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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With the Iowa Wild off to an American Hockey League-worst 2-10 start after finishing last in the Western Conference a year ago, Kurt Kleinendorst is out as head coach of the Wild’s minor-league affiliate, sources say.
The Wild has tabbed John Torchetti as Kleinendorst’s replacement, according to sources, and he will be on the ice to coach the Baby Wild during Tuesday’s practice. Torchetti, 50, who won a Stanley Cup as a Chicago Blackhawks assistant in 2010, returns to the Wild after coaching the Houston Aeros to back-to-back postseason berths. He was supposed to relocate with the team to Des Moines, but he exercised an out clause to take a job in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League last year.
Kleinendorst, 53, was informed of the Wild’s decision by director of minor-league operations Jim Mill after Sunday’s loss to the Chicago Wolves. An announcement is expected Tuesday morning.
The Iowa Wild, despite such prospects as Tyler Graovac, Kurtis Gabriel, Zack Phillips and Brett Bulmer and skilled players like Jordan Schroeder, Michael Keranen and Zack Mitchell, averages only 2.25 goals per game, has allowed 3.8 goals per game and has won once at home.
Johan Gustafsson is off to a 2-6 start with a 3.70 goals-against average and .884 save percentage.
It’s been more and more clear the past few weeks that General Manager Chuck Fletcher was growing increasingly displeased with Iowa’s play and was worried about the development of some of its prospects would stall.
After the latest loss Sunday, Kleinendorst was quoted on Tom Witosky’s Twitter account (@toskyAHLWild) regarding the season’s tough start, “Trust me I know. It hurts. It is not pretty. Obviously, it is a huge, huge reflection on me.”
Assistant coach Steve Poapst and the rest of Iowa’s staff was retained.
Kleinendorst, a Grand Rapids, Minn., native, came to the Wild after coaching the University of Alabama-Huntsville for one year. The longtime New Jersey Devils assistant coach was a finalist for the Aeros’ head-coaching position in 2010. It went to now-Wild coach Mike Yeo instead, and Kleinendorst was hired by the Ottawa Senators to coach their AHL affiliate in Binghamton. Coincidentally, Kleinendorst’s Baby Sens rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to beat Yeo’s Aeros before Yeo came to Minnesota.
Torchetti, 50, coached CSKA Moscow last year after having an out clause in his Wild contract with the Aeros. At the time, Fletcher said Torchetti couldn’t pass up a “huge deal,” but he apparently left after one year because of the unrest politically in Russia last year. Torchetti went 32-20-2 in Moscow.
Torchetti's Houston Aeros went 75-51-26 in two seasons. He has been an interim head coach with the Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings (so he has been through transitions before) and has been an assistant with Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Chicago.
He has got almost 20 years of pro coaching experience, spending time in the ECHL, CHL (Coach of the Year in 1995 in San Antonio), IHL (Coach of the Year in 1998 in Fort Wayne), AHL and NHL, and was also a minor-league general manager.
From my Torchetti hired blog a few years back:
He’s a former minor-league goal scorer who got his career started playing for Rick Dudley for the old Atlantic Coast League’s Carolina Thunderbirds in the mid-80s. Dudley used to drive the buses and Torchetti would sit in the front seat and stay up every night ‘til 3 or 4 in the morning talking hockey and life with Dudley. They’ve been tight ever since.
When Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr ran the San Antonio minor-league franchise for Florida, Torchetti was the head coach and they became good friends.
Torchetti is a guy who worked for free in his first coaching job in Greensboro. On the side, he drove a taxi to earn a living. He hails from Northeast and has the thickest Boston accent you’ve ever heard, so get ready for that.
Wild coach Mike Yeo didn't have many details Wednesday about the injury that knocked forward Zach Parise out of Tuesday's game--and out of the Wild's lineup, at least for the short term. Yeo said after Wednesday's practice that Parise has an upper-body injury and will not accompany the team on a three-game road trip that begins Thursday in Ottawa. As the Wild prepared to leave on a 1 p.m. flight, Parise was preparing to meet with doctors to learn more about the severity of the injury.
Parise was hurt during the Wild's 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh on Tuesday and did not come out for the third period. He did not practice Wednesday. Yeo did not disclose anything more specific about the injury other than to repeat it was to Parise's upper body, and he was uncertain how long Parise might be out.
Yeo said he didn't see how the injury happened, but he knew something was wrong when Parise came to the bench and summoned the trainers. He said no roster moves are imminent.
"This is a hole that isn't easily filled,'' Yeo said. "It's a tough mountain to climb without a guy like that in your lineup.''
