Wild sides: Parise and Konopka lead the Wild

MIKE MULLEN | Updated 2/14/2013

Back after a prolonged lockout, the Wild is led by two new faces: big-buck hometown star Zach Parise and bruised brawler Zenon Konopka.

Carlos Gonzalez

In May of 1991, Mario Lemieux was at the height of his dazzling powers. Over the course of a 4-2 Stanley Cup Finals win, the Pittsburgh Penguins star confounded opponents, at times literally skating circles around the Minnesota North Stars.

Watching the series intently was 7-year-old Zach Parise, a Minneapolis kid whose father, J.P., had played for the North Stars a decade earlier.

Much has changed since then. The North Stars relocated to Texas, and a new team sprouted up in their place. The boy, Parise, is now a man — a famous one, in fact, well liked and well compensated.

Thinking back to the 1991 Finals, Parise said he was just excited to watch the action. At the time, he wasn’t emotionally invested in the fact that Minnesota, the State of Hockey, had never won a Stanley Cup. He is now.

“I think it would be awesome to win here, just because I’m a Minnesota sports fan,” Parise said. “The team hasn’t won, and it’d be pretty cool to be the first to do it.” ⊲

With the signing of a 13-year, $98 million contract to join the Minnesota Wild last summer, Parise, 28, committed the prime of his career to changing the course of Minnesota hockey history. The team simultaneously announced the blockbuster signing of defenseman Ryan Suter, further spiking expectations.

If Parise, and the Wild, live up to those expectations, he stands poised to become the state’s new favorite athlete. All the tools are present, including the collection of quick muscles in his wrists — which slingshot pucks goalbound with little warning — and around his mouth, which is easily, and often, drawn into a beaming smile.

Parise believes this Wild squad has the talent to play for trophies someday soon, and he should know. As captain of the New Jersey Devils last season, he helped that team reach the finals. Ultimately the Devils lost to the Los Angeles Kings, who managed to smother Parise, limiting him to a single goal in six games. It’s still on his mind.

“You get reminded of things,” Parise said. “And you wonder what you could’ve done differently. It’s hard when you come up that close but a little short.”

In comments echoed by his coach and teammates, Parise acknowledges that Minnesota has much work to do before even thinking about a deep playoffs run. Last season the Wild finished with a record of 35-36-11, missing the postseason and ranking last in the league with 177 goals.

In the early stages of this season, a lockout-shortened 48-game sprint to the playoffs, the team is trying to find its personality. Coach Mike Yeo said much-needed chemistry will come faster thanks to Parise’s endurance, which enables him to log more minutes per game than all but a handful of NHL forwards, and the “shooter’s mentality” which has at times been missing from the Wild.

“What we want out of [Parise] is what he is,” Yeo said. “We don’t want anything else, and we don’t need anything else. He’s a phenomenal player.”

Teammate Dany Heatley, the team’s leading scorer last season, knew enough of Parise’s abilities before this season. But Heatley has noticed even more from playing alongside Parise, who joins Heatley and Mikko Koivu on the team’s first line.

“Playing with [Parise], you realize how good he is,” Heatley said. “He hounds the puck, he’s real strong on it. But what I really like about him are the little plays he makes that no one really notices.”

With six goals and four assists through nine games this season, Parise has also done plenty that everyone notices. If the team can find its stride in time, they might soon capture the imagination of youthful hockey fans who, like the young Parise, are unburdened by the weight of history, and want only to get caught up in the excitement of the game.

Minnesota Wild