Thursday, August 23, 2012

As one chapter ends, another begins

Early this morning I reluctantly resigned my position as WCHA co-columnist for U.S. College Hockey Online. It was a decision I had struggled with mightily for several weeks due to the tremendous opportunity Executive Editor, Todd Milewski, and site “CEO”, Tim Brule, gave me 11 months ago to write for such a broad and passionate fan base.

No conference generates more traffic on USCHO than the WCHA so I am grateful for the chance Todd took in trusting a middle-aged writer possessing, let’s face it, a limited background with such an important beat. It was a responsibility I took extremely seriously for which I devoted many hours of hard work at the expense of my family which, nevertheless, was very supportive of my desire to do nothing short of my best.

I thoroughly enjoyed working with everyone I met at USCHO, particularly my co-columnist and now friend, Tyler Buckentine, who was a pleasure to collaborate with on a weekly basis. I learned a lot from Todd, Tyler, and the rest of the conference columnists with whom I dealt from time to time.

The positive feedback I received throughout the season from fellow writers was much appreciated, especially when things got stressful. Even the feedback, primarily negative, from the readers in the form of their comments had its merits and pushed me to try even harder.

I’m not getting out of the writing game, or even college hockey for that matter. I have accepted a position with a new site set to launch in October which covers the game at all levels with mine, of course, being the college side. Much more information on the new venture is set to come out in the next couple of weeks so look for that.

As much as I would have liked to, I reached the unfortunate conclusion that I would not have the time to write for both sites simultaneously with a 50 hour/week “real job”, a wife and a pair of hockey playing sons. In fact, my oldest son is a high school senior and I decided wasn’t willing to miss as many games in his final season as I did last year.

Anyway, it was a fun ride at USCHO covering a great conference season, a Final Five, and an NCAA Regional for college hockey’s most comprehensive website. But I’m really excited to help get this new site off the ground and can’t wait to start spreading the word.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Five Years Later, I-35W Bridge Collapse Remains Haunting

I’m a Minnesotan and I’m not ashamed to admit it except, of course, when we manage to elect wrestlers, comedians, and other wackos to high-ranking public office. A typical Minnesotan will spend a great deal of time agonizing over the extremes in weather we choose to endure, refer to carbonated beverages as pop rather than soda, and measure distance in terms of hours rather than miles.

Minnesotans are also an exceedingly provincial lot. The surgical precision with which the Twin Cities media will dig to unearth the tiniest detail linking a national story to a local angle is nothing short of remarkable. Furthermore, no state’s residents love to hear their homeland mentioned by the national media more than Minnesota’s.

But even the state’s most ardent “homers” would prefer that one of Minnesota’s most internationally recognized events in its history had never required any airtime on CNN or the like.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the Interstate 35W Bridge collapse into the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis which killed 13 and injured 145 unsuspecting drivers, passengers, and construction workers in the waning moments of the evening rush hour. Minnesota was on the map in the days and weeks ahead, but for all the wrong reasons.

Since I’m already a local, that angle is already well established. However, I do have a personal angle to offer; one that puts me and my family near the scene. Close enough, in fact, that in the years since the collapse I've often wondered what might have been if not for fate’s curious and auspicious intercession.

The afternoon of August 1, 2007, was a day much like today in that it was a sunny Wednesday with high temperatures hovering around 90 degrees. My wife’s brother, a long-time Minnesota Twins season-ticket holder, had graciously offered my family his four tickets to that night’s game at the Metrodome where the Twins were set to host the Kansas City Royals.

My routine for outings like this with my family generally involves arriving downtown roughly an hour ahead of game time to get parked, get in the building, load up on food, and settle into our seats. Game time was 7:10 pm. The bridge fell at 6:05 pm.

Issues at work late that afternoon left me a few minutes behind my schedule and a tad frustrated that my routine might be affected. It’s not a trait I’m proud of, but I do allow things like that to affect me more than I should. Being that as it may, I of course wanted nothing more to get back and remain on schedule.