In Wednesday's practice, Thomas Vanek replaced Parise on the top line with Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville. Vanek and Pominville were linemates in Buffalo for about two years and are close friends. Yeo said he hopes they can rekindle that chemistry.
"(Parise) is a tough guy to replace,'' Pominville said. "It won't be one guy stepping up and being a hero. We'll have to rely on our depth. We've had four lines this year that have been able to create offense.''
Yeo also has talked all season about the importance of depth to the Wild, and he said it will be tested with so many key players--including Parise, D Jared Spurgeon (shoulder) and F Matt Cooke (lower-body injury)--out of the lineup.
Cooke also is not on the trip. F Kyle Brodziak missed practice today to be with his wife, who is about to deliver a child, and will fly separately to Ottawa. D Keith Ballard is improving, Yeo said, but still needs time to get back up to speed after his long illness.
Wild forward Thomas Vanek says he no longer gambles, has never bet on hockey and is trying to move on after testifying in front of a grand jury in July as a witness in a federal illegal gambling and money laundering case in Rochester, N.Y.
“It’s something I have to deal with obviously,” Vanek said after the Wild’s morning skate Saturday. “I’m not proud of the decisions I’ve made, but as a person, I just have to move on from it and learn from your mistakes.”
Vanek was a government witness in a case against three men who were arrested in June for allegedly conducting an illegal gambling business out of the Marina Restaurant and Bar in Charlotte, N.Y., since Jan. 2012.
One of the men, Mark Ruff, pleaded guilty Thursday to illegal gambling and conspiracy to launder money and faces nine years in prison. In court, Ruff claimed a $230,000 check he apparently laundered came from a gambler who was paying off a debt.
That man’s defense attorney later volunteered to reporters that the check was a New York Islanders payroll check at the time Vanek played for them. Ruff told the Democrat & Chronicle that the check was part of more than $1 million this gambler, which he alluded was Vanek, owed.
Vanek’s agent, Steve Bartlett, acknowledged to the Star Tribune on Friday that the check was indeed endorsed over to the men by Vanek “to get them off his back.” Vanek was betting on football, Bartlett said.
“If you read it quickly or you listen to [the lawyer’s] comments, it almost alludes to the fact that Thomas Vanek was involved in money laundering, which is totally false,” Bartlett said. “He is not the subject of any investigation or criminal charges or anything whatsoever. He was a witness against this guy who was the bookmaker. He was the guy that wanted money, and Thomas paid it to him. Thomas wasn’t involved in any bookmaking activities.”
Vanek said Saturday that from his end, nothing has changed from when he was first approached by the government earlier this summer. The only thing now is details have emerged.
“I look at it as bad decisions,” Vanek said. “There’s no other way to sugarcoat it or make it seem what it’s not. I made some bad choices. I feel I’ve learned from them and have to move on.
“I feel I’ve done nothing wrong besides to my family and to myself, and I’ve got to move on from that.”
Asked if he had a gambling addiction, Vanek said, “It’s something I got caught up into.”
Asked if he still gambles, Vanek said, “No.”
In the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, the only mention of gambling comes in Exhibit 14.2: “Gambling on any NHL game is prohibited.” Vanek has not been accused of gambling on hockey and says he has “never” bet on hockey.
“This came up five months ago, so from there on out, it was something I knew was out there. Nothing changed for me now besides the details coming out,” Vanek said. “But as far as this being a distraction, no. I’m trying to move on from it. Once I come here, I focus on my job. The team has been great. Coach [Mike Yeo] and Mr. [Chuck] Fletcher have been very supportive. It’s been nice.”
Vanek said as far as he knows, he has no other responsibilities in this case.
“I was only there once. I was cooperating,” Vanek said. “I made a mistake.”
The NHL has indicated that unless it was determined Vanek was betting on hockey or faced criminal charges, it will not take any action against him. Vanek said he has not been contacted by anybody from the NHL throughout the entire process.
“We will obviously follow up on the ‘facts’ suggested in the article (referring to the reports out of Rochester) to satisfy ourselves that we are on top of the situation,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told the Star Tribune on Thursday.
Darcy Kuemper’s in goal vs. the Dallas Stars, who may be coming back with Kari Lehtonen.
Erik Haula will return, as will Christian Folin. Jon Blum has been recalled and will only play if Jonas Brodin can’t after warmups. Brodin told me in his mind, he’s playing (trainers are adding more protection to his glove). Ryan Carter is out with an upper body injury that Yeo doesn't think will be serious, but he won't be able to play his type of game, the coach said. Also out, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Cooke and a still-sick Keith Ballard.
