Monday, July 17, 2017

Despite ever-changing journalism world, writers are valuable

I graduated with a journalism degree when the recession hit. It was also a time when the future of print journalism was in question (not that it's necessarily any more secure today). As I job searched, it was always interesting to discuss the field with others. Will newspapers go away? Will everything just be online? How will it change the job market? Discussion often circled to this point:

"There will always need to be writers."

No matter the medium, right? Well, for the first time, I'm questioning whether that sentiment will still ring true as much as it used to even a few years ago. Or maybe it's that the value will continue to decrease. Nothing can stop someone from putting a pen to paper, words on a word document, or maybe in the future, stories written out in some kind of microchip form sent directly to our brains. But will people read it?

There's a lot of thing at play here, but some recent events got me thinking about writing and where it ranks in today's instant-gratification, digital, visual world. Let's put the print journalism sector on hold for a minute for the purposes of this blog post - the changes and setbacks within that domain have been obvious in past years as things shifted online.

ESPN hits the industry hard 
In April, sports media giant ESPN laid off 100 employees, including a lot of writers for the company's website. Jayson Stark covered baseball for 17 years with ESPN and was let go. Columnist Johnette Howard and a bunch of NHL columnists - in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs - were also let go. SportsCenter anchor Sara Walsh was set to return from maternity leave when she found out she was laid off.

It even hit the motorsports world, which is obviously something close to my heart. Dr. Jerry Punch, a reporter for 30 years with the network who covered plenty of IndyCar races and Indianapolis 500s in his time, was let go. So was Allen Bestwick, the most recent guy who called IndyCar races for ESPN/ABC. Both Punch and Bestwick finished out their time with this year's Indy 500 and dual IndyCar races at Detroit.

I remember reading the reactions on Twitter the day of the ESPN layoffs, from those let go and from media consumers. It's a tough part of the business that so many journalists (raises my own hand) have experienced.

Last week, I caught something on Twitter that I had to read over again to make sure I understood. is a website filled with video clips now. It looked a little odd when I initially scrolled through the page. So, more writers with a platform taken away in favor of a stronger focus on visuals.

Now, I'm not going to preach against videos. Compelling stories can be told through video images just as well as writing. I also know the value of social media and how much better engagement is with a post or Tweet that contains a GIF, video or photo rather than just text. GIFs are one of my favorite additions to the Twittersphere, in fact.

I'm also not here to crunch numbers about these layoffs and website shifts I mentioned. I'm not a business owner or manager for those entities who's starting at a bottom line within an always-changing market.

But what's happened here is significant enough for me as a journalist to take notice and write about it to share my thoughts. I am a writer in the sports side of things, after all. So, how are sports writers valued these days? Before, it was the writing for free or very little pay that was a concern of mine. But taking away the writing platform altogether seems to be going another step down the path.

Videos may be engaging and quick to view, but they certainly can't take the place of a good, well-written story. It's not about a debate between video or writing being better than the other. I still think there's room for both, especially for writers like me who thrive on the written word much better than verbalization. And Ken Rosenthal writing his thoughts in the form of Facebook posts is not the same thing as a story for a media outlet.

This whole topic is worth a conversation in the evolution of the world of journalism. It's likely a blip on the radar as the industry keeps adjusting to provide content and still make money. I hope so. Because I'd hate to think of a time when we don't need writers anymore.

A couple things for the road...
Writers always appreciate readers. So if there's a story you like or a writer you enjoy reading, then subscribe, share, comment, retweet and like. Good stories deserve to be told and shared.

My colleague Brandon Warne came up with an idea for writers to share some work they're particularly proud of over the past year. It's called Read It All day on Aug. 1. Check out the details below. I'd encourage writers to share their work.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Dixon pushes past Penske for Road America victory

Scott Dixon coming out of turn five during Friday practice.
The term "upset" is used quite a bit in sports. Usually though, it's not used much in IndyCar racing. I think the Kohler Grand Prix on Sunday at Road America could qualify as an upset. Scott Dixon won the 55-lap race with a turn-one pass on a restart to take the lead for good and add another track to his winning career.

Dixon, the IndyCar Series points leader (now up 34 points) who walked away from a scary-looking crash in the Indy 500, came into the weekend having never led a lap at the sprawling four-mile road course in rural Elkhart Lake, Wis. Perhaps it's not too surprising when you consider that IndyCar stupidly left Road America off its schedule for a few years, returning just last season. I've never heard a race track praised more by drivers than Road America, except maybe the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Everybody loves it.

The victory was also Dixon's first this season and No. 41 in his career. He's now won an IndyCar race in each of the past 13th seasons, extending his series record.

So why was it an upset? Well, the weekend was dominated by the four Team Penske cars (a good showing for their boss, Roger, who was not at the track for the weekend). In qualifying, it was Team Penske in the Fast Six, along with Dixon and Detroit-doubleheader winner Graham Rahal. Penske had been quick all weekend in their Chevrolet engines, and it just seemed like they'd dominate. They started 1-2-3-4 with Helio Castroneves, 42, earning his 50th pole.

Penske with the strong start 
It was unseasonably chilly, cloudy and windy on race day. Castroneves led the field to the green flag, with everyone sailing through turn one in one piece. That's always a victory in itself, to get through the first corner and then first lap without a yellow flag flying.

Castroneves led 24 laps before Josef Newgarden took the lead from his teammate. Then there was the first caution of the day. As Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato spun on the back part of the course, the field bunched up with Newgarden leading Dixon. The difference here might have been the tire strategy. Newgarden was on the primary black Firestones, while Dixon with his Honda-powered car had the softer alternates/reds. Wasting no time, Dixon took the lead from Newgarden with a pass in turn one on lap 31 of 55.

From there, Dixon widened his gap considerably the next few laps. A longer caution came out near the end of the race, but Dixon held on using his push-to-pass seconds wisely to hold off Newgarden. Castroneves rounded out the podium, followed by the rest of Team Penske with Simon Pagenaud and last year's winner, Will Power. Dixon's teammate Charlie Kimball, Ed Jones (making a very strong case for Rookie of the Year), Rahal, Max Chilton and Mikhail Aleshin rounded out the top 10.

