Saturday, January 31, 2015

An outdoor game, race schedule changes and screamin' tennis, oh my!

It's hard to believe 2015 already has a month in the books. But hey, it's just another step closer to summer then, right? That works for me.

Nothing jumped out at me to focus on for this entry, so I went ahead and touched on a few notables. The Minnesota Wild will play outdoors next year, IndyCar received some bad news this week and the Australian Open is about wrapped up for another year.

Wild gets an outdoor game, finally
Well, the Wild will finally get an outdoor game. They'll play the Chicago Blackhawks Feb. 16, 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium for an NHL Stadium Series.

Of course, the State of Hockey won't be treated to the big show - the Winter Classic - just yet. No, Commissioner Gary Bettman keeps telling us gullible fans that it will happen. He just won't say when. I don't think any of us should hold our breath on this one.

Actually, Wild owner Craig Leipold held off on any kind of outdoor game offer in the past, because he wanted a Winter Classic. He finally gave in, for whatever reason.

It will be interesting to see the excitement next year as the game draws near. Right now, I'm feeling underwhelmed. The first Winter Classic was held in 2008 between Buffalo and Pittsburgh. It's truly a shame that Minnesota has not been a part of this already. This is where the whole sports-is-a-business thing comes into play. With larger markets and Original Six teams getting the Winter Classic nods so far, it shouldn't be surprising what's going on here. All about the money.

IndyCar season opener axed
IndyCar fans got some bummer news this week. The season opener, which was scheduled for March 8 in Brasilia, has been canceled. The explanation was something about financial issues and the local government not kicking in enough money that it promised.

It's really too bad because everything else sounded great about the event. A primary sponsor was in place, hospitality was sold out and two-thirds of the tickets were sold. It's tough to have the fans lose out on something like this. Now it looks like we'll have to wait until March 29 to open the 2015 IndyCar season, as the drivers take to the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.

As the powers that be at IndyCar wrap their heads around this cancellation, I've already got a solution. Bring back Road America! Yes, I will use any excuse I can to jump on Twitter and use my #bringbackRA hashtag. After years of tradition, the sounds of IndyCars have not graced the Road America (in Elkhart Lake, Wis.) road course since 2007, in the final year of the ChampCar Series.

So listen up, IndyCar officials. Road America's schedule is clear for the July 25-26 weekend. Add it to your schedule. You'll be in the Midwest anyway, with races in Milwaukee and Iowa earlier in the month. Make it happen.

Australian Open finishes up this week
The tennis Grand Slam season kicks off in January each year with a major tournament down under, the Australian Open. It's fun for a night owl like me to watch the matches, since the top match-ups usually don't take the court live until about 2 a.m. in my local time zone. It's also a time to become extremely jealous of the summer weather as I watch with a Minnesota winter taking place outside my window.

I wrote a little about the Open already, mostly about how screaming in tennis is ruining the game. It was a couple of screamers in the predictable-on-paper women's final, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Williams added her 19th Grand Slam to her resume. I didn't see the match, which is probably fine. Again, I would have watched it on mute anyway.

The men's final pits Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray against each other. We may already know the result by the time you read this blog. Thanks, time zones.

The tournament held some upsets earlier on. Roger Federer went down in the first week. As he gets older by tennis age standards, we'll wait and see how much the greatest tennis player of all time has left in the tank before he hangs up his professional career.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Screaming in tennis: Something will have to be done

Not that this is some news flash, but screaming is a problem in tennis. Like, you need to watch the matches with your television on mute kind of a problem.

It's been a factor that I'm reminded of again as we're in the middle of the Australian Open, kicking off the Grand Slam season for 2015. I always enjoy watching some tennis from down under. It's also easy to get jealous and want to jump ship on the frozen tundra when you see the players out in the sweltering summer heat.

Anyway, back to the screaming. It's a problem in women's tennis. A couple of the biggest culprits that come to mind are Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. I'll throw Serena Williams in there, too. There's too much screaming - and yes, shrieking - during a lot of matches.

