Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking back at 2014

As 2014 ends, I figured it might be nice to scroll through my entries and remember some of the notable sports thoughts. I'll go chronologically here, and keep in mind this isn't a be-all, end-all list when it comes to the top sports stories of 2014. It's just a few highlights I chose to write about.

The Sochi Winter Olympics
It's hard to believe this was in 2014. It seems like the games were such a long time ago; it's all relative, I guess. It should come as no surprise that I enjoyed following hockey the most. Too bad the USA women's team choked away the gold medal to the Canadians - the only squad even remotely considered competition.

The men's team didn't top the 2010 epic matchup with Canada, which would have been hard to do. Instead, it failed to make the gold-medal game and then lost out on the bronze. Oh well. Back to focusing on the NHL.

Wild make a playoff run
Yes, I'm calling a first-round series victory and second-round loss a "run." That counts when the Minnesota Wild hasn't won a series since 2003. This time around, the Wild played an entertaining - if not nail-biting - seven-game series with the Colorado Avalanche. Nino Niederreiter became a hero when he scored the series-winning goal in overtime at the Pepsi Center.

Then it was on to Chicago. The Wild battled and played well against the team of superstars. It was a much more entertaining series than the previous year, where the Blackhawks bounced the Wild in five games.

Alas, the run ended abruptly at home in game six. It was overtime when the puck took an unfortunate bounce for the Wild, landed on Patrick Kane's tape and found its way to the back of the net. Series over. But it was so much fun to watch and good to have the state of hockey excited about Wild playoff hockey again.

Instant classic for Indy 500
American Ryan Hunter-Reay won the Indianapolis 500 in what I hope will go down as an instant classic. It was the second-closest finish in the race's history, with 0.0600 seconds separating the top two finishers. Hunter-Reay drove from 19th to the win, something that hadn't been done in 60 years.

AP gets himself in hot water
Like I wrote, I don't really write about the Minnesota Vikings. This was an exception, and many local media outlets pegged this lengthy saga as the sports story of the year. Star running back Adrian Peterson was indicted by a grand jury in September on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child for reportedly beating his 4-year-old son with a switch.

He didn't play much of the season with the Vikings as the case went on, followed by an NFL suspension and appeal process for Peterson. Most speculate that he won't play another down with the Vikings. It was an interesting off-the-field story that shed light on child abuse issues.

Twins change the leader
After four 90-plus loss seasons for the Minnesota Twins, it was time for a change. The club that has had exactly two managers since I've been alive fired Ron Gardenhire at the end of the season. Gardy had a good run of division championships in the past decade. Something needed to be done, whether it was solely Gardy's fault or not.

In his place, the Twins hired former player and St. Paul native Paul Molitor. He made it clear from his first news conference that he is here to win. It may be a tough task with the roster he has to work with, but I'm hoping he can bring a bit more toughness to the role.

Earlier in December it was announced that former Twin and most definitely fan-favorite Torii Hunter would return to the club. Everyone's worried about how much his defense has gone downhill for the soon-to-be-40-year-old. I say, it still has to be better than Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks.

We'll see what 2015 brings. Maybe a Stanley Cup, World Series trophy and another epic Indy 500. We can dream, right?

Monday, December 29, 2014

Tough calls and a bad bounce for the Wild in loss to Jets

Teams rolling in the win column get the lucky bounces. Struggling teams just can't catch a break.

That pretty much sums up my thoughts from Saturday's rival game in St. Paul between the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets, a game the Jets won 4-3 in overtime. Ultimately, the Jets won the game on a lucky bounce off the end glass above the goal. For those keeping track, it's the second time the Wild has lost an overtime game thanks to a crazy bounce. More on that goal later. 

Anyway, let's start from the top. I attended the game with my family, and it was really an entertaining contest. I checked my Twitter feed during warmups to see about the goalie situation. Instead, the first thing I saw was the forward Jason Zucker, a favorite of mine, was scratched from the lineup with the stomach bug. That bummed me out.

I mean, seriously. Let's just make sure the entire locker room has some kind of ailment this season, whether it's the mumps, flu or general hockey injuries. Maybe next year the Wild can add rubella to the list.

What else can they catch?
While we're on this topic, it's hit the goaltenders hard, too. Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper each caught the stomach bug and had to fill in for each other at late notice. Saturday, Backstrom was placed on IR since he was so sick, forcing the team to call up John Curry from the Iowa squad to back up Kuemper. 

Well, then Kuemper gets sick close to game time, so Curry ended up getting the start. Turns out it was food poisoning. Just crazy. I'll give a nod to Curry for playing a solid game in goal on such a late notice. 

Let's go Wild!
With the personnel changes out of the way, let's get to the game. The out-of-the-playoff-picture Wild are chasing the Jets in the standings, so the home-and-home series they had Saturday and Monday was huge.

It was a packed house, the largest crowd of the season at 19,177 in the Xcel Energy Center, with tons of Jets fans among the Wild faithful. It wasn't as loud and rambunctious as I thought it might get, but there were definitely some chants trying to drown out the other. 

Things started off a little slow, which you might chalk up to the Christmas break. Stu Bickel pulled a guy out of a goal-crease scrum to fight him. Ryan Carter went to the box for tripping. Then a weird thing happened when he exited the penalty box: He touched the puck and the referee instantly signaled another penalty. 

Head-scratching call
You see something new everyday. Yes, Carter left the box when his two minutes were up. At the same time, a Jets player was skating by the box with the puck. Carter came out, appeared to steal the puck away with his foot, gain control and started to head toward the offensive zone. Whistle for interference.

I didn't get it. Neither, it seemed, did the Wild players, coach Mike Yeo and thousands of angry Wild fans who rang boos throughout the arena. Maybe there's some obscure rule out there for this interference call or something. It just seemed like a turnover, not a penalty. 

Once the Wild got back to full strength, Mikael Granlund got back in the scoring column with a goal with about four minutes left in the first period. The turning point came in the second period, when Winnipeg tied it up.

Can't touch the goaltender
The Wild could have had a 2-1 lead at the second intermission, but a goal from Zach Parise was quickly disallowed on the ice because of goalie interference. Never mind that the Wild player "interfering" was pushed into the goalie. This rule has come up before, both in favor and against the Wild. It needs to be looked at by the NHL. I also don't understand how the play is not reviewable. 

So, instead of leading, the Wild played catch-up the rest of the night, getting down 2-1 and 3-2 before coming back to tie it at 3 apiece on a power-play goal from Thomas Vanek (though the credit goes to Jared Spurgeon for the point shot that Vanek tipped).

It was Andrew Ladd that got credit for the game-winning goal in overtime. It was all thanks to a shot that rang off the stanchion and hit Curry, who couldn't find the puck. It went in as he ducked down and into the goal. Not faulting him at all.

Stanchion 2, Wild 0. If you'll remember, it was a bad bounce that ended the Wild's season last year, against the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the playoffs.

A tough ending to a well-played game (I won't get into the short-handed goal the Wild gave up.) for the Wild, a team that desperately needs to right the ship if it has any hopes of making the postseason. But as so often happens in sports, struggling teams just don't get those breaks. Winning teams do.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wild stumble into the holidays with 4-game losing skid

The last time I took a look at the Wild here, at the end of November, I called out a few players and the abysmal power play. Improvement was needed.

Well, folks. It's gone from bad to worse as the Wild stumbled into the Christmas break on a four-game losing streak and still sit out of the playoff picture in 10th place in the Western Conference. Among the past four games, there's been two losses to division foes Chicago and Nashville and two overtime losses. Too often lately they've needed to rally and come back in the third period.

As Tuesday night's 5-2 loss to Philly's Flyers wrapped up, I was reminded of a quote from the movie "D2: Mighty Ducks:" "Well, you better get the damn magic."

Thanks to Dana Wessel for correctly identifying the movie's character.

But seriously, this is very appropriate for the Wild right now. Earlier in the year, it was just that the power play wasn't clicking. Now it's turned into a big mess, from goaltending to lacking an offensive spark.

Goalkeeper shuffle
Youngster Darcy Kuemper really stepped up at the end of last season when Backstrom was out injured. He even started this season well, too, with a lengthy shutout streak. That was when the team in general was functioning on all cylinders.

It's another story with Kuemps these days. The more he plays, the more goals get past him and the more it seems the mental part of the game might be getting to him. Never has the Minnesota Wild pulled its goaltender so much. Kuemps has played terribly at home recently; I think he's gotten the hook in three of his past five home starts or something.

