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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Mark Feb. 21, 2016, on your calendar.
Finally, after a decade of watching other teams play outdoors in Boston, New York and even Los Angeles and soon to be Santa Clara, Calif., the Wild will get its turn to take its game out into the Minnesota winter.
On Saturday, the Wild was officially awarded a Stadium-Series game next season by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman during All-Star Weekend n Columbus. The game will take place against the Chicago Blackhawks at the 52,525-capacity TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
“We’re incredibly excited about it,” owner Craig Leipold said during a phone interview. “The opportunity to play the rival Blackhawks, I think, makes it a very compelling game. We clearly understand the Blackhawks have been in a number (three) of outdoor games. So they may have a slight mental advantage if you will, but we’re quick learners and we’re just really excited to be in an outdoor game.”
Wild players are excited.
"The players that I know that have played in one say the whole event is a great experience, not just the game itself," Zach Parise said via text. "Having one here is a little bit overdue, I think. Outdoor hockey is part of the culture in Minnesota."
Leipold said his wish is to turn the Stadium-Series game, which includes an accompanying alumni game, into “a real iconic weeklong event” that could include Hockey Day Minnesota (which includes high school games and maybe a Gophers game), an Iowa Wild game and “basically as much as we possibly can do.”
Because TCF Bank Stadium was chosen by the NHL over Target Field only in the past few days, there is still a lot of planning that needs to be done in order to make this happen. The Wild will have to get with the University of Minnesota and TCF Bank Stadium to rent out the venue for Hockey Day Minnesota, then sublease the rink from the league.
Also, ticket information will be released at a later date. The Wild is also talking to Fox Sports North about a behind-the-scenes reality show similar to HBO’s 24/7.
As I reported the other day, if the NHL had chosen Target Field, the league would have incurred added costs like replacing the sod and winterizing the stadium. Leipold also said TCF Bank Stadium’s ability to fit 15,000 more fans was “ultimately a huge factor.”
Last January, TCF Bank Stadium hosted the Hockey City Classic. The Gophers’ women played Minnesota State, while the Gophers’ men played Ohio State. The announced attendance for the men’s game – a 1-0 Gophers win -- was 45,022 – the largest crowd to ever see a hockey game in Minnesota.
Leipold again made clear Saturday that his ultimate objective is to bring Minnesota the New Year’s Day Winter Classic. The league and NBC has so far scoffed at giving Minnesota a game because the Wild’s not considered a national, marquee draw.
So upset at that sentiment, Leipold had previously turned down the chance of hosting a Stadium Series game or being the visitor in the Winter Classic until recently having a change in heart.
“After talking with the league now for a long time about the Winter Classic, it became apparent to me, particularly after talking with other owners who have hosted the outdoor games, that this is a great way to profile your team and profile what we can do in the Twin Cities. It’s a great way of possibly getting the Winter Classic sooner versus later.”
With the amount of Minnesotan former NHLers, North Stars and Wild players, the alumni game will be a must-see event. The Wild and NHL are already kicking around ideas regarding the makeup of teams and captains.
The great Brian Rolston, who hit the 30-goal mark in all three seasons he played for the Wild, already says he’s in.
“I would be honored to play again in the great State of hockey, where I enjoyed my best years in the National Hockey League,” Rolston said via phone Saturday. “When you think about outdoor games in the United States, the first thing that would come to mind is Minnesota. It only seems fitting to have the outdoor game in Minnesota, where so many young players started their careers on frozen ponds or lakes.
“I believe one of the reasons Minnesota has produced so many great hockey players is the accessibility to outdoor venues.”
The NHL also announced Saturday that the Boston Bruins will host its second Winter Classic next Jan. 1, this one at Gillette Stadium, against the Montreal Canadiens, and that the World Cup of Hockey will return to Toronto in 2016. A second Stadium Series Game was awarded to the Colorado Avalanche, who will play rival Detroit at Coors Field.
The Wild has landed a stadium series game. It will take place next February (perhaps the third weekend), and as I mentioned on yesterday’s startribune.com chat, the team’s hope is to turn it into a weeklong celebration of hockey.