Now, I'm all for defending players in the middle of a 7-5, 6-7, 4-3 grueling match, or a long five-setter on the men's side. A long match, you just got done with a long rally, so you scream or grunt with each stroke. OK, that's a little more understandable.

What's not OK is using screaming as a strategy in your match.

I don't think it's that far of a reach to say this is being done. It seems obvious when players like Serena, for example, are close-lipped if they're down in a match, only to start shrieking up a storm when they're in control and winning. That has to be pretty distracting to opponents.

I had a friend tell me via Twitter that he played a match against a kid who screamed, like the pros. That's a scary tidbit for where this sport is going. It makes sense, too. Kids look up to the professional players in whatever sport they enjoy. If those pros are allowed to scream during games, why wouldn't kids try that when they're also trying to smack the ball like their idols?

ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert said something interesting during the Australian Open coverage about the issue. He mentioned that if he were a player facing a screaming opponent, he'd refuse to play. He also thinks official action needs to be taken against screamers in the game.
I asked Patrick Reusse his thoughts on the tennis screaming after he Tweeted something about one of Sharapova's matches. His response drew a bunch of favorites and retweets of support from Twitter users.
Humor aside, I'd really like to run with Gilbert's idea of keeping the screaming players in check somehow through regulations.

Thanks a lot, Monica Seles.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Wild are free falling halfway through the season

I'd like to think I shy away from being extremely negative here with my thoughts. Words I use when it comes to my favorite sports teams are probably much more harsh in conversation or over on my Twitter feed.

Well, the time has come to let the harsh words fly about the Minnesota Wild, a team that is in the division basement at the halfway point of the season in the tough Western Conference. I've watched, and will continue to watch, my team. Sometimes it's an easier time than others.

Let's take a look at some of the key factors, shall we? 
  • The Wild are 18-18-5 with 41 points in 41 games. They've lost five straight games, 11 of the past 13 and 16 of the past 23 games. That's a lot of losing.
  • The Wild have been outscored 22-8 during the current losing streak.
  • Ryan Suter is -18 in the past 19 games, and he hasn't really been the same since he missed a game with the mumps in early December. Actually, the Wild's defensive core has been depleted more often than not thanks to injuries, the flu and the mumps.
  • Youngsters Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine were supposed to carry their 2014 postseason momentum over to the stat sheets this season. They have three goals each so far.
  • Charlie Coyle, another guy that was supposed to bring a huge offensive spark, has a total of four goals.
  • The team's latest effort was a 4-1 loss Sunday night in Chicago, a game that might as well come up in a "What does rock bottom look like?" Google search.

I'm reminded of Gordon Bombay in "D2: The Mighty Ducks" after his team got creamed by the big boys of Iceland. "12 to 1. You know what word comes to mind when you think of that? Pathetic!"

Yes, pathetic. That's a perfect word for the Wild's play lately. Sunday, they looked like a bunch of players that quit. Just flat out weren't playing hockey. The mental breakdown was so bad on the opposing goals that they resembled something like a little-kids soccer team.

Others share the opinion that the Wild just seem hopeless right now, and there are no answers for how to come out of what could be one of the worst slumps in franchise history. Yes, I went there. 

What is going on with these guys?
What's happening with this team is so astonishing and frustrating because on paper there's no way they should be so far away from the playoff picture. They've been called the most disappointing team in the NHL lately, and it's a title that's completely justified. 

This isn't like a team that's in a rebuilding year or doesn't have any talented players, where a losing season would be expected. That's what makes this so tough to take. The Wild has arguably the most talented lineup since their inception. Zach Parise, Suter, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville. 

Only a couple guys have shown me anything lately. That's Jason Zucker, who's now the team's leading goal scorer with 15, and Parise who has 14. Zucker sailed a penalty shot just wide against Chicago's talented netminder Corey Crawford. Then Zucker promptly hung his head back at the bench, sat down and started busting up his stick. That's the kind of frustration and emotion that is missing from the rest of the squad. 

It's also hard to watch because fans have seen these guys play well. Remember the start of the season? Scoring goals aplenty and a shutout record was set. So we know they care capable of playing good hockey. They're capable of winning a playoff series and hanging with the superstars of the Blackhawks. 

