Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Worm Turns for College Hockey

It's been a newsworthy offseason in the college hockey world, but very little of it has been wholly negative.

There was the potential for the new conference alignments to blow up in certain people's faces, but that was just potential. Nothing bad has actually happened in that regard. We haven't lost any programs, and a number of programs that appeared to be on thin ice have been somewhat invigorated by the news, talking openly about their commitment to the future.

Unfortunately, no one told the players about these changes.

College hockey is suddenly hemorrhaging players to the Canadian major junior ranks, and there appears to be little the sport can do to stop it.

Last week, North Dakota lost prized recruit J.T. Miller to the Plymouth Whalers, and sophomore defenseman Jamie Oleksiak left Northeastern to join the Saginaw Spirit, both in the OHL.

Now, there are rumors that Miami recruit Connor Murphy is heading to the Sarnia Sting, and Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald tweeted Tuesday night that goalie John Gibson -- a Michigan recruit -- is possibly the next college recruit to "defect" to the OHL.

This isn't about attacking the CHL. I understand what's going on here. Their teams are looking to improve and get the best players available to them. In many cases, those players are in the 17-18 age range, and they have already committed to attend a U.S. college. For CHL teams, it makes sense to work on college-bound players, because it provides them a chance to put older players on their rosters.

The problem here is that the second a kid signs on to play for a CHL team, they relinquish all NCAA eligibility. It's considered akin to playing professionally.

In order for the NCAA to make headway in its "war" against Canadian major junior hockey, it seems to me that there is work to be done on the educational front. Right now, a kid like Oleksiak can decide college isn't for him (I'm not saying Oleksiak did that here, as I don't know his reasons), and he can join a CHL team. The reality is that the same kid can go to the CHL, hate it, and not have a chance to go back because of the NCAA's rigid stance on amateurism. It's a problem that needs to somehow be overcome.

I've written numerous times in the past about the different paths that exist. John Moore chose major junior over Colorado College. That worked out well for him. Jack Campbell chose major junior over Michigan. That hasn't gone as well, as he's still playing in the OHL when he said he'd be in the NHL by now.

When College Hockey, Inc., started up, a WHL executive accused the NCAA of starting a "pissing match" against the CHL. That's hilarious, since the CHL's pissing on the NCAA is what started this whole thing to begin with.

In the end, the college game is where the work has to be done. Chris Dilks believes the upheaval this offseason has contributed to all these players moving to the CHL.

A big part of the problem is that college hockey is too busy fighting and scheming against itself these days to even worry about fighting against the CHL. Why should JT Miller or Connor Murphy think playing in the WCHA or CCHA for the next two years is worth their time when their own schools made it pretty clear that those conferences aren't good enough? Even College Hockey Inc., which was designed to help present a unified message for college hockey, has been neutralized this summer, since they work directly under college hockey's conference commissioners, and thus have had to keep fairly quiet on the current reorganization. It's another instance of North Dakota thinking they could do things better on their own, and, at least initially, being wrong, and another consequence to the sport that was apparently overlooked in the 20 minutes of planning that went into the Secondary Six.

Dilks can be a bit heavy on the grudges, as evidenced by his annoying insistence to call the NCHC the "Secondary Six," but it's hard to argue against the idea that there is a legitimate point in all the madness above.

I can't blame these defections on the NCHC. Really, do you think J.T. Miller isn't going to spend a year or two in Grand Forks because North Dakota decided to help start a new league in 2013? More than that, do you think the conference changes that haven't impacted Hockey East in any way influenced Oleksiak to bolt for Saginaw? Or is it more likely that Northeastern's long coaching search played a role?

If Gibson leaves Michigan at the altar, however, Dilks' "these schools decided their current league was no longer good enough" take gains more traction.


No matter what, the ball is in the court of Paul Kelly and College Hockey, Inc. They have done a good job establishing themselves as a voice for college hockey, but their message is clearly not being heard over the yelling and screaming from the CHL about how great their program is.

I'm not going to blame Pierre McGuire for this. I'm not going to blame NHL organizations for this.

(I've already taken my shots at McGuire. I still think he's wholly unprofessional when it comes to his commentary about college hockey, but I'm going to be naive here and say he's not the problem, even though it's plausible his commentary influences NHL organizations and young players to make uninformed decisions about which path is best.)

For Kelly and his people, the job is to somehow get the message out through the noise. Propping up players like Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Brian Rafalski, Tim Thomas, Martin St. Louis, and others is simply not good enough.

It's not stopping the CHL teams from convincing players that their path is best and fastest. There is a mountain of evidence that the CHL system simply doesn't work for anyone.

Take the case of Jim O'Brien. The Maplewood native played 43 games as a freshman at Minnesota in 2006-2007, scoring 15 points on seven goals and eight assists. The Ottawa Senators drafted O'Brien 29th overall in 2007, and the decision was made for O'Brien to move on to major junior after that, playing for the WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds for two years. O'Brien eventually got into the Ottawa Senators' system, where he played two full seasons for the AHL's Binghamton Senators. This past season, O'Brien finally made his NHL debut, playing in six games for Ottawa.

There's no way anyone can sanely argue that O'Brien got to the NHL faster by going to the WHL. Had he played four full years at Minnesota, he would have been set to go pro after the 2009-2010 season. Even if he goes pro after his junior season, it's hard to say he would have been in a worse position heading to Binghamton.

He blew a free education at Minnesota -- a fantastic school -- and the obvious goal was to enhance his development. It's impossible to argue that he did that, and his case should serve as a cautionary tale to any player who thinks the grass is greener in Canada.

It might be for some, but just like college isn't for everyone, neither is the Canadian major junior system.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Isaac Odim to San Diego; Other Notes

Greetings ... wanted to throw up a quick blog with the news on Isaac Odim, a former All-American running back for the UMD Bulldogs.

Odim has agreed to a free-agent deal with the NFL's San Diego Chargers. After going undrafted in April, he -- along with a slew of other undrafted prospects who found NFL jobs today -- had to sweat out this seemingly never-ending lockout before signing their deals.

Going undrafted in any sport is hardly a disaster. In many cases, prospects like Odim are better off not being drafted late, because they can hand-pick the fit that is best for them, rather than being stuck on a roster or in a system that might not be a good fit for the talent or the personality.

In Odim's case, there might be an argument that he put himself in the best situation possible.

The Chargers were led in the ground game by Mike Tolbert, rookie Ryan Mathews, and diminutive veteran Darren Sproles last season. Tolbert and Sproles are free agents, and the Chargers drafted Connecticut star Jordan Todman this April.

There is competition for playing time, but Odim walks into a situation where he can open eyes and earn playing time if he has a good camp. For an undrafted player, that's usually the best you can hope for.


Also on the undrafted free agent front, former Gophers quarterback Adam Weber signed with the Denver Broncos, and three former Wisconsin offensive stars found homes. Quarterback Scott Tolzien joins Odim in San Diego, running back John Clay is heading to Pittsburgh (where they like big, bruising backs), and wide receiver/kick returner David Gilreath latched on with the Colts.