The race that almost wasn't
Dixon won a race that his team wasn't sure he'd be able to run after Sunday's morning warm-up. He only ran one lap and dealt with fuel pressure issues. Whatever was wrong with the car, his Chip Ganassi Racing Team obviously got it all fixed up by the start of the race.

Then he went out and dominated in the last 24 laps, leaving Penske behind. That's where the upset comes in.

Still, Dixon is no stranger to victory. He races with one of the elite teams in the series, is a 2008 Indy 500 champion, former series champion and has 40 other race victories. He's also the eighth driver to win in 10 races this season, showing what a competitive field IndyCar boasts.

It's pretty cool to think about the past month or so for Dixon. From winning the pole for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500, to getting robbed later that same night in Indy, hitting the inside wall and destroying his car during the race, then winning everybody's favorite road course.

There's a reason he's nicknamed the Ice Man.

On race day, watching from inside turn 14.

Other Road America tidbits:
-Visa problems for Aleshin. Russian driver for Schmidt-Peterson, Aleshin, had visa problems trying to get back into the United States after his stint in France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. So, teammate James Hinchcliffe's buddy Robert Wickens filled in on Friday, driving the No. 7 car in two practice sessions. Aleshin arrived in time for Saturday morning practice, qualifying and a top-10 finish Sunday.

-Driver sightings. It's always fun to roam the paddock and see drivers and team owners, plus take a look at crews working on the cars. Here's who we saw this year: Will Power, Jame Hinchcliffe boarding his scooter, Conor Daly sitting in the team hospitality area, Helio Castroneves probably right before or after he helped a couple with their marriage proposal, retired driver/broadcaster Paul Tracy driving a golf cart toward the paddock, team owner Dale Coyne (Dad wished him "good luck," which he needed after his team's expensive crashes lately), Ryan Hunter-Reay (twice), Charlie Kimball dining at the Paddock Club in Elkhart Lake Friday evening, Takuma Sato, retired driver/team owner Bryan Herta, former IndyCar driver Max Papis and Carlos Munoz.

Tony Kanaan's 1998 rookie card
-Tony Kanaan's weekend. It's the 20th IndyCar season for Tony Kanaan, one of the series veterans along with Castroneves. Saturday, we saw him in the paddock, and he came over to sign one of my dad's photogrpahs he took of Kanaan on track. I pulled out the 1998 racing card for Kanaan, since I save all that time-capsule stuff. He signed it as well saying, "That's an old one!" Kanaan didn't have a great weekend, failing to get into the second group of qualifying, then connecting with Alexander Rossi and hitting the wall around the Kink.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Photo blog: Road America 2017

It's funny how many photos you take in the digital age. It used to be so easy to cruise through a roll of film taking photos of IndyCars at Road America. Now, you just fill up memory cards and internal phone storage.

It was a great weekend at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. for the Kohler Grand Prix festivities. We spent three days at the track, watching practice and qualifying sessions from different vantage points. So, I compiled a few of the better photos below (no cropping or editing to these). 

Cars on the track facing/driving toward the right are coming out of turn 12/Canada Corner. Cars facing left are headed up the hill after coming out of turn five. There are a couple bonus photos of the paddock as well. Thanks for viewing some of my photos! 

Mikhail Aleshin

Josef Newgarden

James Hinchcliffe

Scott Dixon

Tony Kanaan

Graham Rahal

Carlos Munoz

Alexander Rossi

Max Chilton (No. 8 car) slows out of turn five and lets his teammate Scott Dixon pass.

Simon Pagenaud

Team Penske paddock

Will Power

James Hinchcliffe

Tony Kanaan

Selfie: Road America start/finish line and flagstand.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Back again at Road America

Graham Rahal coming out of Canada Corner in 2016. 
Summers in Minnesota are known for cabin time. Folks pack up the family truckster for the weekend, sit in traffic with everybody else heading north to "get away from it all." Then, it's a weekend of lake frolicking, campfires and small-town living.

Or so I assume.

We've never been a cabin (or camping, for that matter) family. For us, the summer tradition was the annual trek to Road America, the four-mile race track in the small town of Elkhart Lake, Wis. My first trip there was when I was just a youngster in 1990. We only missed a couple years of IndyCar, Trans Am and other racing support series for the next couple decades.

It doesn't sound that exciting or glamorous when someone (particularly non-race fans) asks where you're headed on your extended-weekend vacation. "Elkhart Lake, Road America." Blank stare. "It's near Sheboygan... we're staying in Manitowoc." It doesn't sound like much, but it's a great time and totally worth it.

Here's where I insert my repetitive preaching line where I tell you that IndyCars need to be experienced in person. Television does not do the sights or the sounds justice.

Road America is a 14-turn, four-mile road course with various elevation changes, straightaways and passing areas. It's been a racing tradition since 1955 and attracts race fans from around the Midwest and beyond. Fans can view the racing action from various points around the course. There's no assigned seating like at many oval tracks. Fans can drive around the area on pathways around the course, surrounded by acres of grass. Bleachers and benches are scattered around at various vantage points, including turn one, the start/finish line, turn 12 (known as Canada Corner) and the carousel. You can even camp out in the designated camping area for the weekend.

It's also a great place to see drivers up close in the paddock. There's been some years when we've spotted nearly the entire field of drivers during our roaming around through the pit area. It's also a chance to see the mechanics work on the cars.

After the IndyCar split in the mid-90s, Road America was a destination for the CART and Champ Car series. Once they merged together with the Indy Racing League as IndyCar again in 2008, Road America was dropped from the schedule until last year. It was a big mistake in the eyes of loyal fans and plenty of drivers who name Road America as their favorite race track. Of course, I realize things like money and sponsorship are involved in these decisions.

Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2016 at Road America.

