Rachel Blount writes about a wide variety of sports subjects, including Minnesota's women's basketball team. She also covers Olympic sports, Minnesota sports and social issues that intersect with the games we watch and play. She has been at the Star Tribune for 20 years, reporting on everything from hockey to horse racing to seven Olympic Games. An Iowa native, she holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Missouri and is married to fellow sportswriter Pat Borzi.

College hockey's week of change

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: March 7, 2013 - 7:32 PM

This weekend, the Gophers play their last regular-season series as members of the WCHA, facing Bemidji State at Sanford Center in Bemidji. Thursday, the Beavers--and Minnesota State, Mankato--got a look at the conference schedule for the newly reconfigured WCHA, and college hockey's newest league held a press conference in Minneapolis to show off its logo, web site and postseason tournament.

The WCHA will keep a 28-game schedule in 2013-14. The new lineup includes 10 teams: current members MSU Mankato, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage, plus Alaska Fairbanks, Alabama-Huntsville, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan. The league will announce postseason tournament sites at this year's WCHA Final Five at Xcel Energy Center on March 21-23. The 2014 Final Five will be March 20-22.

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference unveiled a slick logo--a shield with a hockey stick and eight stars, representing the eight member schools--at Thursday's press conference at Minneapolis City Hall. The conference will hold its first postseason tournament March 21-22, 2014, at Target Center. There will be two semifinals, a championship game and a third-place game, and ticket packages already are on sale. The charter members of the NCHC are former WCHAers Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Nebraska Omaha, plus Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan of the CCHA.

The NCHC will have a booth at the Let's Play Hockey expo at St. Paul's RiverCentre during the boys' state high school  hockey tournament this weekend. League staff will be there to talk up the conference and answer questions. The league also announced its Web address will be www.nchchockey.com

Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said this week that he expects the new WCHA to be "a heck of a league,'' because it continues to have schools with strong hockey traditions. "These are good schools, and it's going to be good competition,'' he said. "At the end of the day, things aren't going to change a whole heck of a lot.

"You have to let it evolve. You have to build new rivalries within the league, just like Minnesota is going to have to do in the Big Ten. That takes time. But eventually, they're going to be great rivalries. There's going to be a time in the future when people are going to forget about the old WCHA. The new WCHA and the new Big Ten, that's going to be what people know.''

Next season, when the Gophers start play in the Big Ten, they will play one of their non-conference series at Bemidji State. Like Gophers coach Don Lucia, Serratore wants to continue playing all the in-state rivals after they go to separate leagues.

Lucia lauded the BSU program. "I don't think people understand what a great tradition Bemidji State has had over the years,'' he said, noting that the Beavers remain relatively anonymous because of their location. "(Former coach/athletic director) Bob Peters has one of the most successful records in the history of college hockey. They deserved to be a Division I member, and in the WCHA, we fought very hard for that to happen.

"It's great to see the program they have. If the WCHA wouldn't have taken them in, I'm not sure they would even have a program right now, which would have been sad when you look at the history and tradition they have.''

This weekend, Lucia will be focused on his own team's short-term prospects. The Gophers could finish anywhere from first to a tie for sixth in the WCHA standings. The team is healthy, he said, and they should be relatively fresh. They practiced on the small ice sheet at Ridder Arena this week, and their ice time was limited, so they held shorter sessions.

Several players said they will refrain from scoreboard-watching this weekend, no matter how tempting it will be to see what other teams are doing. "On Friday, our goal is to get home ice (for the first round of the WCHA playoffs), and we'll go from there,'' captain Zach Budish said. "We can't worry about other scores. If we take care of our business, we know we'll be at least a No. 2 seed in the WCHA playoffs. We'll take that.''



Olympic wrestling: fallout from the IOC's snub

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 13, 2013 - 12:24 AM

On its face, it seems unfathomable that the International Olympic Committee would vote wrestling out of the Summer Games starting in 2020. It's one of the original Olympic sports, one depicted on ancient pottery unearthed in the birthplace of the Games. It's one of the most democratic, as pointed out by several of Minnesota's wrestling Olympians; it's popular all over the world, it allows countries such as Uzbekistan to participate in the Olympics, and people of both genders, all sizes and all economic backgrounds can excel.