A good friend of mine is the Concession Department Manager for Centerplate, the company which operates the Metrodome’s concession stands, and, as it happens, I had spoken with her earlier that day. In our conversation she had mentioned that I might want to be wary of the construction occurring on the bridge and the traffic backups, in addition to normal game traffic, we may encounter as my route to downtown Minneapolis from the northeast suburbs of the Twin Cites takes me over the I-35W Bridge.

With that in mind, and already overly concerned with maintaining my rigid itinerary, I spent the entire drive considering my alternative options. Having done well to get back on track I determined I wasn't willing to risk it and made the last-second decision to exit I-35W for Highway 280 to connect with I-94 to take us downtown.

Highway 280 ultimately became the primary detour route until bridge reconstruction was completed on September 18, 2008.

We arrived at our customary parking lot at approximately 6:10 pm and exited our minivan—yes, I said minivan … shut up—to the wailing chorus of sirens. But considering our proximity to the Hennepin County Medical Center, we didn't really give them a second thought.

It wasn't until we were inside the Metrodome and we ran into my friend Pat in the concourse that we were informed of the horror playing out a mere mile away. Even then we couldn't fully grasp the enormous scope of the disaster. Our archaic cell phones at the time were incapable of allowing us to access images of the bridge while the photos we viewed on the phones of those around us were too small to paint an accurate picture of what was going on.

It was amazing we were able to see what we did, considering the near blackout conditions in cell phone coverage in the area due to the massive amount of calls overloading the towers. Family members, including my brother-in-law, with knowledge of our plans that evening, and thinking the worst, frantically tried to reach us without success and causing them great strain. We, of course, could not reach them either until much later.

The game itself began with a moment of silence for the victims and was played before a largely subdued audience which struggled to celebrate the successes witnessed in a game which lost its significance well before it began. I can still recall the morbid atmosphere in the building aided to some degree by the suspension of all in-game promotions creating an awkward silence between innings.

Twins officials could have postponed the game but it was determined, and rightfully so, that sending 25,000 people immediately back out onto the streets of Minneapolis would be counterproductive to the efforts of rescue workers. As it was, the following day’s afternoon game against the Royals was rescheduled for August 31 as were the Target Field groundbreaking ceremonies to August 30.

We stayed until the end of the game—as we always do—and meandered our way home via a series of alternate routes, still unable to wrap our heads around what had happened earlier that evening so close to where we had been. Once we were finally home after 11 p.m. we were astonished by what we saw when the television was turned on. It was beyond what our imagination had been capable of producing in our minds throughout the night.

Since it reopened, I have yet to cross that bridge without considering the devastating impact the collapse had on the victims and their loved ones. I also never fail to wonder what if. What if even a slight alteration to our sequence of events had occurred?

You just never know … 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Modano, Fans Need To Let It Go

After a more than 11 month hiatus, I've determined it high time to make my triumphant return to the world of recreational blogging.  OK, so there hasn't exactly been a a clamoring for a new Frozen Ponderings post and I've never been what you would consider a regular on the blogging circuit. But after urging a friend to launch a blog I figured I'd give it another go and see what happens.

It helps when a subject comes about that fires you up to a degree and this, of course, is no exception. Spurred by the euphoria of the free-agent signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter by the Minnesota Wild, nostalgic fans State of Hockey fans have since been pining for the Wild to ink another high-profile player to a contract: former Minnesota North Star, Mike Modano.
Time to say goodbye for good, Mike.
To be fair, Modano is responsible for instigating this lunacy with his July 4 tweet shortly after news broke about the Parise/Suter signings indicating what I interpreted to be facetious interest in returning to Minnesota to play for the Wild. Unfortunately, legions of fans took him seriously and Modano himself has only added fuel to the fire with additional comments in the media expressing interest in suiting up for Minnesota.

Despite repeated reports from the StarTribune's Michael Russo, arguably the NHL's most plugged in beat writer, stating the team has no plans whatsoever to add the newly-named U.S. Hockey Hall-of-Famer, Wild fans continue to inundate Twitter and Wild-related blog comments with their insane quest to re-live their past. Modano is not, and should not, be in a Minnesota Wild uniform when the inevitable NHL lockout eventually comes to a merciful end.

