A long time ago, a friend of mine on the Wild.com message boards used to have a saying for those fans whose passion for the team was primarily focused on their like of one player, “Hero worship is cute, in children.” It was a pretty harsh thing to say but I will admit I often questioned whether a person really liked the team as much as they just liked a certain player. For the most part, I’ve avoided lionizing players because its a team sport and also because there are not many players on the Wild that I’ve ever been truly excited to watch play.
This article is all about that lone exception, as the next few paragraphs are going to talk rather glowingly about my enjoyment of watching Brian Rolston play for the Minnesota Wild. The Flint, Michigan-native arrived to Minnesota as a free agent during the summer of 2004 just prior to the NHL Lockout of 2004-05. Rolston was coming off somewhat challenging season with the Boston Bruins where he had 19 goals, 48 points in 82 games in 2003-04 which was partly why the Wild were able to get Rolston to agree to a very affordable $2.5 million per year (3-year deal). Few realized at the time the Wild had just signed arguably its greatest free agent in franchise history. Don’t just take my word for it, the Athletic‘s Aaron Gleeman rated Rolston as the 8th greatest free agent signing in Minnesota sports history, that’s pretty impressive for a place that has 50+ years of history in each of the 4 major sports.
Rolston brought a lot of things the early Wild didn’t have, size, speed but most significantly a willingness to shoot the puck. Playing on the team’s 2nd line along side young set up man Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Rolston was the triggerman than terrorized opposing goaltenders with his heavy shot. Rolston did more than just blast slappers, he scored off the rush and from in close too. Simply put, he buried the chances the team struggled to convert far too often in the years before he arrived. In his first season with the Wild he not only had 15 power play tallies but also 5 shorthanded goals as he was a go-to all situations player for then Head Coach Jacques Lemaire.
Rolston helped give the Wild two decent scoring lines, with the top line of Pavol Demitra and Marian Gaborik doing their part to carry the team offensively. Both Gaborik and Rolston had at least 30 goals in the 3 seasons they were both on the team. How rare a feat is that for the Minnesota Wild?
Its only happened one other time in the team’s history, when Eric Staal scored 42 goals (and is also considered by some to be the best free agent signing the franchise has ever had) and Jason Zucker had 33 in the 2017-18 season. But the Wild have never had the consistent 30+ goal seasons from two players over consecutive seasons the way it did with Gaborik and Rolston which in a way fits for an organization that has always struggled to establish players who are a consistent threat to score each night.
He was also a natural leader, he served as team captain when the team rotated the captaincy each month at least once during his 3 seasons with the club. Whether he was wearing the “C” or the “A” he always seemed to lead the way regardless of his role. He lead the team in scoring in 2 out of the 3 seasons he played for the team including playing a pivotal role in the club’s only divisional championship.
As Rolston continued to perform far above his pay grade, he recognized that he had been underpaid. As his 3-year contract entered its final season, he was respectful to the Minnesota Wild but respectful in the fact he was not going to take a ‘discount.’ The team kept him around for a playoff run in 2007-08 season, and hoped to convince him to stay providing he would only take a million more than his current $2.5 million per season salary. Rolston knew he could get more on the open market and thus told the team he wouldn’t re-sign unless they made him a significantly more generous offer, so the team traded his rights to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a 4th round pick.
Eventually that year he was signed to 4-year deal, that paid him a shade over $5 million per season by the New Jersey Devils. Unfortunately for Rolston, a lesser role on the club meant less opportunity and injuries made him less productive (goals and points-wise) and the Devils would trade him to the New York Islanders who would trade him back to Boston to finish out his NHL career.
Rolston was reticent and spoke fondly about his time spent in Minnesota when he was interviewed by St. Paul Pioneer Press‘ Brian Murphy in 2015 when he came back to the club to say “Let’s Play Hockey!” before the team’s opening playoff game against the Blues.
“As far as the hockey and family, it was one of the best, if not the best, place I played in, and I was productive. That always makes it easier.” ~ Brian Rolston on his time spent in Minnesota
He reflected honestly about how the mid-2000’s Wild were a solid team but not quite good enough to win it all when he said, “We had good enough teams to get further but probably not the team to win the whole thing.” Later in the article he mentions how well he had played in an alumni game with the New Jersey Devils, and later in 2016 he played pretty well for the Minnesota Wild / North Stars alumni victory over the Chicago Blackhawks as part of their Stadium Series festivities.
At the aforementioned Blues playoff game where he got the crowd pumped up by saying Let’s Play Hockey‘, he was joined that evening by his son Ryder Rolston who coincidentally is ranked 102nd by the NHL Central Scouting final rankings heading into this summer’s NHL Entry draft. Ryder isn’t quite as big as his father (6’1″, versus his father’s 6’2″) but he skates well, plays hard at both ends of the ice and like his dad, he loves shooting the puck. He is currently committed to playing for Notre Dame next year after having played in the USHL this year for Waterloo, so who knows maybe the Wild will add another Rolston to its roster.
As I said earlier, in my 15+ years of blogging I haven’t written many articles that have lionized a player, but I guess what I enjoyed about Brian Rolston’s game was how consistent and straight-forward his game seemed to be. In an organization where skilled players often were maddeningly inconsistent whether you were talking about Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle just to name a few they always seeme to tease you with great performances but then could be invisible for weeks, Rolston was just solid.
So just to wrap this up, if I haven’t convinced you to at least give some reason to toast Brian Rolston’s time with the Minnesota Wild just yet, let me share this last memory in the video below of his infamous slap shot penalty shot goal on Roberto Luongo. I have watched just about every Wild game in the franchise’s history, just listen to the crowd as he blasts that shot by Luongo. Beyond maybe a few playoff goals, I am not sure I’ve ever heard the Xcel Energy Center crowd that excited for a single goal and this was in a regular season game. And if you recall, that wasn’t the only time Rolston ever pulled that off on a penalty / shootout attempt as he blasted slap shots by Miikka Kiprusoff and Jean-Sebastien Giguere also that year. Either way, watching this video never gets old to me, and to Brian Rolston, this tribute is to you! #StickTap