“How does it feel to be done?” the KSTP photojournalist, John, asked.
I was sitting up on the boards at the home team bench in the Xcel Center. It was December 20, 2011. I had just finished playing my final game of the trip, and the reality was still sinking in.
“Elated. Euphoric. Exhilarated!” I said. “What a fantastic way to end a trip like this: my game in the State of Hockey, held in the grand venue of the Xcel Center.”
All around me were reminders of the Xcel Center’s role as the home ice of Minnesota’s NHL team, the Wild. The logos. The fantastic ice. The immaculate benches.
The goal of the trip was to save the best for last, and boy, did it ever turn out that way.
It had been exactly six months to the day since I began the journey by leaving my apartment in Fridley. Back then, nobody had heard about the trip. My mettle was unproven. I was just some guy with a dream.
Time fixed that. Tens of thousands of miles. Hundreds of people. Dozens of rinks. Stories lived, destined to be told and retold. Interest and credibility emerged.
Earlier in the day, I drove Sam to downtown St. Paul. I parked next to the outdoor skating rink at Rice Park, tossed my bag and sticks to the sidewalk, and started walking towards the X.
I strolled through the brisk air, bag in tow. It was unusually warm for Minnesota in December, but I had been so softened by autumn in the South that I found even 30 degrees to be chlly. The setting sun colored the world orange and projected long shadows all around me. It was 4:00 when I arrived at the Xcel Center.
Mike and Jon from the Minnesota Wild’s multimedia staff were out in front to greet me with still and video cameras. John from KSTP showed up a few minutes later with his camera in tow. For a moment, I felt a teensy bit like a celebrity.
They recorded me walking into the building — a couple of times, from different angles — and then we stopped briefly in the lobby, where I met Brad Bombardir. Absent the crowds, the Xcel Center was eerily quiet. We pressed on.
In most arenas, the dressing rooms are afterthoughts: dreadfully cramped, dim, dank places, better suited to being spaces for seedy dive bars rather than preparatory dens for feats (and fetes) of athletic prowess. Not so in the Xcel Center.
Mike and Jon directed me through some twists, turns, and hallways, and suddenly we were standing in a luxury hotel lobby. I figured we had taken a wrong turn and ended up in the nearby upscale St. Paul Hotel, so I dropped my gear bag and plopped down in one of the leather couches while the Wild guys sorted things out. However, Mike, Jon, and John just stood there talking with me.
I looked around. It was a bit odd for a hotel to have such an expansive bathroom in the lobby, particularly without a door. The presence of some very nice wooden benches around the perimeter was also puzzling. And, if I’m honest, it was strange even in Minnesota to see people changing into hockey gear in hotel lobbies, as two other guys were.
When in the State of Hockey, do as the hockey players do. I zipped open my gear bag and started strapping on my pads.
Nordy must have gotten lost, too, because about the time I was donning my C/A, he waltzed into the room and started doing some sort of weird inverted back stretches on the couches.
I pulled on my sweater, got mic’ed up by John and Jon, and headed towards the ice. I walked down the same hallway/tunnel that the Wild players used and emerged at the home bench. As I approached the ice, with two video cameras rolling, all I could think was “don’t fall, don’t fall.”
I’m happy to report that I didn’t fall! Not then, anyway. A very slow, deliberate entry to the ice ensured success. No, the fall came a bit later when I was moving around the crease and got off-balance. I just know they’re going to use that in the video segment. I just hope they don’t add sound effects.
Nordy took some shots on me, and then the game began.
The Wild players were on the road in Winnipeg, so the game I was in was the Wild front office staff’s pick-up hockey session. Every so often, the staff would get together and have some ice at the Xcel center for a bit of hockey. That Tuesday, I was fortunate to be invited to join them.
It was my first time playing at the Xcel Center. The stands were mostly empty save for the journalists documenting my trip, but I still felt like something of a star. I was glad that I had found my crested goal-cut Wild jersey back in the mid-aughts. It really helped make me look the part.
Sure, it would have been fun to do something with the team at a practice or stop some shots during an intermission, but upon further consideration, that wouldn’t have fit as well with the theme of the trip. A pick-up game in a fantastic venue was perfect, and the Wild staffers were a fun group to play with.
As the game progressed, I oscillated between awe and routine. I was in the Xcel Center! It was pick-up hockey. I was playing at the pleasure of the Wild! There were saves to make, shots to stop. Journalists were photographing and recording me! If I didn’t focus on the game, I’d make a fool of myself.
How was it that I ended up there? I’m not sure exactly what the turning point was, but I do know that I had several people advocating on my behalf: my sister Andrea, who took it upon herself to relentlessly call the Wild office; and the Fox Sports North journalist Anthony, who started working his connections well before informing me he was doing so. Ultimately, the Wild’s web managing editor, Glen, bought into the idea, and from there flowed everything else. I’m indebted to everybody who made it possible.
At the end of the session, I walked back down the same tunnel used by Backstrom, Harding, and the rest of the Wild. Young kids — squirt age — were streaming the other way, towards the ice. I towered over them by about three feet as I lumbered along. Their association had acquired the next block of ice as a special event.
The little kids shouted “Go Wild!” and we tapped gloves. They were in the early stages of their own hockey adventures. Perhaps one of them would someday again walk down that hallway with a spot on the roster, but for now the motivation was not glory but simply a love of the game.
As I drove away from downtown St. Paul, it finally hit me: I would play hockey again in the future, but the era of the trip was over and complete.
10 provinces. 50 states. Done.