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Wild’s Scandella befriends young neighbor

Jennifer Haselberger and her nephew, Blake Haselberger, watch warm-ups before Game 3 of the hockey playoffs as the Minnesota Wild played the Colorado Avalanche on Monday, April 21, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Ginger Pinson)

ST. PAUL -- During the Minnesota Wild’s 2011-12 season, Blake Haselberger ran into the kind of luck that would make any hockey-loving 12-year-old forest-green with envy.

The season began well, but the Wild had to contend with injuries and a roster that included a relatively large number of minor-leaguers from the team’s AHL affiliate in Houston.

Blake’s aunt lived that year in an apartment complex near downtown St. Paul and the Xcel Energy Center. Overnight, her building gained a new batch of tenants: the recruits from Houston.

Rookie defenseman Marco Scandella, 24, happened to move in right across the hall from Blake’s aunt, Jennifer Haselberger. Blake, who visited often, was over the moon.

“He thought this was the coolest thing ever,” said Jennifer, 39. “I was not as thrilled.”

She and Blake shared a fierce love of hockey. They had season tickets and attended games together regularly. Hockey was a constant topic of conversation.

At public events, Jennifer found team members sociable and good with kids, she said. But this was different. She tried to explain to Blake that the players needed their private lives and their space.

“He’s always had really, really great experiences with the players. I was nervous and concerned about how this really close proximity to these people he so idolized would impact him,” she said.

“Just to be ignored, or to have them be a little irritated (by his attention), would have been devastating to him.”

Another defenseman, No. 6

Blake came relatively late to hockey — both as a fan and as a player. His aunt had enjoyed taking him on regular outings around town, often choosing cultural events such as the Minnesota Orchestra. One day, he asked if they could go somewhere “where he didn’t have to wear nice pants,” she said.

A diehard hockey fan herself, Haselberger took him to a Wild game. From that moment on, he was hooked. Hockey became his favorite sport.

When the players moved into the apartment, the Haselbergers didn’t initially know who was right across the hall.

“We were leaving notes and stuff,” Blake said. “We were just, like, trying to figure out who it was. And we left him some candy for Halloween.”

Scandella wrote back, identifying himself. At Christmas, he left candy by Haselberger’s door for his young fan.

Blake had started that year frustrated on his own team in the Como Johnson Youth Hockey Association; the coach put him on defense and he was assigned No. 6. He had considered 8 to be “his” number.

That all changed when Scandella — also No. 6, also a defenseman — moved in. The common number and position became “their thing,” Jennifer Haselberger said.

During one game, Scandella had smacked a puck that was tipped at the last second by then-teammate Cal Clutterbuck, giving Clutterbuck the goal. Blake was incensed that his buddy didn’t get the credit.

He wrote Scandella another note.

“Amazing game, Scandella,” the note read. “Nice assist. (That was your goal.)” He added his hockey signature: “Blake 6.”

A gift: his sticks

Jennifer Haselberger said she was grateful to the players, and especially Scandella, for putting up with her and Blake and for being so kind to her nephew. She could not have imagined what was to come.

The players’ residency at her building ended when the Wild season ended in early April 2012. Haselberger was working late one night at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (She resigned as chancellor for canonical affairs last year.) The team members had moved out that day.

As the apartment manager led players through a last walk-through of their units, Scandella told him, “Wait, there’s one more thing I have to do.”

When Haselberger got home, she discovered a gift from Scandella.

“He had left his sticks outside the door” — two of them, with his name, his number and his own special method of taping, Haselberger said.

For Blake, “that was like the acknowledgment” that he was a player, too, she said. “It was just absolutely perfect.”

“I thought it was pretty surreal,” Blake said. “I didn’t expect him to leave me his sticks. At that point we hadn’t talked in a while, (it was) the end of the year.”

He looked up to Scandella as a player, someone with the skills he aspired to, Blake said. But there was more to their bond.

“I never expected him to be so friendly,” Blake said. “Just, you know, he was a good guy. Not everybody responded the way that he did. It was a really big thing for me.”

Blake and his aunt attended both playoff games this week at the Xcel. They plan to watch Saturday’s game together, too.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.