Monday, January 21, 2019

Hockey Day Minnesota 2019

Hockey Day Minnesota has become an annual tradition for puck fans across the state. The wall-to-wall hockey coverage of outdoor high school games, college games finished off with a home Minnesota Wild game put on by Fox Sports North every year can be a pretty easy choice for couch potatoes who also enjoy watching hockey.

That's especially true on days when the temperature is well below zero.

2017 Twins Winter Caravan.
The 13th annual festivities, which have spilled over to the Thursday and Friday prior as well, was headquartered in Bemidji this year. No, I wasn't up there in person, although I did share a photo on social media from two years ago when I was up there for work with the Minnesota Twins Caravan. I took some selfies with Paul Bunyan and his blue ox.

Blake v. Edina girls' hockey 
Anyway, my hockey weekend started on Friday night covering a premier matchup in high school girls' hockey: Blake v. Edina. For years, Blake was a powerhouse in Class 1A girls' hockey, winning seven state championships, including back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017 before the program opted to move up to Class 2A last season. They're now in the same section as Edina, winners of the past two Class 2A state titles.

Though it's only the second year of a section rivalry between the two teams, they played each other plenty when Blake was a Class 1A squad. Being in the same section as Edina now changes the rivalry a bit, according to Blake coach Shawn Reid.

"Truthfully, I don't think they took us as seriously as they do now," Reid said. "So now I think it is a true rivalry. The games are close."

The teams split their regular-season series 1-1, with the road team winning. Edina defeated Blake in the second game of the season in November, thanks to a hat trick from top scorer CC Bowlby. Friday night, Blake took care of business at Braemar Arena with a 2-1 win thanks to a solid penalty kill, tons of blocked shots and a goal from an eighth grader who only had a couple to her name this season among the roster of offensive weapons for the Bears.

Edina and Blake were last ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in Class 2A in the coaches poll. Another section rival, Wayzata, was ranked No. 4. So it looks to be a three-horse race for a trip to the state tournament.

HDM from the couch
I didn't envy some of my friends and colleagues up covering all the Hockey Day festivities in Bemidji in the below-zero cold. I'm sure it was memorable and fun though. Instead, I watched some of the action at home, starting with the boys' hockey game between No. 2-ranked Andover and No. 1 Minnetonka in a battle of undefeated teams.

Andover scored a shorthanded goal near the end of the first period for a 1-0 lead but the Skippers quickly tied the game 1-1 before the period was over. Andover had to kill a major penalty in the second period and gave up another goal for a 2-1 deficit. The penalty kill was commonplace for the Huskies in that period, and they never fully got back into the game, losing 5-2.

One of my contributions to the HDM program put together by the Minnesota Hockey Magazine staff was a feature about Andover hockey and defenseman Wyatt Kaiser who's grandpa Blane Comstock played for Bemidji State and a 1976 Olympian.

I talked with Andover coach Mark Manney after Andover's game at Elk River in December, a 3-2 win that ended up being a lot closer than it could have been. The Huskies didn't have their A-game that night, according to Manney.

"This is exactly how we've practiced for the last two weeks, just with 80 percent effort," Manney said. "Closer than I wanted, but probably what we deserved."

Shifting gears, I asked Manney about Andover playing on HDM for the first time.

"It's really going to be neat for our guys to play the defending state champs," Manney said. "And they're No. 1 and maybe we'll be No. 2 at the time, which I think would get a lot of other people's interest.

"I'm hoping we can just get out there and have a great experience, create some memories to take. If we win, that'd be great. If we don't, we're still going to make memories."

True to that sentiment, Manney made a goaltender switch to start the third period on Hockey Day down just 2-1. He told FSN during an in-game, audio interview that he wanted to give both goaltenders a chance to play in this game. A few months down the road, no one will remember the score but they'll remember the experience, according to Manney.

Whitecaps back in town
Hockey Day Minnesota features outdoor high school games, college games, the Gophers usually have home games and it all finishes with the Wild at the X. For the first time ever, Minnesota had a professional women's team playing on Hockey Day as the Minnesota Whitecaps hosted the Connecticut Whale.

The Whitecaps finished their regular-season home schedule with the weekend series and sold out all eight games at TRIA Rink (1,200 capacity). In its first year as part of the National Women's Hockey League, the Whitecaps started the season undefeated for six games and have been near the top of the standings. They beat the last-place Whale with back-to-back shutouts 2-0 and then 9-0 on Sunday.

"I think we all take so much pride in hockey in Minnesota, so to have a whole day dedicated to it is pretty cool," said Hannah Brandt, Whitecaps forward, former Gophers player, Olympic gold medalist and Minnesotan. "You obviously want to play on Hockey Day Minnesota, even if it's not a game that's necessarily being featured."

It's been fun to take in the Whitecaps games this season, and it's been especially fun to see the support from all the Minnesota hockey fans. There were plenty of youth/high school girls' hockey teams there to watch every game. And the Whitecaps line up to sign autographs for fans after every home game, too.

