge to make the playoffs," Johnson said. "Good things happened last season. We had a strong finish to the season as a team. If we can continue to carry that over, the prospects for making the playoffs again are good."
Mike Bialka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 855-5861.
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