Not that democracy means anything to the IOC, of course. Politics clearly factored heavily into the Tuesday decision of the IOC's executive board to give wrestling the boot, and now wrestling's supporters are scrambling to try and get back in. So how did this happen, and does wrestling have any shot to return to the Olympic program, where it has been part of every Summer Games since 1904?

It was known that the IOC expected to drop a sport at Tuesday's meeting. It had been widely assumed that the odd sport out would be modern pentathlon, which combines fencing, shooting, horseback riding, swimming and running. The board received reports on all 26 current Olympic sports noting how each scored in key factors such as TV ratings, ticket sales and global popularity and participation. According to the Associated Press, which obtained some of the documents, wrestling ranked low in several categories--but so did modern pentathlon. And wrestling clearly has greater popularity and participation around the world. A total of 71 countries sent wrestlers to the 2012 London Olympics. There were 26 countries represented in modern pentathlon.

The difference: modern pentathlon has friends in high places, and wrestling has an international governing body asleep at the switch. Modern pentathlon is largely a sport of European bluebloods--the kind of folks that run the IOC--and was created by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement. The first vice-president of its international governing body is Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., an IOC executive board member and son of the longtime IOC president. Modern pentathlon's governing body also understood its precarious position and lobbied the IOC to keep it.

Many of the power countries in wrestling are not politically connected within the IOC, and its international governing body, FILA,  seemed to be fiddling while Greco-Roman burned. University of Iowa coach Tom Brands said Tuesday there were "warning signs'' that wrestling was in trouble, and the AP reported that the IOC noted that FILA "has no athletes on its decision-making bodies, no women's commission, no ethics rules for technical officials and no medical official on its executive board.'' Agence France-Presse also reported that FILA did not lobby the IOC, thinking its status as an original Olympic sport was enough to keep it safe.

Among those placing some blame on FILA were Mikhail Mamiashvili, president of the Russian Wrestling Federation, and Brandon Paulson of Anoka, a silver medalist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics who now coaches at his Pinnacle Wrestling School in Shoreview. "The international governing body didn't do its job,'' Paulson said. "It should have known.''

Gophers coach J Robinson, a 1972 Olympian in Greco-Roman, lamented that the IOC is chasing the young X Games demographic that pump up TV ratings and bring in more TV rights dollars. The choice to drop a sport, IOC officials said, was to "renew and renovate'' the Olympic sports program. "They're driving the Olympics away from its roots,'' Robinson said. "They've moved into commercialism.'' 

So what next? The American wrestling community immediately began marshaling support via social media and online petitions. Brands said there was a conference call Tuesday afternoon with several major American players in the sport, "people that can get it done with know-how and getting in front of the right people.'' Brands already had been in contact with U.S. wrestling icons such as Dan Gable, Cael Sanderson and John Smith to discuss strategy.

Paulson said he is ready to help wrestling improve in ways that will impress the IOC, making changes that would make the sport more exciting for spectators. USA Wrestling distributed talking points for supporters on a Facebook page it created called "Keep Wrestling in the Olympics.'' Chas Betts of St. Michael, who competed in the 2012 London Games in Greco-Roman, said that "when something like this happens, everyone gets involved. The wrestling community is strong.''

The IOC executive board will meet in May to decide which sport to recommend to its full membership for inclusion in the 2020 Games. A final vote will occur in September. Wrestling will make its case then, as will baseball/softball; wakeboarding; roller sports; karate; squash; sport climbing; and wushu, a Chinese martial art.

"We're got to fight,'' Brands said. "We've got to right a wrong, because it's a wrong. ... These countries that all feel the same, being ambushed, need to unify. We fight in an educated, unified manner, and the United States has to lead the charge.''