Besides the outdoor game, which will feature the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks according to NBC Sports Network’s (and TSN Insider) Bob McKenzie, and accompanying alumni game, the Wild’s will attempt to have Hockey Day Minnesota the weekend before. It also will weigh and measure bringing the American Hockey League-affiliate Iowa Wild in for a game.
As of earlier today, the NHL was still negotiating with Target Field and TCF Bank Stadium to determine which venue would host the stadium-series game and alumni game. There is a chance the venue won’t be announced this weekend, although the hope is it will be finalized by then (when the NHL originally announced the past Winter Classic between Washington and Chicago, the venue also wasn’t finalized and thus wasn’t announced).
The pluses? TCF Bank Stadium could hold more fans but Target Field has a lot more premium seating. One obstacle with Target Field is there are added costs the NHL would have to incur like replacing the sod and winterizing the stadium. The figures were being tossed around today between the league and Target Field.
As has been reported many times, Craig Leipold’s ultimate goal is to host the actual Winter Classic. As has been reported many times, the NHL has thus far told the Wild owner that he needs to be patient. Leipold has been so adamant about his desire to host, he declined the chance for the Wild to be the visitor against Washington.
A few years ago, Leipold also declined the stadium series games because he wanted the main event. However, Leipold has since changed his mind and informed Commissioner Gary Bettman awhile ago that he would be willing to host a stadium series game as long as it helps his eventual objective – to host a Winter Classic.
The Stadium Series game and alumni game is a league-run event. The NHL has to rent out the venue and then make the Wild whole one Xcel Energy Center gate. In other words, based on history, the Wild and NHL will determine how much revenue the Wild normally takes in for a weekend February game in terms of ticket price, food, beverage and merchandise.
The league pays the Wild that money and all incremental revenue goes to the league (hockey-related revenue, which is split amongst the players and all 30 teams).
Once the venue is nailed down, the Wild will then begin crunching numbers to see if it can hold Hockey Day Minnesota at the same venue the weekend before. In order to do that, the Wild would have to rent out the venue and sublease the rink from the NHL.
As usual, the hope would be to have high school games and potentially a Gophers game on the outdoor rink.
As for the Iowa Wild, the Minnesota Wild would also want to make sure that was cost effective based on how much it would cost to rent the venue, sublease the ice and charge for tickets.
So there’s still a lot of moving parts that can’t even start to be materialized until the league sets the venue in stone, which again as of a few hours ago was not finalized (this blog was originally going up later tonight).
As for the stadium-series game, the NHL originally wanted the Wild to play the Dallas Stars. The Wild requested the Blackhawks. According to MacKenzie’s report, the Wild got the Blackhawks. It will be Chicago's fourth outdoor game, Minnesota's first.
In my sit-down in November with Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner said “there’s an outdoor game in Minnesota’s future. I think the chances are good for a Stadium Series game next year.”
There is only one Stadium Series game this season — San Jose hosting Los Angeles in Santa Clara, Calif. — after four last year.
There are many factors why there is only one game this season, but one reason is because of a lawsuit against the Philadelphia Flyers last year.
“I mean, it’s crazy when you think about it, but basically they got sued because they removed a regular-season game from the season-ticket package and didn’t make it available to the fans on the basis that they’d be able to buy it at [Wells Fargo Center],” Daly said. “There was no judgment, but there was a settlement.”
So to protect itself, the league sent new language for teams to include in their season-ticket packages in the event they got an outdoor game. However, a number of teams had already sent their renewal notices out, including the Wild. Apparently, the Sharks had not.
Having only one stadium-series game coupled with the declining Canadian dollar are factors in a salary cap that’s expected to only reach $71 million next season.
If the Wild would have been able to complete the comeback tonight by winning in overtime or the shootout, it would have been the Wild’s first comeback from three goals down to win on the road since March 5, 2009, in San Jose.
I’m pretty sure I had a coronary that night, too.