IndyCar returned last year to booming crowds of deprived fans. It was a picture-perfect weekend for weather - sun, not too humid, not a drop of rain. Penske driver Will Power won the race from the pole, leading all but four laps. It was a lot of green flag racing, which is always nice.

I'm back again this year for the Kohler Grand Prix, to see a beautiful track that's brought so many great memories. Like 20 years ago when the soggy weekend caught us off guard. We bought Andretti team ponchos. Ever since, we always pack ponchos, umbrellas and extra tennis shoes in case things get muddy. Always be prepared, race fans.

I'm excited to hear the cars again, to make my best attempts at taking photos with my point-and-shoot camera and enjoy the time with my mom and dad.

It's also nice to use the hashtag #RoadtoRA instead of #BringBackRA.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Safety improvements make a difference in IndyCar

Twenty-one years ago, IndyCar driver Scott Brayton crashed into the wall at turn two at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a practice session for the Indy 500. His crash was a fatal one.

Two years ago, driver James Hinchcliffe crashed into the wall at Indy after a piece of suspension broke on his car. He nearly bled to death but survived and came back to win the pole position for the 100th running of the Indy 500 last year.

On pole day of this year's qualifying, Sebastien Bourdais appeared to get loose heading out of a turn and crashed into the outside wall during qualifying with speeds in the 220 mph range. His crash was reminiscent of Hinchcliffe right away, which was why seeing his hand go up to open his helmet visor as he car slowed was a good sign.

Bourdais also survived the heavy hit, sustaining multiple fractures to his pelvis and right thigh. He underwent successful surgery last Saturday night.

So, what's changed since Brayton's fatal crash a couple decades ago? The most important thing: SAFER Barriers. From what I know as a follower of the sport, I would say the SAFER Barrier saved Bourdais' life this weekend. More on that later.

Obviously, the main concern here is safety, so it's a big relief that Bourdais is alright. He was already up and around on crutches at the speedway. Crashes like that are tough to see for anyone who watches the sport. It's not something you really get used to at all.

Shifting to Bourdais' race season though, it's a shame he wasn't able to race in the 500. He's come back with a full-time ride with the Dale Coyne Racing team this year and got off to a great start. He came from the last position in St. Petersburg to win the first race of the season.

Bourdais is a back-to-back-to-back-to-back Champ Car champion (2004-07) before IndyCar merged back together a few years ago. He raced for the Newman-Haas team and simply dominated.

The risk of injury and death are part of the gig for race car drivers. From what I've observed and heard, it's something drivers realize and know they take the risk each time they step into the car. But, they also have to keep those emotions at bay once they hit the track. They're in the car because it's what they love to do.

Dixon has a scary moment of his own 
That brings me to the major crash during the Indy 500 this year. Jay Howard, participating in an IndyCar race for the first time since 2011, got high on the track and collided with the wall. As his car slid down the track (after he hit the SAFER Barrier which again did its job), a passing Scott Dixon had nowhere to go. The cars touched, sending Dixon high into the air before his car came back to earth with the inside wall and debris fencing.

Dixon hopped out of the car and walked away. He later returned to the track medical center and left in a walking boot for an ankle injury. That's it. Even his interview for the ABC broadcast was calm, cool and collected, which is typical for the guy known as "Iceman." He called it a "wild ride."

The crash looked awful. Casual viewers and veteran race fans were relieved to see Dixon walk away from the crash. For those that don't regularly watch the sport, I think they were also amazed to see it wasn't a fatal incident.

Safety shines again
It's a tribute to the safety of these cars in 2017. A few decades ago, we could be talking about a fatal crash. There's no doubt Dixon got lucky, too. The way a driver impacts can make all the difference in the world. If his helmet slams against that guardrail, I think this is a very different outcome.

The race was red-flagged to clean up the debris - Dixon's back half of the car was destroyed - and repair some of the fence. All the clutter on the track is actually a good thing, in a way. It means the car did its job to project the driver in the tub - or the Dallara chassis safety cell. The car is supposed to come apart like that when it makes the impact.

Dixon's car hit the inside-wall SAFER barrier. SAFER stands for Steel And Foam Energy Reduction. The foam barrier mounted to a steel skeleton combines to absorb energy from crashes, helping to reduce the forces transferred to the driver and the rest of the car. The SAFER Barrier first appeared 15 years ago at the Indy speedway before being installed at other oval tracks.

Anyway, I wanted to share my perspective as someone who's watched auto racing for a long time and seen plenty of crashes. Watching some of the old Indy 500s on ESPN Classic last week, it really is extraordinary to see how far open-wheel racing has come in terms of safety improvements.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Indy 500: The field of 33 in 2017

It's the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. For those die-hard race fans out there, it's the most exciting day of the year. Last year's sold-out spectacle delivered a beautiful day and a win for an American rookie, Alexander Rossi.

As I started putting the list together of the starting grid this year, I realized just how much I'd like to write about everyone. Each driver has his or her own story, and everyone wants to win the 500. There are seven former winners in the field and five rookies. Some have had plenty of heartbreak at Indy (Marco Andretti, JR Hildebrand, Takuma Sato, to name a few).

The lone woman in this year's field is Pippa Mann, starting 40 years after Janet Guthrie became the first woman to ever run in the Indy 500. It's also 25 years since Lyn St. James won Rookie of the Year honors at Indy in the famous 1992 race.

Here's the starting grid. I went a little in depth with the first three rows, since past winners have more often than not started near the front. A winner hasn't come from the front row in a few years now, but historically being up front at the start is helpful. Forty-two winners started in row one, 18 in row two and then just eight in row three.

Happy Indy 500!

Row 1 

Scott Dixon - No. 9 
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 winner: 2008

Dixon, known as the "Ice Man" for his cool, calm and collected nature, is the polesitter with the fastest average speed during qualifying in 21 years at 232.164. He's a former Indycar Series champion and really should have multiple Indy 500 wins under his belt already. Team Ganassi should never be counted out. I wouldn't be surprised to see Dixon lead a good chunk of the race and go on to the victory. He won from the pole in 2008; the last Indy 500 winner to win from the pole was Helio Castroneves in 2009.