Gophers' outdoor jerseys new, yet old

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 12, 2013 - 10:02 PM

It was about 25 degrees Tuesday at 7 p.m., when Gophers coach Don Lucia, assistant coach Grant Potulny and forward Zach Budish came to the outdoor rink at Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis. As several hockey-playing kids and their parents looked on, the group showed off the new jerseys the men's hockey team will wear Sunday in its outdoor game against Wisconsin at Chicago's Soldier Field.

Like so many things in sports, the jerseys weren't entirely new. They reprised a vintage design from the 1960-61 season--which, it was pointed out, was Lou Nanne's first season in maroon and gold. The maroon sweaters feature "GOPHERS'' on the diagonal across the chest, with gold and white stripes on the sleeves and a commemorative patch for the OfficeMax Hockey City Classic. Budish modeled the jersey, while Lucia mingled with fans and Potulny enjoyed a skate with several dozen kids playing on the rink.

The event also included representatives from Defending the Blue Line, the group that provides hockey equipment, camps and tickets for children of military families. The game-worn jerseys will be auctioned off to benefit the group. Go to www.defendingtheblueline.org for more information.

Lucia and Potulny also modeled the old-school wool letter jackets the coaches will wear at the game. The Gophers will not have an outdoor practice until they arrive in Chicago on Saturday; they hoped to get outside Monday for a workout, but the snow interfered with their plans. Lucia said he isn't concerned.

"As long as we get on the ice the day before, we'll be fine,'' he said. "We just need to get the awe out.''

The Gophers also will figure out Saturday what they will need to wear to protect themselves against the cold. The team's equipment managers will be taking extra gear such as neck warmers and gloves to ensure the team will be properly outfitted. They will drive down Saturday from Madison--where they play Wisconsin at the Kohl Center on Friday night--and practice at Soldier Field in the late afternoon.

Lucia said university president Eric Kaler and athletic director Norwood Teague plan to attend. Teague is exploring the possibility of the Gophers hosting an outdoor game soon, something Lucia is anxious to do.

"We need to do it,'' Lucia said, "Our state wants it. I think it would be a great success.''



Gophers hockey update: Haula back at center

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Rookies Updated: February 6, 2013 - 4:48 PM

With a week off from the WCHA schedule, all of the Gophers got a chance to heal some bumps and bruises and catch a bit of rest heading into the final weeks of the regular season. Few needed the break more than forward Erik Haula, who was still on the mend from a hand injury suffered on Dec. 30.

Haula had been playing at wing since returning to the lineup, since the injury compromised his ability to take faceoffs and defend around the goal. The top-ranked Gophers have not played since Jan. 26, and coach Don Lucia said Haula has returned to full health in the past two weeks. He will move back to center, his regular position, for this weekend's series at No. 8 St. Cloud State.

In practice this week, Lucia has put Haula between left wing Sam Warning and right wing Zach Budish, reprising a combination that had been in place for the six games before Haula's injury. Nate Condon, who had moved to center and replaced Haula on the Warning-Budish line, has been moved back to right wing with center Nick Bjugstad and left wing Kyle Rau. That trio has played together in a handful of games, most recently in the Mariucci Classic in late December.

Lucia isn't sure if he will use those same combinations against the Huskies, who are unbeaten in their past nine WCHA games and lead the league standings with 29 points. Nor is he sure that whatever combinations he settles on this weekend will stick.

"We'll continue to move guys around to see where we want them from here on out,'' he said. "(Haula) looked a little out of place playing wing the previous couple of games. I think getting him back to his natural center position is better for him and better for our team.

"Whether (the current lines) will remain by the end of the week, we'll see. That's how we're working with it right now. Those are our top six forwards. We have them together. We're still moving parts with (the third and fourth lines), and I'm sure that will be ongoing as well.''

Other notes from Wednesday's practice:

--Lucia reiterated that freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox is likely to play every game through the rest of the season if he remains healthy. The coach will continue to monitor Wilcox's workload in practices and adjust it accordingly to keep him as fresh as possible. The week off helped in that regard, Lucia said, and he noted that Wilcox managed a heavy game schedule during his two seasons in the USHL without any problems.