This was one of the weirdest games I’ve ever covered. The Wild rallying back from three-goal deficits or blowing three-goal leads was so October or November. It seemed to happen every other game or so. It happened a few times last year, too.
But this was a weird one (not as weird as in Dallas earlier this year when the Wild blew a three-goal lead in like five minutes and actually fell behind in the third before coming back and winning). I say it was weird because the Wild trailed 4-1 after two periods yet may have given up six scoring chances.
I say that because for the eighth time in 46 games this season, coach Mike Yeo had to pull his starting goalie, yet nobody with eyes could blame Devan Dubnyk for really any of them. Yet, he was pulled at the 27:25 mark after giving up four goals on 10 shots.
The first goal came off a world-class one-timer from the most prime shooting position there is. The second goal came through a screen. The third and fourth goals were going wide, but Gustav Nyquist perfectly redirected one shot and the other one pinballed off Justin Fontaine’s skate.
Against the NHL’s fourth-best defensive team and a team that has 22 goals during a five-game winning streak, the Wild had the better of the chances and had allowed 13 shots through two periods.
But as is the case so often, the Wild has to work so, so, so, so very hard to score. Take Ryan Carter tonight. He had, by his own admission, two open net attempts just prior to Thomas Vanek scoring an awesome goal in the third period and the second couldn’t lift a puck with Detroit’s goalie on his belly.
But in the third, Zach Parise scored the Wild’s second power-play goal of the game (Mikko Koivu tied the score at 1-1 in the first) and then after Vanek scored a sensational, highlight-reel goal after taking Ryan Suter’s great pinch/exchange and dangling through the slot to score a roof-job, Parise scored the type of goal that exemplifies him.
Standing in front of goalie Petr Mrazek, Parise first went to the right of the cage and stuck his stick horizontally right. He then stood in the center as Jonathan Ericsson took forever to execute a controlled breakout.
Finally, Parise turned his stick and jutted it out left. Ericsson shot it right into the shaft and Parise knocked it down and turned to the net. Ericsson desperately tried to dive. Parise backhanded it over the defenseman, jumped over him and batted at the puck until it finally went in.
Suter told a funny story about how he was part of this once against Atlanta. In Nashville, he said they were so excited about this new breakout and decided to try it one night. He gave the puck to Dan Hamhuis and the same exact thing happened.
He said it’s just a helpless feeling as a defenseman but embodied the type of player Parise is – tenacious.
In the shootout, Pavel Datsyuk and Nyquist scored. Parise and Koivu couldn’t, so Datsyuk’s goal was the deciding one and he actually tied Parise and Koivu with 38 shootout goals for the most in NHL history.
Darcy Kuemper stopped all 14 shots he faced in 37:35 before the shootout. I’m not sure if playing precludes him from a rehab stint that the Wild was hoping he’d actually take after the All-Star break.
He told me he’s open for whatever, but he also feels he worked hard while he was hurt and felt ready tonight.
Obviously, the Wild was bummed to not get the extra point tonight. Parise was a realist and said the Wild can’t afford to be leaving points on the table anymore. But the tone of the rest of the guys for the most part was that while it disappointed, it has to take positives from not quitting when down 4-1 and coming out with a pushback in the third.
Parise and Vanek combined for 14 shots for the second straight road game coincidentally. Parise has goals in four straight now. Suter was plus-2 with two assists. Kuemper played well in relief for the first time since Jan. 6. The Wild, prior to tonight, had scored three goals or fewer in 13 of its previous 14. So, things to build on.
It is amazing how easy so many teams make it when they score and how difficult it is for the Wild. I’ll be writing about that in Thursday’s paper.
All players stuck up for Dubnyk, including Kuemper, who said it was “just kind of weird bounces. We were due for a comeback. We hadn’t had one in awhile.”
Suter said, “Too bad we couldn’t pull it out, but that’s the type of hockey that we need to play. That was a good way to go into break. It would have been easy to just say, it’s over after being down 4-1.”
Some of the other quotes, you can read in the gamer.