What's been hard to see is the leads quickly evaporating for the Wild. Against Boston the other night, the Wild took 1-0 and 2-1 leads before heading to the locker room down 3-2. That's not good. You obviously can't give up leads like that. It's not to say the defense hasn't had some break downs - it has - but the goaltending needs to be better.

Backstrom is the veteran who can still play well, but he's also getting older, and I saw his game start to slip last season. I don't think he's the answer as the No. 1 goaltender going forward either. Like pitching in baseball, hockey teams require good goaltending. I just don't know how to get it; which players are you willing to give up?

Get mad, or something
There was some press within the past month about Mikko Koivu playing as "Angry Mikko," where he took an aggressive attitude to the ice and notched some points on the scoreboard. I suggest he play like "Angry Mikko" all the time.

Coach Mike Yeo also deviated from his usual coaching style and gave his players some anger and choice words during practice a couple weeks back. It hasn't seemed to do the trick, for whatever reason.

I'd like to see Charlie Coyle use his size more and be a presence in front of the net. If that means getting a little more physical once in awhile, fine.

Turn it up a notch
The team in general needs to remember how long the hockey games last. It's 60 minutes of regulation play broken up into three, 20-minute periods. It may sound trite, but the players must need a reminder because they've had slow starts in a few of their games. Or they decide to take a period off, like they did against Chicago in the second.

Find a spark, something, to get your team going. Score some goals and stop putting yourselves in a position where you always need a third-period rally to win. It's good to know you have the ability to come back; you just can't rely on that ability too much.

Wild players have a few days to celebrate the holidays and gather their playing toughness again before it hits the ice for a home-and-home series against division-rival Winnipeg, starting Saturday in St. Paul. Needless to say, these are two very important games.

The Wild are 10th in the conference at 16-13-3 with 35 points. There's still lots of season left. The Wild needs a turnaround sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Torii's back in Twins Territory

Minnesota Twins fans have something to smile about. The charismatic Torii Hunter is back, and he made a promise Wednesday.
"This is my last stop. I'm not playing with anybody else."
The ball club officially announced the 39-year-old outfielder's return to Minnesota with a news conference Wednesday afternoon. The news broke Tuesday evening that the beloved Hunter would be back in his old stomping grounds with a 1 year, $10.5 million deal.

Hunter started his career with the Twins and played with the club from 1997-2007. From there, he spent five years as an Angel in California and then two years with Central Division-rival Detroit. He wanted a World Series title (who doesn't?), but he decided to come back to where it all started and finish his extraordinary career with the Twins.

By the numbers
Let's take a look at what he's done in his career. Nine Gold Gloves, five All-Star appearances, two Silver Slugger Awards, a career .279 hitter, 331 home runs and 1,310 RBIs.  In 2014 with the Tigers, Hunter hit 17 homers and knocked in 83 RBIs, a stat that would have led the Twins.

At 39 years old, it's expected that a player isn't playing as well as he used to. It's already been talked about that Hunter doesn't have the same running, fence-hitting catches on defense that we remember in Minnesota either. If this were any other free agent, Twins fans would justifiably be grumbling about paying $10 mill for a washed-up veteran.

But this is Torii Hunter.
"I can play a little bit. I got some bullets left. ... I'm here to win." 
New Twins manager Paul Molitor also said he's here to win. While I don't think the wins will come that easily for this team, I'm glad Hunter is back in Minnesota. My first reaction when I heard the news was that it was obviously a sentimental deal rather than one with a "he'll help us win" mentality.

That's fine by me, and it appears fine by Twins fans. Talk to us in June if the Twins are struggling in the division basement again and maybe the opinions will be different. For now, having a good baseball guy who's always showing off his pearly whites around Target Field is a good thing.

What goes around comes around
It's been widely publicized that the late Twins legend Kirby Puckett took Hunter under his wing as he worked his way into the majors. Puckett was a lovable center fielder for the Twins, and then it was Hunter's turn to take over that role. I think Twins fans were hoping that streak would continue with Ben Revere or Aaron Hicks. Maybe we were spoiled.

The Twins had Denard Span and Revere for a time, but after they weren't with the team anymore, there's been a hole in center and in that leadership role. (I still don't understand why the Twins got rid of Revere after Span. It didn't make sense to me.) There was hope that young Hicks would take over, however he's struggled both defensively and at the plate.

Maybe the biggest thing I'd like to see from Hunter in 2015 is to show Hicks what he knows in order to make him a better player. So that Hicks can one day become the leader in the clubhouse. Assuming the Twins don't deal him away, of course.

He's Torii freaking Hunter
It's already been thrown out there that the experiments of bringing Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett back did not go well in terms of on-field performance or leading the clubhouse. I don't really think you can compare the two though. Hunter is different, because he just is. I know, pretty good reasoning, huh?

But seriously, Hunter is a beloved player in this state. Regardless of how he does on the field, I think his presence will be a big draw for fans at the start of the 2015 season. Even if things don't go according to this plan, at least Hunter will (likely) finish off his career in Minnesota. That's pretty special and something you don't see very often in professional sports.

The additions of Paul Molitor as manager and Hunter are two items that could be key in boosting the organization's status with fans. We're not expecting a playoff run or anything, but I'd just like to see some better baseball and a step in the right direction.
"This is where I needed to be. This is home for me."
Welcome back, Torii.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Some Wild players, power play need improvement

Time to call out some of the players who need to step up.

Charlie Coyle, with just two goals and nine assists. He's a guy that Lou Nanne called a budding superstar, I believe, but Coyle is not living up to that. He needs to use his size to drive the net, or position himself in front of the crease so he can be there to jam in rebounds or at least provide a screen for point shots.

Mikael Granlund, with three goals and seven assists. He's still a relatively young player, so I'm not as down on him as others. Still, he really showed what he can do with the puck during last year's playoffs. I want to see that again. He might be trying to get a little too cute with the puck sometimes.

Jason Pominville has 11 assists and is second on the team in points, but he only has four goals. Maybe he needs an eye exam. Don't get me wrong, I've been a Pommer fan. But lately it seems a good chunk of his shots miss the net completely. Wide, wide, wide. I'd like to see him get the accuracy back and hopefully that will lead to some more goals.

Mikko Koivu, the team captain only has three goals and six assists, putting him further down on the stats sheet. I expect more from the veteran leader who is also the all-time points leader for the franchise.

Finally, Thomas Vanek. He's had many critics this season, and I'm officially one of them. He's a veteran player the front office signed for his goal scoring ability. So far, he has just two goals, although he's tied for the team lead with 12 assists.

Many people are pointing to his assists as a positive and wondering what all the fuss is about. I'll say again that he was signed for his goal scoring ability, not to be a play maker who constantly passes the puck and racks up assists.

He had arguably his best game of the season Friday in Dallas, with a late game-tying goal and two assists, including one on Scandella's winner. For me, it was a small step on a long road in the right direction. He has a lot to prove to me on the ice. By all means Vanek, prove me wrong.

Niederreiter, Zucker and Parise warm up.
Where oh where has the power play gone? 
I don't think many would argue that the biggest problem for the Wild this season is the power play. Quite often, it's actually been a momentum killer for them, which is the opposite of what you want. Just how bad are they with the man advantage? Ranked 29th in the league at 7-for-73. That's less than 10 percent.

It didn't seem like that big a deal when the season started and it got off to such a slow start. I mean, the Wild were winning and scoring goals 5-on-5. Plus, we all thought the power play would pick up eventually. Different aspects of the game go through hot and cold streaks in a long 82-game season, after all.

But after a couple months, this is getting ridiculous. Something has to be done to change it up. The Wild needs to adopt a shoot-first mentality, drive the net and stop worrying about making 14 passes for a highlight-reel goal. Sure, this is true of their play all the time, as I always am quick to point out, but it's even more true on the power play.

Also, start changing up who's on the power play units. Mike Yeo, if your leaders aren't getting it done, shake things up. Maybe the only way to light a fire under them is to demote them briefly. Why not bring in Jason Zucker or Nino Niederreiter to the top power play line?

Keeping Zucker on the penalty kill is great, but he needs a shot to shine on offense, too. And after all, Niederreiter has four of the team's PP goals.

Low in the standings
The Wild once again are hovering around that playoff bubble. Too early to talk playoffs? Sure. But every point is valuable in a Western Conference, not to mention Central Division, that is extremely competitive. I also blame the scheduling so far for putting the Wild at a disadvantage. It seems they can't catch up in the games played column after an early six-day break. (Grasping at straws with that one? Probably. But the numbers don't lie.)

