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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Justin Fontaine returns "home;" Mikko Koivu joining Wild on Tuesday

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice, Wild training camp Updated: September 30, 2013 - 1:01 PM

Good day from beautiful Duluth and the terrific AMSOIL Arena, where there's quite a few banners hanging from the rafters -- Tommy Kurvers, some guy named Brett Hull, a national championship banner from 2011.

There's also a picture of this guy -- the great UMD goalie of all-time and longtime Wild goalie coach, Bob Mason.

Just an fyi: I will be hosting a live online chat on www.startribune.com/wild on Thursday at 2 p.m.

Today was Justin Fontaine Day at AMSOIL. The former Bulldogs national champ returned here as a bona fide NHLer and the local press was waiting with open arms.

Being a 25-year-old rookie and newbie inside the Wild dressing room, you can tell Fontaine is just a tad uncomfortable with all the attention he's getting.

"It's always good coming back to your college town," Fontaine said sheepishly.

His teammates got a kick out of the building manager blaring the arena's horn when Fontaine scored a shootout goal toward the end of practice. They threatened to fine him.

"That was a nice touch," coach Mike Yeo said of the loud noise that echoed through the college barn.

Fontaine will make his NHL debut on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings as a left winger on the fourth line with Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell.

"Coming back would be nice, but the idea that you're coming back and you just survived final cuts to stay with an NHL team, I think it's got to be really exciting for him now," Yeo said.

Fontaine had two solid years in Houston and worked hard off the ice to get his body in tip-top shape. Yeo was asked why it took so long for Fontaine to arrive after signing as a free agent in 2011.

"Part of it is paying your dues and developing in the minors," Yeo said. "This is the best league in the world. Obviously he had a great college career, but like most players, there are other things you have to learn to make that next step. You've got to give him a lot of credit because he's improved in all the areas he needed to improve on and he's now ready to make that step."

Yeo likes Fontaine's versatility and noted that even though he was a top-line player in college, but there are only so many of those in the NHL. He said if a player wants to be really smart, he "would get good at all aspects of the game so they can fill in on any role."

Yeo likes that Fontaine can move up in the lineup if there's an injury or an underperformer.

Captain Mikko Koivu remained in the Twin Cities with his fiancee and newborn daughter. He will join the Wild tonight in Duluth for practice Tuesday. Kyle Brodziak was lost for part of practice today because he fell to the ice and then conveniently took a puck to the forehead. He bled badly but was stitched up and back out on the ice in a jiffy.

The Wild's currently golfing after a light practice today. Yeo plans to get right back at it Tuesday with a hard practice to gear up for Thursday's opener against Los Angeles.

Last time we were in Duluth, Josh Harding hurt his ankle if I remember correctly at the team-building exercise the day before. Jim Mill, the Wild's assistant to the GM and now Iowa GM (was Houston), had to tend goal. Yeo noted the upgrade today in goal with Harding and Nik Backstrom on the ice but said, "mind you, it hurt the confidence of our shooters today" that Mill wasn't out there.

One other funny line. Zach Parise, with a gigantic smile, was asked his memories of Duluth: "I remember all they had to do was get one point off us for the [2004] MacNaughton Cup and we swept 'em. It was awesome."

WILD PREGAME FESTIVITIES THURSDAY

The Wild will host pre-game parties at Xcel Energy Center
before its games on Thursday, Oct. 3 and Saturday,
Oct. 5. Fans are encouraged to attend the free events
from 4:30-6:30 p.m. outside Gate 2. The parties will
include live music by Five Man Advantage, NHL Alumni
autographs, face painters, food and drink featuring the
Budweiser Ice Bar, a Hockey Lodge retail booth, a KFAN
100.3 FM booth and the University of Minnesota Drum
Line. Additionally, on Thursday only, FOX Sports North
will have a promotional booth, while KFAN’s Dan Barriero
will broadcast live from 3-6:30 p.m.

ADVERTISEMENT

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