The Mankato Free Press
---- — Watching the dramatic conclusion of Sunday’s Minnesota Wild game, I couldn’t help but think I’ve seen something like that before.
Jason Zucker’s overtime goal gave the Wild the 3-2 win over the top-seeded Blackhawks and made the series relevant again after Friday’s drubbing at Chicago.
Since the breakup of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association began two years ago, I’ve argued in this column that it’s time for Minnesota State fans to go to the Verizon Wireless Center, first and foremost, to see the Mavericks, not their opponent.
Another reason to buy a ticket? You never know who you’re going to see.
Of course teams such as Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin were going to be big draws, and fans have lamented that those teams wouldn’t be coming back to Mankato very much, if at all, once the league split up into the Big Ten, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and the “new” WCHA.
Amid those complaints, I was often stumped as to why fans didn’t include a few other teams in that list, namely Denver.
The Pioneers never seemed to be a big draw at the civic center, despite winning a pair of national championships in the early 2000s and having some of college hockey’s top talent.
Zucker was one of those players in 2010-11 and ‘11-12. A second-round draft pick of the Wild in the summer prior to the start of his college career, Zucker had two outstanding seasons at Denver. He scored 45 goals and 91 points in 78 games. In eight games against Minnesota State, he had five goals and six assists for 11 points. That included an overtime goal that ended the Mavericks’ season in ‘10-11.
He only played two games in Mankato, but I recall the impression he made in that series. I sure wanted to see him play again, whether he was in a Pioneers jersey or a Wild uniform. I figured others would want to come out to the rink and see what all the hype was about with him. I surely wasn’t the only one who thought if things work out as expected, it’s going to be fun to watch this guy once he gets to St. Paul.
Already as a rookie, he’s part of that team’s history, an overtime hero.
Zucker isn’t alone, of course. Other Wild players we’ve seen come through Mankato include Zach Parise (North Dakota), Ryan Suter (Wisconsin) and the now-injured Dany Heatley (Wisconsin), among others. It’s fun to see those players in their formative years and try to predict what they’ll become at the next level — if they even get there.
Minnesota State’s alumni include David Backes, whose St. Louis Blues are in the midst of a first-round series against the defending-champion Los Angeles Kings. As the Blues’ captain, Backes is a bona fide NHL star. Meanwhile, Tim Jackman and Ryan Carter have carved out solid careers and are currently with the Calgary Flames and New Jersey Devils, respectively.
The hope is we’ll see Eriah Hayes skating with the San Jose Sharks sometime soon.
Here in MSU territory, hockey fans would love nothing more than to see one of the Mavericks get drafted by — or sign a free-agent contract with — and then play for the Wild.
In the meantime, they’ll be learning to love those players they used to love to hate. Like Zucker.
Shane Frederick is a Free Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @puckato.