Modano's selection by Lou Nanne in the first-round of the 1988 NHL Entry Draft over Trevor Linden made "Sweet Lou from the Soo" two-for-three in making No. 1 overall picks (Bobby Smith 1978, Brian Lawton 1983) in his tenure as GM of the North Stars. Minnesota earned that pick with a 19-48-13 season in 1987-88 but, three seasons later, Modano helped lead the North Stars within two wins of a Stanley Cup before falling to Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I was a young North Stars fan at the time so I fully understand the impact Modano made in the green and gold before the team was 
hijacked by Satan's step-child, Norm Green, and relocated to Dallas in 1993. But although both Modano and I are 19 years older, apparently only one of us knows that it's too late to go back. 

Modano averaged .955 points per game in 1238 games over his first 17 seasons but his production slipped significantly (.731 ppg) in his last four seasons and 261 games. This includes .375 per game--15 points in 40 games--in Modano's final season with the Detroit Red Wings in 2010-11. Tack on an entire season sitting out and what does anyone seriously expect to get out of a 42 year-old Mike Modano?

Even if he were slightly more productive, the Wild, as currently constructed, simply do not have room for him from either a roster or a payroll standpoint. In addition to Parise and Suter, the Wild also added Torrey Mitchell and center Zenon Konopka in free agency. Factoring in Minnesota's desire to have Mikael Granlund make the team as a center, Konopka's addition, along with Mikko Koivu and Kyle Brodziak, gives them six centers if you include Matt Cullen and Darrell Powe who will each have to play wing this season if they're on the roster.

In my estimation this leaves Modano as, at best, the seventh option at center barring any sort of trade. However, I doubt any potential deals will have any effect on the center position and there are too many young prospects vying for spots to consider Modano for anywhere else.

Considering the Wild already have 12 forwards signed to one-way deals and Granlund on his entry-level contract, Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher will have some decisions to make regardless so Modano is far from Fletcher's radar. There's also the matter of less than $800,000 in cap space which is over $200,000 less than Modano made in his lone season in Detroit.

Is Mike Modano the Wild's best option for a fourth-line wing? Uhhh ... yeah ... I don't think so either. Quite honestly, I would find it pretty damn sad. Modano needs to do everyone a favor and put an end to this nonsense once and for all. In the meantime, the delusional among the Wild's fan base must seek to get a firm grasp on reality and focus their attention on what appears to be a brighter future for their favorite hockey club.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wild/Sharks Summer of Love a One-Sided Affair? Not for San Jose.

Brent Burns / Devin Setoguchi
Image courtesy of Jordan Doffing/MN Hockey News

Dan Shrader of the esteemed First Round Bust blog tweeted a link last night to a Bleacher Report blog concerning the summer of love between Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and his San Jose Sharks counterpart Doug Wilson. In his blog, B/R contributor Michael DeSantis makes a feeble attempt to persuade his readers that the Sharks clearly came out ahead in their Wild feeding frenzy.

To paraphrase a well-known movie line, what DeSantis goes on to say is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in his rambling, incoherent editorial was he even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought.

It is cliché, I know, but read it and tell me Billy Madison isn’t the first thing to come to mind. To be fair to Shrader his follow-up tweet accurately described the piece as “the biggest crock of shit.”

DeSantis begins by analyzing the Brent Burns trade as essentially a one-for-one deal for Devin Setoguchi. This member of Sharks nation apparently considers the two first-round draft picks dealt by San Jose (Charlie Coyle and Zack Phillips) and the 2012 second rounder the Wild included as mere throw-ins.

Rather than acknowledging that Setoguchi has an outstanding opportunity to flourish offensively in an expanded role in Minnesota the writer states that with Setoguchi shifting to “a less talented Wild team, Setoguchi will have a harder time scoring than with the offensively sound Sharks.”

(Deep breath here)

Brent Burns
Photo by Jordan Doffing/MN Hockey News
From a Minnesota perspective, the trade was made primarily to bolster the Wild's present offense up front with Setoguchi and future firepower with Coyle and Phillips. Fletcher's only bargaining chip was a talented player for whom the Wild had little chance of competing for on the open market considering the contract extension he received from the Sharks after the trade. 