Of course, that will all even out, but right now it doesn't put the Wild in a great position in the standings. Plus with the exception of Saturday, the Wild haven't lost in the OT/shootout column either. Regulation losses don't get you any points.

The Wild have shown they can be a great team, no doubt about it. Pointing out some of these flaws might be a little over the top, but in my opinion they are very valid issues that need to be addressed if the Wild will continue to have success.

Wild sing the Blues in a well-played game

Refreshingly, I wasn't too disappointed with the 3-2 shootout loss the Minnesota Wild suffered Saturday at the hands of the St. Louis Blues. Of course, I would have been happier with a win, but it was a good game with some excitement. Can't ask for much more than that.

Both teams came into the game on the second night of a back-to-back, with the Wild grabbing an overtime win Friday in Dallas. The division-rival Blues also won that night in OT. Things looked pretty equal in the first period. It was scoreless, but there were some close chances. Let's give credit right now to Niklas Backstrom for some good saves in goal.

It could have been the even play from the two clubs, but I kept thinking "playoff hockey" as I watched the game. The fact that I watched the game live in the lower bowl with my brother may have something to do with that, since you get a faster, you-can-see-the-stickwork version of the game. I can't quite pinpoint it; the game just had a competitive nature that I liked.

The Minnesota during warm ups Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center.

Get the scoring started
So, the Blues struck first in the second period, taking a 1-0 lead after a poor clearing attempt from Wild defenseman Keith Ballard. It was disappointing, because at the time I thought this could be one of those 1-0 final scores.

Mikko Koivu netted a nice top-shelf goal to tie it up, however. As I Tweeted to Judd Zulgad from 1500 ESPN Radio, I guess Koivu heard him on the radio that morning. Zulgad pointed out that both Koivu and Charlie Coyle were on their way to going the month of November without a goal. The tally was only Captain Koivu's third goal this season.

As expected, the Blues weren't afraid to throw the bodies around. Late in the second, Kevin Shattenkirk got a major penalty and a game misconduct for checking Ryan Carter from behind, sending him head first into the boards.

Power play... big deal
On the resulting 5-minute major power play for the Wild, Zach Parise scored to put his team ahead 2-1 at the second intermission. Yes, that would be a power-play goal. I will continue to use sarcasm here and in my Tweets regarding power-play goals until the Wild figures out how to solve the usually-disastrous man advantage play.

The power play is still not clicking, at 7-for-73 and ranked 29th in the NHL about two months into the season. That's a problem. And while it was great the Wild took the lead with a goal on the major penalty Saturday, let's emphasize that the penalty was a 5-minute major. That means that unlike a minor, where the penalized player comes out of the box if the opposing team scores a goal, the team holding the advantage on a major penalty can score an unlimited amount of goals while the player stays in the box for five minutes.

I'll just let that rule hang there for you to ponder.

Stop mouthing off after calls
Anyway, I also wanted to mention that the Blues seemed to take exception to every call against them. I'll admit, there were a few of them. But each time, one of their players (sometimes two) was over jawing with the officials during the TV timeouts and play stoppages after calls were made.

I have no idea what went on or what was said, but it got a little annoying after the first couple times. It'd almost be worth it to see a new penalty in the NHL, some kind of bench minor like two many men on the ice, that the officials could call if teams are getting too lippy. I'm thinking along the lines of baseball when players or managers get thrown out for arguing.

Just a thought, which actually in this instance probably shows my bias as a Wild fan.

Back to the game...
The Wild continued to generate chances (stop me if you've heard that before) in the third period. However, the Blues took control in their offensive zone and put on the pressure. It was one of those situations where you could feel that it was just a matter of time before the tying goal made its way to the back of the net.

However, I didn't get the feeling that the Wild decided to just sit on their 2-1 lead, which was good because I thought they played like that in Dallas.

The tying goal came with about five minutes to go in regulation, off a turnover in the Wild end. Ryan Suter, who had a couple questionable playmaking decisions that night, decided to force a pass along his blue line instead of getting the puck out of the zone with Blues players driving.

Despite some dicey moments, that game didn't end in overtime either. I guess the Wild can't expect Marco Scandella to win it for them all the time. He scored the game winner the night before in Dallas and also had the OT goal against Winnipeg recently, saving the Wild from giving up 3-0 leads in both cases.

Quick sidebar: Scandella inked a five-year, $20 contract extension earlier Saturday. It would've been great to have him earn his money again against the Blues, but again, you can't expect him to do it all.

Same old guys in the shootout
The Wild went scoreless in the shootout, and Vladimir Tarasenko won it for St. Louis. It was the first overtime/shootout loss on the season for the Wild, in front of the season's largest crowd so far at the Xcel Energy Center: 19,124.

Here's what was frustrating about the shootout, other than the loss, obviously: The same old shooters for the Wild. Mike Yeo elected to go with three guys he deems his leaders, Koivu, Parise and Jason Pominville. Koivu shoots so much in the shootout that the goalie read his signature move perfectly. Pommer missed the five-hole. Parise didn't get much of a shot off.

The Wild haven't had many shootout opportunities yet this season, but it still would've been nice to go with guys on recent hot streaks. Who? Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter. They're the ones scoring the goals lately. Yeo wants leaders, and those guys are leaders on the stats sheet.

Niederreiter leads the team with 11 goals, four of those on the power play, and Zucker is tied for second (with Parise) with nine goals.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Crazy game against the Sabres snaps the Wild's losing streak

Cleaning up the hats after the hat trick.
The first period in last Thursday's game between the Minnesota Wild and Buffalo Sabres at the Xcel Energy Center certainly wasn't typical.

First of all, the score was 4-2 after 20 minutes. That's four goals for the Wild, a team that struggled to score goals on the recent road trip and rode a four-game losing streak back home to St. Paul.

Then there was the Wild's netminder, Darcy Kuemper. He quickly took the wind out of the sails by giving up a goal on the first shot of the game for the Sabres, just 63 seconds in. When he gave up a soft goal on the next shot, yes, that's two goals on two shots, he got the hook. Head Coach Mike Yeo didn't waste any time pulling the No. 1 goalie and throwing veteran Niklas Backstrom in the cage.

I never heard exactly, but I don't think there was an injury involved. It seemed that for whatever reason, Kuemps just didn't have his stuff together that night.

Goal, goal, goal
Anyway, the real key to the first period was three goals scored in a 17-second span after Buffalo had its 1-0 lead. Ryan Carter, a fourth-liner not necessarily known for his offense, drove the net and punched the puck into the net. I say punched, because that's what the referees thought he did - punched it in with his fist. So they had to go to the tape to find out if it was a good goal. He knew it was, based on his victory skate in front of his bench before the official call was made.

It was a good goal, going in off Carter's stick, not his hands.

Seven seconds later, before the announcer could even finish telling us the time of the goal and who had the assists, Nino Niederreiter put the Wild up 2-1. The place was going kind of crazy at that point.

Then came the second goal from Buffalo, causing the still-standing fans to throw their hands up as if to say, "Are you kidding me?"

A power-play goal. Yes, that actually happened.
Things settled down after that, until near the end of the period. Niederreiter scored his second goal of the game. It wasn't just any goal. It was scored on the power play, something that has been a struggle for the Wild so far this season. And that's an understatement.

As I said to my mom, "We just witnessed history."

Turns out, the Wild weren't done with the man advantage. Seriously, 5-on-4 play for the Wild has been a momentum killer more often than not. Jared Spurgeon, in his first game back from an injury, extended the Wild's lead with the only goal of the second period.

Yes, it was another power-play tally. I couldn't believe it.

When it rains, it pours for Nino
Niederreiter was close to a hat trick a couple times during the game, before he finally got it with an empty-netter to finish off the 6-3 win. Not only was it his first hat trick, but it was also his first multi-goal game in his career. What a crazy game.

Afterward, there were some thoughts that the game really wasn't that big of a deal because it was played against lowly Buffalo. But when you've lost four games in a row on a dismal road trip to bring your team to .500, the old cliche is true: A win's a win.

I guess it was just what the Wild needed. It went from a losing streak to a three-game winning streak, even if they almost blew it against Winnipeg and won in overtime. But that's a different story. Hint: Officials got too involved in that game.

I suppose I can't finish up here without addressing the illness in the locker room. Yes, it seems four Wild players have had the mumps. Other teams in the league, and even an official, have dealt with this as well. The common thread is teams that played in LA and Anaheim around the same time earlier in the year.

The Wild usually have the flu go through parts of the team during the season, but the mumps? Come on.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Time will tell if Molitor can really be 'here to win'

In sports, everybody loves a winner. So it's a good thing Paul Molitor is here to win.

