New Hockeytown, USA

Also: Detroit's Hockeytown blues

If Detroit isn't Hockeytown anymore, then what is?

First off, let's make this perfectly clear: We're talking south of the Canadian border. The six most passionate NHL hockey markets include – in no particular order – Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.

Hockey is a religion and then some in the Great White North, and there's nothing wrong with that in our book. We just wish there were more NHL outposts in Canada. If you've never taken in a game there, put it on your to-do list. All six markets are different, and a trip to any of them is worth every cent.

But back to the task at hand: Choosing a new destination we can call Hockeytown, USA. Taking into consideration attendance, fan loyalty, a cozy relationship between the team and its region, a city that's just right for the NHL, and our choice is pretty clear. Saint Paul, Minn., home of the Minnesota Wild, fits the bill.

Buffalo, Long Island, Denver, Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have all had their moments both recently and long ago, but the rejuvenated market in Minnesota gets our vote.

Since opening the doors of the well-appointed Xcel Energy Center (more on that later) in downtown Saint Paul on Sept. 29, 2000, the Wild have attracted 282 consecutive sellouts – that's every exhibition (21), regular-season (251) and playoff (10) match.

Every single game, through Tuesday night, has sold out for all of their six-plus seasons. Amazing.

Total attendance during that span is 5,214,206 for an average of 18,490 per game in a building that lists capacity at 18,064. The Wild have announced the attendance for their first six regular-season dates this year at 18,568 each.

Minnesota is a great example of getting a second chance and making the most of it.

As recently as 1993, the Minnesota North Stars played in Bloomington, which neighbors Minneapolis of the Twin Cities region bordered by the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers. Part of the 1967 expansion that doubled the league in size from the Original 6 to 12 teams, Minnesota struggled to carve a niche while competing for passionate fans of college, high school and youth hockey in the region.

Just four years after the franchise relocated to Dallas, the league made the wise choice in 1997 to grant St. Paul an expansion franchise that would begin play in 2000. The State of Hockey is once again complete, from youth through the pros.

The lodge-like feel of the Wild's home rink combines everything that is important to Minnesota hockey. Hockey sweaters of approximately 200 high school teams hang from the interior concourse that rings the building – all of the boys' programs and about one-third of the girls'.

The aura inside is pure hockey, with appropriate references to the history of the game during pre-game festivities. One never gets tired of the game presentation, which often feels forced or over-the-top at many of the other newer U.S. venues.

Fans know they can often find players from visiting teams making the short walk from the arena to the stately Saint Paul Hotel just across the street. Fourteen of 19 teams that visit the Wild this season plan at least one stay there, including all but one of the 14 opponents in the Western Conference.

Many of the downtown shops, restaurants and bars in St. Paul recognize the Wild with strong support, and two newspapers travel with the team during a time in which print outlets are cutting costs.

St. Paul is the best, and here's the rest:

Runner-up: Buffalo. Unfortunate timing for Buffalo, which had a 45-game regular-season sellout streak snapped Oct. 15 when 18,217 (475 under capacity) turned out for rival Toronto's appearance. Ravenous Sabres fans came as a group of 18,690 for 62 straight games including the playoffs. The recent streak fell well short of Buffalo's franchise mark of 358 straight sellouts (including playoffs) from Oct. 15, 1972-Nov. 12, 1980 at the Memorial Auditorium. When there's not enough seating during the playoffs, large video screens are erected outdoors where thousands of fans watch in front of the 11-year-old, state-of-the-art HSBC Arena in downtown Buffalo.

Dethroned champ: Detroit. A revived economy, new marketing strategies and a schedule that features more Eastern Conference visits will turn things around.

Will always have our respect: Colorado, Long Island, Philadelphia. Knowledgeable fans who care and good surroundings. We don't care that the building is old on The Island, it has a certain charm and character lost with all the newer ones.

Pretty darn good, in their own way: Boston, Dallas, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Jose. Good support from fans and media when things are going good, but have to compete for attention with popular nearby pro sports franchises (i.e. football, baseball) much of the time.

Jury is still out: Anaheim, Chicago, Nashville. One is on top, one is on the outs and the other might be movin' on. And there doesn't seem to be much of a fuss with any of the three scenarios.

They are what they are: Los Angeles, New Jersey, New York City, Washington. All big metro centers where there's strong competition for disposable income. Hard to carve out a niche and claim to be No. 1 compared to everything else that's going on.

Nice try, but this doesn't really work: Florida, Phoenix, Tampa Bay. Non-traditional markets that might join the endangered list after attention is diverted from Nashville.

Why, exactly?: Atlanta, Carolina, Columbus. NASCAR and college athletics dominate. Not sure the NHL really fits long-term.