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Wild fever returns to Northland

Minnesota Wild right winger Charlie Coyle signs an autograph for Jacob Hurst, 6, while sister Madison, 8, and mother Sandy wait and father Rob takes a picture of the event at Duluth Heritage Sports Center on Wednesday afternoon. Jacob was asked if the Wild were going to win it all next year. “I’m guessing so,” he said. Coyle and teammate Jason Zucker were in Duluth for the Minnesota Wild Road Tour. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Hockey fan Lindsey McMillan takes a selfie of herself and Minnesota Wild right wing Charlie Coyle at Duluth Heritage Sports Center on Wednesday. Coyle and teammate Jason Zucker were in Duluth for the Minnesota Wild Road Tour. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Duluth is a hockey town — Hockeytown USA some would argue — but there has been apparent apathy at the Minnesota Wild Road Tour’s annual stop in recent years.

Whether or not due to a lack of promotion, the fact is most Duluthians this time of year start looking forward to summer vacation and outdoor activities.

That wasn’t the case for the Wild Road Tour this year as more than 700 people eagerly waited to sign autographs Wednesday at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center. The line snaked from the main lobby, through the west hallway, out the door and perhaps halfway to Proctor.

“That playoff run worked miracles,” said Jerry DeMeo, the Heritage Center’s executive director.

That it did.

Wild fever is back after Minnesota advanced past the first round of the NHL playoffs for the first time in a decade. The Wild were eliminated last month in six games by the Chicago Blackhawks, the 2013 Stanley Cup champions, in a series analysts felt could have gone either way.

The Wild return a nice blend of veteran cornerstones such as Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu and up-and-        comers like Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker, both of whom were at Heritage Center on Wednesday. They were joined by radio personalities Kevin Falness and Tom Reid, who played for the Minnesota North Stars from 1968-78.

Both Coyle and Zucker are 22 years old and in their third year participating on the Tour, which culminates with the Twin Cities Summer Bash starting at 5 p.m. Friday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.  They each have had offseason surgery but have been playing golf on the Tour, so that’s a good sign for Wild fans.

“The Tour is a great way for us to get out of the Twin Cities and see some great Wild fans. Maybe they aren’t able to get to many games, but they still follow us on TV and listen to us on the radio,” said Zucker, who grew up in Las Vegas but is familiar with Duluth after playing collegiately at Denver. “This year feels a lot different, absolutely. Everybody saw how close we came last year and knows we were just a play or two away from going even further. Everyone is excited.”

With free agency and the NHL draft this weekend, Coyle and Zucker were asked what the team’s biggest needs were and who the team might go after.

“We’d all love to know, but the fact is we really don’t have any more idea than you do,” Zucker said. “We already have the nucleus, so all we can do as players is to work hard individually to get better, and let (general manager) Chuck Fletcher handle all that other stuff.”

Coyle, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound forward, agreed.

“The draft for me is a great day to watch young people accomplish their dreams. It’s fun and inspirational,” Coyle said. “We know the drill, and whatever happens, happens. I don’t care who we bring in as long as they help us win.”

The key for the Wild is finding the proper fit.

Three or four superstars don’t make a team. Besides scorers, they also need player to work the corners, backcheck, be physical and kill penalties.

The team has taken on more of a hometown feel in recent years with the likes of Minnesota native Parise, Wisconsin native Suter and former Minnesota Duluth standout Justin Fontaine on the roster.

While the players wouldn’t speculate, a couple names being linked to the Wild are former Minnesota Gopher Thomas Vanek of the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman and Mountain Iron native Matt Niskanen, a former News Tribune All-Area hockey and football player of the year.

“The best part about this time of year is that there so many things happening, and the Wild are in a way better position than they were just two or three years ago,” Falness said. “What team wouldn’t want a Matt Niskanen? But the Wild have to weigh everything and find people who fit their mold.”

One thing the Wild definitely will look to shore up is their goaltending rotation, after starting five goalies in 2013-14 and dressing as many as seven.

“When one goalie went down, another one would step up. That was huge,” Coyle said. “Those guys were great back there, but when you’re constantly rotating guys back there, it’s not the ideal situation.”