Monday, February 29, 2016

Boys’ section hockey: Upsets, drama and goals, oh my!

The section champions in boys’ hockey have all been crowned. After all the drama and excitement in the Class 1A and Class 2A section tournament play this season, it will be tough for #TheTourney16 to offer up an even more tasty encore.

That’s right, it’s tourney time. In hockey terms in Minnesota, it’s basically Christmas morning for a few days, with the boys’ state high school hockey tournament next week at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

This year, it really could be interesting. That’s because there were so many upsets in section play.
Cinderella stories started in the semifinals, with a bunch of top-contending teams bowing out Saturday, Feb. 20. It was the type of day where you heard about one upset in the works via Twitter. Then there was another one. And another. What was going on?

Let’s take a look at some of these stories:

-Anoka, winners of Class 2A, Section 5. The Tornadoes were in a battle of Cinderellas in the section final versus Maple Grove. No. 3 seed Anoka beat No. 2 seed Centennial in the semifinal game, while the Crimson of Maple Grove took down top-seeded Blaine. Anoka beat Maple Grove 6-3.

It’s Anoka’s first trip to state since 2003, when it won its only state title. The Tornadoes are riding a 10-game win streak.

-Lakeville North, upset victim in Class 2A, Section 1 final. The defending state champs really had nowhere to go but down after a perfect 31-0 record last season. Can’t get much better than perfection. No. 2 seed Farmington ousted the top-seeded Panthers in the section final by a score of 6-2. So as they say, there will be no repeat for the Class 2A state champion.

-Duluth East, lost to Grand Rapids in Class 2A, Section final. Now technically, this one wasn’t an upset based on the section seeding. It was No. 1 and No. 2. Still, East was last year’s story of the state tournament, taking down perennial power Edina in the state semis before its runner-up finish to Lakeville North.

The section final this year sounded like a thriller. East was up 5-3 in the third before Grand Rapids tied it. Then with six seconds separating the teams from overtime, Grand Rapids’ Alex Adams scored the winning goal. This ends East’s seven-year run of state tournament appearances.

Fun fact: Grand Rapids won the single-class tournament 40 years ago in 1976, with a guy named Don Lucia on the team. Grand Rapids will now make its 15th state appearance looking for its fourth title.

-Benilde-St. Margaret’s lost to Cretin-Derham Hall in Class 2A, Section 6 semifinal. This was a biggie. Benilde was unbeaten and a heavy favorite to coast into the tourney. The only blemish, if you want to call it that, was a 4-4 tie to Lakeville North Dec. 28. Benilde lost to Cretin 4-3 in overtime. It left the door open for No. 2 seed Wayzata to take the section title.

-Minnetonka, upset in the Class 2A, Section 2 semifinal. The No. 4 seed Prior Lake took care of ‘Tonka 3-2 in the semis. It marked the first time Prior Lake reached a section final, though they lost to Eden Prairie.

-No. 1 seed Luverne, lost to No. 2 seed Litchfiled/Dassel-Cokato in Class 1A, Section 3 final. L/D-C pulled off the 7-6 upset in overtime. Luverne’s goals came off two hat tricks, but L/D-C scored late in the game with the goaltender pulled before prevailing in overtime. Luverne was hoping for a second consecutive state tournament appearance.

Other section upsets based on seeds:

Class 1A

-Mankato West, No. 2 seed in Section 1. Took down top-seeded Northfield 1-0 in the final, after escaping 2-1 in double overtime versus No. 7 seed Albert Lea in the quarters.

-Little Falls, No. 4 seed in Section 6. Beat top-seeded St. Cloud Apollo, which had only lost twice, 4-1 in the semifinals.

Class 2A

-Burnsville, No. 2 seed in Section 3. They pounded top-seed St. Thomas Academy 7-1 in the final.
Things that went as planned:

Class 1A

-Breck, No. 1 seed in Section 2. Eliminated Delano in the section playoffs for the fourth year in a row. This time 5-3 in the final.

