This Friday, the Minnesota Wild officially report for the start of training camp. And, after this summer, this is the best thing that could happen for all parties involved -- players, staff, and most importantly, the fans.
This has not been a good off-season for the sport of hockey. Far from it. It has been, literally, the deadliest single off-season in the history of the sport. 48 players have died since the end of the last season, including 45 as a result of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl charter plane crash in Russia last week.
Two Wild alumni -- Derek Boogaard and Pavol Demitra -- were amongst those whose lives were ended all too soon during the summer. Boogaard's death is the tip of a very large and deadly iceberg, that of the pain endured every day by NHL players, who want to keep playing even when their bodies say they should retire to their favorite off-ice activity.
The fact is, however, that life goes on for the rest of us, even when the world stops for others. The fact is that even after the pain suffered though the summer, after the deaths of Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak -- all for different reasons, in different locations, at different times -- hockey goes on. People still want the game to go on. The players still want to play. The fans still want to see hockey on the ice. They still want to cheer for their team, and boo the opposition.
The fans are excited right now. Hope springs eternal, never more so than going into the start of training camp this weekend. The dramatically 'new and improved' Wild, led by Mikko Koivu, now more than ever, now with some actual first-line offensive help in Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.
Finally shorn of the dead weight of Cam Barker, Antti Miettinen, and James Sheppard -- three players Wild fans learned the hard way to loathe, especially over the last two seasons, as the team's fortunes soured under another now-ex-Wild, coach Todd Richards -- replaced with the coach of the Houston Aeros, Mike Yeo, who took his team to the AHL's Calder Cup finals.
It's a lot for a dedicated fan to handle, all these changes in the sport that they love; for the casual fan, maybe it will be a bit confusing, especially in the pre-season, as the rosters will not be set until later in camp, after everyone has received a good look. Newer players, such as Colton Gillies, Jordan Henry, Mike Lundin, Darroll Powe, and Marco Scandella will become the basis of the Wild's third and fourth lines and third defensive pairing, a virtual 'quantum leap' ahead of last season's patchwork quilt of players shoring up the top two lines.
For those top two lines, the results of the massive overhaul, orchestrated by GM Chuck Fletcher means that the offense, anemic by any sport's standards, should fire on all cylinders most of the time this season, injuries not withstanding. The Wild's top 4 defensemen are finally worthy of being at least occasionally mentioned as top 4 defensemen, as the slackers and the deadbeats have been purged from the ranks of the roster. Lean and mean, Guillaume Latendresse cannot be called 'Minnesota Fats' any more. Matt Cullen can return to his natural center position, feeding Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard as the Wild's second line.
Yes, Wild fans, hope springs eternal at this time of year. Of course, no one in the NHL has played a game yet. Right now, the Islanders are just as good as the Canucks. (Well, maybe not, but go with it.)
After all, that's why we fans want them to play the games...