That was the overall message he threw out there during a Tuesday news conference where he was introduced as the 13th manager for the Minnesota Twins. Molitor, who's worked within the Twins organization over the past few years, replaces Ron Gardenhire.

With a few candidate names floating around for the job, hometown-boy Molitor always seemed to be in the center of it all. I would've liked to see Doug Mientkiewicz get a shot, especially since he's had managerial success in the Twins minor league system. But oh well.

All in the Twins family
While Molitor, 58, hasn't been a manager before (which could be a drawback), he's been around baseball and around the Twins club for a long time. This could be good and bad. He knows the players, the so-called "Twins Way" and what's gone well or terribly awry the past four, 90-plus loss seasons.

However, many out there were clamoring for General Manager Terry Ryan and the Pohlads to go in an entirely different direction and make a hire from outside rather than within. I really don't know if I have a great gut feeling either way on this. I think, as cliche as it sounds, time will tell.

The manager change was a necessary one, so I'm glad for that. I also don't think a skipper has sole control over how many wins a team gets during the year, but I'm hoping Molitor might be able to make some changes where he sees improvement could be made.

Finding the right changes
I'm not exactly sure what that would be. Maybe it's throwing baseball's book out the window for the ninth inning when your starter is cruising and you don't yank him in favor of the closer. Maybe it's laying out firmer expectations for players in the clubhouse and attaching consequences to those expectations. Maybe it's shuffling the batting order. Maybe it's working with players to improve the defense so we can get some Gold Glove Awards back to Minnesota.

Molitor said Tuesday that he could find a lot of things he liked about last year's team. That's fine, just make sure to build on those strengths and certainly not ignore the downfalls.

I'm also curious to see who the supporting coaches will be. The past few years, the Twins simply shuffled guys around to different positions rather than go out and find replacements. I am definitely interested to see who's hired as the pitching coach; I really think Rick Anderson needed to go more than Gardy but also recognized they were a package deal.

Molitor had a great career
Though he's a St. Paul lad and Cretin High graduate, just like Joe Mauer, Molitor didn't put on a Twins uniform until the end of his playing career. He spent most of his tenure with the Milwaukee Brewers where he racked up triples, hits and .300 batting averages.

He won a World Series with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993 and took home MVP honors for his performance in the Series. He knocked in his 3,000th hit as a member of the Twins. He's also one of those players who has the honor of getting voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a first-timer.

I just hope he can be as successful with a manager's cap on as he was with a batting helmet.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wild playing well four games into the season

An offensive explosion is a great way to open a season.

The Minnesota Wild started the 2014-15 saga with two solid victories against the division rival Colorado Avalanche. The opener left fans saying, "How can it get any better?" as the Wild routed the Avs 5-0, with five different goal scorers and a franchise record for shots on goal, too. It was more of the same two nights later in Denver, as the Wild skated to a 3-0 win.

Well, that 2-0 start has turned into a 2-2 record for the Wild after a well-played, but disappointing in the results department, California road trip. It was a pair of 2-1 losses to Anaheim and the defending Cup champs in Los Angeles that warranted zero points for the Wild. The results just didn't happen.

It's like in bowling league. If you start the season off too strongly, your average has nowhere to go but down. Yes, I just related bowling to hockey.

Heard this story before
While Minnesota played outstandingly well in the first game, it was also clear that Colorado did not have its A game. I think the road win was a bigger surprise, since most figured the Avs would be angry and not stand to get beat again, this time in their own building.

Despite out-shooting and out-chancing a couple of California's elite hockey clubs, the Wild couldn't find the back of the net. Against LA, Jonathan Quick proved once again that he is a freak of nature, somehow seeing and stopping pucks when there's a large crowd in front of his goal crease. He was a major part of why the Wild lost that game, since they more than doubled the amount of shots the Kings had.

Still, we've seen this saga play out before. So many chances, lots of puck control in the offensive zone, a plethora of shots. But not enough on the scoreboard to show for it. It's frustrating to watch all those chances get scooped up by goalies, sail wide of the net or get whiffed on.

Still too early to worry
Obviously, it's part of the game. You're not going to go 82-0, as many on Twitter joked. There will be off nights. It's still hard when the players seem to be doing everything right and aren't rewarded. And really, some of this could be seen as pretty nitpicky after four games into this long season.

Well, what else am I supposed to do with a team that's already had a ton of off days when other teams around the league have played seven or eight games? (Nice early scheduling, NHL.)

New to the Wild roster this year, Thomas Vanek is still looking for his first goal. He's had plenty of chances, too. I think fans really want to see him get that first tally. No doubt he wants the monkey off his back.

As for other players, I'm still liking the young players on this team. Erik Haula, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund. It's great to have such a deep roster going down to the third and fourth lines.

Power play, we have a problem
The biggest glare so far is that the Wild's power play is 0-for-16. Talk about needing that first goal. If you can still win games scoring five-on-five, the power play numbers get a little less heat. No one cared the Wild didn't have a PP goal in the 5-0 blowout. But when your team managed only a goal a game the last two, the stat becomes a central focus.

The power play units have already been shaken up a little, and it's something that goes in streaks. Sometimes you're hot, and sometimes you're not. They've had some good looks with the man advantage. That first goal will come eventually.

On the flip side, the Wild's penalty kill is performing well, only giving up that one goal to LA so far. That's an important stat as well. Especially the way some of the officiating has gone against the Wild. Yes, I went there.

Kuemps is the real deal
Of course, I can't forget to give a virtual pat on the back to Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper for his outstanding performances in the first three games. He broke the franchise record for a shutout streak, which he took into the third game this season. I heard different numbers for the minutes, but he really played well.

The Wild gave veteran Niklas Backstrom some work in the game against LA, and I can't put him on the hook for the loss. The first goal was a bad bounce, and his teammates were out of position on the second one.

It'll be interesting to see what happens with the goaltending situation, barring possible injuries, of course. I'd like to see Kuemper get the nod as the No. 1. I've been leery of that in the past because he's a youngster, but he's really proven himself last season and so far this season to deserve that spot in between the pipes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Goal for 2014-15 Wild: Make a deeper playoff run

Hockey season's back already. That's great news for Minnesotans, who endured another disappointing Twins season with the boys of summer. Time for some hope of success as the Minnesota Wild take the ice against the Colorado Avalanche Thursday night in St. Paul. They'll follow that up with a game in Denver Saturday night.

What's so great about this first game is it will be a division-rival rematch of the first playoff round last season. The Wild edged the Colorado Avalanche in seven games, winning the series in thrilling fashion with an amazing, comeback effort to win game seven 5-4 in overtime.

Of course, we all know how the story ended for the Wild, in six games against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference semifinals. It was a disappointing end, but the playoff run for the Wild also brought some hope for the future.

Youngsters raise their level of play
A lot of younger players really stepped up in the postseason, including Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula. The offensive spark those two in particular brought to the club was truly fun to watch. Nino Niederreiter turned out to be a great addition to the team, leaving fans saying, "Clutterbuck who?" since that fan favorite was dealt away for Nino.

It was interesting how the season played out for the Wild. Things didn't look so good earlier in the year, leaving many calling for coach Mike Yeo to be fired. I was at a game that I thought could be his last if the Wild lost. They won, and so Yeo stayed. Whether he would've been fired is anyone's guess now.

Looking ahead to this season, I think the Wild have every reason to believe it can make it to the playoffs once again. They have a lot of returning players, and I'm hoping the youngsters can shine once again.

The bar has been raised
However, last year created expectations. Making the playoffs is must. If the team does not at least win the first two rounds of the playoffs, it will be a disappointment. That's just my opinion, because of course, it's my blog.

For one thing, Minnesota fans in multiple sports have seen the one-and-done theme too much the past few years. Getting through that second round would be a great step in the right direction, no matter what would happen after that. Now that the Wild have been to the playoffs more recently, they got a taste of what it's like. It would be great to build off of that experience and step up to the next level.

The core remains
Let's not forget we've still got Ryan Suter and Zach Parise leading the way. I also loved what Charlie Coyle brought to the team last season, There's also the addition of Thomas Vanek. It'll be interesting to see how he fits in with the organization. I'm expecting good things, but you never know. Injuries can be just a play or hacky-sack game away.

Oh, and one of my favorite moves: No more Dany Heatley. I was not impressed with his play and very glad to see him and the Wild part ways. He's now Anaheim's problem. I just read that he'll miss the start of the season with a groin injury.

