MADISON - The three most talked-about free-agent signings in the NHL this offseason have a lot in common, but let's start with this fairly subtle truth:
All have a prominent link to University of Wisconsin men's hockey coach Mike Eaves, who helped usher Zach Parise and Ryan Suter onto the world stage and who nurtured Justin Schultz into an NHL-star-in-the-making.
Parise and Suter chose to leave their long-time employers in New Jersey and Nashville, respectively, to join forces with the Minnesota Wild, signing twin 13-year contracts worth $98 million apiece.
Parise, a left winger, and Suter, a defenseman, made their first loud noise together in 2004 when, with Eaves at the helm, they were key components for Team USA en route to its first gold medal in the World Junior Championships. The two friends subsequently played for the U.S. entry that won the Olympic silver medal in 2010.
Suter played for Eaves at the U.S. National Team Developmental Program before Eaves became coach of the Badgers in 2002. Suter subsequently spent one season under Eaves at UW, where his father Bob and his uncle Gary became legends.
Before playing two seasons at North Dakota, Parise attended Shattuck St. Mary's (Minn.) High School, where he became close to Eaves through his two sons, Ben and Patrick, who also starred for the midget hockey powerhouse before attending Boston College.
Until the blockbuster decision by Parise and Suter set off Fourth of July fireworks in the Twin Cities, the biggest NHL fuss was generated by Schultz, who exercised a unique option in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that freed him to entertain more than two dozen suitors before deciding to play for his country with the Edmonton Oilers.
Of course, Schultz, from West Kelowna, British Columbia, spent the last three seasons at UW where he was a two-time first-team All-American and the first defenseman in program history to lead the team in goals for a season (16 in 2011-12).
Another local sidebar to the Wild and its stunning coup is that it now employs four former Badgers, which is curious given the intense college hockey rivalry that exists between UW and Minnesota. Suter and winger Jake Dowell, from Eau Claire, were signed this month as free agents, while winger Dany Heatley and defenseman Tom Gilbert were acquired via trades last season.
Fans of the Gophers have experienced a similar sensation over the years watching Minnesotans like Gilbert, Jake Gardiner, Jamie McBain, Ryan McDonagh, Derek Stepan - How far back do you want to go? - come to Madison and prosper.
Fact is the NHL franchise in Minnesota has long been a harbor for prominent former Badgers. The old North Stars - who morphed into the Dallas Stars in 1994 - have employed Eaves, the all-time leading scorer in UW history; Mark Johnson, the all-time leading goal-scorer in program history; and Dean Talafous, whose clutch play in 1973 helped deliver the first of six NCAA titles to UW.
On the flip side, iconic ex-Badgers have also tormented NHL fans in the Twin Cities. The last time a Stanley Cup final was staged there, the North Stars were outlasted by Pittsburgh in 1991. Coaching the Penguins was the late Bob Johnson, who led UW to three national titles.
Now the Wild have to be considered Stanley Cup contenders in 2012-13. If that becomes reality, gracious Minnesota fans should send their thank you notes in care of the Kohl Center, 601 West Dayton St., Madison, Wis., 53703.
Contact Andy Baggot at email@example.com or 608-252-6175.
The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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