Clay and Odim both did outstanding jobs finding places where their talents would be used properly, assuming they can make the cut.


UMD's national championship celebration continues this weekend, as the team and alumni gather at Amsoil Arena Friday night. As part of Alumni Weekend, the players and staff will receive their national championship rings. Alumni are gathering for a dinner at the arena prior to the ring ceremony.

There is an annual alumni golf outing scheduled for Saturday, so we're all hoping for good weather.

One of the perks of my job is access to events like this, and I am immeasurably excited about the chance to hang out with the team and alumni Friday. For many of us, it could be the last chance for a while to get the gang together. Seniors Kyle Schmidt and Chad Huttel will soon be leaving for overseas professional hockey gigs, and others will be going their separate ways.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Kasey Kahne's Scary Wreck

It was an off weekend for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, but that doesn't stop guys from racing.

Carl Edwards was among the Cup drivers in the Nationwide race Saturday night in Nashville, and Edwards drove away with a relatively easy win.

(Insert rant about Cup drivers ruining the other NASCAR touring series here.)

While all that was going on, and other drivers were vacationing, Kasey Kahne took to the dirt.

And eventually the air.

Racing in Pennsylvania, Kahne went for quite a ride in a sprint car.

Kahne was able to walk back up the hill and acknowledge the crowd, so they all knew he was okay. Kahne later tweeted about the wreck, saying he hadn't flipped like that in a long time.

Oddly enough, Kahne can probably expect to avoid a similar ride in his normal job, as the Sprint Cup cars take to the Brickyard Sunday.

NFL Lockout Finally Ending

We saw signs over the last few weeks that the NFL lockout was on the verge of ending, and it appears July 25 is the day.

Overnight, NFL Network/Fox Sports ace Jay Glazer reported that NFL owners and players had reached agreement on a ten-year deal, pending a player vote that Glazer labeled a "formality."

As noted by ESPN ...

Just as the NFL would not have called a vote Thursday in Atlanta without knowing it would pass in the way it did -- 31-0 with one abstention -- the NFLPA would also not be going forward without that assurance.

It makes sense. No one wants that kind of egg on their face, unless it's fried and tastes really good.

The league and its players have embarrassed themselves, and potentially stained the 2011 season, by grandstanding when they should have been talking, and not working nearly hard enough to reach an agreement before the pressure started to percolate.

Now, we're sitting in front of a situation full of uncertainty. If free agency won't begin until Friday, as reported by many, players will be signing contracts left and right while teams are going through the first practices of training camp. Rookies are immeasurably behind, as there have been no minicamps or team-organized workouts. Will even the first-round picks be able to pick up schemes and terminology fast enough to make an impact this season?

It seems that teams like Carolina and Buffalo and Denver -- who were really bad last season -- might be at a disadvantage compared to other seasons. The NFL prides itself on its parity, but a big part of that has been the way free agency and all the offseason workout time allows lesser teams to catch up quickly. Assimilate the rookies, get them used to your way of doing things, bring in some quality free agents who want to lead and show the kids how to win, and you have a dangerous situation.

Now, you don't get the time to bring a large-turnover team together during the long offseason. Teams will be putting themselves together as they go through the preseason. It's not ideal for anyone, unless you're a veteran team like Pittsburgh or Green Bay that -- generally speaking -- won't be expecting much out of the rookies and won't need to overhaul schemes on either side of the ball because of the success you've experienced in the past.

I mentioned this on KQ Monday morning, but I think you'll see 2010's bad teams leaning more and more on their coaches this year. Take Minnesota for example. There is apparently a new rule in this new CBA that expands game day rosters from 45 to 46 players, with the third quarterback on each team no longer listed as inactive.

If Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave play their cards right, this could be a tremendous edge for the Vikings. Assuming they sign a veteran quarterback to mentor/back up/hold down rookie Christian Ponder, Joe Webb will likely be the team's No. 3. In past years, Webb couldn't come into the game unless Ponder and the new guy were both hurt. Now, Webb can come and go as he pleases. That means the Vikings would be smart to concoct an offensive package of plays (Wild Norseman?) for Webb to engineer. Get him on the field and take advantage of his athleticism, instead of letting it all go to waste on the sideline.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Don Lucia Shows Leadership

In 24 seasons as a head coach, Don Lucia has won a small number of games (555). He has two national titles to his credit, and is one of the more respectable people in a tough industry.

Lucia should carry some clout when he speaks, no matter what you think of Minnesota.

This week, we found out that he's willing to step up and be a leader when it comes to college hockey in Minnesota, not just college hockey at the University of Minnesota.

In comments published by the St. Cloud Times, Lucia says he'd like to see regular non-conference play with the Minnesota programs remaining in the WCHA -- Bemidji State, St. Cloud State, and Minnesota State -- as well as an annual tournament.

Lucia said he has talked with Huskies coach Bob Motzko, Beavers coach Tom Serratore and Mavericks coach Troy Jutting about the Gophers playing games against their programs beginning in 2013-14, which is the first season that the Gophers and Wisconsin leave the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for the Big Ten Conference.

Lucia also said that he plans to talk with Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin about the same arrangement with the Bulldogs, who also leave the WCHA after the 2012-13 season and will join the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

“We have 14 nonleague games to work with and our goal is to play those (four) teams every year,” Lucia said. “It would be good for our program, all the other programs and for the state of Minnesota.

“I think it’s a win-win for everyone, for our fans and the proximity of playing each other. We should continue playing each other.”

Even if Minnesota and Wisconsin still insist on playing 20 home games a year (that would mean 10 of the 14 non-conference games they play would need to be at home), there's no reason there can't be regular games against WCHA teams once they join the Big Ten. It would be very beneficial for the WCHA to find a way to come up with a scheduling arrangement with the CCHA, NCHC, and/or Big Ten. But in the end, Minnesota probably won't need one to do the right thing. It sounds like Lucia is intent on making it happen.

Good on Don Lucia.

I'm sure not trying to indict other coaches, but let's face it. Minnesota is different. People need to see the five programs having some sort of camaraderie with one another. They need to see some effort being made by Minnesota to help "the little guys," especially the three programs left in the WCHA while Minnesota and UMD move on to "bigger and better things."

UMD will bear some responsibility here, too. They can't just schedule Minnesota and be done with it. They need to also work with Bemidji, St. Cloud, and MSU to come up with an arrangement that helps all parties.

From my perspective, though, this is a good and appreciated move by Lucia. I stood firmly behind Lucia last season in the face of "Fire!" cries from Gopher fans everywhere. I have not backed down from those words one bit.

He's a class act, and he understands his program's role in this state. Give him credit for speaking out and taking a lead role during this time of incredible and historic change in college hockey.


