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The Anti-LeBrons: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter choose Minnesota over the obvious

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are not the NHL's first package deal; please recall Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne tethering themselves together in free agency before taking their talents to Denver in 2003 to win a Stanley Cup for the Colorado Avalanche.

(It didn't work.)

Parise and Suter are not the first high-profile American free agents to sign with the same team; please recall Chris Drury and Scott Gomez taking their talents to Broadway for a total of $86.75 million in 2007 to win a Stanley Cup for the New York Rangers.

(It didn't work. Although the Rangers received a lovely parting gift.)

Parise and Suter are not the first two free agents in or out of hockey to coordinate their efforts via text messages throughout the season, devise a plan through which they could play together and then make an absurd amount of money — their combined contracts total $196 million — in matching contracts.

[Related: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter sign identical 13-year free-agent contracts with Wild]

In the eyes of some, the only thing separating Parise and Suter from LeBron James and Chris Bosh are Jim Gray producing an ESPN special that turns their signings into a deplorable spectacle.

(Actually, this did work. Even if it still pisses people off.)

Parise and Suter hope their decision to sign with the Minnesota Wild puts a ring on 'em. But their decision is also the antithesis of Selanne/Kariya, Gomez/Drury or LeBron/Bosh.

It depressed some fan bases and angered some teams, but Independence Day for Parise and Suter should be celebrated.

Parise and Suter, both 27, corresponded throughout the season about their impending free agency. Parise, captain of the New Jersey Devils, would be the most coveted forward on the open market. Suter, the ice-time leader for the Nashville Predators, would be his defensive equivalent. The U.S. Olympic teammates were friends off the ice, and had mutual admiration of their hockey prowess.

"We were in contact, texting each other back and forth, asking about different places and different situations where we can both work," said Suter.

"Ryan and I had talked throughout the year. At the time, you always say to each other, 'Wouldn't it be great to play with each other? To play on the same team?' Was it realistic? You have to have the availability," said Parise. "I know how great of a player Ryan is. To play with a guy of that caliber is a great opportunity."

Both players had a fierce loyalty to the teams that drafted them. Parise said the Devils were the only other finalist with the Wild for his services. Suter said the Predators were in the mix until the morning of July 4, and that calling GM David Poile was the most difficult decision he's had to make.

These weren't hockey mercenaries shaking the shackles of their NHL teams for top dollars the moment they hit the UFA market. These were two players with genuine affection for the markets they represented and lived in for several seasons.

"It was very hard," said Parise. "I loved playing in New Jersey. It was very, very hard to leave."

But Suter and Parise both decided to test the market, and the market responded in kind. Offers poured in from around the league — some perfunctory check-ins from GMs and other more serious courtships.

Suter narrowed the field for his services when he made it clear he wanted to remain in the Western Conference.

"I definitely thought about different teams I would fit with. It came down to where my family would like to live. My wife is from Bloomington, Minnesota. That had a lot to do with it," he said.

His field was narrowed even further when he decided he'd like to play with Parise.

"Zach had a big part in my decision. And my family."

Parise and Suter talked on Tuesday night and on Wednesday morning, formulating and formalizing their plans. Respect was given to former teams. Neither player opted to make more than the other. In the end, the Minneapolis native Parise wanted to come home; and Suter's family ties and Midwestern affinity drew him to the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.

"We thought, for both of us, that the best fit is Minnesota," said Parise.

Geographically, culturally and historically, yes; but as a hockey decision?

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Parise and Suter could have played for the Detroit Red Wings, for example, a franchise whose last non-playoff year occurred when "Pretty Woman" had just hit theaters. Add those two players to the Wings' current mix, and Parise and Suter could have potentially earned a ring next season.

How long will it take for the Wild's collection of young players to develop?

Meanwhile, they've missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and scored the fewest goals (166) in the NHL last season. The future is bright; the present, not so much.

"Our signing them wasn't to make a splash. It was to make our team better," said GM Chuck Fletcher. "We have a lot of work to do."

[Related: Parise on playing with Suter, comparisons to LeBron]

Fletcher joined the Wild in May 2009. He's already presided over one coaching change, three playoff-less seasons and the end of the Wild's heralded sellout streak.

It's a hockey market like few others can claim to be in the U.S.; the "State of Hockey" label isn't just hubris. The pressure is there to win. But Fletcher has meticulously built this team with bold moves (the Brent Burns trade to the San Jose Sharks; the Dany Heatley trade with the same team) and retaining the Wild's cache of young talent in a market that's anxious to win. Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Zach Phillips, Jonas Brodin and recently drafted Matt Dumba … these are the players the franchise expects will be raising the Cup if and when that happens.

Had Fletcher and the Wild not built a roster balancing solid veterans — like Mikko Koivu and Heatley, who lobbied Suter hard to come to Minnesota — with an emerging generation of young talent, then these premium free agents wouldn't have signed. It was going to take more than geography and family ties; the Wild had to be a team that Parise and Suter felt could win within a reasonable proximity of their signing there.

"We like what they're doing here in Minnesota. The young players they have coming in. The goaltending. They have the pieces there," said Parise.

Take a step back from the years, from the money, from the coordination of two sports stars to work the system and end up on the same team.

Think about the fact that Parise and Suter have decided to sign with anything but a sure thing. And appreciate it.

This isn't skating on Crosby's wing and scoring 40 goals a season. This isn't taking over for Nicklas Lidstrom in one of the best managed, and well-coached, organizations in pro sports.

These are two players going to a team without an identity and immediately giving it one. These are two players willing to be patient while others want to win now.

This is a gamble.

Granted, it's a gamble in which their bets are covered: 13 years, $98 million, and $29 million of guaranteed, CBA-protected bonus money up front. It was a financial package few teams could match; but even fewer could provide this opportunity to Parise and Suter.

In a league where Rick Nash hesitates to be Ontario's conquering hero, Parise goes home to turn his local team into champions.

"Every kid that grows up in Minnesota would love to play for the Wild," he said.

In a league where teams that appear the most on NBC usually end up with the biggest free-agent prizes, Suter goes to Minnesota to help turn them into must-see.

It usually doesn't happen like this, and it usually doesn't happen like this for a franchise like the Minnesota Wild.

"Until this morning, when I saw signed documents, there was a chance this wasn't going to happen," said Fletcher. "We felt if we could add either a top defenseman or top forward, we could be a pretty good team."

It took $196 million and some inherent benefits, but Fletcher added them both in spectacular fashion.

"We shot for the moon. We tried our best. And fortune smiled upon us."

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