Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Once a Hot Commodity, Richards Was in Wrong Place at Wrong Time

Happier times for Fletcher and Richards
Minnesota Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher awoke Monday morning with the knowledge that within hours he would be terminating the employment of the man who just two years prior was his choice to lead the Wild back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Given their history—the pair shared a previous GM/Head Coach relationship for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL from 2006-2008—relieving Todd Richards of his head coaching duties had to have been difficult for Fletcher but, ultimately, he had no choice.

In the spring of 2009, Richards was the next big thing in coaching circles having parlayed a successful (albeit brief) AHL coaching run into a spot alongside Todd McLellan behind the bench of the San Jose Sharks. Richards was lauded for his work on a Presidents-Trophy-winning San Jose team which tied with the Boston Bruins for the league lead in wins with 53.

Richards on hiring day
Upon his hiring by Minnesota, Richards' promises of an up-tempo, attacking style of play were music to the ears of many Wild fans that were eager for a contrast from Jacques Lemaire's successful, but highly-structured, transition-oriented offense. But there were also those, myself included, extremely skeptical of how such a system could be implemented with a roster largely comprised of players chosen for and accustomed to the ways of Lemaire.


Despite intermittent periods of success, the experiment was an overall failure. Putting it bluntly, Xcel Energy Center fans have been exposed to two seasons of square peg/round-hole syndrome. That's not to say that Richards' tactics could not be successful, because I truly believe they could in the right environment.

Just not here.

Just not now.

Not at this stage of the Wild's development, or lack thereof (thank you Doug Risebrough). Between poorly-conceived contracts, disastrous draft picks, miserable trades (Fletcher included here), and an injury plagued prima donna star who was lost for nothing, Fletcher has been and will continue to be handcuffed in his efforts to infuse the all-star-caliber talent required for Minnesota to be a factor regardless of who mans the bench.

Is Richards playing fall guy for egregious managerial miscalculations over the course of several years? To some degree he most certainly is. But owner Craig Leipold has too much invested in this team—and too much more to lose—to not reap the reward of even a brief playoff run so, with the limitations personnel-wise faced by Fletcher,  Richards became the sacrificial lamb.

Talent issues aside, however, Richards just wasn’t ready for this job at this stage of his career. He was protective of his players to a fault which I never understood because players up and down the roster routinely gave the man such half-hearted efforts you almost wished he could channel an inner Don Cherry from time to time.

Additionally, reading between the lines from player comments, covering their behinds never garnered him complete command of the dressing room.
I never got the sense Richards was in full control of his team whether I was observing him on the bench or sitting in on one of his press conferences. At various times he appeared unsure, perplexed, anxious, and overwhelmed.

With decreasing attendance, fan interest, and a correlating decline in corporate support, something had to be done to dress the franchise’s gaping wound. At this point, even the illusion of progress would be a step in the right direction toward mending those relationships.
Team of 18,000?

That said, this is a crucial hire for Chuck Fletcher because A) the right choice could revive an organization which, despite its relatively mediocre success, was once considered a model franchise and B) the wrong choice would likely put Fletcher’s own job in jeopardy.

Who should be behind home bench at Xcel Energy Center this fall? I have my own ideas on that subject including a few which many might find surprising. But that’s for another day.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wild No Longer Taking a Back Seat On Local Airwaves

As a hockey fan and hockey dad who finds himself spending hundreds of hours driving to and from arenas throughout the winter I applaud the Minnesota Wild's move from WCCO to KFAN as its flagship radio home. As a Twin Cities resident, I follow the Wild closely and I cover their home games as my schedule permits but the previous situation made it difficult many times when traveling.

The Wild has spent 10 seasons allowing WCCO to treat them like a red-headed stepchild, preempting Wild games in favor of University of Minnesota sports along with political events already being covered by dozens of other outlets.

Clear Channel Minneapolis Operations Manager Gregg Swedberg assured me that, while conflicts may still arise--Vikings and Gopher football are also carried by KFAN--the station and the Wild will work in tandem to make every effort to avoid them.

"I think we counted three potential conflicts this year," said Swedberg  in an email. "One of the reasons the Wild left ‘CCO, from what we’ve been told, is that WCCO had no problem with moving the games. We really do not want to do it, and with only football to compete with, we don’t think we’ll have to."

But, as Swedberg added, if games are moved they are shifted to KOOL 108 FM's 100,000 watt signal.

In contrast, 'CCO made matters worse by moving Wild games to low-powered sister stations (BOB 106.1 FM and La Mera Buena 107.5 FM) offering ridiculously poor reception in such distant locales such as downtown St. Paul. I have literally found it easier to pick up NHL games out of Chicago, Detroit, Denver, or Montreal (in French no less) over the years than a broadcast emanating from my hometown.

I know, I know, there are environmental factors which contribute to this--ionospheric conditions this and skywave effect that--which require most 50,000 watt stations, including KFAN (but not WCCO), to reduce power after sunset. But any self-respecting NHL franchise would not be content with the quality of reception provided to fans of the Minnesota Wild by its radio partners on many occasions throughout the years.

"For 90% of the metro, our night signal works," said Swedberg. "It’s not WCCO, we know. But it’s probably the second best signal in town at night. We also run our signal on 103.5 (FM), which covers the downtowns very well, even if it never gets past the 494-694 loop. But it does offer indoor coverage downtown, which WCCO can’t do, being an AM."

Yet another plus to the switch is that KFAN is retaining the current on-air trio of Bob Kurtz, Tom Reid, and Kevin Falness promising the Wild a seamless transition to its new home. Some may not agree with that assessment but I find Kurtz enjoyable to listen to much like I did growing up with him calling Minnesota Twins baseball and Minnesota North Stars games on television.

While I'm not as enamored with Reid--it would help if he'd remove the phrase "that point position" from his lexicon--he's somewhat of a local icon and has good chemistry with Kurtz. Falness and his face-defying voice has grown on me as has his jousting with Wild StarTribune beat-writer Michael Russo on Twitter. Combine those three with a deeper set of hockey analysts than WCCO ever had and Swedberg, a life-long hockey fan,  is excited by the programming possibilities.

"I think it will be great for hockey fans, as we really want to use Tom, Bob and Kevin on our station as regular guests," said Swedberg. "With Lou Nanne, Kevin Gorg, Pat Micheletti, Nate Miller, Brandon Mileski and our regular hosts (who know more hockey than they’ve shown), I would look for the Fan to really step up."

On the surface, it appears that KFAN will offer the Minnesota Wild, and NHL hockey in general, something the franchise has lacked since its inception: a flagship radio station which treats the team as a valued asset. It's too bad it took 10 seasons for it to come to fruition but, as Swedberg says, it wasn't for lack of will on KFAN's part.

"One of our biggest frustrations is that we never even had the opportunity to pitch the Wild before this year.  Because all the sports deals came up at the same time, and because frankly, WCCO wasn’t aggressive enough, we were able to get in front of the team."