So, I'm excited to watch some games coming up. The start of the season is always exciting, especially if there's potential for a successful season. I really hope the Wild can make a strong playoff run. Raising the cup would be acceptable, too, to state the obvious.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Gardy firing needed to happen

Well, the Minnesota Twins organization did something this week that it is definitely not known for. It fired manager Ron Gardenhire after the conclusion of four, 90-loss seasons for the ball club.

After that many losses, something had to be done. I think most fans and beat reporters recognize that. I jumped on Twitter for awhile on Monday (Quick sidebar: The Twins fired Gardy on my birthday. Not cool, hometown team.) after the news broke. A general consensus that I took away was that while people enjoyed Gardenhire during his time here, the move was necessary.

I would agree. Many times, the reason teams are in trouble or losing so much is not solely the fault of the manager or coach who ultimately pays the price. But that's the way it goes. It can't be like George Knox originally wanted in "Angels in the Outfield," when he asked the team owner to trade the 25 players he had because he "couldn't win with those guys."

Cut from the top
In sports, poor-performing teams cut ties with their managers, coaches and general managers all the time. It can become pretty routine, in fact. But for the Twins? They've had two managers since I've been on the planet. Tom Kelly and Gardy, who took over in 2002.

Even the Minnesota Wild, which has only been a franchise since 2000, have had more head coaches than the Twins: Jacques Lemaire, Todd Richards and current coach Mike Yeo.

Along with Gardy, the rest of the coaching staff is gone as well. I'm most happy about the exit of pitching coach Rick Anderson. I'd wanted him to go a couple years ago, but it was clear that he and Gardy were as close as peanut butter and jelly. One wouldn't stay or go without the other.

Replacement candidates
A couple of top names in the running for the next skipper include former Twins Paul Molitor and Doug Mientkiewicz. Both have been interviewed for the position and both have stuck with the Twins organization. Molitor finished his career with the Twins and more recently was part of the team's coaching staff, though he has no managing experience. Mientkiewicz has managed the Fort Meyers Miracle for a couple years, a single A club in the Twins' farm system.

I've always had a soft spot for Mientkiewicz, so I'd love to see him take on this role. I've met Molitor before and wrote my final story for my college newspaper about him. I think that would be a fine choice as well.

But the club also made it clear it would look outside the organization as well, to find the best person for the job. I think this is a very important factor. The past couple of struggling years, the Twins have made moves. It's just been little things like moving coaches around to different roles, but it's been the same people. Some fresh blood might be a good idea in this case.

Just a little bit better
In any case, don't expect the Twins to jump from 90 losses to 90 wins next year. I think most of us would be surprised to see that happen. There is reason to hope, however. Kennys Vargas brought his hitting power up to the big leagues this year. Danny Santana impressed with his batting average. Now if we could just get Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton healthy and up to the majors, it might be a team on the rise.

Firing Gardy won't solve all the problems. Starting pitching is a gaping hole, except maybe for Phil Hughes. And it would be nice to get another big name player on the roster to lead the team, especially since Joe Mauer didn't have the best year. (OK, maybe one of his worst.) Not to mention Terry Ryan is still cleaning up the mess former-GM Bill Smith left in his wake.

I'm looking for improvement from the Twins in 2015. I want them to leave 90 losses behind and maybe move out of the division basement. It's a downswing right now, but hopefully they can turn it around.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Vikings change course with AP, conveniently after sponsor backlash

He's suspended. Now he'll play. Oh, wait a minute, I guess he'll be put on the NFL exemption list. Don't worry, he still gets paid.

In case you haven't followed the seesaw of drama floating out of Winter Park this past week, I'm talking about Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was indicted by a grand jury last week on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.

After he was suspended from playing in the team's home opener last weekend, the team announced Monday (after a 30-7 loss to the Patriots) that Peterson would play while the legal process plays out regarding child abuse allegations toward Peterson.

Peterson's out
Wednesday, the Vikings front office changed its mind again. Peterson is now on the exemption list, meaning he won't be a part of team activities until the legal issues are resolved. With this new development, it's quite unlikely that Peterson will play another down of football with the Vikings this season. I also heard a plea agreement is not in the works and the matter will go to a jury trial. Of course, that can always change later.

To see this news unfold over the past few days has been interesting. After Monday's announcement, sponsorship deals fell apart and others, like a huge deal the NFL has with Anheuser-Busch, threatened to end. Radisson Hotels pulled it's sponsorship, making the backdrop for Vikings news conferences look a little different. Other companies in deals with Peterson pulled their money as well.

Then the Vikings announce they wanted to "get it right" and therefore put Peterson on the exemption list. The bigwigs at the news conference were asked if Peterson's performance on the field or the fall outs in sponsorship had anything to do with the decision. The answer was no.

We can guess...
But really, what were they supposed to say? I think all the backlash from the original decision to let him play, combined with his on-the-field talent and then the lost sponsor money all played a part in reversing the decision this week. But the team doesn't want to admit any of that, of course.

I'm glad to see the second decision, that Peterson won't play, even though it's quite interesting how the team arrived at that decision. Whether it's true or not, here's how you can read into it: Peterson is suspended. The Vikings lose big. Now Peterson will play, because the Vikings need his talent. Wait, now the team is losing money and support because of the decision, so I guess we better change our minds and keep him off the field.

Don't be a coward
One other thing to note, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf showed up at Wednesday's news conference, but he didn't take questions. And with all the negative, off-field news surfacing recently in the league, NFL commissioner Roger Goddell has been publicly silent. That's just not right.

The owners and big-shots are sure to take credit where it's due for the good things, like new stadium groundbreakings. But it's even more important to be there when things aren't so good. It's called taking responsibility.

I am in support of the league doing whatever it can to let players know they can't act however they choose just because they can play football. An NFL uniform does not give you permission to be above the law.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Vikings' AP in legal trouble, team says he can play anyway

I don't think I've written about the Minnesota Vikings on here before. I'm just not really a fan. But the recent child abuse allegations against star running back Adrian Peterson are a good example of something I'd like to write about.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on the situation. Do you think he did it, meaning hit his 4-year-old son with a stick? Should he be allowed to play football? Should he be suspended until the legal process plays out?

Let's review. News broke last Friday that Peterson was indicted by a grand jury on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. As a result, Peterson didn't play in Sunday's home opener. The Vikings lost 30-7 to the New England Patriots.

AP will play, Vikings say
Monday, the team announced that Peterson would not be suspended but will play this weekend. They'll leave the allegations up to the legal system to sort out. But in the meantime, Peterson can return to his job on the football field.

By Monday night, another allegation surfaced of Peterson abusing another son of his.

So, what changed from Friday to Monday, when Peterson was first deactivated from playing but now will play this weekend? Oh that's right, AP is arguably the NFL's best running back, and the Vikes got pounded in its loss without him suiting up against the Pats. That must be the reason, right?

It's funny that the Vikings announced Peterson will be able to play while the case goes through court. They're giving him the benefit of the doubt, innocent until proven guilty. That's fine, but where was that logic with other Vikings players who have been in legal trouble?

Double standards
The team wasted no time releasing A.J. Jefferson last year after he was arrested for domestic assault. No waiting around for the legal process in that instance. But Jefferson wasn't the greatest player in the league crucial to his team's success, like AP. I guess that's the difference.

I don't know what the policies are for the NFL or the Vikings when it comes to players in legal hot water, but it's not a place for double standards. Actually, the Vikes should be used to dealing with these "distractions," as they call them, by now. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Vikings have had more players arrested since 2000 than any other NFL team. It's 44, to be exact.

There's a lot of emphasis in this situation put on winning football games. Peterson is a franchise player for the Vikings, and everybody knows it. Just because he can score touchdowns and rack up near-record-breaking yardage does not mean Peterson gets to be above the law and act however he wants.

Win baby, win
Winning isn't everything. Under child abuse allegations, Peterson gets to continue his job this week. How many other people would still have their jobs if they were in the same situation?

If you think I'm being harsh here, that may be so. But the alleged actions Peterson took against his child(ren) were harsh, too. It's sparked debate in the gray area of what goes too far when it comes to disciplining your child.

In a statement from Peterson, he said he is not a child abuser. Maybe not in his mind, but now it's in the hands of lawyers, a judge and possibly a jury.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Four years of not-missing-much baseball for the Twins

I haven't written much about the Minnesota Twins in some time. For those not keeping up with the team, you aren't missing anything.

The Twins are on pace to lose at least 90 games for the fourth year in a row. I still maintain they should have just gone for No. 100 in 2011, when they finished 63-99. (I mean, if you're going to lose, you might as well lose big.) Quite the reversal from all those American League Central Division titles in the past decade. It really is too bad.