Ed Carpenter - No. 20 
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevy
Past Indy 500 poles: 2013 and 2014

The local boy from Indiana, Carpenter is a team owner and only drives on ovals. He's always started well at Indy, with this year as no exception. Carpenter is still looking for his first Indy 500 win.

Alexander Rossi - No. 98
Team: Andretti Herta Autosport
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 winner: 2016

Rossi cemented his name into history last year by winning the biggest race in years. A fuel gamble paid off and he finished the yard of bricks first, taking the checkered for the 100th running of the historic race. Rossi finds himself on the front row looking to be the first repeat Indy winner since Castroneves in 2001-02.

Row 2

Takuma Sato - No. 26
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda

Sato is with Andretti Autosport for the first time this year. His most notable memory from the Indy 500 is battling with Dario Franchitti for the lead going into turn one of the last lap in 2012. They touched and Sato went into the wall while Franchitti won his third 500. Sato's only IndyCar victory was in 2013 at Long Beach, a street course.

Fernando Alonso (rookie) - No. 29
Team: McLaren-Honda-Andretti
Engine: Honda

Alonso is running his first Indianapolis 500, so he's technically a rookie. But he's no stranger to racing. He's a former Formula 1 champion with plenty of race wins under his belt in open-wheel. He's made the biggest headline splash for this 500, giving up driving in F1's Monaco Grand Prix in order to run Indy. Many eyes will be on him to see how he runs the race. He's also a favorite, especially with his qualifying effort.

JR Hildebrand - No. 21
Team: Ed Carpenter Racing
Engine: Chevy
Best Indy 500 finish: Second, in 2011

His history at Indy is probably a memory he'd like to forget. Sure, his best finish was second, but that doesn't tell the whole story. He led coming out of turn four on the final lap of the 2011 race. He decided to go around a lapped car, however, got too high on the track and hit the wall. The victory went to Dan Wheldon, in what was his last victory ever as he was killed later that season in a crash in Las Vegas oval.

Row 3

Tony Kanaan - No. 10
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Engine: Honda
Past Indy 500 winner: 2013
Past Indy 500 polesitter: 2005

Kanaan is definitely one of the veterans on the IndyCar circuit. After a lot of years of tough finishes and heartbreak, Kanaan finally broke through to drink the milk four years ago. It was an emotional victory for him, from what I remember. He's long been a fan favorite, and that hasn't changed this year.

Marco Andretti - No. 27
Team: Andretti Autosport
Engine: Honda
Best Indy 500 finish: Second, 2006

This may be one of Marco's best shots at winning the race that has given his family such bad luck over the years. He's trying to buck the Andretti Curse and get just the second victory as a driver with the last name Andretti. His grandfather Mario won the race in 1969. His father - now team owner - Michael led lap after lap at Indy over the years but found some of the worst luck and never won as a driver. Marco made it into the Fast Nine in qualifying and has shown good speed all month. He's had his fair share of good finishes over the years, including five top-fives, but he'd like to erase the runner-up finish in his rookie season when he was passed at the line by Sam Hornish Jr.

Will Power - No. 12
Team: Penske
Engine: Chevy
2014 IndyCar Series champion

Power isn't known for his success on ovals. He has 30 IndyCar victories to his name, passing one of the greatest to ever drive for Roger Penske: Rick Mears. The glaring difference between Power and Mears is that Mears is part of the four-timers club for Indy 500 winners. Power is seeking his first Indy 500 win. Perennial-power (no pun intended) Team Penske didn't qualify well, leaving Power the only driver of five to make the Fast Nine. He might have the best shot, though you can never count Penske cars out at Indy.

Row 4

No. 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014 Indy 500 winner)
No. 19 Ed Jones (rookie)
No. 16 Oriol Servia

Row 5

No. 7 Mikhail Aleshin
No. 15 Graham Rahal
No. 8 Max Chilton

Row 6

No. 83 Charlie Kimball
No. 5 James Hinchcliffe (2016 polesitter after a near-fatal 2015 Indy crash in practice)
No. 22 Juan Pablo Montoya (2000 and 2015 Indy 500 winner)

Row 7

No. 3 Helio Castroneves (2001, 2002, 2009 Indy 500 winner.)
No. 77 Jay Howard
No. 24 Sage Karam

Row 8

No. 2 Josef Newgarden
No. 1 Simon Pagenaud
No. 14 Carlos Munoz

Row 9

No. 88 Gabby Chaves
No. 4 Conor Daly
No. 50 Jack Harvey (rookie)

Row 10

No. 63 Pippa Mann
No. 11 Spencer Pigot
No. 44 Buddy Lazier (1996 Indy 500 winner)

Row 11

No. 17 Sebastian Saavedra
No. 40 Zach Veach (rookie)
No. 18 James Davison (replacing the injured Sebastien Bourdais)

2017 would be a good time to see the Andretti Curse cease

Marco Andretti practicing for the Indy Grand Prix in 2014.
I'm going on the record right now: This is the year the Andretti Curse is broken at the Indianapolis 500.

Yes, I'm talking about third-generation driver Marco Andretti winning the biggest IndyCar race in the world. It would break a curse that's existed since his grandfather Mario won his only 500 back in 1969. Marco's dad, Michael Andretti, never won as a driver, though he's been to victory lane as a team owner as recently as last year for the 100th running of the race with driver Alexander Rossi.

Marco's rookie season was back in 2006 as a 19-year-old. He nearly won the 500 on his first try. He and his dad both led during the race. Marco had the race in his grasp through the last lap and even out of turn four. But Sam Hornish Jr. was close enough to make a move, getting around him just before the yard of bricks for the victory. It was one of the closest 500s in history at a 0.0635 margin.

"Second's nothing," Marco said on the broadcast after the race.

Marco's bad luck continues the curse 
With that, it appeared the Andretti Curse was still alive and well for another generation. Marco did well in 2007 for a while, but the race was disrupted by rain and he eventually crashed out.