-Princeton, No. 1 seed in Section 5. Earned a trip to state behind a 3-1 victory over Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake.

-Hermantown, No. 1 seed in Section 7. The usual suspects in the Class 1A state tournament will be back to try and finally become the champions – instead of runners up.

-Thief River Falls, No. 1 seed in Section 8. Earned their spot with a 3-1 final win over last year’s state champion: East Grand Forks.

Class 2A

-Stillwater, No. 1 seed in Section 4. This was one of the last section finals to take place, with opponent No. 2 seed Hill-Murray, and it delivered the drama that was already so present in the rest of section play. The game was knotted in a scoreless tie. Then in overtime, Noah Cates made an unbelievable move – spin-o-rama style for the game-winner to send his team to state.

-Bemidji, No. 1 seed in Section 8. Beat the Moorhead Spuds 4-3 in overtime.

So, there you have it. Seedings for the state tournament will be determined Saturday. It’s anyone’s guess now as to which schools will play each other in the quarterfinals. It all seems pretty crazy that the section tournament was filled with such excitement and intensity, upsets and disappointments.

I just don’t know what’s left for an encore at the boys’ state hockey tournament. But if I know this tourney, arguably the best one in the country, then there will be more excitement. Plenty more.

Because after all, it’s #TheTourney16.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Something had to give

We almost weren’t surprised. We could feel something coming that afternoon, that week and really, this calendar year. Enough was enough for the Wild. It needed to make a change, pulling the parachute on another mid-season freefall.

Mike Yeo on Jan. 4, 2014. Another time we were on "Yeo Watch."

So, head coach Mike Yeo was given a pink slip, after going 173-132-44 in his fifth season with the Wild. That includes going 11-17 in the playoffs.

It was a family day for us Saturday. We visited my brother and ended up watching the Wild versus Boston game. It was more of the same, just another frustrating effort for the hometown boys. As it went on, we wondered how long this could keep up.

Rock bottom
It had to be rock bottom, right? Well, Ryan Suter referenced rock bottom after the loss Thursday night to the Washington Capitals. I thought they hit rock bottom last year in Buffalo before they acquired Devan Dubnyk. But just when you think it can’t get any worse for this hockey club, it gets worse.

Twitter was pretty lively Saturday. At one point, I fired off a Tweet saying: “I remember how exciting it was when Parise and Suter were signed to this club. What has happened?” #rhetorical

I just couldn’t understand the decline in that moment. I remember exactly where I was when I heard about that historic signing. It was supposed to propel the Wild toward a Stanley Cup, not another coaching change. The Wild were supposed to improve, not regress from playoff series to playoff series. Each time they faced the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs it should have gotten better (2013-15). Instead, the series became more one-sided in favor of the Blackhawks.

All that said, it really did seem that Saturday truly was rock bottom.

My initial reaction to the Yeo news
I was still a little surprised. As bad as things got for the Wild recently, it couldn’t warrant a coach firing mid-season, right? I mean, we’re talking about the same team that went in the tank each of the past three seasons (and it made the playoffs the past two and is still not out of the question this season). I just didn’t see the move happening during the season.

In the middle of the slump, I figured it might be alright to have the Wild finally miss the playoffs and then it could ring as a huge wake-up call for the organization. Shake things up and make changes.

That wasn’t to be. Yeo was fired after eight straight losses and a 3-12-4 record in 2016. Anyone remember the stat about how the Wild had its best calendar-year record in 2015? Yeah, I’m still rolling my eyes at that one.

As reactions flowed about Yeo’s firing, it was obvious that people wanted to point fingers at players or anywhere else besides Yeo. They may be right, they may be wrong. I think there were things he could have done better, for sure.

Something had to be done
Here’s the deal: Sports is a business.

I feel like that needs to be said, mostly because everyone is so emotionally invested in this team and what happens to it. I get that. But this goes out to the crowd that is frustrated because it was Yeo who ultimately got punished for the failures of the Wild players. The ones that say, “coaches can’t score! Coaches aren’t on the ice!”