While I like Burns—although not nearly as much as others it seems—characterizing him as amazing, as DeSantis did, is a bit over the top for me.

In breaking down the Dany Heatly for Martin Havlat swap, DeSantis again points toward Minnesota’s weaker offense last season as an indication that Heately “may struggle with the Wild.” On the other hand Havlat is seen as “a perfect fit for the Sharks” largely due to the chance to suit up with “a much better supporting cast.”

Once again, the point of the deal is missed by the writer. This purpose of this trade was two-fold for Fletcher: A) The opportunity to insert a proven scorer on his team’s top line to strengthen said weak offense while B) subtracting a talented but enigmatic player whose interest in playing in Minnesota at all had waned significantly over the course of two years.

Even if this deal ends up eventually appearing as a statistical wash, the Havlat addition-by-subtraction factor ensures that the scale tips toward Minnesota on this one.

(Unfortunately I think that take costs me a couple of Twitter followers)

Lastly, we come to the merciful jettisoning of First Round Bust’s namesake, James Sheppard. The ninth overall pick in the 2006 draft has managed to amass a measly 11 goals and 38 assists in 224 career games making him the poster child for first-round busts. Adding injury to insult, Sheppard missed all of last season after injuring his knee in an off-season ATV accident resulting in a team suspension.

The blog lists the compensation for Sheppard as a first-round pick [this has since been corrected] which, if true, would not only be reason to fire Wilson but commit the man. In fact, Minnesota received a third-round choice in 2013 which alone offers plenty of evidence to question Wilson’s sanity.

But the most face-in-palm, head-shaking assessment in the entire composition reads like this:

“Sheppard will be a solid bottom-six forward, another major piece in the Sharks puzzle.”

Mr. DeSantis I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

"Super League" Formation is Imminent But "Forgotten 10" Have Options

Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald reportedly confirmed via multiple sources on Thursday the much-rumored formation of a new alliance between select members of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and Central Collegiate Hockey Association beginning with the 2013-2014 season.

The announcement, expected to come as early as Wednesday, confirms that the WCHA as we know it will indeed not survive the exodus of the University’s of Minnesota and Wisconsin to a newly-formed Big Ten conference upon the conclusion of the 2012-2013 season. The article also rings the death knell for what would have remained of the CCHA which is losing Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State to the Big Ten.

I grew up following Minnesota and the WCHA but I’m as much a fan of college hockey itself and this recent revelation has me concerned about the sport’s overall health.

The yet-unnamed conference will feature North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, Denver, Colorado College, and Nebraska-Omaha of the WCHA along with the CCHA’s Miami-OH. Notre Dame and Western Michigan of the CCHA are also expected to be included.

Left swinging in the breeze by these decisions are:

Bemidji State
Northern Michigan
St. Cloud State
Lake Superior State
Minnesota State
Ferris State
Michigan Tech
Bowling Green

While competitive teams remain, there isn’t a ton of sex appeal and these institutions are among the NCAA’s more fiscally-challenged programs. Regardless of how the remaining schools choose to align in the future, there are significant challenges ahead in terms of travel expense and competition to lure the right non-conference opponents to fill their smaller buildings and generate revenue.

Between the eight teams in this new league and the six Big Ten teams, you can bet on the fact that those 14 teams will attempt to schedule each other as much as possible. This doesn’t leave many scraps for the “Forgotten Ten” to fight over which not only hurts financially but, in some cases, competitively. Even in an “up” year, if a school is unable to schedule and potentially beat “Teams Under Consideration” their PairWise ranking would be considerably affected.

In his analysis of this significant restructuring of the NCAA hockey landscape, Schlossman urged those left behind to consider a glass-half-full point of view:

"Instead of seeing this as a catastrophe, the schools left behind should be looking at the opportunity. 
No, they won’t be getting a weekend boon in attendance when traditional powers such as UND, Minnesota and Wisconsin come into their buildings annually. 
But the door is opening for these teams to annually compete for league championships and NCAA tournament berths."

Schlossman goes on to bolster his claim of “opportunity” by chronicling the post-season futility of these so-called traditional bottom-feeders. He then offers Bemidji State and R.I.T. as examples of teams which overcame weaker conference affiliations to ascend to Frozen Four berths in recent years.