I will say, the Wild needs to start taking a page out of the Red Wings’ book with kids like Tyler Graovac and Matt Dumba, who was sent down after the game (maybe temporarily; it’s just to play games during the break, but if he’s recalled, it’s because Yeo wants him in the lineup in Edmonton).
But while the Wild has arguably rushed players into the NHL the past few years, the Red Wings are the kings of finding diamonds in the rough in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft, nurturing them and letting them bake in the minors.
Take Teemy Pulkkinen, who scored his first NHL goal Tuesday. Drafted 111th overall in 2010 (Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle’s draft year), Pulkkinen played his sixth game of the season at age 23. He spent three years playing in Jokerit, then two years in Grand Rapids.
At the time of his recall, Pulkkinen was leading the American Hockey League with 20 goals and riding an eight-game goal scoring streak.
In Detroit, they compare Pulkkinen to Hall of Famer and former Red Wing Brett Hull. The way he scored his goal looked like a carbon copy.
Between the circles, Pulkkinen stepped into a Stephen Weiss drop pass and rocketed a one-timer that looked so much like Hull’s right-shot swing, the Red Wings’ telecast immediately showed a replay of a Hull one-timer side-by-side with Pullinen’s blast.
The Red Wings are littered with home-grown guys who paid their dues like Jason Zucker and Marco Scandella, who may be the Wild’s best surprises this season.
Heck, look at Nyquist. Taken 121st in 2008, spent time maturing in Grand Rapids before breaking out last year.
Lastly, the Iowa Wild signed Ruslan Fedotenko to a pro tryout. The two-time Cup champ wants to make an NHL comeback somewhere and GM Chuck Fletcher is letting the good citizen play in Iowa to mostly be a good influence on the kids. But it seems doubtful that Fedotenko, whose wife is from the area, will be a fit at some point with Minnesota. He hasn’t played all year, but maybe the 36-year-old will latch on somewhere at some point.
That’s it for me. Barring news, there may be no blogs for awhile. I’ll have a story in Thursday’s paper, an enterprise piece in Sunday’s paper, my Sunday Insider and then I’ll pick up the team in Edmonton on Monday.
There could also be news this weekend regarding the stadium series game the Wild is getting next season.
I better get out of here. I have a very early flight and it’s 12:30 in the morning and they’re locking up the press room. Enjoy your All-Star break.
Morning from the Joe Louis Arena press room. Hustled down to the rink from my flight to grab coach Mike Yeo heading into tonight's game against the red-hot Red Wings.
Reminder, I will be hosting a live chat at startribune.com/wild at 1 p.m. today.
Here's a very quick blog update:
Devan Dubnyk gets the start for the fourth time in four games and second in two nights. Darcy Kuemper, sidelined since Jan. 6, will back up. Niklas Backstrom will be a healthy scratch for I'd guess the first time in his NHL career.
As I've been reporting all week, the Wild is considering sending Kuemper to Iowa during the All-Star break to play a few games on a conditioning stint. I talked to GM Chuck Fletcher yesterday on the phone and he said he planned to talk to Kuemper and his agent to see if they'd accept.
Yeo said by him backing him up tonight, that would not prohibit a rehab stint and they'd let us know their plans afterward.
Nate Prosser returns. Yeo felt they missed him last night from a penalty killing standpoint. Matt Dumba is scratched. Fletcher said yesterday that if Yeo wants Dumba for the game in Edmonton next Tuesday, Dumba will have to miss the AHL All-Star Game in Utica. Yeo said he's not thinking about that yet. However, the AHL does need to know its roster fairly imminently, so we'll see what happens there.
Mikael Granlund has not been cleared by docs to return tonight. Yeo hopes to have him back by Edmonton.
The top-4 D will be reunited tonight, meaning Ryan Suter with Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella with Jared Spurgeon and Prosser with Christian Folin.
The plan yesterday was to lower Suter's minutes. However, assistant coach Rick Wilson threw Suter out for 30-plus minutes in the front end of a back to back.