Maybe there are just too many things stacked against the Wild this season. From the mumps to the flu, injuries, a power play that's been a momentum killer and deaths of two fathers, the year has been full of adversity. Suter's dad died of a heart attack unexpectedly in September. Last week, former North Star J.P. Parise died after a year-long battle with lung cancer. It's all tough stuff, but I was hoping the players could rally together and find a way to win. They can barely play hockey lately, let alone get a W. 

99 problems, and goaltending is one
Goaltending has turned into a glaring problem. I don't have a stat on this, but I wouldn't be surprised if Darcy Kuemper has been pulled from the cage in this half-season more times than all the other Wild goalies combined since 2000. Maybe it's an exaggeration. Still, Kuemps couldn't finish a game at home for a stretch. He'd give up one or two quick, soft goals, and that would be it. Mentally, he needs a lot of work. 

Then there's Niklas Backstrom, the veteran under contract who is on the decline and isn't moving as well as he used to.  He's not a long-term solution. I've written off Josh Harding, too, who's been plagued with injuries and has MS. No disrespect; I just don't see the reliability with him being in between the pipes.

So, instead of signing Thomas Vanek this summer, who was brought in to score goals but has been nothing but lazy and unproductive, Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher should've been out signing a goaltender. Hindsight is always 20/20. 

Vanek is a bust
I heard one radio analyst make this comment about Vanek: He's a lazy player and the team has seen that and followed suit. This makes perfect sense. Vanek had a slow start to the year and people wanted to give him time to find his groove and the back of the net. It's halfway through the season and we're still waiting. Actually, he looks worse the more I watch him. 

The 30-year-old is slow, seems to throw the puck in the direction of wherever and has obviously not scored enough goals. He's not the only culprit, but he passes way too much, especially in situations when he needs to shoot. It's like having Dany Heatley all over again. 

Yeo *might* go, but I don't agree Yeo *must* go
Head Coach Mike Yeo's job was reportedly in jeopardy last season at the turn of the new year when the team was sliding. They pulled out of it, rattled off some wins, got to the second round of the playoffs and the coach was rewarded with a three-year contract extension. 

Now, more and more people are jumping on the "Yeo must go" bandwagon. I'm not on it. 

Yeo had a well-documented, profanity-laced tirade during practice last week, where he yelled at his players, slammed a stick on the boards and walked out of practice. He's right to be angry. These players need to get their acts together. I guess even that episode wasn't enough to get the Wild going, however. 

Get a new system
This isn't a coaching problem. Whatever is going on, it needs to be the players who somehow rally together and start playing the game of hockey again. Firing Yeo won't do any good. Will it happen? Maybe. Coaches and managers are the obvious choice when teams are losing. Because, you can't just dump your whole lineup. Though it would be interesting to scratch a few of them and bring up some youngsters from Iowa. Might work, you never know. 

There's a system problem within this club that's been there for a few years. It's simple: Too much passing, not enough shooting. That, and periodically having three guys behind the goal line in the offensive zone, like they're allergic to the slot or getting bodies in front of the net. 

It was a problem before Yeo took the reigns. It is a problem that needs to be fixed. I don't have the answer to how this kind of play is happening or how to reverse it. Sure, you can't just shoot constantly. Consider this though: The Wild have had a few major power plays this season, where you can score as many goals as you want in a 5-minute span. They have no goals, and one instance resulted in zero shots for the Wild. That's unacceptable. 

Prove me wrong
When I get fired up on Twitter, I've often told the Wild to "prove me wrong," as I hope they can turn the losing streak and season around. I might be waiting for awhile. The way things stand now, this team just needs to play hockey again and win a few games. The playoff picture isn't even a thought anymore. 

It's never over until it's over, and anything can happen in sports. But the situation in the Wild camp is very grim. That's reality.

I wrote at the beginning of the season that if the Wild failed to win the second round of the playoffs, the season would be a disappointment. After 41 games, it's the team that's the disappointment.