Lately, I've watched more games than I have earlier in the year. The Twins have had some good showings. Some offense, a few towering home runs, good pitching at times. But it's easy to see they're a struggling team, especially when they can't close out games, or they give up a late lead.

Who are these guys?
At 19 games out of first place, it's a certainty the Twins won't be playing any October baseball. I'm sure a lot of us knew the possibility of playoffs was pretty remote when the season started, actually. The roster just doesn't look as appealing as it did a few years ago.

No more Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel or Michael Cuddyer. More recently, Josh Willingham was dealt away this season. Remember when the Cy Young winner Johan Santana pitched for the Twins? Now there's Danny Santana on the roster, a 23-year-old infielder.

The Joe Mauer soap opera continues. He was injured earlier this season and missed the All Star game held in his home park this year. Figures. I called that one last year. He's played in plenty of All Star games so far, but sure enough, he's too hurt to play in the one at Target Field. Actually, his early-season performance at the plate probably wouldn't have earned him a spot on the team anyway. Mauer moved to first base this year, which I think has worked out fine. It's also helped that the catcher, Kurt Suzuki, has provided an offensive spark, earning himself a spot on the All Star team.

Let's hope for the future
Not that there haven't been exciting moments or games for the Twins this season, but overall, it's hard to get excited about a club that is the division basement dweller. I heard earlier in the year that 2015 could be the start of something good for the team. Maybe that's when we'll see the superstar Byron Buxton get bumped up to the majors, although he's been plagued by injuries this season.

If nothing else, I'd like to see some kind of turn around next year. Maybe it's not losing 90 games, or maybe it's finishing second or third in the division. We'll see. There needs to be some kind of improvement to keep Minnesota fans interested in between watching Vikings football.

Of course, after four years of hard-to-watch baseball, and a Target-Field honeymoon that's long over, the off-season will likely include all kinds of talk about Manager Ron Gardenhire and General Manager Terry Ryan getting the hook. So far, all the organization seems to do is move coaches around to different positions. That's the biggest shake up they've created. I'll probably dive into this topic more later.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

No need for tennis expertise. Just give it a go.

When I talk with people about my sports writing experiences or my interest, the question about my athletic background usually isn't far behind. It's the thought that, "oh, since you like to write about sports, you must have played a lot of them in high school, right?"

Wrong. Not that it isn't a logical leap to make, because it certainly is. I'm sure there are a lot of sports writers out there who were quite the jocks. I'm just not one of them.

My only claim to fame in this category is that I played tennis, two years on junior varsity and my senior year playing third doubles on the varsity squad. Tennis was always something I played with my dad growing up, and I took tennis lessons in my elementary school days. I had a great chance to be part of the team at a brand new high school my senior year.

Final Grand Slam of '14
The U.S. Open tennis tournament kicked off this week, and it's always fun to watch. I enjoy catching coverage of the Grand Slam events, like the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Watching the tournaments usually gives you the itch to get out on the court and play. At least that's how it works for me.

I love to go hit around on the court. Being competitive isn't what it's about for me; I'm looking for some exercise and to have a little fun. That's all. If only there were more people who wanted to play tennis with me.

I was lucky to find a group of casual players who met twice a week at the high school courts when I lived in Austin, Minn. I haven't found a similar group in Fergus Falls. Whenever I mention tennis, here's a common response I get: "I'd totally play with you, but I'm terrible."

Again, let me go back to I just want to get exercise and have fun. I'm not looking to hit around with the next Grand Slam champion. I really don't even want to keep score.

Anybody wanna play with me?
As summer winds down, which is always sad, I reflect on the fact that I've only been out on the tennis court once in 2014. My friend Marie was a good sport and hit with me one gorgeous summer evening. I always had my tennis bag in the car when I traveled home to see my parents this summer. But either I was too busy with other activities, or the weather was poor. That second option seemed to be quite the theme this summer, unfortunately.

I guess my point is, I enjoy playing tennis, and I'd like to do more of it. Having a couple summers go by without playing on a regular basis, or even just a few times here and there, was kind of a downer for me. What's great about tennis is you don't need to be an expert to participate. Don't have a 120-mph serve? Need to run around your backhand? No problem. Just try it.

Maybe you'll have a tennis-starved friend who will thank you. Like me.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ward Jr.'s death not a typical racing fatality

By now news has made its way around that Kevin Ward Jr., a 20-year-old Sprint car driver, was struck and killed during a Sprint car race over the weekend in upstate New York. He was out of his car and standing on the race track when he was hit by a car driven by NASCAR veteran, Tony Stewart.

It's never easy to learn of another fatality in the racing world. Unfortunately, it's a reality that still happens - though not as often as it used to - in this sport. No matter what happened, why or how, a young man died on the race track, and that's always a tough thing for the sport as a whole. Prayers to his family.

Still, there is a lot of talk about the incident that took Ward Jr.'s life. Maybe because it wasn't just another racing crash. He wasn't killed while driving his car in the race, like most of the sport's fatalities; he was standing on the race track. That's what makes this case so different.

What exactly happened?
In my eyes, what happened was a combination of a racing incident, leading to heat-of-the-moment emotions and a tragic accident that unfortunately took the young driver's life. There's all kinds of comments online and speculation about what exactly happened (a lot from non-racing fans, I'm sure): Did Stewart hit him intentionally? Did he speed up when he saw Ward Jr. standing on the track? Or did Stewart even see him at all?

No charges have been filed, though the local sheriff's office is investigating. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out. The key might be trying to prove any alleged intent from Stewart. The possibility of criminal charges aside, I would not be surprised to hear about a civil lawsuit in this case.

Stewart did not compete in Sunday's NASCAR race at Watkins Glen.

Now, I have not watched much dirt-track racing and therefore Sprint car racing. I actually don't even watch NASCAR, really; I'm all about the IndyCars. But again, I think what happened was an accident. It seems perfectly logical that Stewart was driving his car and possibly didn't have time to react to Ward Jr. standing there. Of course, that's just my opinion.

Heat of the moment
From what I saw on the video, it seemed pretty evident that Ward Jr. was upset about getting clipped by Stewart and ending up along the outside of the track. Race fans can tell you that drivers don't always wait until the race is over to show their emotions or frustrations with something that's happened on the track. Sometimes it's poor judgment. Sometimes it's just blowing off steam.

I've seen drivers get out of their cars after crashes and make gestures toward the other driver that supposedly wronged them. You know, where two cars make contact with each other but one keeps going and the other ends up in the wall. It happens.

A couple instances that came to mind when I heard about the Ward Jr. One was last year when IndyCar driver Sebastian Saavedra stood from his car that was into the wall in Detroit. He waited for the traffic to come around and then flipped off Marco Andretti as he drove by. It should be noted that actions like that result in fines.

Little Al vs. Emmo
Another incident was the end of the 1989 Indianapolis 500 when Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. touched wheels, sending Little Al into the wall and giving Emmo the win. Little Al got out of his car along the infield grass, walked toward the edge of the track and gave Emmo a mocking thumbs-up and a couple hand claps as his drove by.

Actually, as I looked up that moment on YouTube tonight, I came across a clip from a couple years ago where Emmo and Little Al talked through what happened that day. As Little Al tells it, a safety crew member tried to stop him as he started for the track. The crew member asked where he was going and if he "wanted to flip him off." Little Al made it clear that yes, that was what he wanted to do. The safety crew member got out of his way and let him do that.

Safety first
Of course, this isn't exactly like what happened with Ward Jr. Little Al did not enter the track. You also have to remember that this was 25 years ago, and many facets of the sport have evolved since then. Fifty years ago, the sport was much more dangerous and a lot of great drivers lost their lives competing in the sport they loved.

As the sport and technology advanced, the experts in the sport continued to learn about what could be done to make the sport safer. A serious crash occurs, and the powers that be take a look to see if any changes need to be made or if a lesson could be learned from a tragedy.

In the case of the Ward Jr. tragedy, I also think there's a lesson, too. While emotions run high during a race, this is still a sport that can have tragic consequences. Don't let your emotions get in the way of making sound decisions on the race track.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sports drafts leave me uninterested

The world is filled with sports fans. I consider myself to be one of them, but I've also learned that there's always somebody out there who seems to have more passion or more knowledge for a sport than you do. That's a good thing. It means there is room for you to cram more and more sports into your life, if it will fit.