The luck continued in 2009 when he and Mario Moraes collected each other in the first green-flag turn of the race. There's a common saying in racing that you can't win the race in the first turn, but you sure can lose it.

Marco definitely hasn't had the same run of winning success that both his father and grandfather had in open-wheel racing. Whether it's a difference in ability or just the different environment of racing these days (perhaps with the dominance of Team Penske and Team Ganassi) I'm not really sure. Marco also races for his dad's team, and I'm sure he feels the pressure of the Andretti name.

Indy experience without the trip to victory lane 
This year will be Marco's 12th Indy 500. He has seven top-10 finishes and five in the top-five. He best finish was the runner-up his rookie season in 2006. Of course, drivers will tell you that unless you win at Indy, it really doesn't matter where you finish.

Overall, Marco has just two IndyCar wins to his name: 2006 Sonoma and 2011 Iowa. Like most drivers, the race they most want to win is the Indy 500. It's like a talented player in any other sport getting all kinds of successful recognition but never winning a championship. I'm sure Marco would love to celebrate a win at Indy with his team, father and grandpa.

Michael's side of the curse 
Mario and Michael raced many years together (other branches of the family tree dabbled in the Ind 500, too), and it's a shame there's only one Indy win between them. Michael led the most laps at Indy without ever getting a victory. They had their fair share of crashes, bad luck and mechanical problems. The famous 1992 race - 25 years ago now - seemed to be Michael's. He had a strong day, but his car betrayed him with 11 laps to go.

Michael retired and became a team owner. He's won four Indy 500s as an owner, the first in 2005 with the late Dan Wheldon. I caught that broadcast this week on ESPN Classic, as they traditionally run classic 500s in he week leading up to the big race.

Brent Musburger said on the broadcast that the Andretti Curse was broken with that win. I'm not sure if that's the general consensus. The fact that no one named Andretti has won as a driver since 1969 is what's really striking and means the curse is still around. Don't forget, Michael came out of retirement to compete in the 500 again, in 2006 and 2007.

Some of the best drivers of Mario's era have multiple 500 wins, something everyone thought Mario would have, too. AJ Foyt, 82, Al Unser, 77, and Rick Mears, 65, all have four wins apiece. Al's brother Bobby had three wins.

If there's a year for it, might as well be now 
So, why am I all-in on Marco? Fair question, since he hasn't dominated as a driver. But in 2017, why not? Think about the other champions that have been crowned within the last year. The Chicago Cubs put together a remarkable season, got to the World Series for the first time since 1945, then came back from being down three games to one to win it for the first tie in 108 years. Breaking the ultimate sports curse.

The New England Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit to win the Super Bowl this year. They didn't bust a curse or anything, but still.

I'm generally not big on predictions. Although, whenever we're at a race, Dad always asks who we pick to win. Anything can happen over the course of a 500-mile race on Memorial Day weekend. Nobody knows that better than the Andrettis. (Go back and watch the final laps of the 2006 race and pay attention to Mario on pit lane if you don't believe me.)

A bad pit stop, penalty, crash or just bad luck can doom a race. Even a bad starting position doesn't bode well - historically winners have started from the first two rows - 60 times out of 100 races.

It'd be great to keep the string of great storylines going in sports with a Marco Andretti win in the Indy 500, shattering the family curse at the storied speedway.

Friday, April 28, 2017

IndyCar makes strides in the right direction

2009 Indianapolis 500
IndyCar won't recover from The Split.

I've said it over and over in talking about the state of the sport. It's not some hot take but likely a pretty common opinion, I would guess. The Split refers to when the powers that be (aka, Tony George) decided to split the world of open-wheel racing into two branches: The Indy Racing League (IRL) and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams). It happened at a time when NASCAR sped off in popularity, plus other forms of entertainment started to appear. The internet started up, too.

Fans took sides and the sport floundered from its popularity in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. IndyCar merged back together in 2008.

While I still think it's true the sport won't fully recover from that move in the 90s to split, IndyCar is rejuvenated the past couple years. The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 no doubt brought some needed excitement and publicity to the sport.

I'm not sure what it is. Racing fans are a lot like hockey fans in some ways. They know their sport and they're passionate about it. There's just not much middle ground. Either you're a rabid racing fan, or you're on the outside thinking all it's about is cars turning left with drivers who aren't athletes behind the wheel. Casual race observers aren't as prominent, which is fine.

Building off the 500 
This season, the Indianapolis 500, wanting to make a splash to build off last year's 100th momentum, announced the Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso will compete. He'll drive for his team Maclaren and the Andretti team. Folks in the racing world know that this move is a big one. Alonso is giving up driving in one of F1's premiere events, the Monaco Grand Prix, in order to run Indy. (F1 is another can of worms.)

If there is one race people might pay attention to all year, it would be the Indy 500. Anything to help boost the support for that race is a good thing.

The growth of the sport is the competition itself. As recently as a couple years ago, it was standard to expect race winners to come out of two teams: Team Penske and Team Ganassi. These perennial championship teams are multi-car teams always starting up front and winning races. Team owner Roger Penske has 16 Indy 500 runs as a car owner. Ganassi has been to the Indy winner's circle just four times but is always a contender for series championships and race wins.

More variety in the winner's circle
But other drivers from other teams have emerged to win races, providing a little variety. American driver Josef Newgarden got a deal with Penske in the offseason because of his success. Newgarden got the first Penske win under his belt with a victory on the road circuit in Alabama last weekend. Even the Andretti team has won a couple of Indy 500s, which is a huge deal in the karma circles.

Then take the excitement the 2017 season has already given us. It started in St. Petersburg for the street circuit (that I still have to get to soon). Sebastien Bourdais came all the way from the back of the field to win the race. He crashed in qualifying, failing to register a time for his 21st starting position.

In Long Beach, James Hinchcliffe added another chapter to his comeback story as he won the race. He nearly died during a crash in practice for the 2015 Indy 500. He came back to win the pole for last year's 500 before getting his first win since the accident now in Long Beach.

