Bill Guerin paced the front of a conference room on the first day of training camp.
“What is it all about?” the general manager asked as Wild veterans and prospects listened intently.
Then Guerin posed that question directly to team captain Jared Spurgeon.
“Hard work and having fun,” Spurgeon responded.
Forget that, Guerin barked, except he chose a more colorful word than forget.
“This is about winning,” he said, adding a variation of that same colorful word.
The GM laughed when reminded of his opening address.
“It was completely off the cuff,” he said. “It was pretty funny. I didn’t expect Spurgy to miss it.”
Oh, his players got the message. Guerin woke up Friday morning with his team sitting No. 1 in the NHL standings in points.
Guerin likes the sound of that.
“We are not here to just play, we’re here to win,” he said. “There are a lot of players that are not in the league that can just play. We want players who are going to help us win. That’s why we’re in the National Hockey League. To win.”
A blistering start has made the Wild one of the league’s best stories and provides affirmation to Guerin’s organizational makeover. The roster is deep, the offense explosive, the style of play entertaining. And there is a collective spirit on the ice that reflects a positive vibe in the locker room.
No need to rehash old issues that infiltrated previous seasons. The new Wild is a different product that is enjoyable to watch.
Guerin is quick to share credit for the success, but his tenure has been filled with smart, bold decisions that have put the team on a new heading. He is a straight shooter who has a clear vision and he’s not afraid to make moves that might be unpopular or even risky if he believes it will push the organization closer to contending for a championship.
He took the interim tag from Dean Evason and gave him the job full time even though Guerin had an opportunity to go outside and hire someone he knew better.
He sandblasted the roster in a shakeup that sent established players elsewhere and opened the door for younger players to showcase their talent. He parted ways with cornerstones Zach Parise and Ryan Suter knowing he would face steep salary cap ramifications in the future.
He didn’t so much as blink when someone floated the silly notion that Kirill Kaprizov might stay home and play in Russia as a leverage tool during protracted contract negotiations.
Reshaping a team’s identity and culture is a step-by-step process, some more complicated than others. Guerin’s roster maneuvering and overall messaging brought kick-in-the-pants urgency to an organization that, quite frankly, had grown stale.
Guerin likes the makeup of his team and the chemistry he sees behind the scenes.
“You can tell by the way that they play,” he said. “You have to create it and this group really has it.”
The way the Wild is winning feels so foreign to its reputation. The team entered the weekend No. 3 in the NHL in goals per game. Kaprizov is gobbling up points by the bushel but scoring flows up and down the lineup, a testament to the team’s depth.
In seasons past, the Wild made scoring goals look so arduous that games were practically unwatchable. Bland, meh hockey.
Guerin found a kindred spirit in Evason in espousing a faster pace and more offensive playmaking.
“We want our players to have fun playing the game,” Guerin said. “The way the game is played now, you have to skate, you have to be able to move the puck, you have to be able to make plays, you have to be able to produce. That’s just the game now. And it’s fun. Our guys are having fun. You can see it in their faces.”
Chip Scoggins is a sports columnist and enterprise writer for the Star Tribune. He previously covered the Vikings, Gophers football, Wild, Wolves and high school sports in nearly 19 years at the paper.
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