Take the drafts for professional sports. I really don't pay much attention to those. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because it is not watching an actual game. Or maybe it's because it resembles the business side of sports, which I sometimes tune out (example: What professional athletes get paid.). Perhaps the biggest reason is there's a disconnect for me between these players, who you often haven't heard of, until they make it to playing with the big boys, if they even make it that far.

What have you done for me lately
For me, I'd rather pay more attention to the team's roster right now. I want to know who's with the club this season, some of the top guys waiting in the wings that might get a shot, and that's about it. Those are the players I want to follow and focus on.

First of all, following the drafts and players in all of the minor ranks before they hit the professional spotlight takes more time. While it does matter to the overall future of teams, I guess I'm just more inclined to let it be. I don't care to know all the stats for a fourth-round draft pick that may or may not ever play with the big club.

Plus, once players make it to the show, you can usually learn about their background pretty quickly in the draft, how they produced in the minors or any trade history they might have.

I think the way drafts for professional sports have become such huge events the past few years might actually have steered me away from watching them, too. For instance, the NFL draft. It's no secret that the NFL isn't a sport I closely follow. But the large spectacle that organization has made of the draft leaves me poking fun at it, rather than putting on my sports-fan cap and enjoying another part of the sport.

Use caution following drafts
It's important to have an idea of what's going on with your favorite teams, but we should also be careful about putting so much stock into something like the draft as well. These young players, many who are still teenagers, are shoved into the spotlight with a chance to prove themselves. I think it's OK to wait until these guys are at least on the verge of getting the call-up to invest time and interest in them.

I suppose what I'm saying is I'm fine with not knowing every single thing there is to know about the teams I follow and every single player they have in their organization.

Maybe I'm robbing myself of another great facet of sports. Maybe someday I'll start paying attention to more and more aspects of the sport that goes beyond when the guys take the field or ice. But for right now, I enjoy how I conduct myself as a sports fan.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

'That's racing' should return to sport's vocabulary

Whatever happened to the phrase, "that's racing"?

I know you're not supposed to start stories with a question, but I couldn't help it. I'm asking this question more and more on a rhetorical level when it comes to IndyCar racing lately. Any time there's a questionable pass during a race, or two cars collide and hit the wall, right away the focus on the television broadcast and social media turns to possible penalties. Will race control send him in for a drive-through penalty in the pits? Or just let it go?

It seems to be more frequent than it was in the past, like in the good old days 20 years ago. What about the finish to the 1989 Indianapolis 500? When Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. were racing so close fighting for the lead that they touched wheels, sending Lil Al into the wall and Emmo into victory lane. That was racing.

Taking chances is the name of the game
Race drivers are out on the track fighting for positions, for championship points, for the win. In order to get a step ahead, they often have to take chances or risks to put themselves in a better position. Sometimes, those chances don't work out so well and they find themselves with a busted-up car that's tangled with another.

But that was racing. It was that way on the track, with no penalties to speak of, and you could tell that was the attitude of drivers, too. Media interviews with drivers after they crashed out of a race could be filled with emotion, sure; drivers don't like to watch the rest of the race from the paddock. However, they understood that was an unfortunate consequence sometimes. It's racing.

Not my fault. Give him a penalty for it.
Today, it doesn't seem like you can go one race without a driver or team owner giving a heated interview where they place blame on another driver for his or her alleged stupid move on the track, or getting upset with race control for not doing anything about it. Finger pointing has taken the place or saying "that's racing" or taking responsibility for your own actions.

Not every case is like this, of course, but it is a lot more common than it used to be. Part of it lies in the rules. As sports evolve, there's always more improvement and learning taking place. It's a good thing, because you wouldn't want it to stay exactly the same. Just look at how much faster the cars go these days compared to even a few decades ago. Then there's the constant safety improvements as well.

Everything in moderation
With all of this, more rules have come into play and as a result, so have more penalties. I'm not saying this should be done away with. Not at all. But I think there might be too much emphasis on these aspects of the sport. Sometimes, it really is just racing.

Instead, we have drivers getting drive-through penalties, (when I would actually like to see those be stop-and-hold penalties in the pits), fines being assessed and probation terms given out. Rules are fine, but we shouldn't get too caught up in them either. One other thing: Consistency. No matter what rules or penalties are out there, make sure there's as much consistency as possible to be fair to everyone.

Just don't forget the heart of the sport. That's racing.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Sportsmanship gestures are traditions that shouldn't be broken

I'm finding that sports people have varied opinions on one simple thing: The handshake.

Sportsmanship is a longstanding tradition of varied degrees in sports. Kids in organized athletic events are taught from a young age to go through the handshake line afterward, win or lose. As they get older, some will not only shake hands but also stand on the field, court or sheet of ice while the winning team is elated to accept gold medals and the second-place team is usually brokenhearted.

Professional-level kudos
At the professional level, there's no organized line for football players, but they walk on the field and chat with opponents afterward. Baseball players on the winning side have high-five routines on the field, while the losers head straight for the showers. Then there's the NHL, where teams go through the handshake line at center ice after the completion of each playoff series.

And we can't forget professional tennis players after a Grand Slam final. Not only does the losing player have to stay out on the court while the winner celebrates, which usually involves running halfway up the stands to find his or her team of supporters. But the losing player also has to endure the award ceremony and usually get interviewed right on the spot for the whole stadium and television audience to hear.

That has to be a tough task, too. You'll see a lot of players sitting on the sideline with their towel completely covering their face. The tears go unseen but not unknown.

It's tradition, I suppose, to have the sportsmanship and respect for those on the other side and show that through simple gestures like handshakes, a pat on the shoulder or even hugs. Not really being a competitive athlete, I support these rituals. I think it shows and teaches respect, and it speaks toward being able to handle wins and losses in a professional manner.

High school athletes face their tears
I know some people that would like to see traditions change, especially at the high school level. The point is that these kids have left everything out there for that final event of a state championship, and the losers should be able to head to the locker room before any ceremonies take place. The winners are ecstatic while the losers are left stunned, saddened and often with tear-stained faces. But both teams remain out there for the award ceremony where trophies and medals are given out, and usually where more sets of individual handshakes happen.

I understand the point of view, but I also don't have a problem with the way it's done now. The second-place team still has a great accomplishment to celebrate, even if it doesn't seem like it at the time. Those individuals should be recognized for that. The winning team watches them get their awards, so it's only fair that they stay and see the winners do the same.

Yes, I'm sure some would like nothing more than to hide under a towel or just run into the locker room. It has to be tough knowing you lost the championship, and then there are the emotions for the seniors playing in possibly their last game ever.

Still, I like the tradition. It shows respect, lets athletes know that they have a lot to be proud of and also teaches them that life won't always be easy, but you'll need to face the hard things, too.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Final thoughts on the Wild's playoff run

Now that the wound isn't so fresh, I suppose I should write a little something about the Minnesota Wild, since the season came to an abrupt end.

It happened so fast that it left Wild players and fans stunned. A bad bounce, a fluke bounce, really, caromed right to Patrick Kane's stick. He buried the overtime goal in game six to send the Chicago Blackhawks to the Western Conference Finals. I had a delayed reaction to that goal, too, as I sat in my bedroom and simply said, "no," with a bit of saddened anguish.

It was evident watching the postgame interviews that even the players were in shock over how that game, series and season ended. A bounce like that? it just couldn't be true.

Just good, quality hockey
Still, when you reflect back on the postseason for the wild, it was one helluva ride. They put on a great show in a thrilling seven-game series versus the rival Colorado Avalanche. Then it was on to Chicago, except they didn't win there (to paraphrase a famous quote from the late Robert Kennedy).

The difference between the series from last year and this year between the two clubs was clear right away. In 2013, the eventual-champion Blackhawks didn't have much trouble disposing of the Wild four games to one.

Honestly, I think game two this year was the only one where the Wild struggled throughout the game and just didn't have the magic. Game one was the one that got away. The Wild came back strong with decisive wins at home, and game five was only decided by a goal. In an overtime-game six, Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford really stole the show. There most definitely would have been a game seven without his solid performance in game six.

Of course, I wanted to see the Wild move deeper into the playoffs. But it was great hockey, they didn't get blown out and it was just generally exciting. Good enough.

Focus on the positives
Lots of positives came out of the Wild's playoff run this year. For one thing, youngsters stepped up and starting scoring goals in key spots. Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine. Keep those two on a line together next season, maybe with Jason Zucker, when he returns from his injury. Then there's Mikael Granlund. Who can forget his sliding overtime winner in game six to send the first-round series back to Denver?

