Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Posts about Olympic luge

Thoughts on Barker trade; Benshoof officially on vacation

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 15, 2010 - 10:43 AM

I’m officially back on the hockey beat. Unfortunately, countries are at three different venues today and U.S. and Canada don’t practice and aren’t available until tonight, so it’ll be a little bit of a scramble today.

 
There should be hockey news around 2 p.m. your time. That’s when final rosters must be submitted, and there are a smattering of injuries in the NHL, including Ryan Getzlaf, Marian Gaborik and Tomas Holmstrom. Reportedly, Holmstrom’s already been replaced with Red Wings teammate Johan Franzen. Getzlaf’s playing with a high ankle sprain and got four points last night in Edmonton, so you know that was a statement from him that he’s OK to play. If Stevie Y and Co. replace Getzlaf, it’ll be Philly’s Jeff Carter.
 
Wild players got in late last night. The Vancouver Canucks were nice enough to bring their equipment, so that should have made it easier for Mikko Koivu, Nik Backstrom, Antti Miettinen, Marty Havlat and Marek Zidlicky to get out of the airport. It’s always a funny scene watching a bunch of Olympians hauling these huge equipment bags over their shoulders once they arrive in Nagano, Turin, wherever.
 
Impressed I remembered who played for the Wild, by the way?
 
A lot of you asked me in emails and tweets the last few days my opinion of the Cam Barker trade. I’ve got to say, I like it, and I think it’s well documented that I was a Kim Johnsson guy and definitely a fan of Nick Leddy.
 
But here’s the thing: Johnsson’s value, besides being a minute muncher, is mobility. With Barker you get that and more, and a guy that’s more than 10 years younger. Barker can skate and unfathomably has a better shot than Johnsson. It’s also well documented that I never felt Johnsson was an adequate power-play guy. Mobility, yes, but unlike Zidlicky, he never got points.
 
I think you get that with Barker. So now suddenly at the point in the future, you’ll have Zidlicky (assuming he’s re-signed, and he will be), Brent Burns, Barker, and as of now, Marty Havlat or Nick Schultz, but eventually perhaps Marco Scandella or Tyler Cuma, or a free-agent replacement this summer.
 
As for Leddy, once Chicago said it wanted a prospect, it had to be one of the Big 3 D. Obviously the Blackhawks are stacked with young forwards and don’t need a Cody Almond, James Sheppard or Colton Gillies, who are basically the Wild’s only young bargaining chips up front.
 
Leddy, as good as he was in high school, was still years away from being in the NHL and you still don’t know for sure what he’s going to be. And, the Wild was not thrilled so far with his development at the U and concerned about his future because of it.
 
But assistant GM Tommy Thompson said, “Those things generally work out – either the guy’s pulled out of there as other people have been in the past or the situation changes there. That wouldn’t be the reason to making the deal.”
 
When GM Chuck Fletcher came to the Wild, the team had few assets and he had to figure out a way to fill the NHL team with upside youngsters. So how do you do that? He made quite clear in the story I wrote last June that you either use youngsters or draft picks as players, or you spend that like they were currency.
 
He’s trying to upgrade the youth of the organization, and since the team is not willing to fall flat on its face and get top-five bluechip-like picks every year, he’s decided to use the non-sure things (Pouliot, Fallstrom, Leddy) for young, but already established NHLers, that could be here for 10 years (Latendresse, Barker). That goes to the column I wrote in January – there’s many ways to build a franchise and get quality youngsters without losing.
 
So, Fletcher’s shown this year he’s willing to spend his non sure-things, projects, undeveloped players (whatever you want to call them) for players that will be here. In other words, hockey trades with long-term in mind. In other words, he wouldn’t have traded Leddy for a Johnsson (free-agent rental), but he would for a Barker (23 years old, former No. 3 overall pick).
 
Fletcher may have overspent for Chuck Kobasew (Fallstrom AND a 2011 second), but time will tell on that. But as far as Latendresse and Barker, to me, it’s worth the risk because we’re talking young-20s here.
 
Onward, I spent three days on the luge beat, and it was certainly neat covering something else. Got to chat yesterday with Tony Benshoof’s family and a bunch of his friends from Minnesota -- all of whom are big Wild fans. So as the Wild game was going on yesterday during the third luge run, I just talked Wild for about a half-hour, giving them updates of the Canucks-Wild game from my Blackberry.
 
