To build team harmony during the offseason, the Minnesota Timberwolves bonded in the Bahamas, and the Minnesota Wild vacationed in Vail. Let’s hope they improved at snorkeling and skiing.
Their players might have become better friends, but the relationship-building has not succeeded in ways visible to the ticket-buying public. Entering the weekend, the Wolves are carrying a six-game losing streak that represents the first crisis of Ryan Saunders’ head coaching career, and the Wild is scrambling to overcome one of the worst starts in franchise history.
Both of which are remindful of the most celebrated bonding exercise in Minnesota sports history, one that sent a successful team to Pecos River, N.M.
In the 1990s, Vikings General Manager Mike Lynn was desperate to elevate his team to a Super Bowl. The Vikings had put together four consecutive winning seasons, had made the playoffs in three straight seasons and had come close to winning the NFC Championship Game following the 1987 season.
They were loaded with talent, but in an NFL that preceded any kind of true free agency, Lynn’s imperiousness and negotiating style had created hard feelings in the locker room. Remarkable Mike decided he would rebuild burned bridges with a team retreat to a facility in Pecos River, where players would be forced to work together on obstacle courses and to catch one another while falling backward.
I had just arrived at the Star Tribune to cover the Vikings, and flew to New Mexico to cover the retreat. Lynn didn’t want media around. He traded post-retreat access for my absence. I couldn’t get into the facility, so I had no choice but to accept.
Afterward, Lynn, coach Jerry Burns and the players raved about the experience.
“I’ll tell you what, after you get done with some of those high-wire drills, you’re ready to hug anybody,” Burns said.
Every member of the franchise received a “safety link,” like a carabiner, as a symbol of team unity and mutual trust.
“You look at our safety links — they’re a symbol of many things: support, creativity and courage,” said Jessie Clark, a reserve running back. “Put them together, and there’s strength in numbers.”
In the two seasons before the retreat, the Vikings’ combined regular-season record was 21-11. In the two after, their record was 14-18. After the Vikings finished 8-8 in 1991, Burns retired and Lynn was replaced by Roger Headrick. Pecos River may not have hurt, but it certainly didn’t help.
This is not to say teams shouldn’t attempt to build unity. Given the stakes of modern professional sports, such exercises might be the most affordable route to improving. It’s worth a try.
But the reality of sports is that classrooms and jungle gyms can’t replicate the kind of pressure that players and coaches feel in the middle of a season. Karl-Anthony Towns, Josh Okogie and Jeff Teague are pleasant individuals, but when the defense breaks down, someone’s going to snap.
Former Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, often praised for building cohesive clubhouses, actually believed that winning created good chemistry, not vice versa, and this autumn has given his view credence.
The Wolves are a likable bunch who bonded in the Bahamas, and their defense is horrific.
Wild players were lucky to have a personable former player, Bill Guerin, replace their combative general manager, Paul Fenton, yet after their trip to Vail they played like they had never met one another.
Meanwhile, the Vikings have dealt with some level of consternation or controversy with four key players: Stefon Diggs, who went AWOL; Adam Thielen, who needled his quarterback; Xavier Rhodes, who threw a tantrum in Seattle; and Kirk Cousins, who broke an unwritten rule about quarterbacking by apologizing to Thielen for not getting him the ball more.
The Wolves have lost six straight. The Wild entered Thursday’s play with more points than only four Western Conference teams. The Vikings are 9-4.
If there is a correlation between team retreats and winning, it is not evident in Minnesota at the moment.