The WCHA added Northern Michigan officially Wednesday, meaning they'll have the minimum of six teams required for an NCAA automatic bid. Now we'll see what the CCHA ends up doing, and if anyone has the heart enough to pick up Alabama-Huntsville. Hopefully that happens, because even with everything else going on, I still have more worries about UAH's future than anyone else.

I've had some people ask me about other programs' ability to schedule non-conference games.
  • As long as Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage are still around, they'll have few problems with scheduling. Each hosts an October tournament, and they make the trip to the other's event. The other two non-conference games they're allowed to play are against each other in a home-and-home.
  • Lake Superior State and Michigan Tech are in a tough position. Perhaps there's some sort of deal that can be worked out with Northern Michigan where Tech and NMU regularly play Lake State, because that makes too much sense to not have it happen. Obviously, Tech and Northern will be playing each other as part of the WCHA schedule.
  • Don't be surprised if UMD is making semi-regular visits to Houghton. I hope that's not just wishful thinking. I always complain about that trip, but I usually end up enjoying it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

College Hockey Not Done Changing

I said it on Twitter last week, and I'll say it again now.

This is the craziest offseason in college hockey history.

Nuts. Bizonkers. Whatever word you want to use.

The sport is undergoing massive change to its landscape, with the recent announcements of the Big Ten and NCHC forming, combined with the impending move of at least Northern Michigan to the WCHA.

Now, it's the CCHA's turn to make a move to guarantee its survival as a league -- which is the best-case scenario for the sport.

College Hockey News reports that the first step towards that reality is set to happen.

CCHA officials will meet within the next two weeks with representatives of four Atlantic Hockey schools about a potential change in conferences in 2013-14.

Robert Morris, Niagara, Mercyhurst and Canisius are all actively exploring the possibility of switching from Atlantic Hockey to the CCHA. It is believed that the four would leave as a group, or not at all, though that is not set in stone.

All four schools have previously expressed interest in playing with 18 scholarships, the maximum allowed in Division I men's hockey. Atlantic Hockey, however, restricts its members to awarding 12 scholarships. A recent vote to increase that to 13 did not pass.

While this is a good thing for college hockey, Atlantic Hockey commissioner Bob DeGregorio isn't terribly happy about the development.

Actually, he's pissed.

"It's great we added a 59th program, but as I've been saying all along, what is the fallout?" DeGregorio said. "If we end up losing two to three programs, or destroying some good leagues, then we haven't done what's good for college hockey. It's funny, but when Robert Morris and Niagara were looking for a place to go, everyone called me and said, 'Bob, you gotta do a good thing for hockey.' Where is that now? Everyone is doing what's best for them and to hell with everyone else."

So, it's only a good thing for college hockey if it's good for Atlantic Hockey. Got it.

In all seriousness, I understand DeGregorio's frustrations. But the "every man for himself" ship sailed months ago, when Terry Pegula's donation to start the Penn State program started a chain reaction that led us to this moment. There's no pulling some rope to get the boat back in port now. It's gone.

(Actually, the argument could be made that this ship sailed the moment the CCHA decided not to take Alabama-Huntsville, because the world hasn't been the same since. But we'll stick with the Penn State program forming, because that's really what started things.)

We can either 1) lament the fact that a sport where commissioners and ADs were known for doing unselfish things to help the common good has gone all WWE Royal Rumble on the world, or 2) deal with the reality and do what can be done to preserve the programs that exist, many of which have great tradition and shouldn't be forced to go the way of the dodo bird because Bob DeGregorio doesn't want his league to lose any teams.

The sport will survive, and the teams that are playing it are committed to making it work. Even programs like Ferris State and Lake Superior State, which fall under the banner of "We should be at least a little worried about their futures," are being proactive and making sure they are out front in helping determine the CCHA's future.

It doesn't appear terribly likely that the WCHA and CCHA will merge at this point, as the CCHA appears focused on keeping a league together on its own.

As noted by CHN, the four Atlantic Hockey teams that could be moving aren't interested in moving if Alaska (Alaska-Fairbanks, as it's more commonly known) is still in the league.

Does that open the door for Alabama-Huntsville to also join the CCHA? (Doubtful.)

Does it open the door for Minnesota State-Moorhead to join UA(F) and make the WCHA eight teams?

Yeah, the landscape is still changing. Hopefully, it doesn't get any smaller while it continues to mold itself.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bruce Feldman Mess Won't Go Away

Hope you're staying cool through this northern Minnesota heat wave. We get one of these virtually every year, it seems, but this one is especially notable because of the humidity involved.

Anyway, I've been largely silent on the blog (but not Twitter) regarding the issue with ESPN and journalist Bruce Feldman. While I popped off on Twitter and was unabashed in my support of Feldman, I didn't feel comfortable writing a blog and making him an even bigger issue.

However, recent events have compelled me to lay all this out for you, in case you weren't aware of what's going on.

It started Thursday night, when I saw tweets from Sports by Brooks indicating Feldman had been suspended indefinitely by ESPN. Feldman was called on the carpet he helped with Mike Leach's book, "Swing Your Sword," which includes a number of accusations regarding ESPN's behavior and "reporting" when Leach was fired at Texas Tech.

Oh, and Feldman had permission from ESPN to participate in the project.

SbB has led the reporting on this story, and naturally ESPN has tried to deny everything he has reported. However, Brooks is steadfast in what he is saying, and he isn't backing down.

ESPN tried to fight back, using its ombudsman.

Brooks Melchior first posted the erroneous news of Feldman's suspension on his blog Sports by Brooks, Thursday afternoon, just hours after ESPN brass, prompted by the book's publication, met by conference call with Feldman to discuss his involvement. For the past decade, Melchior has been the primary writer and editor on the site, which is now part of the Yardbarker network now owned by Fox Sports.

ESPN pointed out the error almost 24 hours later in a news release, igniting further argument over the difference between being suspended and merely being asked to take a break. This is more than just semantics. A suspension is a disciplinary action involving human resources, a record in your file and not being allowed onto the company premises for a period of time. Several people on that phone call reported to us that Feldman specifically asked whether he was being suspended and that he was told no.

Lying low and staying out of the public eye is different than being forced to stay home from work.

Feldman did not respond to several emails, text messages and phones calls from us. He has not tweeted or published any stories or appeared on the air, fueling rumors that ESPN is lying and that he really is suspended.

At this point, Feldman's silence is self-imposed, according to Rob King, ESPN senior vice president of editorial for digital and print media, and Chad Millman, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine.

"He's paralyzed," King said. "He doesn't want to go out to an event and become the subject of the story. But he doesn't know what to say or how to say it, in order to put the story to bed."

"He's pretty anxious about this whole thing," Millman concurred.

Melchior also refused to comment for this column when we reached him on the phone Sunday. He does not offer his readers any information about his source or how the source came by the knowledge. But ESPN sources said no one in the company got a call from Melchior asking to confirm Feldman's suspension. 