It was great to see some of those plays from guys who hadn't done that all season. It's also nice because I don't think this is a team that will be broken apart through the offseason business of free agency and contracts. For the most part, the Wild will have many key players putting on the sweaters again come fall.

I also enjoyed seeing the Wild bandwagon get bigger and bigger throughout the state of hockey. It's no secret for me that hockey isn't one of the most popular sports at the professional level. You've got football, baseball, basketball. Hockey can get pushed to the side. I just hope some of these fans stick around to show support for the team next year as well.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

2014 Indy 500 added to list of classics, close finishes

If you missed Sunday’s 98th running of the Indianapolis 500, you missed out.

No, really.

The greatest spectacle in racing was filled with strategy, drama, tension and excitement. Oh yeah, and the second-closest finish in Indy 500 history. Just 0.0600 seconds separated first and second place.

It was the first Indy 500 win for Ryan Hunter-Reay, 33, the IndyCar Series Champion in 2012. He drove from 19th to first, something that hasn’t been done since 1954.

The brickyard has had its share of photo finishes over the years. Take 1982, when Rick Mears made a move on the last lap but couldn’t get past winner Gordon Johncock in time. Mears went on to win a record-tying four Indy 500s in his career.

That race was the closest finish until a decade later, when Al Unser Jr. edged out Scott Goodyear by 0.043 seconds in 1992 for what still remains as the smallest margin of victory ever at the historic race.

With Sunday’s finish, it was the first time an American won since 2006, when Sam Hornish Jr. passed then-rookie Marco Andretti just before the yard of bricks as the checkered flags were waved. That’s now bumped to No. 3 on the list of close finishes at the Indy 500, with a .0635 margin.

Green-flag finish this year
What was particularly exciting about this year’s finish was that it was green-flag, full-speed racing. It might not seem significant, but this is a race that has ended under caution the past four years, a disappointing sight for fans, as drivers reduce speeds and are not allowed to pass under caution conditions.

Sunday, the yellow flag didn’t come out until well over halfway through the race, which is a bit unusual. It was out again with less than 10 laps to go for a crash and debris. But the powers that be quickly threw the red flag, stopping the race until the track was clear, in hopes of getting that green-flag, high-excitement finish.

It turned out to be a great move.

I was on the edge of my couch, face in my hands, and then standing when the field went for the final restart and rattled off the last few laps.

Hunter-Reay led the field, followed by Helio Castroneves and then Hunter-Reay’s teammate, Marco Andretti. Hunter-Reay and Castroneves traded the lead before the eventual winner made a pass that nearly had him down on the infield grass. Castroneves tried to pass on the main straightaway before the checkered flew, but his fourth Indy 500 victory, to put him in elite company, wasn’t meant to be.

For Marco and his third-place result, it was another heartbreak-ending as his family’s Andretti Curse at the Indy 500 showed it was still alive and well. His grandfather, Mario, won 45 years ago.

That’s the lone victory for any Andretti at the 500, and the family has had terrible luck at the speedway over the years.

Marco’s father, Michael, never won the race as a driver, though he’s led the most laps of drivers who have never won the event. But he’s won it three times now as a team owner, which has to be a nice consolation.

Actually, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in Michael’s shoes Sunday.

Marco led during the race, had a good car and was consistently in the hunt for the win.

But Michael is the team owner for Marco and Hunter-Reay, and he’s also the race strategist for Hunter-Reay.

Either way, he was in a good situation with those two, of the five, cars he had in the race.

Still, it had to be a tough call, deep down. His focus during the race is Hunter-Reay, but then there’s his son, trying to do something that Michael was never able to accomplish.

Instant classic
ESPN Classic usually runs a string of classic Indy 500s in the week leading up to the race each year. It’s really fun to watch those, too. It’s like a time capsule to see how the race, the cars and even the television broadcasts have changed, and I love it.

With the amazing finish we saw this year, I certainly hope the 2014 Indy 500 gets added to that classic list.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Wild's second round series similar to first

Another playoff series, another string of home wins and road losses, and another must-win game six for the Minnesota Wild.

Here we go again.

This second-round series against the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks has a lot of similarities to the Wild’s opening round against the Colorado Avalanche. The Wild, without home-ice advantage, started each series going down two games to none, only to tie the series with two home wins. Then, it’s been a pair of losses in game fives.

As we all know, the Wild rallied to win games six and seven against Colorado to move on to this series. The obvious question is: Can they do it again?

With a 2-1 loss Sunday night in Chicago, the Wild need to continue its dominant play at Xcel Energy Center in game six. If it doesn’t, the season comes to a close for the state of hockey.

Every team is different, so really, every playoff series should be a little different. It’s been great so far to watch the Wild make this a series, unlike last year’s 4-1 series loss that seemed much more one-sided.

The home games this year have been especially entertaining. I continue to be impressed with youngsters Justin Fontaine, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula, who have scored pretty goals and dazzled with their speed.

The Wild won games 4-0 and 4-2 at home after being in a familiar 2-0 series deficit. Those were a couple of impressive games that showed me this team is capable of playing on the same level, or better, as the Blackhawks.

Still, the Wild are up against a tough Chicago team that has all kinds of star power. For me, that’s always been in the back of my mind as the possible difference in the series. I’m not sure if I can pinpoint why, exactly.

Yes, the Wild have played well enough to win games, score goals and play a strong defensive game, as they have held Chicago to 22 shots or less in the first four games.

But if there is something that worries me, it’s Chicago’s talent and veteran experience winning the Stanley Cup twice in four years. I’m talking about Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. Those guys are great goal scorers.

Not to mention Bryan Bickell, who with six goals in the playoffs has demonstrated that he plays his absolute best hockey in the postseason.

The Wild have done a good job of containing these opponents at many points during the series. After letting an early 1-0 lead slip away in game five, Minnesota needs to recapture what’s made it such a fun team to watch when it returns home Tuesday night.

If it does that, I know there’s a great chance the Wild will get another win and force a game seven back in Chicago.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Blackhawks/Wild series more entertaining than previous year’s

I hope you all enjoyed that game seven between the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche as much as I did. Now it’s time to focus on how to win round two.

The Wild knocked off division-champion Colorado, but it has a big test ahead in this second-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s a rematch of last year’s first round, and the defending Stanley Cup Champions already came away with a game one victory.

The final score Friday in Chicago was 5-2, but to me that’s a little deceiving. The Wild came back from being down 2-0 to tie it up, but that was quickly erased as the Hawks took the lead again and didn’t look back.

Patrick Kane showed why he’s one of the most dominant players in the NHL, as he tallied a pair of pretty goals. Bryan Bickell, who had a strong series against the Wild last year, also had two goals. In Patrick Roy fashion, Wild head coach Mike Yeo pulled goalie Ilya Bryzgalov early, and the Hawks finished it off with an empty-netter.

This series will definitely be a tough one for the Wild to win, but I think it might be more competitive than last year’s 4-1 tilt in favor of Chicago. The Wild has some confidence and momentum after an exciting series versus the Avs. Another year of experience doesn’t hurt either.

The Wild competed well in game one, especially in the final two periods. It outshot the Hawks 17-3 in the second, but a lot of shots also missed the mark. To pick out one player, I’d like to see Jason Pominville find his goal-scoring abilities again. He teed up a few shots, only to have them go wide of the cage; two were right in a row on the power play. He wasn’t the only culprit, but there are some of those chances you’d like to have back, so the pucks are getting to the net.

The Hawks had a few days off after its first-round win over the St. Louis Blues, and it seemed the Wild surprised them or caught them on their heels slightly. Still, this talented Chicago team found a way to score goals and win, even on a night when it didn’t have its best effort.

I liked that Yeo seemed pretty critical of his bunch after the game. He said some of his players were below average and the urgency wasn’t there. I hope it sparks some energy into the team, because game one was not out of reach.

I don’t think the series is either.

Goalie injury tales continue
It wouldn’t be the 2013-14 season for the Wild without a little goaltender-injury drama in the playoffs, too. Darcy Kuemper left game seven with an upper body injury, so Bryzgalov looks to be the guy in between the pipes right now. John Curry is the backup, but I also heard Josh Harding was on the ice for practice the other day. Harding, who has multiple sclerosis, has been out for a good chunk of the season.

I’m not really sure how this situation will shake out in the series. I wouldn’t be surprised with anything at this point. I mean, Niklas Backstrom got hurt in game one warmups last year in Chicago. We could see Curry get a shot, especially if Bryzgalov struggles. Or maybe Kuemper will be back. Maybe Harding will finally be ready for a start, too.

It’s anyone’s guess.