Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Reflections on #TheTourney17

In the sports world, particularly if you pay attention to high school sports, there's no busier time in the calendar year than February and March. The term "March Madness" is no joke, and it doesn't just apply to the NCAA basketball tournament.

Last week, the greatest high school hockey tournament in the country took place at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Not only did it not disappoint, but it was one of the best tournaments in quite some time complete with upsets, close games and two championship celebrations in one game.

Hermantown went back-to-back winning Class 1A titles for their third overall. This after years of finishing as the runner-up, usually to either St. Thomas Academy (which has since moved up to Class 2A) or Breck. Cue the private school v. public school and move-up or don't move-up debates. I'm not going to get into it here, so debate amongst yourselves.

Anyway, the Hawks didn't make it easy. They needed overtime to win all three tournament games, including double-overtime to beat unseeded and surprise tourney underdog Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake. A goal review determined Hermantown's goal with 5:16 to play in double OT didn't count because of goaltender interference. So, they picked up their gear littered all over the ice, then scored in the final 30 seconds of the period to officially win.

Thunderhawks get hot; plenty of upsets
Grand Rapids succeeded in knocking off top-seed and heavy favorite Eden Prairie in the Class 2A semifinals, in a rematch from last year. Then, they beat always-a-bridesmaid Moorhead 6-3 in the championship game. Rapids was a 5 seed and a 4 seed in the stacked Section 7. As their coach former NHLer Trent Klatt said, they played their best hockey lately.

It's a great example of a team getting hot at the right time. There's something to be said for that.

Among the upsets right away in the Class 1A quarterfinals, No. 2 seed Delano was knocked out by the MAML Moose, then No. 3 seed Mahtomedi went down at the hands of Northfield. This set up a semifinal between two unseeded teams making their first state tournament appearances.

In Class 2A, St. Thomas Academy went down as a No. 2 seed at the hands of Lakeville South in the quarterfinals. Grand Rapids technically upset No. 4 seed Maple Grove, though that's a pretty tame upset when you have seeds right next to each other.

Each game was exciting, which doesn't often happen, especially in the quarterfinals when there are likely to be some blowouts. Not this year.

Tournament traditions
The tournament is more than just the games. It's an experience. It's a tradition. I was lucky enough to be there all four days to cover it for coldomaha.com. I've often said it should be state holidays during the tournament, so everyone could stay home and watch. The demand is so high that it bring out ticket scalpers and increased parking fees. For the Class 2A quarterfinals Thursday, it was a whopping $25 to park at the History Center, a lot that's $10 for Wild games and a nice hike to the X. The bars nearby were packed, too. Tom Reid's was open at earlier at 9 a.m. during the tournament days.

Everybody seems to get into it, hockey fans or not. People watch and attend even if they have no connections to the teams involved. This hockey tournament is what makes Minnesota the state of hockey.

My dad recalls his tradition at the office in years past, ordering pizza to watch the tournament when it got started. I'm sure there are plenty of other offices that have TVs turned to it, too.

Hockey hair is most definitely a thing
I took in the afternoon session Wednesday, went to church in the evening, then stopped at the local Jersey Mike's to grab some late dinner afterward. I walked in and noticed the restaurant had the hockey tournament coverage on its flatscreen, with the sound up. The starting lineups were being introduced for the last Class 1A quarterfinal of the day between St. Cloud Cathedral and East Grand Forks.

Both me and the sandwich makers were pretty preoccupied with the intros as I placed my order. Normally I'd be annoyed, but this time I didn't care. The young workers chatted to each other about the tournament. One guys said something like: "Everybody either wants to get to the state tournament to win or for the hockey hair!"

That's the other part of the tradition: The Hockey Hair team. Guys try to have just the right flow to show off as they skate up to the blue line for player introductions. It's really taken on a life of its own. I'm a little neutral on it. It's cool, but could be getting a bit overdone now.

Always some great stories
The tournament brings out some great stories each year, too. From upsets to cat sweaters to coaches returning to the tournament they once played in. It's a big deal for communities, especially the small towns that have to travel for hours to make the trek to the X for a few days.

Of course, my parents still talk about what a great tournament it was when it was just one class and the private schools had their own tournament. I know they're not alone in that thinking either. They call it a diluted tournament. That's another argument I don't want to touch much on here. I've really only known the two-class tournament. I'm OK with that.

One other thing I'd like to point out to people. While I consider semifinal Friday to be one of the best days of the tournament, don't forget about section finals in order to get to state. Those games are often packed with people and the excitement level is off the charts. Just the chance to play at state is enough to create a great hockey atmosphere.

It's often a grind for sports reporters this time of year, but as I've said, it's a good grind. Hours go by and you don't even realize it. Until you get home at 1 a.m. and have to be back the next day for the early game. I'll borrow this analogy that I heard from Star Tribune reporter and friend David La Vaque who heard it from Glen Mason when he referenced the Metrodome: It's like Vegas. Being inside the X all day for the hockey tournament means the concept of time and daylight is lost.

But in such a great way. Stick taps to all the teams for an entertaining #TheTourney17.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mumps are back for Wild, but it'll be OK

As if the bye week wasn't bad enough. The Minnesota Wild took the ice against Los Angeles Monday after the new mandatory bye week that each NHL team takes. Before game time, however, there was this little announcement: Zach Parise and Jason Pominville were out of the lineup because they have the mumps.

The hot takes came flying in across the social media channels, most notably the Twitter machine. They ranged from panic, anger, the classic "we can't have nice things," Minnesota sports always get screwed, to even some people going on about the vaccines.