True. But this is just something that goes with the territory. Is it always fair? Probably not. But that’s how sports are, as a business. Sometimes things get so bad there needs to be a change. That easy change is a new coach/manager or general manager.

It reminds me a little of Ron Gardenhire with the Minnesota Twins, who was fired after the 2014 season. He won a bunch of division titles with the Minnesota ballclub, but then had four, 90-plus loss seasons. So, he had to go. Do I think it was all his fault or he was the main reason the Twins all of a sudden started losing? No. But the Twins decided something had to change. That something was Gardy.

Maybe this all sounds cold-hearted to some, or it could sound not harsh enough to others who have called for Yeo’s head since last year, or before that point. It’s just the way it is. I don’t see it as this 100 percent failure on Yeo’s shoulders or marking him as a bad coach.

No quick fixes
Going along with this, I don’t think Yeo getting fired fixes everything. Far from it. Firing him now truly tells me how bad the situation is for the Wild. It’s so bad that the club fired its coach during the middle of the season.

But the players are still there. It’s hard to know what went on in that locker room with the players and Yeo. Speculation - and Twitter - can suggest a lot of things. Did the players quit on Yeo? Are they just not as good as we’ve been told? Is Yeo really a bad coach? Why are they so bad now when they’ve proven to be good in the past? Some are wanting to hold Chuck Fletcher accountable. I might get into that another time.

These are all tough questions. I’m actually expecting this team to continue to struggle. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if they turn it around for some wins either. The potential is there. But the attitude that I previously mentioned is still true: Players have to play. They need to start scoring, stop giving up prime scoring chances to the opposition, play as a team and get some wins.

We went to a Wild game a couple years ago, Jan. 4, 2014, against the Capitals. Suter scored a hat trick. It was during a tough stretch for the Wild. I took a close-up photo of the Wild bench and added this caption on Facebook: “Got some bench shots of Mike Yeo, since we thought his days were numbered as the head coach.”

He was still here two years – and two more slumps – later.

So, I think because Yeo has always been around for so long, for so many losses, these annual slumps, it was easy to believe that he would always be here. I don’t mean that in a taking-for-granted way. I just mean that the Wild couldn’t possibly fire him like this during the season, right? If it gets bad enough, they’ll wait until the season ends to dismiss him, I thought.

I guess not. Something just had to give.

This was originally posted at

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Play for the full 60

The Wild turned the page from an abysmal January to a post-All-Star Break February. A fresh start and step in the right direction hasn’t exactly happened though, with a pair of bad losses against New York teams. The annual slump for this team is in full force. Fans and the team seem frustrated at what’s happening, and there is plenty of finger-pointing and looking for answers going on. Here’s one aspect of what’s troubling this hockey team.

The length of an NHL hockey game is 60 minutes. That’s split up between three, 20-minute periods. It’s probably a good idea for teams to play the entirety – or at least not check-out for entire periods – of the 60-minute games.

Yes, I’m going somewhere with this, besides giving you basic and boring facts about hockey games.
Not playing a complete game isn’t a new problem for the Wild. It didn’t just start happening once the calendar flipped to 2016. I’ve noticed it all season that the team doesn’t focus and compete for the entire game sometimes.

Specifically, it has gotten off to slow starts more often that I’d like to remember. You know, when the boys would come out for the start of the game and produce a lackluster effort for the first few, 10 or even 20 minutes. Then you’d hear that intermission player interview or read quotes later about how the team just came out flat, wasn’t ready to play, etc.

It became a broken record. Now, I’m obviously not saying this happens all the time, every game. Not at all. They’ve had their share of solid games – which is actually what makes the fall-off-a-cliff slumps so frustrating.

But sometimes, they don’t always play full games. If it’s not a slow start, maybe it’s coasting a little bit in a game. Or forgetting to play the second period, like Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

I’m not saying everybody needs to be flying around for odd-man rushes and scoring chances every single shift. There’s a happy medium between that and skating around like it’s open skate time at the local ice rink. If you get a quick 2-0 lead in the first period, continue the intensity and keep pressuring. If one of your teammates breaks a scoring slump to tie the game, try to keep the momentum and not give a goal right back.