I don't doubt for one second that this could be true. I don't know the truth. Only ESPN and Bruce Feldman know the truth. One of them has no motivation to tell the truth if it's negative toward them. The other isn't talking at all.

Brooks has no motivation to lie. He already is one of the most prolific and intelligent independent reporters on the internet. Might he gain a few readers by making up or embellishing a story about ESPN suspending one of its online reporters? Sure, but it's not worth what will happen if/when his misdeed is exposed.

Brooks also was all over the Ohio State/Tressel story before anyone else in the mainstream, outside of Yahoo. He knows what he is doing. It's not a gossip or tabloid site. He's good at what he does.

To dismiss this story would be to dismiss the reporter doing the gruntwork, and I refuse to do that.

There is no doubt in my mind -- and there has been no doubt in my mind for a long time -- that ESPN badly mishandled the Leach case. That it involved an ESPN analyst -- Craig James -- made things extremely complicated for them, and the argument could be made from the start that James was behaving like a manipulative sports parent who needed to get his child a leg up.

Instead of reporting both sides of the story, ESPN chose not to. Now, they pay the price, because no one should simply take their side of the story and believe it. Until Feldman speaks, it's hard to believe anything.

And if you're buying what ESPN is selling, don't look for Feldman to talk anytime soon.

Monday, July 18, 2011

I'll Say It: The United States Choked

Sometimes, blogging and talking about sports for a living leads you to have to say things that are unpleasant.

I've had to salute the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings as being the best NFL team I have ever seen, and probably the best team ever to not win the Super Bowl.

How many times have we had to tip our cap at the Yankees? Or the Red Wings? It happens in sports.

And sometimes, you have to say negative things about a team you cheer for.

Sunday, the U.S. Women's National Team fell in penalty kicks to Japan in the Women's World Cup final. The game was a riveting display of skill and creativity on the biggest stage the sport has to offer. In many ways, it was a lesson to the men on how the game should be played when so much is on the line, instead of the ultra-conservative dive-fests we get in the men's World Cup.

It was a great game, but it didn't turn out the USA's way, as Japan rallied from 1-0 and 2-1 down to force penalty kicks, and then beat the U.S. team 3-1 in PKs.

In soccer, you don't see games of this magnitude happen this way very often. Sure, they go penalty kicks, but it's quite rare for a team to blow two leads in a match. It was peculiar to see that same script play out in the quarterfinal match between the United States and Brazil, where the Americans won. This time, they didn't close the deal.

Watching the match, it wasn't like the U.S. team just stopped playing when they had the lead, but they also made too many mistakes on their half of the field. A badly-hit clearing attempt led to Japan's first goal, and the extra-time equalizer was scored on a horribly-defended set piece.

The performance by the U.S. team in the penalty kick shootout was atrocious. Poorly-struck balls followed a bad-luck shot that ended up being a great kick save by the Japanese keeper, one she would be severely challenged to repeat at any point in time.

Why am I bringing all of this up? Well, watching the ESPN postgame coverage led my wife and I to the same conclusion.

ESPN was tap-dancing around reality.

The Americans choked, and no one wanted to say it.

Why did no one want to say it? Because women were involved? Because the U.S. team had to pull off an incredible win over Brazil just to get here? Because we were all -- justifiably -- really happy for Japan, a nation that has suffered greatly because of natural disasters this year?

No matter the motivation, no one would say it ... at least not on TV.

Among others, Bomani Jones and CBS' Mike Freeman tweeted such sentiments, but they still appeared to be in the minority.

The reality is that the "choking" statement is harsh, but it's true. The U.S. team didn't play well with a lead, like they felt too much pressure to hold the lead. Had they capitalized on a multitude of first-half chances, maybe they wouldn't have felt that pressure.

If that 1998 Vikings team choked against Atlanta (they did), if the Houston Oilers choked against the Bills back in the day (yes), then it's fair to say the U.S. team choked Sunday.

It doesn't mean we didn't have a great team with some great players and some faces -- namely Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, and Hope Solo -- that will potentially become household names thanks to the notoriety they gained in this tournament. It doesn't mean a silver medal isn't a great achievement.

It just means it could -- and should -- have been better.

You're not wrong if you feel that way. You're wrong if you feel that way and are afraid to express it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

National Collegiate Hockey Conference Has Work Ahead

I didn't spring for a plane ticket to Colorado Springs for Wednesday's big event unveiling the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.

In retrospect, I couldn't be happier about not spending that kind of coin.

Wednesday's press conference was nothing more than a waste of time in my eyes, and I was merely calling in to the event from my desk here in Duluth. I can only imagine how angry I would have been had I taken the time and money to fly to Colorado Springs for what should have been a historic moment for these six programs.

More time was spent explaining the history of Penrose House -- and the Broadmoor -- than was spent explaining exactly why the hell this was happening.

I'm not saying that the history isn't significant, and I'm not saying that the history isn't worth mentioning.

But they buried the lead, and it almost felt like they did it for a reason.

The NCHC announcement felt disorganized, somewhat contrived, and completely out of haste. It didn't ring as a well-organized event, and it didn't sound like the six schools had spent much time coming up with a good story about why they decided to break off and form a league together.

(And this is someone who was joking with an official from one of the schools involved over the weekend about sending in a bill for "all the PR work I have been doing." I wasn't expecting the world Wednesday, but I was still sorely disappointed. That should tell you something.)

The question-and-answer session at the initial press conference was completely void of anything newsworthy or notable. You can argue that the six athletic directors and coaches all made themselves available to the media afterward, and you'd be correct. However, the way those sessions were organized -- three at a time -- made it tough for those of us intent on asking actual questions of those involved in the NCHC decision. We were left to try to pick between Ken Ralph and Bob Nielson, and then pick between Brian Faison and Trev Alberts.

For those of us dialing in on the phone, it was a hit-or-miss proposition just trying to hear what the principle people were saying. That only rendered our job more difficult.

If you were working on site, you were lucky in one way. You were in Colorado Springs -- a great city. But you couldn't roll your eyes at everything without potentially being seen. That was an advantage I had, and my eyes almost got stuck in the back of my head, as I heard people generically talk about core values and take veiled shots at those programs they were leaving behind.

North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison made it abundantly clear that his program intends to "be a good member" of the WCHA until the 2012-13 season ends, and the move officially takes place.

While Faison was unwilling to identify a "breaking point" when asked what made him finally decide to break away from the WCHA, there were a couple references by others to the formation of the Big Ten Conference, which was officially announced in March.

There was a lot of talk about competition -- from what I heard, it came up with UMD coach Scott Sandelin, Colorado College coach Scott Owens, Denver coach George Gwozdecky, and North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol. No one wanted to poke the remaining WCHA teams, but one couldn't help but look at the comments as being directed a bit in that direction.

Whether the NCHC feels it is breaking off the strength of a top-heavy league or not, that appears to be a potential reality. None of the coaches or athletic directors want to be part of a program going the way of the dodo bird, but none of them could guarantee that wouldn't happen.

