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The Green Bay Packers were a laughingstock in the NFL for years. After winning the first two Super Bowls, the franchise slowly faded into irrelevance, losing more than it won, and becoming the opposite of the kind of place players wanted to be.
Especially elite ones.
Two people -- general manager Ron Wolf and head coach Mike Holmgren -- were hired after the 1991 season, charged with changing the culture of the organization. Wolf traded for some hick quarterback named Brett Favre, and he ended up taking over the starting job by the fourth game of the 1992 season. The Packers ended up 9-7 and narrowly missing out on the NFC Central title and a playoff spot.
The following spring, everything changed.
Defensive end Reggie White decided to join the Packers, immediately turning the team into one that other players wanted to be a part of. Thanks to shrewd drafting by Wolf, smart trades, Holmgren's coaching, Favre's arm, and the leadership White provided on defense, the Packers gradually turned into an elite team, one that would win a Super Bowl four years later.
No one knows if July 4, 2012, will be a day remembered similarly for the Minnesota Wild, but things are sure looking up.
The team agreed to 13-year contracts with forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter Wednesday, meaning the two biggest fish in the NHL's free agent pond are going to play together.
When general manager Chuck Fletcher took over the Wild in 2009, his job was to turn around a franchise that had clearly lost its way. Wild fans had little to look at when it came to things like "memories" or "top players."
2003 -- the team's only playoff series wins ... ever ... will be a full decade away when the next Stanley Cup Playoffs begin. When Minnesota rallied from 3-1 series deficits against Colorado and Vancouver and made the Western Conference Final, it was assumed more good things were on the horizon.
Instead, Minnesota has made two one-and-done playoff appearances since, losing in five games to eventual champion Anaheim in 2007 and six to Colorado the following year.
Fletcher fired coach Todd Richards after two non-playoff seasons, and brought in young AHL head man Mike Yeo, who took Houston to the Calder Cup Finals in 2010-11. Fletcher then traded last summer for Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley in separate deals with San Jose.
While the Wild started quickly, a lack of depth was quickly exposed by injuries to top players. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse struggled with concussions, crippling the team's top six forwards. Setoguchi had a down year, and revealed late in the season that he was hit by a car in July, putting a crimp in his offseason training and possibly serving as an omen for the rough year ahead.
A team that was atop the league in early December managed to fall so hard and so fast that it didn't even come close to making the playoffs. But with numerous prospects getting closer to the time they are ready to make an impact in the NHL -- if you haven't heard names like Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, and Jonas Brodin before, you should take a few seconds and familiarize yourself -- Fletcher saw this summer as the best opportunity to make a move.
Minneapolis native Parise was an immediate target for the Wild. Parise played prep hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary's, a bit more than a stone's throw from the Twin Cities. He spent two years at North Dakota, where he led the then-Fighting Sioux (thanks, NCAA) to a WCHA regular season title, but no national title. Rival Minnesota won it all in his freshman year at UND.
Suter grew up in Madison and spent a year at the University of Wisconsin before turning pro. But he has Minnesota ties, with a wife who hails from Bloomington. He maintains a farm near Madison, which is a few hours from the Cities by car.
Both have Midwestern roots, they're good friends, they've been teammates in international competition, and now they're teammates in the NHL.
Wild owner Craig Leipold told Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune -- who has done an incredible job throughout this saga -- that both players were offered more money by other teams, and Leipold added that he feels this is another step toward the Wild eventually hosting a Winter Classic.
Like I said, this franchise is still a long way from winning a Stanley Cup, but it took a significant step Wednesday. Parise and Suter would have been a huge get for anyone, but their impact in Minnesota is about more than just what they'll do on the ice.
Similar to White joining the Packers back in 1992, it's about the message it sends. You can go to a place that hasn't won before, or hasn't won in a long time, and you can believe the job is doable when you get there. White attracted some great free agents -- most notably fellow defensive linemen Sean Jones and Santana Dotson -- to eventually follow him. Suter and Parise might not do that in Minnesota, but they're part of the foundation for a team that can start climbing back up the Western Conference standings.
For the first time since the spring of 2003, the Minnesota Wild are truly relevant. This time, the hope for long-suffering Wild fans is the relevance will last longer than a single six-week playoff run.