Sunday, September 29, 2013

TDI 092913


Man, it's good to be back!

We break down the entire roster, plus some burning questions.

With One Move, Wild Season Lost


Well, Fletcher and Yeo really did it this time. The Minnesota Wild had one chance to make a serious run this year, and that chance is now blown.

You can talk about your Parises, your Suters, your Backstroms. But everyone, apart from Fletcher and Yeo, knows the Wild engine starts and stops with Jason Zucker.

What's more, the smear campaign against Zucker that has been going on for a week now was the height of folly, and obviously uncalled for. Never in the history of sports has a team's best player been so baselessly and tastelessly derided, and his reputation so injuriously besmirched than what we saw with Zucker the last week. Pathetic. Unprofessional. Dare I say: criminal.

It is enough, in this NHL day in age, to skate fast, to score the odd overtime goal. What more, when we really think about it, could we possibly ask from a player? The only reason the Wild accomplished what they did last season was due to Zucker and his brilliance. How dare anyone question his game? Wild fans know this. That's why we're the State of Goddamn Hockey. Fletcher? He's not one of us. Yeo? Please. Mere carpetbaggers hoping to glean a flash of our incomparable hockey wisdom by association or osmosis.

But, they made their bed, now they have to lie in it. It will be interesting to see how they pick up the dry, befouled husk of a roster they're now left with and try to nurture it back to some semblance of life. And Wild fans? Consigned to yet another season of indignity and losing. Our collective hockey acumen wasted on another fatally flawed roster of ne'er do wells and malcontents.

While the brilliant and tortured Jason Zucker travels to Iowa, of all places, to serve out his purgatory.

What has this world come to, Wild fans?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

And so it begins

I want to begin by saying that following Nick's blog post is a bit like trying to go on stage after Celine Dion.

Wait. That doesn't make sense. Either way, I'll do my best to honor Nick by trying to write about Wild hockey and not make a total fool of myself.

Hold up. Too late for that too.

Oh well. Onward.

Today marks the beginning of training camp in the NHL and hopeful Wild fans across the State of Hockey welcome something to watch that isn't the trainwreck otherwise known as the Vikings.

Giving a prediction of the Wild is really hard this year. There are key losses on the team, but there are also signs of hope. The most glaring is the loss of Matt Cullen, leaving big skates to fill at second line center. Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, and Kyle Brodziak, are vying for the job (and, if you're imaginative, so are Erik Haula and David Steckel).

Here's the thing that's getting to me the most:  Given the acquisition of Nino Niederreiter, the Wild arguably have 8 top-six forwards: Parise, Koivu, Pominville, Heatley, Granlund, Coyle, Zucker, and Niederreiter. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as competition helps push players. With a number of youngsters vying for spots and knowing that they can spend time in Houston, I think that provides an additional level of motivation. Given that four of those guys can go to Houston Iowa, there's a lot of flexibility and depth of the team up front.

Heatley and Brodziak had good chemistry last year with Clutterbuck, so I can definitely see those two with one of the kids, be it Niederreiter, Zucker, or a center moved to wing (Granlund or Coyle). Then again, Mike Russo reported that Heatley has been working out this summer, so would he still fit with Brodziak or would he need a talented center to be effective?

Other questions at forward: Does Niederreiter need to play a top-six role to be effective? What of Konopka? Mitchell? Rupp? I think one or more of those guys gets traded or goes through waivers.

What I would like to see is Brodziak step up and play a top-six role as the third line center.

What I think will happen is that Coyle or Granlund grabs the job of #2 center and doesn't give it up. The other guy plays wing:

Parise - Koivu - Pominville
Zucker - Coyle - Niederreiter
Granlund - Brodziak - Heatley
Cooke - Konopka - Mitchell

or maybe:

Parise - Koivu - Pominville
Zucker - Granlund - Coyle
Heatley - Brodziak - Niederreiter
Cooke - Konopka - Mitchell

or perhaps:

Parise - Koivu - Pominville
Parise - Koivu - Heatley
Heatley - Parise - Pominville
Heatley - Koivu - Pominville

But all that conjecture is straight out of my ass. Take it in, folks.

On defense, I keep hearing that Dumba will get a long look. Personally, I hope that it's not too much of a look. I'm a huge fan that kids should remain in Juniors or the NCAA unless they're far too talented for that level. Considering that the Wild replaced Tom "JarJar" Gilbert with Keith Ballard and added Jonathan Blum, the number of players that Dumba has to jump has grown.

I think we're set with Suter and Brodin, Scandella/Stoner and Spurgeon, and Ballard and Blum.

Clearly, there's no room for a D-man whose last name doesn't begin with S or B. Corollary: Sorry, Mrs. Prosser. Clayton Stoner or Marco Scandella will probably be on the popcorn machine. You might want to go house shopping in Des Moines.

There are so many questions about this team this year. Who plays #2 Center? Who plays on Defense? How much do we rely on Darcy Kuemper?