Of course, it's out of their hands now.

This isn't meant as a rip. It's a reality. The NCHC didn't make a good first impression for itself. It reminded me of a scene in one of my favorite movies.

You might remember that after this impassioned, emotional, off-the-cuff speech, Jerry and Dorothy (and the fish) got in the elevator, and Dorothy asked Jerry if he would have a medical program (she is a single mom, for crying out loud!). Jerry had that flushed-out look that made us all understand that he didn't know what the hell he was doing, and that he would figure it out as they went along.

The NCHC has two years. Along with a medical program, they have to complete the process of incorporating, need a commissioner, a PR guy, a place to put their stuff, and a plan to move forward.

But you never get a second chance to make a first impression. For the most part, people weren't impressed Wednesday. It leaves the NCHC with plenty of work ahead.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

All-Star Games No Longer Cool

Growing up, baseball's All-Star Game was always a special event. You got to see the top players in the sport, and even the pre-game ceremonies were enjoyable, with nostalgia all over, and a chance to see some of the all-time greats.

Over time, however, the game lost its luster. Participation in the game is no longer a big deal. Now, it's a contractual bonus, whether a guy plays in the game or not. And many players find a way out of the game, meaning you end up with a bunch of guys originally deemed as undeserving but suddenly good enough to be called All-Stars.

To make matters worse, when we were growing up, it was a pretty special thing to see so many great players under one roof. There was, believe it or not, a day and time where you couldn't turn on the television and see any baseball game you wanted to watch. We couldn't just watch our favorite team every night. Now, you can watch any game you want. You get to see all the great players.

What's the point of an All-Star Game?

If the players don't want to play in the game, why would anyone want to watch? If you can watch great players play on a daily basis, what's the big deal about watching them play at half-speed in an exhibition game?

(Especially when you can see plenty of half-speed exhibition games, since preseason games in all sports are televised and treated like they're a big deal.)

None of it makes as much sense as it did years prior.

None of it really matters anymore.

This isn't just about baseball, either. Look at the NBA and NHL All-Star Games, and look at the NFL Pro Bowl. None of them are as cool as they once were, to the point where the NFL doesn't even allow players participating in the Super Bowl to be in the Pro Bowl ... because the Pro Bowl happens before the Super Bowl.

The NBA All-Star Game and NHL All-Star Game could both go away tomorrow, and most sports fans wouldn't bat an eye. They are a cool experience for people who hold tickets to the event, but that's only 18,000 people or so. They can be fun for each league's corporate sponsors, because it's a chance to rub elbows with the greats.

Outside of that, they're practically useless. They're not on network television, because not even the enthusiastic television partners of the NBA and NHL have a real use for the All-Star Game. Despite plenty of promotion within coverage of the leagues, no one really watches, and no one really cares about the result.

Unless their favorite team's best player gets hurt in a stupid exhibition. That happens, and we'd never hear the end of it.

I'm all for the players getting together and having fun. But it's obvious to me that many of them don't even care about that. They'd rather stay home and rest during the All-Star Break.

It makes me wonder if we can ever make the event relevant for a majority of fans again. I don't know that it's possible. If it is to ever happen, it involves making it a big deal for the players. Perhaps elongating the season by a few days to increase their days off will decrease the number of players who take themselves out of the game when they're generally healthy.

(Guys like Ryan Braun are an exception this year. Not on the DL, but missed the last six games before the break and was obviously injured.)

But will that keep guys from taking three days to -- as CC Sabathia is -- go to the Bahamas or whatever? And is it fair to tell these guys they have to bust their asses for 162 games, and then they have to go shake hands and kiss babies at the All-Star Game while others are taking three days to hang out in their hammocks?

The All-Star Game used to mean something. It doesn't anymore, and I think we as fans just have to be okay with that. Judging by the ratings, most are. They just find something else to do, like most of the selected players are.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

'Super League' Official; Now What?

Saturday was not a quiet day in college hockey, which is somewhat weird, considering that it's July.

Perception became reality, and rumors were confirmed Saturday, as six NCAA schools jointly released a statement announcing their intent to start a new Division I men's hockey league.

The unnamed league will begin play in the 2013-14 season, and it will make its presence official at a press conference in Colorado Springs Wednesday.

(The media have dubbed it the "Super League," but I can promise you that won't be the final name. I've been told there is a name, but I don't know what it is. I'm also not 100 percent certain that name will be announced Wednesday, though I hope so.)

Despite the fact that the ink is not yet dry on this deal, and it's barely dry on the unification of six Big Ten schools to form their own league, there are many who have declared that this is a disastrous development for the sport of college hockey, a sport that hasn't seen any significant growth -- in terms of teams or in terms of interest -- in so many years that it's nearly impossible to count.

Maybe that's part of the problem. Outside of the rise and fall of College Hockey America, and the loss of programs like Wayne State and Findlay, which were practically doomed from the start, there just hasn't been much change in this sport lately. Now that change is coming, people aren't sure what to make of it.

That is totally understandable. What isn't understandable is the rush to blame schools for the demise of college hockey before it actually happens.

It's not like anyone is rooting for the sport to die. At the same time, we don't need to jump to conclusions.

I already covered most of why this is happening. If you didn't trust me when I wrote that, go look at the front page of the WCHA's archaic, not-so-easy-on-the-eyes website. There is no mention of this bombshell. None. The league hasn't updated its site since Kyle Schmidt of UMD joined two women's players in winning WCHA Post Graduate Scholarships on June 7.

(In fairness, it's worth noting that the CCHA hasn't officially responded to Miami leaving, either. But that's one team, not five. And while Miami is a marquee program, the CCHA can at say they still have Notre Dame. For now.)

The WCHA continually drops the ball in moments where leadership is critically important. Many times, this has cost its members money. This time, it does nothing but harm the reputation of those in charge.

Know, too, that none of this is personal. I'm certainly not trying to attack anyone's character. Over my six years doing UMD hockey, Bruce McLeod has been as good to me as he's been to most everyone in the media. Questions are asked, and he answers them. Time is requested for interviews, and he gives it. Same goes, frankly, for much-maligned officiating czar Greg Shepherd. People don't have a problem with that, and that's not where this league has struggled.

I don't know if anyone among the five -- or the seven if you count Big Ten-bound Minnesota and Wisconsin -- tried to make a change at the top of the WCHA. I also can't tell you how easy or difficult it would be to do that, but Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal probably said it better than I could ever.

The idea that Denver, Colorado College, North Dakota and defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth would prefer to start their own brand instead of sticking with one that’s been around since 1959 — claiming 37 national titles in the process — is a clear indictment of the WCHA and the suspect management style of its commissioner, Bruce McLeod.

Do you think these five schools set out to blow up this traditional power? Or did they simply decide they didn't have enough clout to make the changes they felt were necessary for the WCHA to move forward?