--Lucia is expecting a highly skilled game this weekend against the Huskies, with few penalties. He anticipates only two or three power-play opportunities per game, making it critical to cash in. St. Cloud State is the least-penalized team in NCAA Division I with an average of 8.5 penalty minutes per game. The Gophers are lightly penalized, too, standing in 49th place with 10.7 minutes per game.

--Senior forward Drew LeBlanc leads a Huskies team that is deep, well-balanced and filled with the most talent it's had in some time. LeBlanc leads the nation with 30 assists and is second nationally in scoring with 38 points. He's only eight assists shy of the school single-season record held by Brandon Sampair (2000-01) and Mark Hartigan (2001-02). He's also closing in on the program mark for most games played; he's currently at 157, four short of the record. It's been a terrific comeback for LeBlanc, who took a medical redshirt last season after an injury.

St. Cloud State also has one of the country's top rookies in forward Jonny Brodzinski. His 13 goals lead all Division I freshmen, and he's on a 13-game point streak.  

--Nate Schmidt's mother has taken on the Herculean task of feeding the Gophers on Thursday night. The defenseman from St. Cloud (Cathedral HS) isn't sure what's on the menu, but he's grateful that his mom was up to the challenge. "I said, 'Are you sure you know what you're getting into?''' he said he asked her. "She's like, 'Yeah, I'd love to have the boys over.' It should be fun. Any college kid knows you never turn down a home-cooked meal.''

--If you love hockey hair, check out the Samsonesque tresses under the headgear of the Huskies' Nic Dowd, Ben Hanowski, Tim Daly, David Morley, Cory Thorson and Nick Jensen. Dowd suggested that the group grow out their hair and donate it to Locks of Love, which provides hairpieces for disadvantaged kids who have lost their hair because of medical conditions. Their ponytails need to measure 10 inches to be donated, so they've got some impressive manes going. According to Tom Nelson at St. Cloud State, Dowd had to move up to a bigger helmet size to accommodate all that hair.


Gophers hockey update, Jan. 23

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: January 23, 2013 - 7:01 PM

Of the many things Don Lucia liked in last weekend's victory and tie against North Dakota, none stood out more than the play of the Sam Warning-Nate Condon-Zach Budish line. That group--and the Erik Haula-Nick Bjugstad-Kyle Rau combination--will stay together this weekend for a series against Minnesota State Mankato.

The Gophers split with the Mavericks earlier this season, winning 3-2 at Mariucci Arena and losing 5-3 in Mankato. Lucia said he thought MSU had a good team then, and he likes them even more now. He could say the same of his team, which got additional scoring punch--something it will need in the second half of the season--from the Condon line. Condon was named the WCHA's offensive player of the week after scoring two goals and adding three assists against North Dakota, and Warning and Budish also made some outstanding individual efforts in the series.

Haula still is healing from the hand injury he sustained against Boston College on Dec. 30. Lucia gave him some extra time off this week and expects to use him at wing again this week. Haula, who said he is not yet at 100 percent, is itching to get back to center.

That could happen when he is fully healed, which Lucia anticipates will happen in time for the Gophers' Feb. 8-9 series at St. Cloud State--which comes after a bye on Feb. 1-2. At that point, he will reassess his combinations.

"The way Condon has played at center gives us some more options,'' Lucia said. "That's something we thought about doing the whole year. Now that Condon is playing the way he is, and Warning, now that's an option.

"When Erik is 100 percent healthy, we could easily move Nick to right wing and have Erik at center and Kyle at left wing. We'll see if they can develop some chemistry as a threesome. That's something we'll experiment with. We can always pur Erik back at center and put Condon up there with him.We'll look at that in the two weeks before we play St. Cloud.''

Condon had only three goals at the Christmas break. He's scored six in his past seven games while centering Warning and Budish for five of those. Condon said he hasn't made any major changes, but he listened when Lucia got on his case at the break, telling him the team needed more from him. He knew his coach was right, and instead of pouting, he just got to work.