The biggest of these is the number 2 center. If a young player steps up or if Brodziak takes the next step and solidifies the position, then the Wild will be looking good.

If Coyle, Granlund, Haula and Brodziak prove unable to infuse the necessary talent up the middle, this team will be in trouble. With the cap where it is, there's not much room (any?) to acquire a centerman, so an internal solution will be sought. Who steps in if the already identified players can't? Zack Phillips? Jason Pominville? Zach Parise? Good solutions, they are not, and I fear the Wild will take a step backwards.

If someone steps into the gap, then I predict the Wild to be second or third in the new division.

My expectation is that Wild finishes the regular season second in the division. Would I give the Wild a pass if they take a step back? I'd be hard pressed to do that. Would I call for anyone's head? Tough to say, but a lot depends on how they go out. If they go out like a punk, heads must roll.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Broken-Hearted Son's Thank You to Mike Russo and the Game of Hockey


This is a tough one to write.

My dad and I bonded over hockey. We mutually liked other sports and other teams, but hockey, in its various formal Minnesota iterations, was our "Wanna go have a catch, dad?" sport. Neither of us was very good at playing hockey, although we did - and I have wonderful memories of playing pond hockey over at the Edgcumbe Rec Center park in the winters - but he dutifully took me to countless practices, games and tournaments until my abilities crested relative to my age group.

But we watched a lot of hockey together. My parents shared North Stars season tickets with a couple other couples during a period that happened to coincide with my formative years both in terms of hockey appreciation and critical father-son bonding time. My mother eventually tired of going at about the time that my desire to go was peaking, which worked out well for me. As a result I have a wealth of memories of going to games, wearing my Ciccarelli jersey, holding my dad's hand walking into Met Center, wondering aloud if Dino would score that night, if Meloche/Beaupre/Casey/Takko would play well, if Plett would get in a fight. For a kid from Minnesota with the hockey bug growing up in the 80s, there can be no finer amalgamation of memories.

My father was an alumnus of the U, and so we were a Gophers family. We also had Gopher pigskin season tickets for a number of years, but both of my parents tired of that experience (the Dome and a lot of losing will do that to you) so those tickets also fell to me, but with my buddy, Pete Mayer, as my #2.

Gopher hockey was the thing.

We went to countless games at the old barn, my dad and me. Obstructed-view seats, Goldy entertaining from his perch above the goal line, Pitlick, Stauber, Olimb, Hankinson, Bischoff, Klatt, Snuggerud, Gernander and Woog... And then into the new building and Lucia and championships and that list of Gopher standouts.

We also did the high school hockey tournament together for many years. My school did not have a hockey program back then (and only sort of does now - which basically means it still does not have one). But I recall games at the old Civic Center with the clear boards, and Met Center, and cracking jokes and the wonderful atmosphere of the tournament, and in those collected memories, my dad is right there next to me, a beer and a hot dog for sustenance, showing his kid how to cheer, how to harangue the opposition, the refs and even your own team, when warranted.

I loved every minute of it.

After the North Stars left and I moved away to college and beyond, our immediate, in-person shared experiences with hockey came less-frequently (although we did manage to go to at least one Gopher game every time I would come home during the season). But the conversations continued. Dad and I talked daily, sometimes multiple times per day, just to catch up, share a funny story, BS with each other. We never had a period where we could not speak to each other - me in the throes of adolescence, him in some kind of male discomfiture with emotions - we always communicated just fine. So hockey never represented that surrogate context of a relationship for us that I think some fathers and sons go through.

Instead hockey was something simpler and therefore, for us, more powerful. We were just fans: of the same thing at the same time, and on the same level. I am also a musician, and, while my dad enjoyed music, I understand it on a different level than he did. And, when that's the case, there is a deference from the one who is more the lay person to the one with more expertise that qualifies and confines the interaction on that topic. But, with hockey, we were just a couple of fans watching and talking about the game.

My dad was my best friend until I met my wife, and was still my best friend, albeit obviously of a non-spousal type, after that. Hockey was where we hung out and did our thing. We had the same syntax and dialect when talking about hockey, distinct from even the syntax and dialect we used when talking about other things. It was comfortable, easy to fall back into when the season came around again, familiar, ours.

Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago. If you know anything about the pancreatic flavor of cancer, you know it is particularly nasty. But, despite that, we got four more years with dad.

Over the past four years, his hockey consumption declined from watching most Wild games and all Gopher games and discussing them in detail with me the next day during our general daily chat, to trying to watch some Wild or Gopher games, and then our general chats. And, more recently, as the cancer started gaining momentum, our conversations became less-frequent and were held primarily in the context of Mike Russo, of the Star-Tribune.

"Hey," dad would say, by way of greeting. "I see Russo thinks the Wild's power play is a disaster. What do you think?"

Or, "I heard Nanne on the radio saying the Wild could get one of those outdoor games in a year or two. What does Russo have to say about that?"

