There was a heartfelt moment this preseason that perfectly encapsulated how much this version of the Wild differs from teams in the past.
Not long after top prospect Adam Beckman scored the winning goal in overtime to lift the Wild to a dramatic 4-3 win over the St. Louis Blues, every single member of the team was waiting for him in the locker room ready to celebrate.
As the 20-year-old Beckman walked in, winger Marcus Foligno showered him with baby powder, and the team erupted into a raucous cheer.
You would never know that it was such a meaningless game. And that’s kind of the point.
“That was just Moose being Moose,” goaltender Cam Talbot said with a laugh in reference to Foligno’s postgame antics. “Just having a little bit of fun with (Beckman). He took it like a champ. He’s a good kid.”
As the Wild embark on a new chapter this season with a new leadership group — Jared Spurgeon as the captain; Foligno and Matt Dumba as the alternates — there’s a much different vibe compared to the past decade or so.
“I think we’ve said it a lot of the past couple of weeks,” Spurgeon said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s your first year, or where you came from, you speak and say what’s on your mind if you have something to say, and no matter how long you’ve been here, you listen, and sort of have that dialogue. It’s been good so far.”
While it’s completely fair to wonder how much of that has to do with the departure of veteran stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter this past offseason — along with the departure of longtime captain Mikko Koivu the season before — to say that’s the only reason things feel different would be a disservice to the work Spurgeon, Foligno, and Dumba have put in ahead of this season.
“It’s part of holding each other accountable,” Foligno said. “You do that by including everyone. If guys are able to be themselves, and guys feel comfortable in the locker room, the team is going to be better for it. It’s not the old-school mentality anymore where there’s a pecking order.”
Maybe that hasn’t always been the case. Asked if it feels different this season, Dumba smiled and replied, “Yeah, much different.” Most players inside the locker room agree.
“Just being able to be yourself is a great thing,” Dumba said. “Everyone is on the same page. We are chirping each other and stuff like that. Just that team camaraderie is so important. It goes a long way on the ice and off the ice.”
The excitement about the new leadership group starts at the top of the organization.
“I’m really, really excited,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said. “I found out who they were going to choose (as the alternates) and I said, ‘Wow. That’s great.’ I’m glad they came up with those two guys, Foligno and Dumba, and I think they both are very passionate guys. They will talk in the locker room. I’m very supportive of the move.”
As general manager Bill Guerin is quick to note, though, the new leadership group works so well because Spurgeon, Foligno, and Dumba are comfortable letting everyone have a voice.
“I think Spurgey said it when he was making his announcement on (Foligno and Dumba) that it doesn’t matter if someone is wearing a letter or not,” Guerin said. “If you have experience, you have the potential to be a leader on this team. And for the young players, they’re going to learn from some really good guys, and we’re looking for them to provide us with energy and spark. I think it’s a really good mix.”
It goes back to that moment with Beckman in the locker room. He was extremely boisterous throughout training camp because he felt comfortable enough to be himself. Never once did he feel like he was walking on eggshells.
“We want a culture where every young player feels great coming in here,” Foligno said. “We know there’s going to be opportunities and guys that come up from (the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League) that have to feel great coming into our room. We want it to feel like a family. That’s the biggest thing. We want everyone to feel like they have a spot in our room. It doesn’t matter if the person has 10 games or 1,000 games. We want everyone to be themselves.”
That’s music to coach Dean Evason’s ears. He came up through the NHL in the 1980s and he remembers what it used to feel like for a young player.
“It’s not like somebody is going over to (Beckman) saying, ‘You’re a rookie. You can’t freaking talk like that. Just sit in the corner,’ ” Evason said. “Those days are done. Those days are over.
“It’s not an issue that a guy has life and a guy has energy and a guy is vocal,” Evason added. “I don’t know what other teams are doing. I just know that it’s changed from the ’80s, that’s for sure. You’d never have a young person (if things still were that way). You wouldn’t say a word, right? It obviously made no sense back then or now. We are all in this together. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s the environment we are all trying to create.”
In that same breath, Evason went out of his way to praise Spurgeon for his ability as a leader. As much as Evason appreciates what Foligno and Dumba bring to the locker room, for him, everything starts with Spurgeon at the top.
“He allows people to lead beside him, not underneath him,” the coach said. “That’s exciting for us.”
Just as exciting for the players is the way Evason leads the team. He has preached accountability from the day he took over for former coach Bruce Boudreau — and he has never strayed from that message.
“It was there in the past,” Foligno said. “It just wasn’t always consistent. I think guys can look each other in the eyes now and their ego doesn’t get in the way. I feel like now it’s easier to say, ‘You need to work harder,’ or, ‘You did this wrong.’ There’s positive and negative feedback, and now it’s taken a lot better.”
Though the locker room might never been perfect, there’s hope that with Spurgeon, Foligno and Dumba leading the way, everyone at least feels as if they have a voice.
“You’ve got to come together and understand each other, and I think that’s where our leadership group comes in,” Foligno said. “We have to set the standard, and once that standard is set, we can’t drop below it. I think that’s what we’ve got going on right now. It feels really good.”