How a bunch of ‘random shirts’ featuring Wild players brought out the best in this team
The movement started with local company, SotaStick, and has taken on a mind of its own over the past few seasons.
It’s common to walk by the Minnesota Wild locker room after games and see Cam Talbot in a T-shirt with Kirill Kaprizov’s face on the front, or Marcus Foligno in a T-shirt with Jordan Greenway’s face, or Matt Boldy in a T-shirt with Kevin Fiala’s face.
“Everyone has a shirt of themselves by now,” Foligno said with a laugh while skillfully setting up the punchline. “I even saw a Jonny Merrill shirt the other day and I was like ‘What the hell is going on? We’re passing out shirts to anyone!’ No it’s a lot of fun.”
Made aware of Foligno’s chirping, Merrill laughed it off, noting how he loves the personalized T-shirt that prominently displays his mustache and mullet.
“I’ll have to get a box” of his shirts, Merrill said. “The kids will love them.”
The fact that Merrill has his own despite not being a household name is the beauty of the whole thing.
There are more than a dozen T-shirts in rotation inside the Wild locker room these days, a movement that started a few seasons back with the help of local company SotaStick. It has grown since then with each T-shirt telling its own story, while simultaneously giving fans a glimpse behind the scenes.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Foligno said. “You usually see a superstar have a shirt or something like that. It doesn’t matter who it is for us, and that’s the best part. To have a fan base that’s so invested in this team, and wanting to know what the guys are like, I think the random shirts kind of bring that out.”
With the NHL playoffs right around the corner, and everyone looking for an edge, the Wild feel like their team chemistry is something that sets them apart heading into their opening-round series against the St. Louis Blues next week.
The close-knit nature of this team has been woven into the fabric of this season. It also has been woven into the literal fabric of the T-shirts the players wear on a daily basis.
“I think most teams that have success would credit it to having a good culture,” Merrill said. “That starts with the guys having fun when they come to the rink. The shirts are a good example of that. It’s unique to this team.”
That’s something Andrew Heydt, director of team operations for the Wild, has heard from all the new players who joined the team around the NHL trade deadline in late March. Whether it be Tyson Jost, Nic Deslauriers, Jake Middleton or Marc-Andre Fleury, the shirts have everyone’s attention.
“They have all made mention of, ‘Wow. This is something really cool that we haven’t seen before,’ ” Heydt said. “Everyone takes pride in wearing each other’s face on a shirt. It’s another way that our group supports each other.”
To truly understand how the T-shirts found their way into the Wild locker room is to understand how SotaStick got off the ground in the first place. When the local company owned by Landon Johnson and his wife Sarah Johnson started in 2015, T-shirts weren’t their thing.
“I made a bottle opener out of an old wooden hockey stick, and that’s what we were originally selling,” Landon Johnson said. “It wasn’t what it is now. It was bottle openers with some shirts here and there. That’s how it started.”
Though the bottle openers were the driving force behind SotaStick in the early days, the Stadium Series game at TCF Bank Stadium in 2016 changed everything — with a big assist from North Stars legend Mike Modano, who was in town for the alumni game before the Wild played the Chicago Blackhawks.
“We followed each other on Twitter and would kind of go back and forth,” Landon Johnson said. “He hit us up and was like, ‘Hey, I’m coming to Minnesota for the outdoor game. If y’all want to send me some merch, I’ll wear it.’ ”
There was a specific shirt that caught Modano’s eye at the time. It featured a minimalist design of the old Met Center — the home of the North Stars from 1967 to 1993 — with the iconic green, yellow, black and white seats.
“I thought that shirt was pretty cool, so I was bugging them for some of those,” Modano said. “I’m a little bit of a history buff when it comes to old arenas, and obviously the Met Center hits closer to home.”
Not long after SotaStick sent the Met Center shirt to Modano, he posted a picture of it on social media, and the orders started to roll in.
“That was the first public endorsement we got,” Landon Johnson said. “It pretty much snowballed from there.”
How it started
For the Wild, the partnership with SotaStick started with a team trip to Target Field a few summers ago. As former fan-favorite player Alex Stalock remembers it, a handful of Wild players were chilling in the clubhouse pregame when they noticed a bunch of Twins players wearing T-shirts with Nelson Cruz’s face on the front.