The lightning rod for our shared hockey experience shifted from both of us watching the same game and then talking about it, to me watching the game in New York and him falling asleep in Minnesota during the first period but then both of us reading Russo and then talking about it. It was just easier for him to read or talk about hockey via Russo than it was to stay up late for those late starts in Vancouver, Calgary or Anaheim.

Last year I wanted to try to get to one more game with my dad. We had gone to the Wild's inaugural season home opener (3-3 tie vs. Philly) together, me flying back to Minnesota and us scoring tickets right before the game, plus a few other Wild games, the World Cup of Hockey and the World Juniors in Buffalo over the years. But the Wild has been my primary hockey team since they were born (with the Gophers in a close second). The lockout, however, put a major crimp in that plan, as dad's health began to wane while Fehr and Bettman were beating their chests at each other. The moment the lockout ended, which coincided with dad receiving a pretty grim update on his prognosis, I talked to him about me coming into the Twin Cities to go to a Wild game and he thought that would be fun, but needed to hold off on picking a date as he awaited the decision about his treatment. What I didn't know was that my wonderful wife was herself conspiring - with my dad - to get me there to go to a game with him. And her partner in crime was Mike Russo, who put her in touch with someone with the Wild who would help find tickets to buy (that were selling out like hot cakes) to the game that would work best for dad and me. She took me out to dinner and unveiled her plan, which also included greasing the skids with my boss at work to make sure I could take a couple days off - she's good, ain't she? - in the form of a narrative weaved around the email trail she had blazed on this journey. I was stunned and humbled and moved to tears.

I had to drive through a blizzard to fly out of Pittsburgh to get there, but I did, and everything from that point on was perfect. It was the 2-1 OT win against Nashville, with Setoguchi netting the game winner from the slot. I wanted to take in and remember everything from the game, from walking in the building, to the sounds and smells of the game, and I did. I've got them tucked away in my memory in a pretty little file that I will only open when I really need it. That game now means the world to me.

Because that was the last game dad and I would see together.

Dad died Friday afternoon, at home, in peace, surrounded by his family. And I now have a gaping hole in my heart and soul because he is gone. I have yet to be able to reconcile that I will never again get to see a game with him, or pick up the phone and shoot the shit with him about the game last night. From where I sit tonight, it feels like I will never be able to reconcile that loss.

But I am comforted by the memories. This incredible, rich body of memories that I have of nights spent next to him watching hockey, that is mine alone.

And I am grateful. I am grateful for my wife, Emily, for understanding how much that facet of my relationship with my dad meant to both of us to the point that she went to such ends to continuously facilitate it.

And I am grateful for Mike Russo. He does his job so well; but, in my case, he also became the glue that held my hockey relationship with my dad together. I cannot fully explain what his being that glue means to me. But it is huge. Because I would give a lot to answer the phone right now and have dad say "So, what does Russo think about your Wild's chances this season?"

And I am grateful for hockey. I don't think God cares who scores a touchdown, hits a home run, or wins the Cup. If you do, that's great. It's just not my bag. I do not ascribe any meta-physical or spiritual significance to the execution or the consumption of sports. And, in my case, I do not need to, since hockey allowed my dad - my best friend - and me to connect in a perfect, simple, shared experience for so many years.

I will be a hockey fan for the rest of my life. Because it is the best damn sport in the world. But also because it's a way to keep the memory of my dad alive.

I will miss you, dad, and think about you every time I go to a game, every time I watch a game. I'm really not looking forward to those moments when I'll be watching a game, or reading Russo's article or blog, and reflexively reach for the phone to call you to dissect, or joke, or just chat - and remember that you're not there. I'm guessing those moments will be a kick in the stomach. But, with the season drawing near, I know those moments are coming. And, if they allow me a chance to be that much closer to you, and the memory of you, again, I will welcome them.

The El Nino and That Ginger Unveil Wild's New Road Whites

The jerseys have been officially unveiled--although yet again the Wild "accidentally" leaked the money shots late last night. 

And while this guy thinks they look great, speculation that the new jerseys will somehow aid in goal scoring remains unconfirmed. When asked about the subject at the unveiling, Stephane Veilleux muttered something in French Talk and gesticulated a challenge to just try and beat him at ping pong, bro. Just try it.

Furthermore, at first I was glad to see that The El Nino took part in the unveiling. It indicated that he wants to be involved with team stuff. But then I realized he was paired the flying ginger, which I hope doesn't indicate that team views him as Veilleux's equal. If so, we won't be seeing a lot from The El Nino this season. That would be bad.

We know the top guys will produce (assuming Pominville and Healtey return to form). So this season's success rests on the shoulders of our unproven, young guys (The El Nino along with Chaz Coyle, Grannie, and Jay-Z) being the edge we need to make the playoffs again--and not suck once we get there.

And for the record, no matter how great these new road whites look, Matt Cooke will still look like a doosh.