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Dave LeGarde: Honeymoon over for 'State of Hockey' torchbearers

There's not a finer sports venue than St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild. Fantastic sightlines, comfortable seats and knowledgeable spectators have helped it earn rave reviews since the building opened eight years ago. From...

There's not a finer sports venue than St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild.

Fantastic sightlines, comfortable seats and knowledgeable spectators have helped it earn rave reviews since the building opened eight years ago.

From a business standpoint, the Wild organization has thrived, earning its place among the most lucrative in the National Hockey League. Every home game in franchise history has sold out, with tickets a hot commodity again this year.

There are cracks in the armor, however, as media and fans have become frustrated with failures on the ice. First-round playoff exits the past two seasons and an unwillingness to spend money on high-priced free agents has drawn the wrath of many.

As a new campaign begins next week, there's a sense of dissatisfaction and unease as several deficiencies plaguing the team are still up for debate. For the first time, there's intense public demand for accountability.

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Let's face it: for years, the Wild could have filled every seat dressing a dozen pee-wee players and the cast from "A Prairie Home Companion." Winning was icing on the cake for fans thrilled to have pro hockey back in the state.

A surprise run to the Western Conference Finals in 2003 bought more time for ownership. An average regular season followed by a month of stellar play convinced the masses this was a team ready to take its place among the elite.

Ever since, the results have been mostly disappointing. Second-division finishes, a season cancelled due to greed and playoff failure are beginning to taint the dizzying popularity that's always been a Minnesota staple.

The postseason woes of the past two years have brought many to their boiling points. Watching the Wild flounder against opponents with more strength, depth and talent brings questions as to why the franchise won't spend money to acquire players with such traits.

I could be wrong, but the only high-profile free agent who's ever accomplished anything in a Wild uniform was Brian Rolston.

An experienced forward with prolific scoring ability, he was dealt away this past summer after demanding more money. It's agonizing to see such a quality performer, who was more than willing to stay here, leave while he's still playing well.

The plight of the team's most talented player, Marian Gaborik, is a continuing soap opera that's been a major hindrance for two seasons. His lack of commitment and desire clearly has a bad effect on his teammates, and it's difficult to succeed when the biggest star brings such negativity.

Despite positive reports from management that he appears to have changed his ways, I think it's time for the Wild to trade him. He'll be a free agent at the end of this year and his interest in returning has been unclear. Why not get something for him now?

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He's never been comfortable with the defense-minded style of head coach Jacques Lemaire, and his feelings about being here have always ranged from lukewarm to sour. At some point, the people in charge need to take a stand. Dealing Gaborik now, while adding a quality player or two in return, would do wonders for morale. While it may take time for others to fill the scoring void, his absence creates a more tight-knit atmosphere that is a key ingredient to winning.

Whatever happens, it looks to be a make-or-break year for this organization. Lemaire has been at the helm since the beginning and is now getting criticism for the Wild not being a consistent championship contender.

New owner Craig Leipold is under the gun to acquire the expensive skill players needed to put the team over the top. This year's significant addition, Owen Nolan, is an aging forward whose best years may be behind him.

Even in this hockey-crazed state, the novelty of having an NHL team will eventually deteriorate. This is common in every city with professional sports. Eventually the people want a winner.

By the way, what ever happened to the Wild holding preseason training camp in Duluth?

An exciting idea that seemed near reality earlier this year fell by the wayside with no explanation given for its demise.

Dave LeGarde is the Duluth Central basketball coach and a sports aficionado. Readers can e-mail questions and comments to dlegarde@charter.net .

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