Haula will center Stephane Veilleux and Justin Fontaine to start (Yeo likes Haula with Fontaine, and don't be surprised if like last game Yeo spots in a third forward instead of Veilleux to get them more ice time and limit Veilleux's), while Yeo will keep Vanek-Kyle Brodziak-Nino Niederreiter intact to start.
The Benn-Spezza-Seguin line is daunting.
"We have to be up to that task," Yeo said. "It's not going to be a one-man show tonight. It's not going to be just on Haula. There's going to be times where Mikko's line's out there, times when Granny's line's out there and you have to recognize who you're on the ice against and you have to make sure you attack when you have a chance to attack, but you have to manage the puck the right way, too."
Granlund didn't manage the puck well against San Jose.
Yeo said he may mix and match lines. Because Haula has been out, he wants him to get his feet under him first and then Yeo will see where the matchups take him.
I'll be on KFAN at 1:15 p.m.
I wrote my Sunday Insider about Jack Jablonski.
Tonight, during the Wild-Stars game, Jablonski will lead what will be dubbed as hockey’s largest stick tap when 18,000-plus fans receive thunder sticks so they can tap along with the 19-year-old affectionately known as Jabs.
A stick tap in hockey, as Jabs explained last week, “is when somebody gets injured – and we saw plenty stick taps in the Wild game Monday in New York. You tap your stick on the ice when that player gets up hoping that everything’s OK. It’s to show respect for people injured in a hockey game.”
Unfortunately, in Dec. 2011, Jablonski wasn’t able to get up after a check from behind while playing hockey as a sophomore for Benilde-St. Margaret’s. The injury left him a quadriplegic, but he has since become an inspiration to many.
Jablonski has devoted his life to helping others who are going through the same debilitating injury.
Jablonski’s Bel13ve in Miracles Foundation (www.bel13vefoundation.org) teamed up with the Wild and Minnesota Hockey to kick off #StickTap2Hope, a social initiative to raise awareness of the innovative recovery treatments already available for people living with spinal cord injuries. The hope is this becomes a global stick tap with supporters tweeting their photos and videos.
Jabs hopes to do this annually, and maybe this can take off like the Ice Bucket Challenge raised awareness for ALS last summer.
More in Sunday's paper on Jablonski.
While the National Hockey League said Friday it will continue to keep an eye on a federal illegal gambling and money laundering case in Rochester, N.Y., that Thomas Vanek has testified in as the government’s prime witness, the Wild forward likely won’t face league discipline unless he faces criminal charges or bet on hockey.
Vanek’s agent, Steve Bartlett, told the Star Tribune Friday that “Thomas is not in any way, shape or form involved in any illegal activities or in trouble here.”
Vanek bet on football and was paying off a gambling debt, according to Bartlett.
Vanek’s in the news again because a defense attorney for a man who pleaded guilty to illegal gambling and conspiracy to launder money Thursday alluded to the fact that the check his client helped launder came from Vanek while he played for the New York Islanders.
In an interview with WHEC-TV’s Berkeley Brean in Rochester, N.Y., lawyer Jim Wolford, who represents Mark Ruff, said the $230,000 “check that was identified as far as the money laundering was a New York Islander check.”
That check, apparently endorsed over to the men, was to pay off a gambling debt, Ruff admitted in court.
Asked what he was implying by saying the check was a New York Islander check, Wolford told WHEC-TV, “Thomas Vanek was here [in federal court], what, a couple months ago? I think at the last hearing he was playing for the Islanders.”
When asked if he was inferring the check came from Vanek, Wolford said, “It came from the Islanders. … Put it this way, I was a little surprised when I heard on the news that Mr. Vanek was claiming complete innocence with respect to this entire operation.”
Bartlett was incensed by the lawyer’s comments.
“If you read it quickly or you listen to his comments, it almost alludes to the fact that Thomas vanek was involved in money laundering, which is totally false,” Bartlett told the Star Tribune. “He is not the subject of any investigation or criminal charges or anything whatsoever. He was a witness against this guy who was the bookmaker. He was the guy that wanted money and Thomas paid it to him. Thomas wasn’t involved in any bookmaking activities.
“Now people are like, ‘Oh, Thomas was a money launderer. That’s totally false. He was the bettor. He bet on football games. Obviously that’s what he was testifying to. It doesn’t take Einstein to figure that out.”
In July, Vanek was in a federal court in Rochester as part of an ongoing gambling investigation stemming from the June arrest of three men on gambling and money laundering charges. The three men – Ruff, his brother, Joe, and another man -- were allegedly conducting an illegal gambling business out of the Marina Restaurant and Bar in Charlotte, N.Y., since Jan. 2012.
