NEW ULM - This past summer, the Minnesota Wild made a big splash when they signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to long-term contracts, reviving the interest of fans who flock to Xcel Energy Center.
While those two have certainly grabbed the headlines as of late, it could be argued that it will be hard to surpass the popularity of another former Minnesota hockey great who made a guest appearance in New?Ulm Monday.
Neal Broten, a former Roseau High School standout, Minnesota Golden Gopher, USA Hockey Player and Minnesota North Star, was on hand at Menards Monday to help the store celebrate its Grand Opening, signing autographs for two hours for adoring fans young and old.
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
Former National Hockey League player and 1980 Olympic Gold Medalist Neal Broten signs autographs for Tate and Bradley Trullinger as their dad Justin (background) looks on Monday at the New Ulm Menards.
While he reminisced with fans about the old days, it was hard to ignore the current success of the State of Hockey.
"Starting with the Gophers [men's team], they had a great year and they had a lot of great players," Broten said.?"I had a chance to watch them play and they're a very solid team. The Wild, after that lockout to start the season, they got off to a little bit of a slow start, but they've been playing better, so it's been fun to see."
Broten is known as probably the greatest hockey player Minnesota has ever produced. He led Roseau to three state tournament appearances and won an NCAA National Title with the Gophers in 1979. He was also a member of the United States Olympic team that won a gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in an event known as the Miracle on Ice.
Broten was also a member of the North Stars from the 1980-81 season after playing for the Gophers that winter. He later played for the team when they relocated to Dallas before the 93-94 season. He was a member there until the 94-95 season, when he was traded to the New Jersey Devils.
He won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player in 1981 and his 17-year career was capped in 1995 when he won a Stanley Cup with the Devils, scoring the game-winning goal in Game Four against the Detroit Red Wings to clinch the title.
He was also inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000.
Hundreds of fans were on hand at Menards to greet and get autographs from the hockey legend. Local sports fans will have plenty of chances to get an autograph this week for the Grand Opening celebration. Menards will have an autograph session with Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday and former Minnesota Twins pitcher Brad Radke from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday.
Broten talked about the importance of the sport to Minnesota and he said he was glad when the NHL lockout finally came to an end in January.
"For my sake, I like to see the players play," Broten said.?"It's great for the fans and the employees, the rink and all that. We went through that a couple of times when I was playing, so I know what the players were going through.
"It affects a lot of different people so it's nice to see that they got it worked out," Broten said. "They resumed play now and the Wild team they have now are rolling pretty good. Everyone is healthy and playing together as a team."
Even though he's been retired since the 1997 season, he still follows the sport quite a bit and he's impressed with the level of play at the high school level in Minnesota.
"The high school players are getting bigger and stronger and they work out nine to 11 months a year," Broten said.?"The weight training and strengthening programs are helping so that the players are faster and stronger. The state of hockey is great, I didn't get a chance to watch the state tournament this year because I was out of town, but there's a lot of quality, good teams in there and it's fun to see. The fans keep showing up and the highlights for the teams all over the state is to get to the tournament."