If opportunity is to be the selling point for the “Forgotten 10” I will go one better on that: How about doubling that opportunity? Rather than combining forces and settling for one automatic NCAA berth, why not simply add one team to each remaining group to form two six-team conferences and secure two berths in the final 16.

With tensions reportedly already elevated between the camps and talk of an uncomfortable two years ahead, what better way for the afterthought institutions to strike back than to potentially eliminate an at-large option for those that spurned them? In addition, this would double the recruiting exposure of single berth and the additional opportunity becomes an instant recruiting tool.

The WCHA teams would be smart to court a team like Air Force to fill out its roster which makes geographic sense for both parties with Colorado-based Air Force currently residing in the Atlantic Hockey Association. It would also pit Serratore vs. Serratore with Air Force's Frank and Bemidji State's Tom squaring off four times annually. The CCHA, on the other hand, could possibly pluck Alabama-Huntsville from the independent scrap heap or attempt to lure another team from out east.

If those scenarios were to occur, competitive re-alignments Schlossman suggested could be considered but with a slightly different twist. For instance, an Alaska-Fairbanks move to the WCHA would fuel its natural rivalry with Anchorage and Michigan Tech joining the CCHA raises the stakes for meetings with fellow Michigan foes Ferris State, Lake Superior State, and Northern Michigan.

Here’s how things could look in a couple of years:

Bemidji State
Northern Michigan
St. Cloud State
Lake Superior State
Minnesota State
Ferris State
Michigan Tech
Bowling Green
Air Force Academy or ???
Alabama-Huntsville or ???

I’m using existing conference names for simplicity’s sake but it wouldn’t surprise me at all that, if they chose not to conjoin, they might decide to re-brand themselves and opt for fresh starts.

The common threads in favor of a so-called “Super League”, or “Siouxper League” as Shane Frederick of the Mankato Free Press jokingly suggested, revolve around three key components. Stories by the Duluth News-Tribune’s Kevin Pates, the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Joe Paisley, and Omaha World-Herald’s Chad Purcell all point to potential post season revenue, recruiting benefits, and television exposure which will theoretically rival what the Big Ten Network will provide its members.

As the chorus of a familiar song goes, “two out of three ain’t bad.” Where is this television exposure going to come from? Denver is the largest media market among the renegade group and the Pioneers were televised regionally a grand total of 12 times in the regular season last year. Colorado College games were telecast locally or regionally 11 times live and three times on tape delay in 2010-2011.

I found no evidence of either Notre Dame or Miami being televised last season while defending-national-champion UMD was on TV 15 times locally. But four of those games were against what will be former in-state rivals Minnesota and St. Cloud State while three others were against future non-conference opponent Wisconsin.

North Dakota was the only team I could find which at least had its entire home schedule televised with those not on Fox College Sports carried regionally on the Fighting Sioux Network.

But with the lack of major markets, the absence of the Big Ten schools, and, let’s face it, the fact that college hockey remains a niche sport, from where is the clamor to sign this league to a noteworthy television package going to emanate?

Exclusively inside the greed-driven, self-serving minds of a handful of delusional athletic directors whose regard for the sport as a whole appears to be dwindling.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Yeo's Houston Successor a Great Choice, Enjoy Him While He Lasts

Greetings from the beautiful shores of Minnesota's Leech Lake. God's country in other words. Sand is filtering  between my toes as I type this.

When the Minnesota Wild promoted  Houston Aeros  coach Mike Yeo to replace departed Wild coach Todd Richards last month the move filled one whole but created another within the organization. That situation  was rectified with today's the announcement that veteran NHL assistant John Torchetti has been hired to guide Minnesota's top farm club this season.

That Torchetti got the job somewhat caught me off guard if only because his wasn't one of the names I'd seen bandied about. The candidates most mentioned were former Columbus Blue Jackets assistant Gary Agnew, San Jose Sharks assistant Trent Yawney, and Calgary Flames assistant Ryan McGill; none of which did a whole lot for me.