Lucia said Condon always has been a hard worker. Now, he is making his presence felt more consistently in games. "He's done a great job at center in Erik's absence, and his overall play has really elevated,'' Lucia said.  "Since Christmas, he seems to be a little different player than he was in the first half.''

Other notes from Wednesday's media session:

--On MSU, which has won 12 of its past 15 games: "I know how Mike (Hastings) coaches,'' Lucia said of the Mavericks' leader. "Now he has a better understanding of his team. Going into that first month, he was trying to figure out what his players could and couldn't do. All of a sudden, they've settled in on the freshman goaltender (Stephon) Williams, who has been spectacular since he's taken over.

"I said at the beginning of the year that they were a team that could really make a big jump, given the injuries they've had. Their top guys were freshmen last year. They're a good team, a deep team. I'm not surprised at all at the success they're having.''

--On the workload of freshman goalie Adam Wilcox, whom Lucia expects to start both games this weekend: "He's OK. There are times at practice when we tell him to stay out of the net for awhile, or to warm up for 20 minutes and see some pucks and then go take a shower. In the last month, we'll probably give him a second day off. We'll gauge that from week to week.'' (Lucia added that backup goalie Mike Shibrowski could see some playing time "a few weeks from now.'')


Gophers men's hockey: weekend recap

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: January 14, 2013 - 5:09 PM

Hard to believe it took the Gophers seven series to secure their first WCHA sweep this season. The two wins over Alaska-Anchorage kept them atop the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine and USCHO.com polls released this afternoon and bumped them up in the WCHA standings, where they are tied with North Dakota--this weekend's opponent--with 19 points, one behind first-place Denver and Nebraska-Omaha.

Gophers coach Don Lucia said he was particularly pleased to see his team earn those two victories without leading scorer Erik Haula, who has missed three games because of a hand injury. Haula's status remains day-to-day, Lucia said, but he held out some hope that the junior forward might return for the North Dakota series at Mariucci Arena. The coach anticipates Haula will return to practice sometime this week; at that point, the Gophers will see what Haula is capable of handling.

"We'll see what his availability will be and what role he can play if he can play this weekend,'' Lucia said of Haula, who has a team-high 26 points--one more than the surging Kyle Rau. "It could very well be a game-time decision on Friday. We just don't know yet.'' 

Lucia also offered kudos to the power play, which ran smoothly in Haula's absence, and freshman defenseman Brady Skjei and MIke Reilly, who played in both games. The power play scored on five of 11 chances in the two games, including twice during a five-minute major late in Friday's game to rally the Gophers to a 4-3 victory.

Junior goaltender Mike Shibrowski got back into action as well. Shibrowski, who hadn't played since Oct. 19, went in for starter Adam Wilcox on Saturday after the Gophers extended their lead to 6-1 with seven minutes, 53 seconds left. He stopped both shots he faced.

Lucia considered starting Shibrowski, who missed a few weeks of practice after he was injured in mid-November. He ultimately went with Wilcox but thought it important to get Shibrowski some minutes. "He got a chance to get his feet wet a little bit again,'' Lucia said of Shibrowski, who played in two of the Gophers' first three games and has a goals-against average of 3.47 and save percentage of .875. "Now he's in position to play if we need him. He's getting back into his rhythm. He missed a long time.''

Lucia said he isn't concerned about the workload placed upon Wilcox, a freshman. The Christmas break and an upcoming bye week in early February, the coach said, give the goalie some well-timed rest. Lucia did add that if Wilcox continues to be the everyday goalie, he will give him a second day off during the week. (He noted that doesn't always work; Kent Patterson, Lucia said, got a similar offer last year but didn't want to take time off.) 

"If we see signs he needs a game off, then you give him the game off, because you still have to look at the big picture,'' Lucia said. "But Adam is very athletic, and he's in great physical condition. Mentally, he's good. It's not like he's seeing 40 shots a night, either; he's seeing in the low 20s, and I think that makes a difference, too.''  



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