ST. PAUL -- On the night the Minnesota Wild feted the guy who has never strayed, they got a rare visit from the one who got away.
Marian Gaborik was among a handful of former teammates who surprised Mikko Koivu on Tuesday, Dec. 10, as the Wild celebrated the longtime captain’s 1,000 NHL games, all in a Minnesota sweater, with a pregame ceremony at Xcel Energy Center.
Gaborik had been back as an opposing player, but never as what you’d call alumni — despite the fact that he’s still being paid handsomely by the Ottawa Senators — and received a generous ovation. The prodigal son had returned to visit the responsible brother who stayed to help.
A mercurial personality who just wanted to score goals, Gaborik remains the most-talented player in franchise history, a blazing-fast sniper who helped push the Wild into the 2002-03 Western Conference final with nine goals and eight assists in 18 playoff games. He set the franchise single-season scoring record (since tied by Eric Staal) with 42 goals in 2007-08.
But Gaborik left as soon as he could, signing a five-year, $37.5 million deal with the New York Rangers despite playing only 17 games in his last season in Minnesota because of a groin injury that became the most interesting thing about the 2008-09 season until Jacques Lemaire retired and Doug Risebrough was fired.
Gabby wanted a bigger stage; Koivu, it turns out, is a Minnesota guy, even if the locals sometimes wish he were something else — something more like Gaborik, someone who scores more goals.
Koivu still doesn’t have as many goals (203) as Gaborik scored in eight seasons with Minnesota (219), but he long ago passed him as the franchise scoring leader, 700-437.
“He’s the face of the Wild, the way he plays and (what) the Wild is all about,” Gaborik said of his former teammate, and it’s true. Koivu is the backbone of the franchise, a physical, responsible center who always seems to make the right play — hence the 497 assists.
That might be less a knack than an uncontrollable urge. Koivu has scored 20 goals only three times in 15 seasons, and never more than 22, but don’t mistake that as a deficit, said former teammate Niklas Backstom, who joined the Wild as a 28-year-old rookie goaltender midway through the 2006-07 season.
“He’s playing the game the right way. He’s not cheating,” Backstrom said. “He could probably have a lot more points if he would cheat, but it’s never about him. It’s all about the team. He asks a lot of things for himself. … He plays the game the right way. As a goalie, you appreciate that.”
Backstrom flew in from Finland to surprise Koivu, and he was joined by former teammates Nick Schultz, Stephane Veilleux, Kyle Brodziak and Gaborik, the one who got away.
Few fans fret over Gaborik these days. His exit was contentious, and the fact that he scored seven goals in the final 10 games of the season — after sitting out nearly the entire season — made it somehow worse.
Gaborik didn’t want to play for Lemaire or Risebrough, yet new GM Chuck Fletcher never seemed to have a chance. He scored 114 goals in three-plus seasons in New York, then won a Stanley Cup in 2014 with Los Angeles, going 14-8—22 in 26 playoff games.
It’s no coincidence that Koivu and Gaborik were big parts of Minnesota’s most talented team, the 2006-07 squad that earned 104 points before losing to a great Anaheim team in the first round of the playoffs. The next season, the Wild won their only division championship.
Then Gaborik, for all intents and purposes, was gone. Seeing him on Tuesday, it was difficult not to wonder what could have been. Great teams need a Gaborik and a Koivu, and the Wild briefly had one of each.
It’s too bad their paths diverged.