In a few hours I'll leave for the Xcel Energy Center to work what will most likely be the final Wild game of the year. As mentioned in an earlier post, it would take a minor miracle to get the Wild into the playoffs, and as Capt. Renault said in Casablanca, "The Germans have outlawed miracles."
And while it will be sad to see the season come to an end, for me it will be even sadder to see the Wild's Marian Gaborik make what will likely be his final appearance at the X in a Wild uniform. For those of you who don't follow hockey or the Wild closely, the story in a nutshell is this:
Gaborik was the first player drafted by the Wild when they became a franchise. A Slovakian, he made the team as an 18-year-old, and scored the first goal in team history. He was fast, he was exciting, he was dynamic. He's the last remaining member of the original Wild team, and holds virtually every team offensive record. He scored 18 goals his rookie year, then 30 in each of the next two years, and was considered a rising superstar in the NHL. In 2003, he became the first Wild player selected to the All-Star team.
Then the problems started. A contract dispute in the fall of 2003 caused him to miss the first month of the season and created some ill will between his agent and Wild management, as well as with some of the fans. A groin injury - groin injuries were to become his trademark - caused him to miss five games in January of 2004. In the 2005-06 season, he missed the first six games with groin problems, then missed another 11 games with a strained hip. In 2006-07, he missed another 34 games with a groin problem.
The next summer, he underwent hip surgery designed to fix the chronic groin problem, and he came back in 2007-08 ready to play, and everything seemed to be fine. He played 77 games, scored a career-high 42 goals and was at the center of one of the most exciting nights I've ever spent in an arena.
On December 20, 2007, at the X, he scored five goals against the New York Rangers. He had his hat trick midway through the 2nd period. He scored on the power play, he scored on a breakaway, he scored by knocking a waist-high puck out of the air an into the net. The atmosphere in the building was absolutely electric. Every time he jumped over the boards onto the ice you could feel 18,000 people anticipating his next move.
It could have been six goals. After the Rangers pulled their starting goalie, backup Steve Valiquette made a spectacular pad save to prevent another Gabby goal. It's one of the most amazing individual performances I've ever seen, and I'll never forget the feeling in the building that night. NEVER. It was like nothing I've ever experienced.
Then this year, it all fell apart. He played two games, then missed a month with another groin injury. He returned in December, scored four points in four games, then announced that he was going to have surgery on the other hip. He missed three months, and whatever patience the fans had was gone.
Gabby's contract is up at the end of this season, and last fall he rejected a long-term offer from the Wild that reportedly would have paid him an average of $8 million a season. The relationship between his agent and Wild management is reportedly very icy, and everyone expects that he will sign with another team sometime this summer. It's hard to ask a team to commit a lot of long-term money to a guy with his injury history, particularly when he doesn't always seem like he wants to be here.
As I said, most Wild fans long ago lost their patience. If you read the chat boards or talk to fans at the X, you hear a lot of "Get him out of here." "Good riddance." "He's a baby who can't play with pain." Things like that.
All of which I believe are wrong.
This is a guy who just turned 27 in February, the age at which most athletes begin to enter their prime years. Despite all of the injuries, he's scored 217 career goals, including eight in the nine games since he came back from surgery, and has 432 career points. He's now had two hip surgeries designed to cure the groin problems. He's fast, he has a devastating shot and world-class skill.
And after this weekend he's going to leave, and he's going to score another 300 or more goals in his career - all for other teams - and while the Wild will certainly rebuild and be successful again someday, I'm going to be haunted by the fact that one of the finest hockey players in the world should be wearing a Wild uniform, and isn't. And all of the memories he's going to create will be for the benefit of fans in another building, and when he goes into the Hall of Fame it will be as a Los Angeles King or a New York Ranger or a (heaven forbid) Vancouver Canuck, and when people talk about him they'll say "Didn't he play for Minnesota once?"
And that will make me sad all over again.