After the loss to the Islanders, Yeo said something in his postgame comments about his team finding different ways to lose. He’s got a point. First it was a lack of scoring. Remember the shutouts? More recently, they were pumping in some goals but had defensive breakdowns which lead to high tallies for opponents. Giving up a slew of unanswered goals, empty-net goals and giving up game-winners late in regulation. All different ways to lose.

It’s frustrating. No question. It’s hard to watch a team lose games in such a deflated manner. It’s tough because this team was supposed to be more. The roster is loaded with talent. They’ve played well at times. They’ve played good games.

They’ve shown they can play well enough throughout the course of 60 minutes to win hockey games. They’ll need to get back to that basic premise if they want to come out of this slump.
Just play the full 60 minutes.

This was originally posted at

Friday, February 5, 2016

The changing landscape of youth sports

Things change. That's a pretty standard fact of life.
Andover boys' hockey - 2014-15 season.

I've been curious about how sports have changed. Specifically, youth sports. The inspiration lately was a feature package in the Star Tribune focusing on the Richfield boys' hockey program and its ultimate demise prior to this high school season. The number of athletes had declined over the past few years, and there were not enough to field a team anymore.

Richfield isn't alone either. Plenty of high school sports teams have either disbanded or formed co-op programs with nearby schools.

What struck me in this particular story was reading about how the city's rinks used to be packed with kids. According to the Star Tribune story, there were 19 outdoor ice rinks in Richfield with 13 staffed warming houses. Now that's down to 11 rinks, that are sparsely used, and just two staffed warming houses.

From packed to nearly vacant
So, rinks used to be packed. I'm sure this was the case in other metro cities, too.

Quick related side note. My dad recalls the days back in the 1970s when he'd rush over to the Coon Rapids High School tennis courts after supper in the summer, hoping to get a spot on the courts. Players occupied them until dusk during those long evenings. Now, tennis courts are replaced with athletic fields or parking lots more often than I'd like to see. And the ones that remain are sparsely occupied.

Anyway, athletics are changing. Pickup games just for kicks with your neighborhood pals aren't really a thing anymore, at least in my opinion. Maybe I'm wrong and some of it still happens.

But I think kids aren't taking part in these casual games. Why? I can think of a few reasons.

Where is everybody? 
Organized sports and athletic associations have grown over the years. There are more opportunities to play sports besides making the high school varsity team. Along with that, people are busier. There's school functions, homework, part time jobs and sports, among other things. If kids are spending so much time practicing and playing games for their organized sports, do they really have the time or energy to go play with friends?

Maybe more likely, they'll spend the time connecting with friends on social media or play video games. Perhaps hockey via the XBox is more appealing than lacing up your skates. I'm not a gamer, so I really don't know.

Another reason? Money. The Strib reported players spend between $2,000 and $5,000. All that equipment, ice time, travel for tournaments. It adds up. Many families just don't have that kind of money to spend for one sport for one child. I'm the sure the economic downturn in recent years can be partly to blame, too.

How about one-sport athletes? This is a trend that's been examined by many over the past few years. Instead of playing a variety of sports, some athletes focus on just one all year long as they try and improve their game. I'm not sure the divide on this now, although I have interviewed athletes who still play three sports a year, one for each season.

I think along with this one-sport athlete theory is the idea of college scholarships. College is spendy and costs are only growing exponentially with time. So it's logical that some elite athletes would want to focus on one sport in hopes of attracting attention of colleges or even scouts for professional teams. If kids are that serious about their sport, it probably won't leave much time to mess around with your buddies for a pickup game outdoors.

Remember one thing
Maybe the pickup games of old will never return to what they once were. Sports evolve just like everything else. If there's one thing to remember about sports though, it's that they're supposed to be fun. So whenever you play or watch, just have a blast.