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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Matt Cooke Extra; Wild hosts Columbus tonight in preseason opener

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild training camp Updated: September 17, 2013 - 12:31 PM

The Wild’s first “morning skate” of the season is over as the Wild opens the preseason tonight with an exhibition game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It is not on TV or streamed online. It can be heard on KFAN and also on the always visual @russostrib Twitter account, www.twitter.com/russostrib.

Speaking of visual, starting later this week, I plan to do daily 60-second iPhone video updates on the Wild throughout the season. It’ll be basically a daily one-minute update from me on the Wild and can be seen on startribune.com/wild. They’ll be little quick hits of the unshaven, unkempt Russo, probably from the back of cabs, airports, hotel rooms, bar stools, press box seats, snowmobiles, whatever.

Currently, coach Mike Yeo and his staff are below me on the ice conducting a practice with the non-playing Wild guys. That includes Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, etc.

Tonight’s lineup again:

Forwards

Matt Cooke-Charlie Coyle-Nino Niederreiter

Jason Zucker-Mikael Granlund-Justin Fontaine

Stephane Veilleux-Kyle Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell

Jake Dowell-David Steckel-Carson McMillan

Defensemen

Keith Ballard-Matt Dumba

Marco Scandella-Nate Prosser

Brian Connelly-Jonathon Blum

Goalies

Niklas Backstrom

Darcy Kuemper

Yeo said the Wild looked “crisp” and he expects to see an imperfect game, but one in which he wants to start to see the discipline within the Wild’s game and system.

I wrote a big feature on Matt Cooke in today’s newspaper. That link can be seen here and here is a little more about Cooke here (like how his Toronto Maple Leafs career ended before it actually started), including a quote from his brother-in-law, Brandon, who coincidentally was transferred to St. Paul for his job just prior to Cooke signing here. Now Cooke’s family and his brother-in-law’s family (Cooke is married to Brandon’s sister, Michelle) live on the same block.

I actually held some large chunks of my sitdown with Cooke for future articles. He’s a quote machine and fascinating guy, especially away from the rink. So you’ll be seeing a lot of stuff about Cooke during his time here. He feels he's a more effective player since "he's cleaned up his act," and you can see that just on the PK. His stickwork (stick on puck) created lots of problems for the Wild PP on Monday. Remember, often when you're always going for the big hit, your stick is up. Now that he's not, he's paying more attention to details and the nuances of the game, and says he's never had more fun playing it.

Some stuff that did see the cutting room floor:

--That Ray Shero anecdote about flying to Toronto for the Cooke hearing after the Ryan McDonagh hit, Shero told me a funny story. He gets to Canadian customs and an agent goes, “What do you do?” Shero goes, “I work for a hockey team, the Pittsburgh Penguins.” The agent snaps, “Do you employ that $^&$#* Matt Cooke?” Shero said yeah and was then given the lecture of his lifetime. Shero tracked down Cooke after and kiddingly told him he basically was almost detained because of him.

--Cooke on his son, Jackson, being a stud baseball player (made the Pennsylvania All-Star team as a catcher) instead of a hockey player: “It’s not his thing. I want my kids to do what they want to do. When I’m retired, spending springtime down in Florida rather than up north is going to be nice.”

--Cooke says Mike Keenan “made him this way” (referring to his agitating style) and Marc Crawford just continued it in Vancouver. By the way, Cooke is just a huge fan of Crawford and former Canucks GM Brian Burke. On Crawford: “He was such a great coach for me. He totally believed in me. I mean, look at Game 1 [in 2003] against Minnesota. I scored with [2.3] seconds left to put it into overtime and Trent Klatt scored the winner. I mean, what was I doing on the ice with [2.3] seconds left? But he gave me those chances.”

Cooke on being a marked man by the refs: “I mean, sometimes. Sometimes it’s more like I get mugged and nothing gets called. Play on. Part of that is me earning their trust back, too, and in the past maybe I didn’t handle the referees the best. Yelling. I’ve stopped doing that, too. My wife joked though, maybe I should change my number (24) so I stop getting two minutes for being Matt Cooke (laughing).

I talked to Dustin Brown a lot about Cooke a few weeks ago and held some of that for opening night when the Kings captain comes to town. It was Brown who first knocked out Cooke’s tooth (it’s on YouTube). Cooke has a fake tooth but doesn’t wear it. He says it’s uncomfortable and the missing tooth is almost like a battle scar.

I love this anecdote. A few weeks ago, Cooke drove his kids to their new Minnesota school on the first day. “My wife looks at me and goes, ‘Really? The first day of school, you couldn’t put your teeth in? What would you think if you saw some dad with no tooth and a beard dropping kids off?’ I was like, ‘sorry, that’s not me.’”

Onward, here’s a subject to change plan for the Star Tribune in the next few days. In Wednesday’s newspaper, I’ll have a feature on Nino Niederreiter to give you an introduction. In Thursday’s paper, Rachel Blount will be profiling Matt Dumba. In Friday’s paper, from Winnipeg, I, as of now, plan to write about Justin Fontaine. Right now, the former UMD national champ is slated to play that game. In Saturday’s paper, Rachel is writing about former Gopher Keith Ballard.

There will be notebooks and gamers and other stuff, too.

Some more Yeo-bits from this morning:

He talked about Charlie Coyle and how he’s looking for him to take a bigger step offensively this year and provide secondary scoring beyond the top line.

On Niederreiter, Yeo wants to see him grasp the system tonight. Yeo said Niederreiter isn’t being pigeon-holed as a top-6 spot only right now. That’s because, in my opinion, if Jason Zucker and Coyle grab those second-line spots with Dany Heatley, Niederreiter’s only choice initially beyond Iowa is grabbing that third-line right wing spot.

So Yeo wants to see that he’s versatile with and without the puck the way Coyle was last season. Niederreiter can’t play that checking-line spot with Cooke and Kyle Brodziak if he can’t be relied on. So that’s partly what El Nino must show in camp.

I should have a good story on Nino Wednesday. He was a decent interview, I plan to talk to his junior linemate, Columbus’ Ryan Johansen before tonight’s game, I’ve talked to his junior coach and GM, Mike Johnston, I’ve talked to GM Chuck Fletcher about him, analyst Craig Button, etc. I probably have too much stuff actually.

Similarly, Yeo said Fontaine needs to show he’s beyond just a point-getter, and again if you look at the depth chart, for Fontaine to make the team, it may need to be in a fourth-line role. I talked to Fontaine today and he understands that. If Fontaine doesn’t make the team, he just needs to prove he should be an initial callup if injury occurs.

Rachel got some nice stuff on Dumba for her story. Yeo said Dumba’s been told that he can’t make the team just by playing safe. He’s got to “get up to the line and not cross it.” Dumba provides a dimension the Wild doesn’t have, and the Wild wants to see it for him to be here. I still think he makes the team.

More after the game and on Twitter.

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