When it comes to hockey in the Mankato area, the term "favorite Gopher" might be an oxymoron.
But Erik Haula, a former University of Minnesota player who is now a budding star forward with the Minnesota Wild, has won over fans around the south-central part of the state.
"Legendary," 13-year-old Jarrett Miller said during the Wild's Wells Fargo Road Tour stop at All Seasons Arena. "I just met one of my idols. I always liked him, even before he was with the Wild. He's the only Gopher I actually liked."
Several hundred people showed up to Wednesday's event, collecting autographs from and taking photos with Haula, teammate Stephane Veilleux, Wild alumnus Antti Laaksonen and TV play-by-play announcer Anthony LaPanta. The Wild donated signed Haula and Veilleux jerseys and a team-signed stick to the Mankato Area Hockey Association.
The 23-year-old Haula received the bulk of the attention in the wake of the Wild's recent postseason run
As an NHL rookie, he played in just 46 regular-season games, scoring six goals and 15 points. But he stood out in the playoffs with four goals and seven points in 13 games.
"We're big Wild fans; we watch all the games," said Myles Ching, who drove to Mankato from Sioux Falls, S.D., with his brother, Brandon, and their friend Michael Kayser. "Haula was my favorite Gopher, so I wanted to come here and see him, too."
Grayson Gavin, a senior at Mankato East, recently returned from Finland where he was an exchange student for the last 11 months. He had Haula, a native of Finland, sign a Finnish Olympic jersey, and the two spoke Finnish with each other for a bit.