Benshoof is officially on vacation now. He’s a big Wild fan as well and in general, a big Olympic hockey fan, “so my goal is to see as many Olympic hockey games as I can.” He plans on going to several events over the next couple weeks to support his fellow American Olympians.
 
“I’m going to enjoy it. Enjoy life. Vacation. Let loose,” he said.
 
Benshoof, sliding with three herniated disks was disappointed with his Olympics – an eighth-place finish after hoping to become the first American singles male luger to medal. Lowering the start to the women’s ramp (kinda like when I golf from the ladies’ tee, shhhh) really affected him because of his back. It takes a lot of effort to pull out of the ramp, and even though by the end you’re only going 7 or 8 mph slower, the slide is really won or lost at the top because now suddenly sliders were going 30 mph slower at the top, lugers were saying.
 
And Benshoof is real good at picking up speed as the slide goes on, his girlfriend, Molly, said.
 
“It was a bittersweet weekend with the tragedy and the dropping of the start, but it’s a great crowd and I had a blast,” Benshoof said. “Even though I’m disappointed with my result, looking up and seeing all my friends and family cheering and having a great time, it was definitely uplifting.
 
“It’s hard to be disappointed when you’ve got such an amazing group cheering you on.”
 
In 1988, Benshoof watched luge for the first time during the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
He wondered, “How do these guys stop?”
 
Benshoof was enamored, and coincidentally, a year later, he read in the newspaper that the USA Luge Slider’s Search, a recruitment program, was rolling through Minneapolis during the summer of ’89.
 
Benshoof’s father took him down to a small Minneapolis hill. He sat on a converted sled with roller skate wheels, “and little did I know what was next – a life in luge.”
 
After, USA Luge invited him to Calgary to try sledding on ice. Then he was invited to USA Luge’s home in Lake Placid.
 
“He never missed a cut,” said his mom Violet, who owns Josephine’s Interiors in St. Paul.
 
While Violet believes luge is just catching on in the United States, she says Tony’s a star in Europe.
 
“He gets letters all the time from Britain and Austria and Germany that just say, ‘Tony Luge Benshoof, White Bear Lake, USA. No address, but they get to him.”
 
He’ll take part in next month’s nationals in Lake Place and then have back surgery. After that, he’ll probably be “finished” luging, but first, “I’ve got to make it eight-time national champion.”
 
OK, officially, my mind turns to hockey – although I’m sure I’ll be covering some other events the rest of the Olympics, too.
 
The Wild assigned Cody Almond to Houston after yesterday's game. As for Anton Khudobin, it'll be up to his hip injury, but he's expected to be assigned, too.

Benshoof seventh heading into Sunday; Olympics check-in

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 13, 2010 - 11:47 PM

Good evening from the Whistler media center, where I have a half-hour before I jump on the 10 p.m. bus back to Vancouver media center. Would have made the 9 p.m. bus if not for the bus situation over at the Whistler Sliding Centre, but I digress.

Spent the day up at Blackcomb Mountain, which is spectacular. Very sad being at the Sliding Centre, especially standing next to the spot where Nodar Kumaritashvili lost his life. Flowers lay there now, and if front of that now-padded steel pole was a 12-foot wooden wall over the track to try to keep lugers on there.

You can read my story tomorrow, but the International Luge Federation investigated the accident and concluded that it was driver error, not track safety that cost the Georgian luger his all-too short life. Still, they raised the wall, shaved the ice to keep lugers from drifting high at the 16th turn, padded the poles and shortened the track, having lugers pull the handles off the women's ramp instead of the men's.

It made for a completely different slide -- a much slower one, which affected lugers like White Bear Lake's Tony Benshoof, whom I wrote a feature on in Saturday's paper. He's currently in seventh place, less than a second off the lead, heading into Sunday's 3 p.m. CT third head and 5 p.m. CT fourth heat.

Remember, Benshoof felt lugers would hit 100 mph on the old track. Tonight, only four lugers even hit 90, and none were Benshoof.

Doesn't it sound like I know what I'm talking about?

I'll tell ya, it was a gorgeous night out there. I've been in a lot of snow living in Minnesota and traveling to Denver and Western Canada all the time, but tonight was amazing. With pitch blackness in the distance and the stadium lights, the look of the snow was pretty sensational. Kind of therapeutic. Of course, I say this before tomorrow's bronchitis hits.

Benshoof was in good spirits and seemed convinced that after a little video analysis tonight, he can make up time and become the first American ever to medal in men's singles luge. Easier said than done, though.