Then there was a "here we go again" vibe, since the mumps made the NHL and Wild rounds in 2014. Ryan Suter, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Christian Folin and Keith Ballard.

The Wild have had a phenomenal regular season under new coach Bruce Boudreau. They kept winning, didn't collapse in January and knew how to score a ton of goals. Still, call me a jaded Minnesota sports fan, but I just had trouble committing to this team too much and getting all excited. You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know?

It dropped into a big pile of mumps. Not long after I finally started to fully buy in to this team.

What a blow for this team that now has 16 games in the month of March, with a few back-to-backs. Sure, they traded for Martin Hanzal and Ryan White from the Coyotes, which will help. But the lineups are probably going to get pretty interesting the next few weeks.

First hearing this mumps news, it's easy to just throw your hands up in confusing frustration. The mumps? Again? It's something teams are susceptible to, but why just the NHL? Not that I really care. I'm not going to dig deep into some medical journal to try and find out.

It's also understandable to have the reaction "we can't have nice things." It happens with a lot of things in life. Everything is sailing along until the train comes and hits you. That's kind of what it feels like here with the mumps.

But just wait a minute. Even with Parise and Pominville out against the Kings, even with two new players on the roster who were no doubt tired mentally and physically from their recent trade, even with being off for the five-day bye week, the Wild still won the game.

Yes, they kept getting behind and needed overtime for a 5-4 victory, but they won. Just like they've done all season. They've found a way. That's what makes this team so special this year. Even if the defense isn't particularly great on a given night or the offense needs Devan Dubynk to steal a game for them, they still find ways to win.

Last night was victory No. 40 when Mikael Granlund put on a clinic for a goal 12 seconds into overtime, reminiscent of his sliding OT winner in the playoffs against Colorado. Coming off the bye week, NHL teams this season were 3-12-4. The Wild beat those odds and became the fourth team to get a win.

So, the mumps have hit at a tough time in the schedule for the Wild. First off all, let's hope for a speedy return back to health for Parise, Pommer and assistant coach Scott Stevens, plus cross the fingers that no one else from the organization comes down with the symptoms. That is what's most important.

The Wild still sit atop the Western Conference in a great position for the playoffs. They already proved last night that they won't let the mumps stop them.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Athleticism doesn't determine my sports-writing chops

If there's one thing that people ask me most often when it comes to my work as a sports journalist, it's this: "So, did you play sports in high school?"

I've been asked so often that I usually expect it and have my answer down cold, though I do change up the wording now and then. Answer: "Well, I played tennis in high school, but I was never really much of an athlete. I was more of a spectator. I just loved to watch sports, and I knew I wanted to write. So I combined those two."

When I say I wasn't much of an athlete, that rings pretty true. Seriously, I was on the JV tennis team as a sophomore and junior before finally cracking the bottom of the varsity lineup as a senior after I worked in the winter to improve my game. I wasn't some kind of athletic superstar or even a multi-sport athlete.

I also bowled on a junior league for a couple years and danced at a studio for a decade. I never really considered myself an athlete when it came to dance though. I'm not saying dancers aren't athletes; I just didn't see that for me.

Because I've been asked this question so many times, I'm going to make what I'll call an educated assumption that this is a sexist question to ask. Hear me out. I can't help but wonder sometimes if I'm treated differently as a woman working in sports. Would this or that get said to a guy? Would a guy be given this kind of treatment? I usually don't make too much of anything, because if I start to think about it too much, I'm sure it's just over-analyzing.

So with this particular question I wonder: Do people ask this of male sports reporters? If they do, I'll shut up. It just strikes me as odd that I hear this over and over. It's like I need to justify or explain the reasoning for why I chose my job. I must have been an athlete to want to be a sports reporter, right? That's the only reason I could want to do it, because I played sports myself.

The truth is, I'm just like a lot of people out there - guys or gals - who enjoyed watching sports and combined that with a love of writing. It's pretty simple. I'll usually go into that part in my answer, too. I started watching a lot of Minnesota Twins games in middle school, which was around the same time the Wild came into existence. Those two sports keep me busy year-round, plus I'm also a big IndyCar fan (which has been no secret to any loyal readers of this blog).

I started as a sports fan, knew I wanted to pursue journalism, then found out how much I enjoyed the combination when I started taking on sports stories at my college newspaper. I'd guess that's a pretty logical path for other sports writers out there.

Then again, I understand why so many sports commentators are former athletes. It makes sense. They have an intimate knowledge of the game and can relay a lot of insider information. I just don't think it's the be-all, end-all when it comes to sports knowledge.

Like I stated, I'm making an assumption here about this being a sexist issue. So if you think this is way off base, please let me know. I don't want to misrepresent anyone.

I also need to make sure I state this, too: I have been treated with respect as a woman working in sports. I haven't felt harassed. Many colleagues have treated me like any other sports writer, and it's very much appreciated. I've gotten a lot of work because editors and colleagues respect my writing. That means a lot. There are plenty of people who haven't asked me this question, I suppose, but it's still the one I get the most often.

I'm well aware of how the field has evolved over the years to become more supportive of women. I've done research and read plenty about incidents of harassment or unfair treatment. I don't take it for granted that I can do my job without really fearing anything because of my gender.

This question isn't some big feminist platform for me. I don't scoff or turn nasty when it's asked. I'll gladly answer. I just thought I'd share my thoughts on the subject, since I keep getting the same question. Maybe other women hear it, too. Or maybe guys hear it. Or maybe it's just my imagination.