That definitely wasn't Yeo's plan, but he said the way the game unfolded and the way the D pairs weren't as effective as hoped, it's just the way it occurred at the end of the night. There is no doubt the plan is to start to lower Suter's minutes.
UPDATE: Russo here, interrupting the start of Rachel's postgame blog. Just wanted to remind you I will be hosting a live chat at www.startribune.com/wild at 1 p.m. CT Tuesday from Detroit. And heeeeeere's Rachel: >>>
Well, that was short, wasn't it? After the Wild put together consecutive victories for the first time in two months, it couldn't make it three in a row on Monday, falling 3-1 to Columbus at Xcel Energy Center.
One winning streak did continue. The Blue Jackets--and former Wild coach Todd Richards--beat the Wild for the fourth time in a row. Monday morning, Wild defenseman Ryan Suter was talking about how his team needs to get all the points it can on home ice as it seeks to climb back into playoff contention. A tight Columbus defense and all-star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky foiled that aim, leaving the Wild to regroup again.
Sunday, Wild coach Mike Yeo warned against reading too much into that itty-bitty winning streak. "Our message is that it's great that we won two games, but we cannot in any way be satisfied,'' he said. "Our next game is the only thing that matters right now. ... We're certainly not in a position to feel too good about ourselves. Our focus heading into the Buffalo game was to rebuild our game. We're getting there, but by no means are we there yet.''
Monday's game bore that out. Yeo was disappointed that his team knew exactly how Columbus would play them, and it still failed to handle the pressure. It didn't start to get pucks in deep until the second period, and when it did start to spend more time in the Blue Jackets' zone, it couldn't cash in. The Wild outshot the Jackets 26-23, but it also had 23 missed shots and a dozen more attempts blocked.
It didn't help that Zach Parise lost control of the puck on a penalty shot attempt in the second period. The puck rolled off his stick, ruining a fine opportunity to break a 1-1 tie. The Wild got another big opening with a four-minute power play late in the second, courtesy of a double minor for high sticking on the Blue Jackets' David Savard. That power play was a complete mess, and Richards called that a "pivotal moment'' for his team. That penalty kill, he said, fueled Columbus all the way into the third and helped pave the way for the winning goal.
James Wisniewski scored it from low in the right circle on a bang-bang play. Nick Foligno wheeled away from Suter behind the Wild net and found the unattended Wisniewski, who snapped a quick shot past goalie Devan Dubnyk. Wisniewski had a great game; he assisted on the Blue Jackets' other two goals, and late in the third, he swatted away a loose rebound in the crease before the Wild's Jason Pominville could get his stick on it.
Here are some postgame quotes from Yeo that didn't make it into the game story:
--On whether it is hard mentally for the Wild when it has to battle for every goal: "It is, but if that’s what it is, let's go grind out some more. I know we can do a much better job as far as puck strength, hanging onto the pucks. One-on-one puck battles I thought tonight was an issue, one we have to be better at.
"As the year goes on, it gets tougher to score goals. We have to have that mentality. Some pucks were laying around the crease; we have to find a way to get in there and win those battles. We just have to make sure we're focused on defense. If goals aren’t coming easily to us, then we have to make sure we're not giving up a whole bunch of chances. I thought we did a pretty good job of that tonight, but we've certainly got to find a way to score more than one goal.''
--On whether he was frustrated that the Wild didn't take more shots as it entered the offensive zone: "I'm always a big believer in, you've got to put pucks on the net. It’s the time of year where goals are scored like that. And not just off the initial shot, but make sure guys understand that the puck is going to the net, and so we've got the bodies there to create traffic, to generate secondary opportunities. There definitely wasn’t a lot of secondary opportunities tonight.''
--General thoughts on the game: "In the first period, we weren't sharp. Execution-wise, we had way too many turnovers. They played the way we knew they were going to. They play with good structure and pressure hard; in a lot of ways, they're similar to a lot of the things we're doing. And I thought we didn’t do enough to back them off. In the second period, we started to get things going, we started to back them off. We started to execute a little bit better. We created a little bit more, but as the game went on, I had a feeling it was going to be a one-play type of game.''
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