“We were like, ‘Where did they get those shirts?’ ” Stalock said. “We found out it was SotaStick, so we reached out to them to see if we could get some made for us.”
After connecting with SotaStick via email in the summer, Stalock thought of an idea shortly after the Wild started training camp in the fall. The Wild conducts a preseason fitness test every year using a stationary bike, which Joel Eriksson Ek consistently dominates.
“There was like a 20-second window for the most part where everyone was finishing,” Stalock said. “Then there’s Ekker, and he’s beating everyone by like 45 seconds.”
That performance earned Eriksson Ek the nickname “Mr. September” in the Wild locker room. The name has stuck thanks to a T-shirt designed by SotaStick that features Eriksson Ek on a stationary bike with the words “Mr. September” emblazoned on the front.
“He had no clue,” Stalock said. “He just showed up to practice and we all had it on. It was great. He’s such a good guy, always laughing, never having a bad day, so it was perfect that he got the first shirt.”
It’s hard to keep track of all the shirts that now exist inside the Wild locker room.
There’s a “Dollar Dollar Bill Kirill” shirt that came from the nickname Matt Dumba bestowed upon Kirill Kaprizov last season. There’s a “Moose” shirt that honors the nickname Foligno has had most of his life. There’s even a “Common Bird List” shirt that popped up recently after Ryan Hartman flipped the bird to Evander Kane during a game.
“Just getting the team to rally together around something as simple as a shirt is awesome,” Landon Johnson said. “It’s really cool to see how it can really go a long way in creating memories.”
After seeing the T-shirts created by SotaStick take off, the Wild have started to create their own in house, too. To date, they have produced a shirt with Fiala’s face on the front, a couple of shirts with Kaprizov as the focal point, and a “Big Rig” shirt as an ode to Jordan Greenway’s nickname.
“It goes back to trying to tell the story of the team,” said Mitch Helgerson, senior vice president of marketing for the Wild. “It’s fun for the marketing team to work with the players in the locker room and try to bring the personalities out to our fans.”
It’s a constant dialogue between everyone involved. Sometimes an idea comes from SotaStick. Sometimes an idea comes from within the organization. Sometimes an idea comes directly from a Wild player.
“It’s just about getting creative and putting our minds together,” Heydt said. “If an idea pops up it’s like, ‘How quick can we get these done?’ With anything these days, we don’t want to lose the shelf life.”
How it's going
Ask anyone who has won a Stanley Cup. The regular season is a grind. The playoffs are 100 times more grueling than the regular season.
That’s why team chemistry tends separate the good teams from the great ones.
“It’s critical,” said Wild general manager Bill Guerin, who won a couple of Stanley Cups as a player. “You can’t not have it.”
He mentioned how he played on teams that on paper should have won back-to-back-to-back Stanley Cups.
“It just doesn’t work (without team chemistry),” Guerin said. “You can’t get through the hard times.”
That shouldn’t be an issue for this version of the Wild. Not only are they locked and loaded with a high-powered offense, a stout defense, and a couple of talented goaltenders, they have an unmatched team chemistry compared to postseasons past.
In a lot of ways, the T-shirts have played a role in that connectedness.
“It’s brought everyone together,” Foligno said. “We all wear them and have a really good time with it. It’s also been really cool to see the fan base and everyone rally around some of the characters on our team and get to see their personalities.”
It’s not a coincidence that the shirts have started to pop up around the Xcel Energy Center during home games. For every No. 97 jersey with Kaprizov’s name on the back, there’s usually a “Dollar Dollar Bill Kirill” shirt nearby.
“Those are inside jokes, and it’s fun to see it in the stands,” said Deslauriers, who is especially fond of the Merrill’s T-shirt with the mustache and mullet. “It’s part of trying to build that family dynamic, not only with our team, with Minnesota a whole. We’re not just trying to please us. We’re trying to please our fans.”
While it’s not like T-shirts are going to help the Wild win a Stanley Cup, they help tell the story of this season, which is important in and of itself.
“It’s fun to see how much they support each other,” Sarah Johnson said. “To know the shirts are bringing these guys together during an important part of their season is awesome. It’s cool to be a small part of something like that.”