You can draw your own conclusions.


The most common question I think I've been asked via Twitter ( if you aren't already following along) is "UMD got in. What do you care?"

For some reason, this really burns me. Can't stand that people say it. Until this past week, I didn't think UMD was in. And if you asked me about this new league -- which was going to happen with or without UMD -- I don't think you would have gotten much of a negative response.

I've been pretty consistent in my position. When rumors started of this league's formation (if memory serves, Kevin Pates had a blog post about it after the Frozen Four, and I felt like an idiot, because I was at the Frozen Four, too, and didn't hear anything about what he wrote), I remember having a long phone conversation with a source. During the course of that conversation, we made some sense of this whole idea, even though neither of us had ever heard it before.

There were still a ton of questions (still are, frankly), mainly surrounding where the money will come from to make this worth the effort of leaving the WCHA and starting a new league. Again, the fact that these six schools are leaving their leagues to start this new one should tell you that they've largely satisfied the athletic directors of the institutions with answers to those key questions. After all, you're going to see an increase in travel costs for each of the seven. More flights will do that, even if you look at the five WCHA teams not having to fly to Anchorage three times over five years. With money tight at so many schools these days, there better be a way to pay for this all, because they won't be keen on the money coming out of the general fund.

The six schools are linked in that hockey is a huge part of their athletic departments. This announcement will do nothing to change that. In fact, it will probably enhance hockey's importance at each institution.

(If Notre Dame and/or Western Michigan were to join, they would not necessarily join the six in this regard. Western's a Division I school that draws decently for football, and Notre Dame ... well, duh.)

Anyway, I'm frustrated by people dismissing my opinion because UMD got in. Does that really matter? Would things really change if UMD didn't get in? We'd still be looking at (potentially) five homeless CCHA teams, Alabama-Huntsville is still homeless, and we would need to figure a lot of things out going forward.

Take UMD out of the (This Space For Rent) League, and you have the Bulldogs serving in St. Cloud State's role as the leader among Minnesota schools left behind by the rat race. It doesn't make anything easier for anyone. Plus, with Notre Dame still indecisive, you don't know what kind of timeframe we'd have on this league announcement, since they wouldn't announce their league until they had at least six (minimum league size for NCAA automatic bid).


As we await the impact of this move, people are (predictably) jumping to conclusions and playing the blame game. It's an emotional issue, yes, but there are a lot of people out there who need to calm down and quit assessing blame for bad things that haven't happened yet.

This isn't Penn State's fault. I mean, really? We spend years and years begging for a big-time Division I school to add hockey. They add hockey, and then we blame them for destroying it? There's a real inviting attitude for you. Penn State hasn't destroyed anything yet. Neither has Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, or Ohio State.

Leagues break up. They rebrand. They change. If we lose the WCHA and/or CCHA as a result of these changes, it will be a tough thing for traditionalists to swallow. But if we don't lose any programs, I'm not sure how anyone can say it's a bad thing.

The prevailing "Programs will die!" attitude is unfair. There are a number of programs that are in trouble around college hockey. Too many, I believe, for comfort. Among them are Alabama-Huntsville and Bowling Green, programs that people have thought were in trouble for many years. This announcement doesn't change much for either of these schools. UAH is an independent after the CCHA told them to get lost, a reprehensible and illogical move at the time (still is both of those things). Their status is unchanged, because they're still on shaky ground out in the wilderness.

Bowling Green is one of those CCHA schools that people claim really benefits from playing Michigan and Michigan State, and they just can't survive without that increased gate. You know, like last year, when they averaged 1,650 per game for two games against Michigan, then hit about 2,200 per game for a series against Alabama-Huntsville (2,167 average for the season).

Lake Superior State and Ferris State also fit this label. Ferris has fielded some pretty good teams in recent years, so I can probably buy that they will run into trouble without Michigan and friends coming to town. However, Lake State can't compete in the current layout of the CCHA. They're simply not good enough, and attendance is suffering as a result. After all, why would you want to pay money to watch a non-competitive team?

That said, saying these programs will die is simply not fair. It's not fair to the schools who are leaving their current leagues for the Big Ten or the (This Space For Rent) League. It's also not fair to the schools. Give them a chance to figure out what they are going to do before we decide that their hockey programs are dead.

Oh, and this could be a good thing. Maybe fanbases in Sault Ste. Marie, Marquette, Houghton, Mankato, Big Rapids, and other places will be energized by their teams forming a league in which all of them are on much more even ground. Perhaps St. Cloud fans (attendance there isn't as good as it once was) will be excited to see their team in a league where they should be a perennial contender for an NCAA automatic bid.

It's a chance for the schools in Minnesota and upper Michigan to build new rivalries that will excite the fans. It's a chance for all of them to get into a situation where they are battling peer schools for recruits, as opposed to trying to recruit against North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan.

(I know many people will claim that the chance to play in big arenas and against big schools is enticing, but if a kid is looking at a school like Lake Superior State, he isn't looking at Michigan. And if he's looking at Lake Superior State, what's going to be more appealing -- a chance to get his ass kicked at Yost once in a while, or a chance to compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, where anything can happen?)

The kid Lake State recruits simply isn't going to pick Michigan because they're in the Big Ten, because Michigan isn't an option for that kid. Even if Michigan was an option, ice time becomes a factor, and Lake State can offer more to that kind of player.

We could end up not losing programs, giving more teams a real chance of making the NCAA Tournament, and we are setting up a league structure that allows for future expansion if it becomes feasible for someone to add the sport. If this scenario plays out, tell me how this isn't a good thing for college hockey, a sport that simply needs to find ways to expand.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

WCHA Hangs in Limbo

For the last few months, there have been rumblings about the future of the WCHA. The fun really started at the Final Five, as we all knew the upcoming announcement of a Big Ten Hockey Conference was nothing more than a formality.

The Big Ten's formation seemed to inspire other programs to look at their futures, and try to figure out the best fit for them. One of the prominent rumors out there in the last three months has involved the possibility of North Dakota starting a new league with, among others, Denver, Colorado College, and Notre Dame.

Now, UMD is in that mix, as well, according to reports from Kevin Pates here and me on the ol' radio this week.

These reports -- along with a rumored timeline of "potentially next week" for an announcement -- have left a lot of people confused, upset, excited, angry, and virtually everything in between.

There is a lot to digest, and I'm here to help as much as I can. At the end of the day, however, if your favorite college hockey team is one of the ten in the WCHA and CCHA who are not mentioned as part of the Big Ten or this new "super league" thingamajigger, you should be concerned.

Not worried, because I'm still not dancing in step with those who think this is going to be a disaster for the sport. Just concerned, because it's time for those programs to show some leadership through an uncertain time.

Why is this happening?