Bourdais drives for Dale Coyne Racing. Hincliffe is with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports. Those aren't the powerhouse teams. Bourdais was a ChampCar (formerly CART) driver in the 2000s during the split years and was a four-time series champion. Like many drivers, he's fought to find a full-time ride in IndyCar. He followed up St. Pete with a runner-up finish in Long Beach.

Hinchcliffe's story writes itself. He almost bled to death at the brickyard. He recovered and came back for more. He's still looking for a win at the Indy 500. Both Bourdais and Hinchcliffe have Honda engines, which means two victories in the Honda-versus-Chevrolet battle in IndyCar.

A growing fan base?
The competition is exciting. Instead of just a couple teams competing for wins at each event, the field is much more wide open. Another sign things are going well for the sport? Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and Dallara all signed multi-year contract extensions.

One of the challenges IndyCar faces is a generation gap in fans. Sure, the Baby Boomers got to enjoy racing at its peak moments and many have stuck around. But what about younger fans? Are kids tuning in to watch racing? If their family members aren't, then probably not. They might opt for the X Games or Crashed Ice instead. (Not my cup of joe.)

The hope is that the more momentum from the Indy 500 last year and this year, the more interest it will create within a newer fan base. It's still a tough task. Just remember that IndyCar racing is more than simply driving. And it can't be said enough that television does not do those cars justice. Go see them in person if you get the chance.

It's hard to see IndyCar getting back to the popularity it once had a couple decades ago before The Split, but things have vastly improved, which is reason enough to have those rabid IndyCar fans smiling.

Friday, April 7, 2017

March was definitely madness

Time to catch my breath. I know that may sound a little weird now that the 162-game baseball grind just started this week. I guess that shows how busy I was for the past six weeks or so during tournament time, probably the busiest time of year in the sports world, especially if you keep up with prep sports.

As a result, I haven't blogged in a while. That doesn't mean I haven't been writing; I just haven't been writing on this platform. I covered girls' section hockey, a couple boys' and girls' section basketball games, all four days of the girls' state hockey tournament for the Star Tribune, all four days of the boys' state hockey tournament for Cold Omaha/Zone Coverage, followed the Gophers men's basketball team through the end of their season in the NCAA tournament for, watched Wild games and wrote weekly columns about the team for Cold Omaha, covered two full days of boys' state swimming for the Star Tribune and along the way wrote a few feature stories for various other outlets.

It was a very busy month of March, but it's great at the same time. There's nothing better than covering some of these state tournaments, especially boys' hockey. It's the best state tournament in the country. Still, it's also nice to be done and get a little break, too. Working 80+ hours in one week is kind of a lot.

I had two weeks in between tournaments and the Twins season, so I headed to Fort Myers for a few days in the sun (OK, so I worked a game, too.) Then last week, I still did some Spring Training game work from home. I really felt like I took it easy, almost that feeling of not knowing what to do with yourself when you get some down time. I still worked 40 hours, which felt like about 20. It's easy when so many "work" hours are spent watching sports and writing/Tweeting about them.

All the sports 
Anyway, for those that keep up with me on social media, I kept my networks updated with Tweets and story links for all the work I was doing. The boys' hockey tournament didn't offer any dud games this year, which can often happen with quarterfinal blowouts. It was a great tournament from start to finish with plenty of upsets right away, an overtime thriller in the Class 1A championship and just lots of good hockey.

Section final hockey is also fun. The atmospheres are often better than the state tournament, because playing to get there is such a big deal to these high school kids. Swimming isn't one of the most popular sports around, but thanks to my brother's time on his high school swim team, I have no problem getting excited about the meets. The Gophers went on a great winning streak this season before fizzling out at the end in the Big Ten Tournament, then losing in the first game of the NCAA Tournament as the No. 5 seed. I selfishly say it wasn't all bad because if they would have advanced, that meant I was going to have to watch and write about them on my vacation.

Nothing beats a break in The Fort
Fort Myers was great. We really hit the jackpot with the weather. Sure, the winter here wasn't dreadful, but it's hard to be temps in the 80s and sunny skies every day. I got to take in a Twins game from the stands, a rarity for me the past couple seasons. If you don't need to be close to the action, go for the drink rail seats in the outfield. That's the best way to watch the ball game.

The Twins lost that game to the Phillies after a bullpen meltdown. I returned at the end of the week to work a game in the press box doing social media. The result against the Orioles was a tie, something the Twins did four times this spring. Ties in spring training make complete sense, but it's still a little weird and anticlimactic to see the teams just walk off the field at the end of the 9th (sometimes 10th) inning without a winner.

Now that the calendar has turned to April, it's time for the 2017 Minnesota Twins season. It's really hard to believe another season is here already. This past offseason went by much quicker than the year before, mostly because I had a lot more sports reporting freelance work. That's definitely a good thing.

A new season, a fresh start for the Twins 
It's no secret last year left much to be desired for the Twins, a team that lost 103 games. The good news? That's a pretty tough task to repeat again, so there's nowhere to go but up from there. The Twins have new bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine in the front office looking to turn the ball club around.

There's already been some uneasiness from fans that the duo didn't do enough in the offseason. Brian Dozier is back with the Twins when many thought he'd be gone in a trade. The price must not have been right for him. With catcher Kurt Suzuki gone as a free agent (with the Atlanta Braves now), the Twins signed Jason Castro, known for his pitch framing and likely a better choice for throwing out runners trying to steal. Through three games, Castro is known for taking walks; he walked four times in one game the other day.

Patience has been the key for the Twins lineup so far, with 23 walks in the opening series. I mean, Eddie Rosario walked twice Thursday. That's a big deal. Patience will also be the theme for the Twins organization as Falvey and Levine work toward bringing the club back to its winning ways that fans grew accustomed to in the early 2000s.