Torchetti, on the other hand, is a pleasant surprise and an outstanding choice. Early on in the Wild's search for a Richards replacement, Torchetti--along with Yeo and University of Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves--was on my personal short list of favored candidates. I've already had my say in this forum about what turned out to be the runner-up candidates for the Wild job.

I believe Torchetti to be the ideal man to carry the torch of accountability that Yeo lit last season and train Minnesota's prospects to be professional in every sense of the word. I look for the Aeros to continue to be extremely competitive under Torchetti as well.

All of this, of course, leads to the one potential drawback of this choice: Torchetti's tenure may be short, as little as one season. If he has the success I think he'll have in Houston, Torchetti will be a sizzling-hot commodity in next spring's coaching carousel. Enjoy him while you can Wild/Aeros fans.

The John Torchetti File:

  • Age: 46
  • Hometown: Boston, Massachusetts
  • Most-recent Employer/Position: Atlanta Thrashers (NHL)/Associate Coach
  • Prior NHL Experience/Capacity:
    • Chicago (2007-08 to 2009-10)/Assistant
    • Los Angeles (2005-06)/Assistant
    • Florida (2002-03 to 2003-04)/Assistant
    • Tampa Bay (1999-00 to 2000-01)/Assistant
  • Playing Career:
    • 532 points (258 goals, 274 assists) in 359 minor league games over seven seasons with the Carolina Thunderbirds (ACHL, AAHL, ECHL), Virginia Lancers (ACHL), Binghamton Whalers (AHL) and Winston-Salem Thunderbirds (ECHL) from 1984-85 to 1990-91.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Havlat Secures Independence From Wild

With the sandy shoreline and vast expanse of Leech Lake’s sky-blue water providing a glorious backdrop on a hot, sunny Fourth of July at Red Wing Lodge, my thoughts, of course, are focused squarely on hockey. Much of that mindset is simply attributable to my obsession with the sport, but the odd timing has its own explanation. 

Last night my traditional Independence Day festivities with family, including a deep-fried turkey dinner and an amateur fireworks display, were disrupted when my phone was besieged with Twitter-related texts. It was a sign of something big.

As America celebrates its national independence and honors those whose sacrifices made it possible let us not forget the subject of those tweets; a certain Czech Republic native rejoicing in his own freedom on this very day.

Sunday night’s trade between the Minnesota Wild and the San Jose Sharks sending Martin Havlat to the Sharks in exchange for Dany Heatley—the second such blockbuster deal between the two teams in just over a week—finally makes right a wrong that Havlat, in my mind, feels he committed two years ago.

Havlat, who never seemed truly comfortable with his decision to sign with the Wild and whose abrasive relationship with former Wild coach Todd Richards was well documented, likely had the shackles of playoff futility removed with the change of scenery. Havlat was an enigma to me throughout his tenure in Minnesota with his maddening inconsistency and his insistence on passing the puck in clear shooting situations.

Those like me who salivated 24 months ago at the thought of an explosive pairing of Havlat and Mikko Koivu providing offensive fireworks were, sadly, treated to a dud. With neither being what you would call a pure scorer the combination, like Havlat’s with the Wild as a whole, was not a good fit.

In Heatley, the Wild gets a shooter with a scorer’s touch who may not fly down the wing with Havlat’s electrifying flair, but will use his 6’4”, 220 Lb. frame to go to the net and finish. But Heatley’s not without his flaws as his sub-par playoff performances with the Sharks (five goals and 22 points in 32 games) would indicate and, of the three times Heatley’s been traded in his career, this is the first he hasn’t forced upon his team.

On the other hand, Heatley has proven in the past he can score in the post season. With Ottawa in 2005-06 he notched 12 points (3 goals, 9 assists) in 10 games and followed that up with 22 points (7, 15) over 20 games in 2006-07. So, like Havlat, maybe a change of uniform does Heatley good and allows him to regain his post-season scoring touch.

That’s assuming, however, Minnesota makes a return to the playoffs sometime before Heatley’s contract expires three seasons from now. This move, in conjunction with the Wild’s recent acquisition of Heatley’s San Jose teammate Devin Setoguchi and prospect Charlie Coyle, is a step in that direction.