Big splash for small-market Wild

| Monday, July 9, 2012, 8:36 p.m.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota never has been “flyover country” to Zach Parise.

The star forward grew up here, honed his hockey skills here and built a house here to make sure his roots remain in Minnesota for the long term.

Yet even in hockey-mad Minnesota, where the passion for the sport may only be rivaled by the country on its northern border, the Twin Cities always has been considered a medium-sized market that doesn't have enough sizzle to lure the biggest names in the game.

When Parise and fellow blue-chip free agent Ryan Suter decided to sign matching 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Wild, part of their aim was to turn Minnesota into a destination for the best pros in the league.

“At the end of the day, hopefully, with Ryan and I coming here, good players want to play with good players,” Parise said Monday when he was introduced with Suter at a news conference. “Hopefully, that helps influence some people.”

There's a chip on the shoulder of sports fans in these parts who have grown tired of being overshadowed by the big cities and seeing their teams passed over time and again.

So to see a team in their state score the two best players on the free-agent market — and spend a ton of money to keep them away from the deep pockets in New York and Chicago — stood as one of the bigger days in Minnesota sports history.

“Free agents of Zach and Ryan's caliber are often attracted to the major markets where there is more attention, brighter spotlights, and frankly, more money,” owner Craig Leipold said. “These two chose Minnesota over those things and, in doing so, they have transformed our franchise. We've all walked a little taller since July 4.”

The goal is to keep that swagger going. The Wild lost the only other true star the franchise has had when Marian Gaborik left in 2009.

Since then, the Wild have spent good money on winger Martin Havlat, who never fit in with the team and was traded to San Jose, to extend center Mikko Koivu and keep the franchise building block from leaving and added Dany Heatley in a trade last summer.

But nothing like this. Parise, the captain of the New Jersey Devils, was the most sought-after forward on the market. Suter was the most prized defenseman available. And the Wild got 'em both.

“This,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said, “just takes it to a whole new level.”

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