This is probably the most common question. After all, the addition of a Big Ten conference in hockey doesn't signal the need for any other programs or conferences to die. All it does is add some serious competition to the mix when it comes to the dollars and attention the Big Ten can generate. It forces other leagues to come up with a way to make the money their schools need to stay competitive. This is especially important in the realm of college athletics, because universities are typically not really rolling in money these days.

The WCHA has fallen behind. The league still doesn't have any kind of notable television deal (they're behind both the CCHA and Hockey East in this regard), outside of the deal with Fox Sports North to televise the Final Five. The league's website is less than ideal, and they have missed the boat with the potential revenue there, especially when it comes to making live games available via subscriptions.

From a leadership standpoint, there is much angst around the league. There are perceptions that commissioner Bruce McLeod has missed the boat on opportunities to grow the league's revenue (there is no question the league has been healthy, but in the business world, you're either growing or dying ... there is no standing pat), and there are issues with how supplementary discipline is handled. There are other problems with personnel within the league, as well.

North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison told the Grand Forks Herald that he has concerns with "the administrative side of the WCHA."

He's not the only one. For now, though, he's the only one on the record with this type of statement.

As for McLeod, he may have provided the money quote to USCHO.

At this point, I haven’t thought about Plan B at all. I’m still working on the assumption that we’re together as 10 [teams after Minnesota and Wisconsin leave for the Big Ten] and, as unanimously directed by the group in Florida [at league meetings in April], can consider extending an invitation to anybody that could strengthen the league. And that’s our plan.

In other words, McLeod has watched his two most prominent members leave, and word has leaked that his next two most prominent members -- North Dakota and Denver -- could be out, too. Oh, and he might lose the 2011 national champions.

But there is no Plan B. At this point, he should be formulating Plan R, and he hasn't even gotten to B.

Is this really happening?

I have a hard time answering this one. I have a message in to a couple people who would know the answer to this, but I haven't heard back. A third person has indicated that we may just indeed have past the point of no return.

There is no question in my mind that there are issues with McLeod and the WCHA leadership structure. And it's hard to argue the points made by that camp. The league has indeed fallen behind, largely by the inaction of the last five years.

(Yes, I know McLeod brought in two new members, Bemidji State and Nebraska-Omaha. But that doesn't grow revenue for the other ten teams. It shrinks it, because their piece of the pie isn't as big as it was before.)

Some believe this is a power play to get rid of McLeod. While I tend to think this is a possibility, no source will confirm it. And while Labor Day has been mentioned when talking about the timing of a potential announcement, I've been told by multiple sources that this could come to a head as soon as next week.

I don't say that to scare. I say it because I've been told it's the case, and I want everyone to be prepared for the possibility.

Are they really thinking this through?

In a Twitter conversation with Dan Myers of College Hockey News, I tried to make this point abundantly clear, amid cries that the North Dakotas, Denvers, and UMDs of the world were making a rash decision that hadn't been thought out.

The prospect of a new league has been researched, studied, and hashed over by the schools involved (reportedly UMD, North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha, Notre Dame, Miami, and Western Michigan).

I might not know everything about the administrations involved in these talks, but I can promise you that UMD athletic director Bob Nielson isn't going to make a rash, uneducated, uninformed decision that could impact the entire school for years to come. That's not how he operates. If he's jumping in to this league, it's because he has every reason to believe -- and may have actual evidence to support this -- that it will be a win for UMD, both competitively and financially.

What happens to everyone else?

This is probably the toughest question to answer. If the "super league" (I hate this name, and if this league is going to happen, it needs a real name ASAP) is formed, it leaves five WCHA and five CCHA teams without a home. Five is not enough to get an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. You need at least six for that.

Could the ten combine into one league? I don't see why not. Put the Alaska teams (Anchorage and Fairbanks), Bemidji State, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud State in one division, then stick the upper Michigan teams (Lake Superior State, Michigan Tech, and Northern Michigan) in a division with Bowling Green and Ferris State. Each team plays four games against divisional foes (two home, two away), and one series (home or away) against each team in the other division. 26 league games total. That's doable. Financially, though, this could be a nightmare. You'd have to have the league tournament on a campus site, or it won't draw. And if it's on a campus site, it won't draw the same kind of television interest it would if it were at a pre-determined site.

Plus, what happens to Alabama-Huntsville?

It's a mess.


In the end, the WCHA is left in limbo. It's a league with great tradition, a slew of national championships, and a vibrant, enthusiastic fan base. There are some great people who work for the league, or for the league's members, and some wonderfully talented folks who cover the league, whether it be on the air, in print, or online.

For now, we don't know what is next. Will that tradition continue in a different league? Will it fade away like the North Central Conference did a few years ago? Will nothing happen but some structural changes?

I can't definitively answer any of those questions, as much as I wish I could.

Things are fluid for the moment, and much could still change before the season starts. If you're a fan of the WCHA, I'd advise you to keep an eye on the developments.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Jason Garrison Excited by Panthers Spending Spree

Jason Garrison played three seasons at UMD, scoring nine goals and amassing 29 points over 87 games. He has a big shot, but also grew as a defensive player during his time with the Bulldogs. By the time his injury-shortened third season was over, Garrison was one of the most trusted -- and eminently likable -- players on the UMD roster.

He signed a free-agent deal with the Florida Panthers, a smart move because Garrison knew he'd have a chance to climb the ladder in that organization, which at the time was low on defensemen in the system.

Fast-forward to the present day, and Garrison is coming off his best season as a professional. He played 73 games for the Panthers, scoring five goals -- three game-winners -- and 18 points. Among players who actually finished the season with Florida (Dennis Wideman was traded to Washington at the deadline), Garrison led the way in ice time, averaging over 22 minutes per game. Only Marty Reasoner and Mike Weaver fared better in plus/minus than Garrison.

It was a frustrating season for the Panthers in general, as the team wasted a pretty rock-solid season from goalie Tomas Vokoun, now with the Capitals, by not scoring nearly enough goals. But Garrison had a lot to hold his head up high about. It was a breakthrough for him, after spending most of his previous two pro seasons with the Panthers' AHL team in Rochester (113 games, 11 goals, 54 points).

Now, Garrison has something to be excited about. Florida general manager Dale Tallon went crazy as free agency started Friday, one week after adding former Chicago defenseman Brian Campbell in a trade. Tallon traded for forward Kris Versteeg and signed forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall, Marcel Goc, and Sean Bergenheim, defenseman Ed Jovanovski, and goalie Jose Theodore.

Yeah, nothing really jumps off the page, but these are some solid moves for a franchise that needed some.

"Seems like he has made some key additions which the team is in need (of)," Garrison said over the weekend. "Power play help in Campbell, Versteeg, scoring depth in lines."

Stephen Weiss, Mike Santorelli, and David Booth are the Panthers' top returning scorers, and none of them hit even 50 points last season. While Versteeg and Fleischmann aren't prolific scorers, they add some real depth to Florida's top six. Fleischmann appeared to be on his way to a great season after being traded by Washington to Colorado, before a diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism ended his season.