As you know by now, the Twins started off with a three-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals at Target Field. It's the first time they've had such a good start since 2007. They also broke a streak of eight consecutive Opening Day losses. They've had clutch hitting, strong starting pitching and the bullpen is tossed 10 scoreless innings. The only hiccup so far through the small sample size is Byron Buxton at the plate with plenty of strikeouts. But perhaps he made up for it with his center field defense.

It was a pretty fun opening series; much better than the 0-9 start of 2016. After all the stories, sports and busy tournament-time schedules, I'm definitely ready to turn the page to baseball for the summer. Play ball!

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 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.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Gophers football players had a role, too

I've watched all this drama from the Gophers football team unfold the past few weeks from afar. I was out of town when the boycott stuff went down, but that's what my Twitter app is for, to keep me informed. Tuesday, athletic director Mark Coyle announced the firing of head coach Tracy Claeys.

And players were outraged at the administration. Like these guys had nothing to do with what transpired that cost the coach his job. 

You want to unleash some anger, players? Find a mirror. Sure, maybe Claeys didn't handle the situation well. Maybe the administration could have handled it (the scandal, suspensions, boycott, firing) differently, too. But the players played a part in this as well. They're not 100 percent victims.

Some football players were involved in the sexual encounter with a woman that took place Sept. 2. Ten players were suspended last month. Then the entire team decided to boycott football activites just ahead of the bowl game - an act that lasted not even two days and didn't seem to be thought through completely.

Since it was a report from the Office for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at the U of M, some have questioned a bias that might exist. I read the report and can understand that. Some have picked a part little details, like: How many players were actually involved in the sexual conduct? Were some players just "around," or did they all line up to have their way with the girl? I don't care if it was 5 guys, 10 guys, 20 guys, 8 guys, 12 guys. Whatever. The number that matters? One. As long as even one player was involved in this situation, that's too many. It's not right.

These matters are delicate, which is why so many don't go all the way to criminal charges (this case did not) or prosecution. But I think there has been too quick of a dismissal about thinking of the victim, the woman, in this case. 

Nitpicking about who should or shouldn't be suspended based on their involvement isn't for me to decide or judge, and to me, it's really not the heart of the issue either. 

Boycott was misguided
That's what's disappointing about this whole ordeal, too. The players decided to boycott football activites because their teammates got suspended. As wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky put it, they wanted to "make the program great again."

Later, in answering questions from reporters, Wolitarsky and the players near the microphones responded "no" when asked if they read the EOAA report. Then, Wolitarsky had this to say when asked if there was worry among players about losing their scholarships. "We're all in this together. What are they going to do, pull 120 guys off the team? They won't have a team if that's the case."

It struck me as a very cocky response that speaks to an attitude that is focused on football above everything else. I'm sure it's not realistic, but it would have been interesting if the administration would have called the bluff and started pulling scholarships.

The stand here was about the football team wanting their suspended teammates to get due process in this case. I understand the point they wanted to make, in that they were frustrated with the lack of information given to them with the administration citing privacy concerns.

I just don't agree that it's the real issue here. I get that there's unrest among players because some of the players suspended allegedly didn't have sexual contact with the woman and their names are now supposedly smeared. And maybe there's a point there. But what about the guys who did have sexual contact with her?

To me, the players not focusing on that part, or hardly at all, shows that it's not the main concern for them. In the various statements, Tweets and comments from players, it's come across as using 95 percent of their chosen statement to focus on the many other issues with what happened (suspensions, administration handling, boycott), then just 5 percent throwing in there that, oh, by the way, you don't condone sexual violence and it has no place on campus. It just doesn't seem entirely sincere.

Reactions to Claeys firing were emotional, still with finger-pointing
Players, with the boycott and reactions after Claeys was fired, gave the perception that they cared about their teammates not being able to play in a bowl game and pointed fingers at the administration. I'm not saying they don't have valid points there. But they're not blameless either.

I understand these guys like their coach and want him around, but it's not like there were zero off-field issues, he took the team to 9-4 with a bowl win and was suddenly fired for no apparent reason.

I don't believe Claeys was let go before of football performance, an opinion that I don't think is an unpopular one. Claeys took over the program after Jerry Kill and took his teams to a pair of bowl-game wins, plus the nine victories this year.

A big sticking point was a Tweet that Claeys sent out after the boycott. Many think he'd still have his job if he would have kept his fingers off the keyboard.

Coyle said in his released statement that Claeys' Tweet after the suspensions was "not helpful."

Coyle also addressed three things with one sentence: "I determined that the football program must move in a new direction to address challenges in recruiting, ticket sales and the culture of the program." To me, that last one is the most important. Find a leader to address the culture.

I'm not here to debate whether the firing was justified. However, I don't think his Tweet was a good choice, and I'm sure others share the opinion. Whatever his intentions were, it gave the appearance that he supported his players in the boycott mode. 

I don't agree with that. Either don't say anything at all, or come out and stand up against sexual violence. I can understand why he Tweeted what he did, but it doesn't mean I agree with it. The support for players should have been talking them out of the boycott.

This isn't about being 9-4, but player reactions didn't reflect that
Now, do I think Claeys or the football players are pro-rape/sexual violence? No. I'm still frustarted with some of the player responses though.

From freshman receiver Hunter Register via Twitter: "Win games, get fired. I'm not a math major, but something just seems odd about that equation."

Freshman defensive back Ray Buford via Twitter: "Wanna learn how to destroy a football program that's on the rise, follow the blueprint of this administration."

Cornerback Jalen Myrick via Twitter: "Fire the coach that stick with his players .. it's sad how this administration doesn't care about the players at all."

The more I think about everything that's happened, the more I realize it's just a big mess. 

This is an entitlement problem
There's this theme that keeps going through my head that isn't some new and radical idea, and I think it applies here: Why is there such an entitlement with certain (no, not all) athletes/football players? Why should they think they can essentially do whatever they want without consequences? The answer is apparanetly because they can play football and wins games. Period. 

As far as athletic ability, I'm not denying these guys have football skills. Their play on the field has nothing to do with the kind of men they are outside the stadium. Being an athlete, scholarship or not, at a university does not make you better than anybody else. Not better than the other students on campus who cheer you on at games. Not better than the students who participate in non-athletic activities. 