At the time, Vanek released the statement, “Representatives of the U.S. Federal Government have asked for my cooperation in an investigation. I am not the subject of any investigation or prosecution. I will fully cooperate with the U.S. Federal authorities in their investigation or in any proceedings arising out of it.”
Wolford told the Democrat & Chronicle that the $230,000 was a small portion of the overall debt owed by the gambler who paid with an Islanders check. The total of the debt was more than $1 million, he said.
I contacted the National Hockey League last night and heard back this morning.
“We will obviously follow up on the ‘facts’ suggested in the article to satisfy ourselves that we are on top of the situation,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told the Star Tribune.
In the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, the only mention of gambling comes in Exhibit 14.2: “Gambling on any NHL game is prohibited.”
There has been no allegation that Vanek bet on hockey.
This apparently was a football ring. If Vanek was betting on football, it is unlikely that the NHL will take any action. As long as Vanek wasn’t part of the gambling ring or involved in money laundering and faces no criminal charges, Vanek and the Wild likely have nothing to worry about.
Since Vanek is cooperating with the federal investigation, that would lead one to believe Vanek won’t be facing charges.
The Wild held an optional practice Friday, and Vanek left without commenting.
Vanek, in nine games with the Wild, has no goals and leads with seven assists. His two third-period assists last night on Kyle Brodziak goals helped the 6-3 Wild rally to beat the San Jose Sharks in a shootout.
The Wild didn't practice today, so injury updates will have to wait most likely until the morning skate, but coach Mike Yeo wasn't confident that Jonas Brodin would be able to play against the San Jose Sharks and Erik Haula might.
As reported in today's paper, the Wild is concerned Brodin could be longer. As for Haula, Yeo said yesterday that he wasn't diagnosed with a concussion, but the team wanted to be cautious because of how often concussed players show symptoms a few days later. The Wild especially has experience with that.
John Moore, the New York Rangers defenseman who struck Haula on Monday with an illegal check to the head in the second period, was suspended five games today by the NHL. He had an in-person hearing and could have been suspended more than five games, but the NHL's Department of Player Safety gave him five games. That number means Moore won't be able to appeal the suspension to a neutral arbitrator. Not saying that's why he got five, just pointing out the significance of it being less than six.
The gist of the video: After Haula snaps a shot on net as Moore closes in, Moore drives his shoulder into Haula. The initial contact, the league says, was with Haula's shoulder, but the main point of contact on the hit was Haula's head.
Stephane Quintal notes Haula is eligible to be checked here, that the hit wasn't late, but if Moore's to render this extremently difficult check, "his timing and angle of approach must ensure that he hits squarely through the body and that Haula's head is not the main point of contact. Moore does neither. Haula’s head absorbs the brunt of Moore’s shoulder."
Moore, a repeat offender, loses $51,859.75 in salary because his lost money is based on 5, 82 game checks rather than 5 days of salary.
In the meantime, the Wild opens a three-game homestand against Brent Burns, the NHL's leading scorer among defensemen (yeah, he's a blue-liner again), and the San Jose Sharks on Thursday night.
I'll be on KFAN live from the penalty box from 9:55 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Thursday and on Fox Sports North Plus Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and during the first intermission.
Some highlights from my preview box:
-- The Wild has outshot all eight opponents this season (274-181), averaging the second-most shots per game (34.2) and allowing the fewest (22.6).
-- D Marco Scandella, who scored his third career winning goal Tuesday, is tied with D Ryan Suter for first on the team with a plus-8. Scandella has been an even or better in every game.
-- C Ryan Carter, a White Bear Lake native, has an assist in five of the past six games and leads the Wild with 16 hits. LW Jason Zucker has three goals and an assist in the past three games.
-- G Darcy Kuemper will probably get a chance to bounce back after allowing five goals in the third period Monday at the Rangers.
-- The Wild’s power play is 0 for 26 and has gone eight straight games without a power-play goal, which is tied for the team record according to the Elias Sports Bureau (five times).
-- The Wild has been shorthanded the fewest times in the NHL (22), has the NHL’s third-best penalty kill (90.9 percent) and is tied for the second-fewest minor penalties (29).
-- According to Elias, last night's 4-3 win over Boston marked just the third time in Wild history the team has won a game in regulation time when trailing by two goals in the third period. The other such occasions: Jan. 16, 2004 vs. PIT (trailed 2-0 and won 4-2) and Dec. 18, 2007 vs. NSH (trailed 2-0 and won 3-2). So, first time on the road.
-- I wrote an article for Thursday's paper on the Wild's ongoing attempt to spark offense from Mikko Koivu and goals from Thomas Vanek, so give that a read.
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