Tallon also helped Florida's back line immensely by adding Campbell and Jovanovski.

"Playoff and Stanley Cup experience and leadership in Jovo," Garrison also noted, "as well as a top D man. I'm really excited about the moves."

Did Tallon overpay for the one-time Panther Jovo? Probably, but it's the kind of contract that someone would have given him had Tallon passed.

While Garrison might not lead the team in ice time again, he doesn't sound too worried about his role.

"So much time between now and camp," he said. "I'm proud of the job I did in my role last year, but if they have something else planned, I'll adjust."

Tallon has Jovanovski, Campbell, Garrison, Weaver, and promising youngsters Dmitri Kulikov and Keaton Ellerby available, along with 2010 first-round pick Erik Gudbranson, who could be ready to challenge for ice time in the NHL.

Garrison fits very well in this group as a player new coach Kevin Dineen can trust in all situations. You can't put a pricetag on that kind of player. He's a class act who understands his role and does what is asked of him. He's also only 26, while new faces Jovanovski and Campbell aren't exactly spring chickens.

The Panthers might not be a flashy team, but in a wide-open Eastern Conference, they could have become a contender for the top eight with Tallon's maneuvering.

Now, they need to work on getting people on South Beach excited about hockey.

Hard Not to Get Excited About Heatley

Hope everyone had a great holiday. I only came close to lighting the neighborhood on fire once. If you ever get a chance to get your hands on "Pure Fantasy" while fireworks shopping, I certainly think it's worth the $10 or whatever you end up having to pay. Just make sure the hose is in your hand and you're ready in case it tips over on the platform and starts spraying stuff everywhere.

Anyway, there was much discussion about the Dany Heatley trade as we made the Fourth of July rounds. A few things became very clear the more I looked around Twitter and listened to what people were saying.

People care about star power. This isn't a move that Chuck Fletcher made because he wants to sell out the arena. I think general managers care about such things, but I don't think general managers care about them over winning.

Fans might want to win over everything else, but let's not be stupid. The Wild hasn't made the playoffs since 2008, and they haven't gotten past a first round since 2003. If you're not going to be good, you need to be compelling. The Wild has been neither, a huge sin when it comes to the fans.

The 2011-12 team might not be in the top eight of the Western Conference, but Fletcher has done what he can -- within reason, of course -- to guarantee that this team will be compelling and watchable.

There are some fans who won't accept anything less than a playoff team. They won't tolerate another 85-point season that sees the Wild not good enough to make the playoffs and not bad enough to pick in the top five.

Fletcher knows that, but he also knows that this team hasn't had a legitimate star player since that Gaborik guy, and he hardly played in his last year with the team. So it's really been since the 2007-2008 season that this team has possessed a player the caliber of Dany Heatley.

Heatley might be motivated, but there's going to be a lot of pressure. Did you digest what I just wrote there?

2007-2008 was a long time ago. The Blackhawks still sucked. Chris Pronger could still skate. UMD as an NCAA title contender in men's hockey and football? Laughable, really.

And Gaborik was a hockey god in Minnesota. The guy could do nothing wrong, outside of injuring groins.

Heatley steps into a world where Gaborik was the last player who could do the kinds of things Heatley can. It's a hockey-mad area, one where college and high school games can pack the XCel Energy Center as well as the Wild can.

Not only is Heatley charged with being the kind of player on the ice that he's been in the past -- something he wasn't last season -- but he also needs to be one of the franchise's faces. A go-to guy who is known by the fans and is someone they can get behind.

None of this helps the team win. He has to do that stuff, too. But the off-ice stuff is important in this market, and it's especially important in a market where none of the teams are in a good run right now.

(The Vikings still have Adrian Peterson, but they're coming off a 6-10 season and are begging for the public's help for a new stadium or they'll move to Los Angeles. The Twins couldn't have started the season any worse than they did, and their franchise face -- Joe Mauer -- is one of the more controversial figures in the state now. The Timberwolves, well ... yeah. And the Gophers aren't good at anything that matters to the majority of the state's fans -- their hockey and football teams have stunk for a while, and the men's basketball team had a disappointing season to go along with the trouble they've found off the court.)

Martin Havlat was never going to be this guy. Nice player, yes. Highly-skilled playmaker, yes. Face of the franchise, no. That wasn't going to happen.

And Havlat simply wasn't working out in Minnesota. That's not a shot at Havlat, because it's never all the fault of the player when something doesn't work out. But he wasn't minus-29 solely because he wasn't with the right linemates, or because he wasn't getting enough ice time, or because he wasn't on the right power-play unit. It's not all the Wild's fault, just like it's not all Havlat's fault.

But it was a certainty after two seasons that Havlat was never going to meet expectations here, and the Wild did the right thing to cut ties. That they got a player of Heatley's caliber and stature in return only makes the move better.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Dany Heatley Traded to Wild for Martin Havlat

Happy Fourth, all. This is going to be quick, because my son has dryland hockey, and it's already 83 outside. The longer I type, the hotter it's going to get out there.

The Minnesota Wild pulled off a stunner Sunday night, trading forward Martin Havlat to the San Jose Sharks for forward Dany Heatley.

Havlat waived a no-trade clause to make the deal happen, while Heatley had concocted a list of ten teams he didn't want to be traded to by July 1, and was traded to a team not on his list.

(I'll bet Ottawa and Edmonton were on that list. Just a guess.)

The former Wisconsin Badger -- he had two ridiculous seasons there -- has played a starring role in the NHL, posting at least a point per game in five seasons. He's been over 100 points twice, had two 50-goal seasons. He's also topped 40 goals in two other seasons, and hit 39 goals twice. Heatley's knock is his playoff performances, which weren't good in San Jose, but he's far from the only Shark who has been knocked for failing in the playoffs. Not only that, but Heatley was a beast with Ottawa in the 2007 playoffs, scoring seven goals and 22 points in 20 games.

Havlat never really fit in with the Wild. He had a terrible start to his first season, and only a second-half flourish kept him from posting embarrassing numbers for such a highly-paid player. He had 62 points last year for the Wild, but was a minus-29 over two seasons, and he just didn't make the impact that his signing brought expectations of.

With Heatley, and the already-acquired Devin Setoguchi, the Wild have found a pair of players who might be able to ignite an offense that's been stagnant for years. According to Russo, the two were close in San Jose, and they were looking forward to skating on the same line.

Looking at the depth chart, I'd be surprised if that happened with Minnesota, but they certainly could play together on the power play, and if the Wild can find a second-line winger who can put the puck in the net (Casey Wellman might not be ready, but it sure would be nice if he can step into this role), it opens up the chance for the two former Sharks to be on opposite wings from Mikko Koivu.

Anyway, I have a kid dying to go roast while shooting street hockey balls into the four-by-six opening. Maybe he'll be inspired by Heatley's play with the Wild, who haven't had a scorer this talented since you-know-who.

Have a good holiday.