Friday, January 29, 2010

Wild Play Game of Hard to Get on Local Airwaves

A funny thing happened to me tonight as I drove home from a meeting and flipped through the AM radio dial: with the numbers 8, 3, and 0 lit up on my radio face plate, the distinctive sounds of a hockey game in progress were evident immediately.


It struck me as a WCCO anomaly as I’m accustomed to Gopher anything or Presidential politics, among other things, taking precedence on the radio “home” of the Minnesota Wild. But if the dulcet tones of Bob Kurtz’s play-by-play was not evidence enough, Tom Reid’s description of a shot being taken from “…that point position…” proved beyond a reasonable doubt that I was, indeed, listening to the Wild versus the Colorado Avalanche on 50,000 watt radio. By the way, I’ll give a dollar for every watt to the person who successfully removes that phrase from Reid’s on-air lexicon.

24 hours prior, I made a premeditated attempt to catch a few minutes of Minnesota’s 5-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on my drive home from my son’s hockey practice. To my dismay—from both a political and fanatical perspective—I was treated to President Obama’s State of the Union address.


Don’t get me wrong, any speech by the President of the United States, particularly this one, carries great weight and needs to be made available to the masses through all forms of media available. However, in addition to the multiple broadcast and cable television outlets and the internet, the President’s voice could be heard loud and clear on no less than 18 AM radio stations that night.

I’ll grant you that a few of those stations were audible from great distances via the “Skywave Effect” such as Cincinnati’s WLW (700), Chicago’s WGN (720) and WBBM (780), and Denver’s KOA (850). But all four were crystal-clear as compared to the signal from both of the Wild’s FM outlets; BOB 106.1 and LaMera 107.5. Of course, to be fair, I was listening from the distant locale of…………..White Bear Lake!!!

What I’m trying to say is that if the Wild/Red wings game had been on WCCO there would not have been one person disenfranchised by one less radio station carrying the address. Furthermore, the Minnesota Wild franchise has long needed to quit allowing it to be treated like the red-headed stepchild and sign a broadcast agreement with a radio station which values the Wild as the asset that it truly is.

KSTP (AM 1500) would also provide the Wild with a 50K watt flagship station which already pays close attention to hockey courtesy of StarTribune beat writer Michael Russo's weekly "Russo Radio" appearances. This is unlike a certain "sports radio" station which is already in full-fledged NFL draft coverage and has hitched its wagon to what may not even be the best basketball team in the state.

My passion as a hockey fan who never feels his favorite sport gets its just due may have me a tad over-sensitive about this subject and that's . . . OK.

But it has been a thorn in my side for years with this team and I feel it’s time for the Wild and team Vice-President, Broadcasting and Communications, Bill Robertson to let go of this inferiority complex they suffer from and come to grips with the fact that they are “good enough . . . smart enough . . . and, doggone it, people like” them.

The team deserves much better and, most importantly, so do the fans.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Latendresse Second To No One vs. Penguins

With the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin—and even Jordan Staal—in the lineup, the tendency would be to expect one of them to be the most dominant player on the ice in any given Pittsburgh Penguins game. You certainly wouldn’t anticipate a 22-year-old second-round draft pick—given up on by the team which selected him—to outshine the star-studded trio in a head-to-head matchup.

But that’s exactly what occurred on Monday night at Xcel Energy Center as Guillaume Latendresse registered a goal and three assists to lead the Wild to a 4-3 victory and a season sweep of the Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins.


Wild/Penguins Game Highlights

Latendresse, acquired by Minnesota from the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 23 in exchange for one of the decade’s biggest first-round busts (Benoit Pouliot), has taken the Wild and the Xcel Energy Center faithful by storm.

The trade has since proved to be Wild GM Chuck Fletcher’s shrewdest move to date from a roster perspective. Martin Havlat was thought to be that player but he has struggled to find his groove here until lately. Havlat’s recent jump in production can be traced—not coincidentally—to his insertion on a line with center Kyle Brodziak and, yes, Guillaume Latendresse.

Since his arrival in Minnesota, Latendresse has 15 (10-5=15) points in 21 games after only registering three points (2-1=3) in 23 games with Montreal, the team which drafted him in the second round (45th overall) of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.


Latendresse speaks to WCCO radio's Tom Reid post-game

The Wild is now 15-6-0 with Latendresse in the lineup and 8-1-0 when he registers at least one point. If he continues to resurrect his career the way he has, he could (and should) begin to rival Derek Boogaard on the popularity scale. I’ll never understand the Boogaard fascination, but that’s for another blog.

The 6-2, 230 pound native of Saint Catherine, Quebec has been excelling at both ends of the ice. He’s a relentless forechecker and backchecker, can grind along the boards with the best of them, demonstrates remarkable anticipation in the neutral zone, and simply finds a way to get the puck on his stick. Oh and, by the way, the kid can rack up points too. Take that (Montreal Head Coach) Jacques Martin!!! And thanks for taking Pouliot too.

Latendresse, a power forward, was selected in the first round (second overall) of the 2003 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) draft by the Drummondville Volitgeurs, just one spot behind the player he bested on Monday. . . . Sidney Crosby who, oh by the way, potted two goals of his own to go with one assist in the contest.

Latendresse admits the two have taken very different career paths but, since becoming unshackled from the intense fan and media scrutiny attached to every highly-touted French-Canadian player in Montreal, he has flourished in Minnesota.

Relegated to fourth-line duty with the Canadiens, Latendresse has experienced a dramatic increase in ice time and special teams play while profiting from Head Coach Todd Richards’ attacking style of play. His coach, his teammates, and Wild fans have been reaping the benefits for nearly two months. The question remaining to be answered is: Will it last?

My prediction is yes.