So stop acting like it. Stop acting so superior just because you play arguably the most popular sport in this country. Be responsible and accounatable for your actions. As much as college students get dubbed "kids," they are still adults. They have the ability to act like it. 

This kind of entitled, superior behavior isn't just a problem here. I imagine it's all over the country. We've all heard the stories floating around, right? Florida State's football program is a good example. Police were called to a domestic distrubance with a man beating a woman. The officers apparently did not do their due dilligence in the case, except to report it to their sergeant "due to the fact that it was an F.S.U. football player." The sergeant filed the complaint as "unfounded." 

The list goes on and on of how these players get special treatment when it comes to potential criminal cases against them. 

It's all ridiculous. All it does it throw a big batch of lighter fluid on the fire of entitlement for the football players. 

These cases, sticking with the Florida State example, have been reported though I don't think enough has been done to administer consequences. Maybe there's more incidents, too. I just watched the movie "Spotlight," the film that gives all newspaper journalists more fuel as a reminder to do what they love. It centered on cases where Catholic priests sexually assaulted children - and the archdioese covered it up. 

To me, this is the same kind of thing when you start looking at college athletes getting passes for their mistakes. Just because they can play football. That's not right.

There needs to be more accountability at the University of Minnesota right now. I'm not seeing it. Be leaders, be responsible, be respectful. Be adults.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A good run, despite the Wild losing the game of the century

Dad said he couldn't feel the electricity in the building with less than an hour before game time. He's really only felt it once before at a hockey game, when he went to see the North Stars play the Philadelphia Flyers with Philly in the middle of a 35-game unbeaten streak in the 1979-80 season.

Saturday's New Year's Eve game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild had to rank right up there though. At least it did for me.

These two teams faced off in the game of the century (maybe that's too dramatic, but I don't care), a battle of two teams that hadn't lost in weeks. The Blue Jackets came in riding a 14-game winning streak. The Wild had a 12-game winning streak, plus a 13-game points streak. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time two major teams (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) had met when each had a win streak of at least 12 games. The other cool storyline is that these two teams are forever linked together because they both joined the league in 2000 as expansion teams.

Quick sidebar here. It still would have been pretty cool to have the Wild on their franchise-record winning streak all by themselves in the spotlight. Although, history has sometimes shown that once the Wild are under the naitonal microscrope, they falter and stumble.

Much-anticipated game... recently
Anyway, this was going to be a great game. Looking at the schedule, the Wild usually play on New Year's Eve. Seeing Columbus as the opponent probably didn't grab a lot of excitement, even a few weeks ago. What a difference a couple of streaks make. The game was packed with 19,307 fans, and I heard tickets were going for as much as $600 on some markets.

Luckily, my mom went and got tickets for us on Thursday - before Columbus and Minnesota won their games to extend their streaks and setup the historic matchup. It was the first time we didn't get seats together as a family, but it really didn't matter. We were in the building.

Maybe it's corny, but I always love watching the, as I call them, "pump-up videos" before the game. This was counted to 12 and showed each opposing logo for the teams the Wild beat along the way. Then of course, there were plenty of highlights to show. I was tapping my fingers on my knee with anticipation. Call it pent-up energy since this was my season debut at the Xcel Energy Center.

Since it's a few days later, I'll spoil the ending for you: The Wild lost 4-2.

What went wrong for the Wild
I'll tell you the turning point for me in that game. It was early in the first period when Zach Parise partially fanned on a shot with a wide-open net staring him directly in the face. It should have been 1-0 Wild right there. Not a typical miss from Parise, but there it was. I knew it would come back to haunt the Wild, and it did.

Not long after that, Cam Atkinson scored his first of two goals in the game after a bad neutral zone turnover. It stunned and quieted the crowd. Heading into the intermission down 1-0 wasn't great, but not terrible either. It was the dreadful second period that was the killer.

A couple minutes in, Chris Stewart and Josh Anderson dropped the gloves before a faceoff for the typical five-for-fighting penalties. They went to the box, then Matt Dumba and Matt Calvert went at it. They were sent to the dressing rooms, however, since there's a rule that you can't start a fight right after another fight. This isn't old-school hockey anymore.

So, that left the Wild without a core defenseman for the rest of the game. That wasn't the worst part. A minute after the fights, the Blue Jackets took a 2-0 lead on Jack Johnson's goal. OK, so 2-0. But 15 seconds later, the game became out of reach with Atkinson's second goal to make it 3-0.

Too little, too late for the Wild
Mikael Granlund scored to make it 3-1, but the Wild couldn't get out of the period fast enough. It was 4-1 at the second break with a late-period goal from the Blue Jackets. Jason Zucker scored his ninth of the season just 24 seconds into the third with a fun-to-watch breakaway, which was exactly what his team needed. But they couldn't find a way to get another goal and took the 4-2 loss.

It was a frustrating game because there were so many little things, like passing, that the Wild needed to do better. They were back to not capitalizing on chances they had; I think Jared Spurgeon hit the outside of the post with a shot. Plus that sharp, crisp passing game just wasn't there.

Mom, Dad (in his Fighting Saints hoodie) and me.
Devan Dubnyk gave up four goals in each of the last two games, which is a little concerning, too. Not that I'm pointing a finger at him, for the type of season he's already had.

Perhaps even worse than the loss was seeing the dreaded Wave go around the lower bowl a couple times in the third period. Not surprisingly to those that know me or follow me on Twitter, I did not participate in this outdated act. Instead, I more appropriately put my head in my hands until it went by my section.

Obviously, somebody's streak had to end that night. It was too bad it was the Wild, while the Blue Jackets went to 15 games in a row with a win. But it's really been such a fun thing to watch. There's all this fear about the mid-season swoon, the after-Christmas hangover. Instead, the Wild just kept on winning. January still looms, and the history of swoons there isn't good, but for now, it's been a great ride for the Wild.

What a run.