Let's go Wild
To finish things off on Saturday, I took the brisk (very brisk) walk from TRIA Rink over to Xcel Energy Center just in time for most of the second period and third-period action as the Wild played Columbus. I missed both of the Wild goals, coming from Jordan Greenway (who just loves to score the first goal of the game) and Zach Parise in the first period but saw the Blue Jackets get within one on a goal from Panarin 3 minutes, 7 seconds into the second.

The 2-1 score held up, and the Wild defeated an Eastern Conference team with more points and wins. The schedule has been a bit of a role reversal for the Wild, losing to teams they shouldn't and then sometimes finding a way to beat teams better than them according to the standings.

During small group last week, we discussed our weekend plans. When I mentioned all the hockey I was going to take in, this was a response: "Wow, you must like hockey."

Yes. Yes, I do.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Aussie Open: Murray's career might have come to an abrupt end

At Wimbledon in January 2008. One of my favorite photos
from the trip to London.
Winter is not my favorite season. That may seem strange, considering how much I enjoy watching and covering hockey, but it's true. I could do without the snow, icy roads and sub-freezing temperatures. A mild winter with temps in the 30s and 40s would actually do just fine.

Still, one of the highlights during the doldrums of the winter months comes in mid-January when the tennis season starts with the first Grand Slam of the year: The Australian Open. Unlike Wimbledon, this tournament fits my night-owl ways a little bit better so I can stay up late (or just stay up until my normal, late-hour bedtime) to watch some tennis. The toughest part might be curbing my jealousy as the ESPN commentators discuss things like severe heat warnings and then the camera cuts to shots of the sunny Australian setting or players dripping with sweat.

At any rate, it's always a fun way to kick off tennis season and have a little variety in sports viewing. This time around, there was news even before the tournament started. Andy Murray held a tear-filled news conference announcing that this Grand Slam could very well be his last, saying he will retire in 2019. The 31-year-old and former No. 1 player has battled an injured right hip.

Murray mentioned in the presser how he's been struggling for a while.

"I've been in a lot of pain for probably about 20 months now," Murray said during the news conference. "I've pretty much done everything that I could to try and get my hip feeling better. ... Still in a lot of pain. It's been tough."

He added that he's not sure he can play through the pain for another four or five months. Obviously, playing Wimbledon one last time would be a goal. If he's able.

As the matches got started in the first round Sunday night, I thought about hitting the record button for the four overnight hours when Murray was scheduled to play. Nah, I thought. He'll get through the first round.

Spoiler alert: He did not. Despite playing well and taking the match to five sets after losing the first two, Murray was defeated by Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-2.

The could very well be the last time tennis fans seem Murray in a Grand Slam tournament. If that's the case, it's the end of a solid career and one cut short. A career with immense pressure as Murray was the pride of Great Britain. He won three Grand Slams, two Olympic gold medals and is a Davis Cup Champion.

I still remember listening to the end of the 2012 Wimbledon final when Murray came up short in four sets against Roger Federer. I can't imagine the disappointment he felt, finally getting oh-so-close to a Grand Slam but still unable to grab one, especially on the home grass. Let's face it, Federer is no freakin' slouch. I felt similar to when Andy Roddick lost at Wimbledon to Federer in 2009, that Murray might not ever see his dream of a grand slam realized, especially in front of his home fans.

For me, while the women's tennis world has been a combination of flashes in the pan, upsets and not much consistency at the top unless your name is Williams, the men's game over the past decade or more had a top crop of players. It was always Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Murray as the big four.

Murray's first grand slam title came at the U.S. Open in 2012 when he defeated Djokovic in a five-set thriller, 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. It was the first time in 76 years that a British man a grand slam singles title. So yeah, there was some pressure there. Murray finally got his day in the sun at home, too, winning at Wimbledon in 2013 with a straight-set victory over Djokovic, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.

Announcing his retirement prior to the Australian Open this year had to be particularly difficult because Murray has never won the tournament in Melbourne, despite making it to the final five times in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016. With the three grand slam titles to his name, it's fitting that two of them came on the grass at Wimbledon as he won it for the second time in 2016.

Murray had a successful 2016 season, making it to the finals of the Australian and French opens along with winning Wimbledon. He was also ranked No. 1 in the world.

But after that, it was a different story. He lost in the fourth round in Australia, then in the second round at Indian Wells. He suffered an elbow injury. He also dealt with the hip injury that just kept hanging around and made it to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. He also missed some other tournaments and ended up losing the No. 1 next to his name, because of the hip injury. Causing a little controversy, he waited until just days before the U.S. Open to withdraw.

It was the same story for the 2018 Aussie Open, with the hip injury keeping him out. This time, he underwent surgery. He wasn't ready to come back and also withdrew from Wimbledon that year. Murray's career since the hip injury has been a waiting game to see if he'll play or withdraw because his body just wasn't ready to play in five-setters. He made it back for the U.S. Open last fall but lost in the second round.

I'm sure Murray would love to come back for Wimbledon, but playing a hard-fought, five-set match in the Australian Open is also not a bad way to end his career. It has to be tough knowing that this wasn't his decision, in the sense that his injuries and his body were dictating things. Still, a three-time Grand Slam champion, and one who had such immense pressure on himself, offers a lot for Murray to be proud of as he retires in his early 30s.

It will be different not seeing Murray as part of the top-tier men's tennis game, but taking care of his body for the long-term has to come first.