On a personal note, my friend John Dow suffered a heart attack back in October while playing a hockey game at the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine, MN but was revived by Dr. Evan Domeyer who happened to be on site preparing to play at another of the facility's eight total rinks. The two were honored Monday night prior to the Pittsburgh game and both took part in the traditional pre-game ritual of leading the fans in the "Let's...Play...Hockey" chant. Below is the video of that announcement.



And here's the KARE 11 story on the original incident...





Saturday, January 9, 2010

Headin' Back To "The Barn"

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic as I prepare to revisit the venue in which I managed to complete my career hat trick. To clarify, my youth hockey career in Anoka, MN consisted of three seasons in which I amassed a grand total of three goals; the third and final of which was netted in Elk River, MN.


Photo courtesy of Kyle Oen @ VintageMinnesotaHockey.com

It has been nearly 30 years but, to my rapidly-fading recollection, the old “Barn” in Elk River was quite possibly the most hideously-dilapidated indoor hockey facility I would  set foot in until I was introduced to St Mary’s Point and Lily Lake. On the other hand, I may have blocked out many of the gory details which could only be unlocked via intense therapy or hypnosis.


The goals they used at the time—which appeared as if they pre-dated my existence—contained just enough paint residue on the posts to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they indeed were once red. The netting on each goal was nearly the same color as the puck and had nearly as many holes as Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott’s jeans.


Although the leaky roof‘s raindrops bore holes in the ice when outside temps went above freezing, at least it was dimly lit enough for the crevasse’s to not be a distraction. When cold outside, however, few rinks then and now could be considered colder.

As I conclude this from the arena parking lot less than an hour before my son’s B Bantam game against Eden Prairie (with a kid named Leddy on its roster by the way) I have a feeling I’ll find a much-improved Barn than I remember. But it won’t be long before my mind will be wistfully whisked back almost three decades to how it once looked at 6 am on a Saturday morning.

The Elk River community replaced the Barn as its primary ice sheet in 1997 with the construction of the adjacent “Olympic” rink. On one hand I hope my son’s team will remain in the winner’s bracket and play all of their games at Olympic. But a part of me wouldn’t mind seeing him play on a “classic” rink which I played on at the same age.

We’ll see what the weekend brings.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Playoffs? Are You Kidding Me?

Following its fourth consecutive loss--a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of the conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks--the Wild's climb to within three points of the final Western Conference playoff spot is but a distant memory. Now sitting at 43 points--a full 10 points behind eight place Nashville with Detroit and Dallas looming in-between--Minnesota has placed itself in a very precarious position.


With the post-lockout advent of the shootout routinely rewarding teams with a standings point even in a losing cause, overcoming a double-digit deficit in the season's latter half to become playoff eligible is far more difficult than it once was. Toss in a remaining January schedule which includes contests with each of the conference's top six teams (Chicago, San Jose, Calgary, Phoenix, Colorado, and Vancouver) in addition to the Stars, Red Wings, and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh and...let's just say the task becomes even more daunting. It's not over yet but the Wild must get hot against the best of the west if a playoff push is to be made.

* * * * * * * * * *

Although Minnesota didn't play horribly against Chicago, they simply couldn't manage to finish off scoring chances the way elite teams like the Blackhawks find ways to do consistently.

The trio of Kyle Brodziak Guillaume Latendresse, and Martin Havlat were buzzing the Blackhawks' net for much of the night but only Latandresse's ninth goal of the season in the first period eluded Chicago goaltender Cristobal Huet in a 19-save effort. The Latandresse acquisition by GM Chuck Fletcher continues to prove to be among his shrewdest moves thus far.

The Koivu, Brunette, Miettinen line also provided some excitement but, unfortunately, no results. On the other end of the spectrum, however, Greg Zanon, Marek Zidlicky, and Petr Sykora were each minus 2 on the night and Josh Harding continues to lower his value in trade discussions with every appearance.

With Shane Hnidy already serving a holding time for holding, Zanon's delay of game penalty early in the third period led to what essentially boiled down to--despite Hnidy's exit from the box just four seconds earlier--a 5-on-3 goal for Chicago's Patrick Kane merely eight seconds into Zanon's two-minute sentence.

Harding too often ventured out of his crease with terrifying results due to his horrible puck handling. Early in the second Harding stopped a Chicago dump-in behind the net and froze with it for what seemed like an eternity. While his defensemen were expecting  him to fling the puck back up the boards to either side, Patrick Sharp of the Blackhawks swooped in behind Harding, bumped him off the puck, and fed a pass to Marian Hossa which Hossa buried behind a scrambling Harding.

When Versus color-commentator Billy Jaffe insinuated that a penalty should have been called on the play, my initial reaction was 'For what? Delay of game on Harding?' although I knew he was alluding to the Sharp hit on the Wild back-up netminder.

* * * * * * * * * *

Minnesota's two most recent losses may have provided Minnesotans with a glimpse of this spring's Stanley Cup finalists. The Blackhawks and Devils are as dangerous as any team in their respective conferences and should be considered the favorites to clash come late May/early June.

Chicago has demonstrated a devastating offensive attack while limiting their opponent's chances and they have, surprisingly received excellent goaltending from Huet thus far. If the Frenchman can play anywhere near this level in the playoffs Chicago will be the Western Conference representative over a San Jose Sharks team which, despite the addition of Dany Heatley, still has some post-season demons to exorcise before I'm ready to have much faith in them.

Jacques Lemaire has New Jersey playing that trapping, patient, opportunistic, "boring" style of hockey he coached in Minnesota only with one significant distinction: he has better talent before him on his bench with which to implement said style of play. Lemaire had many critics late in his tenure here--myself among them-- but, although I enjoy watching the more aggressive and risk/reward system now employed by Todd Richards, it's hard to argue with the results coming out of Newark these days.

* * * * * * * * * *