I'll be back up here Sunday to document what is likely his last two Olympic runs ever. Then, starting Monday, I hit the hockey beat. I hope I can remember the verbiage.

Good night.

Heading to Whistler

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 11, 2010 - 7:50 AM

Good morning back in the Twin Cities.

I am sitting in the right bulkhead seat of a giant charter bus in the pitch blackness of 5 a.m. heading up to Whistler. In the left bulkhead is Star Tribune photojournalist extraordinaire Brian Peterson. Behind us on this 54-seat, 45-foot bus is nobody!!!

Brian and I have the bus to ourselves as we wanted to get a head start up to Whistler, which meant a 3:15 a.m. wakeup call to get to downtown Vancouver from our Richmond hotels. Driving is Ian from England. He currently lives in Prince George, British Columbia. Not only is he driving the bus, but he's giving us a tour. In a few minutes, we'll be driving along an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. "If you go left, next stop Japan. Unless you're a really bad sailor, you might actually hit Hawaii," says Ian.

He says in a few minutes we'd normally be seeing everything from submarines to the original "Love Boat," which is now an accomodation for the Olympic working crew in Whistler, Ian says. He says the boat was just brought in for the Olympics. But unfortunately it's black out right now, so no dice.

Brian and I will be on this bus for the next 2 1/2 hours as we head up to watch Lindsey Vonn at least attempt her first training run on a bum leg. As you can see in the paper/Olympics page of startribune.com, Vonn injured her lower leg Feb. 3 in Austria. I was also on the swimsuit edition beat yesterday, which is a slight upgrade on covering hockey pucks for a living.

Brian and I are heading to the Whistler media center. Then, we'll get on another bus for 15 minutes to get to the downhill ski slopes. Then, Brian and I will hop on a Gondola to take us to the bottom of the mountain -- the finish line -- where there will be a media sub station for writing and filing photos, plus the area to get the athletes.

I'll be making this to and from 5-6-hour round-trip trek three or four times in the next three or four days. Saturday and Sunday, I plan on coming up to Whistler again to cover White Bear Lake luger Tony Benshoof's runs in what is "very, very likely to be my last Olympics." Benshoof? Great, great interview. Had the pleasure of chatting with him for a half-hour yesterday and I'll be writing a profile on him for Saturday's paper.

I also plan on coming back one of these days to take a peak-to-peak Gondola ride from mountain to mountain apparently. Supposed to be breathtaking.

Rachel Blount and Jim Souhan will be working in Vancouver today as we at the Star Tribune quadruple team Olympic coverage. This is obviously a blast for me. Rachel and Jim are Olympic veterans, but me, I cover the NHL. I'm not used to muscling reporters out of the way to dig deep into a scrum to get an athlete in a mix zone.

Me? I just have to outmuscle Kevin Falness and his "radio voice" once in awhile.

What else? You should have seen Jim Souhan last night sandwiched against a door of a jam-packed train for 20 minutes. Priceless. I wish I had my camera out at the time. Jim and I picked the exact same time that the Opening Ceremony dress rehearsal was letting out. Fun trip.

It looks like I'll get to take in the Opening Ceremony, which is according to the people I talked to on the train, spectacular. I'm hearing rumors of who might be lighting the flame Friday night, and let's just say I'll be -- and all of Canada will be -- very thrilled. Unless I confirm it though, I'm not going to throw it out.

Speaking of hockey, hint, the U.S. women's team's press conference is this morning. Rachel will have that covered. The U.S. men's team will have two press conferences Sunday and Monday. Grieving GM Brian Burke is expected to address the media for the first time since his youngest son passed away on Monday. Burke won't march in the Opening Ceremony now.

In a cool story, Kings defenseman Jack Johnson is chartering a plane for he and his family and coming to Vancouver to march in the ceremony because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Then, he'll go back to play in the Kings' weekend game.

All the men's teams will be practicing for the first time Monday, and I'll be there to take them all in.

OK, I'm getting bus sick, so I might to catch a cat nap. I'm on 3 1/2 hours sleep thanks to TSN's spectacular behind-the-scenes look at Steve Yzerman and crew picking the Canadian men's hockey team. It was on last night. Great inside look at the debate on picking players, and it showed the coaches, including Jacques Lemaire, talking systems and things like that. Very fun show to watch. And it was on last night at 11 p.m. and I couldn't turn it off.

That's it. Talk to you later.

      

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