It’s about time to put a bow on 2015, and the best way I know how is to take a look back at the top 10 local sports stories of the year. Please note that the biggest stories don’t mean the “best” or “most positive” stories; rather, these are the ones that resonated the most with Minnesota sports fans, for better or worse. Here we go, in reverse chronological order:
10) Vikings’ resurgence: This one is the freshest, seeing as how Minnesota just wrapped up a playoff spot in the final game of the 2015 calendar year. Mike Zimmer’s team goes into 2016 with a 10-5 record and a huge game looming Sunday against Green Bay with the NFC North title on the line. Regardless of what happens in that game, the Vikings are in the playoffs and have established themselves as a possible long-term contender — something that could not be said a year ago.
9) Major League Soccer coming: At a news conference in March, it was announced that Minnesota had been awarded an MLS expansion franchise over several other markets. But the biggest battles might have been in-state. First, a group led by current Minnesota United owner Bill McGuire won out over a group led by the Vikings’ owners. And it was announced in October that a new soccer stadium will be built in St. Paul instead of Minneapolis.
8) Jerry Kill’s retirement: When Gophers football coach Jerry Kill announced in a somber news conference in late October that he was retiring immediately because of health concerns, there was considerable shock value. Sure, Tracy Claeys had taken over for Kill during part of the 2013 season, but the permanence of this news — coming a season after the Gophers had gone to the Citrus Bowl — was something else altogether.
7) The return of Kevin Garnett and Torii Hunter: Two iconic Minnesota athletes returned to their former teams in the twilight of their careers in 2015. Garnett, obtained by the Timberwolves in a February trade and later re-signed by the team, came back after 12 seasons with the Wolves and almost eight seasons away. Hunter, who like Garnett departed in 2007, returned to the Twins as a free agent for what turned out to be one final season before retiring.
6) Adrian Peterson returns to Vikings: Few things consumed us in 2015 quite like the saga of Peterson, who missed all but one game of the 2014 season stemming from his alleged abuse of his 4-year-old son. He was reinstated to the league in 2015, but there still remained the question of whether the Vikings would keep their star running back — who turned 30 in March — or part with him via trade or even release. After plenty of drama between the Vikings and Peterson’s representatives, Peterson returned and is now on the verge of winning the NFL rushing title.
5) Devan Dubnyk sparks Wild after trade: The Wild was floundering in mid-January, in serious danger of missing the playoffs one year after making it to the second round of the postseason. But a trade for Dubnyk, a somewhat unheralded goalie, turned out to be a perfect fit for both player and team. The Wild went on a second-half tear with Dubnyk performing iron man duties in goal, helping the Wild back into the playoffs and again through to the second round before another defeat against Chicago. The Wild then re-signed Dubnyk to be their long-term goalie.
4) Lynx win third title in five seasons: There’s no specific definition of what constitutes a dynasty, but it was generally considered that if the Lynx were to become one, they needed to add one more championship to their great run. That arrived in 2015, punctuated by Maya Moore’s iconic winning jump shot in Game 3 of the WNBA finals. The Lynx, led by much of the same core group of players for the past five years, won their third championship and cemented their place in history as a dynasty.
3) The Norwood Teague scandal: The abrupt August resignation of the Gophers athletic director in August certainly ranks among the more stunning stories in 2015. As details of the resignation surfaced — Teague sexually harassed two female University employees at a school-sponsored event — the story grew in scope and called into question the culture within the athletic department.
2) The resurgence of the Twins: In some ways, it’s hard to put the Twins this high because they didn’t even reach the postseason. But let’s be clear: their return to playoff contention, all the way to the final weekend of the season, consumed local sports fans for a good six months. The Twins, with at least 90 losses each year from 2011-14, turned themselves around thanks in large part to a youth movement led by precocious slugger Miguel Sano – a midyear call-up who became a fan favorite.
1) The death of Flip Saunders: No story made Minnesota fans more sad or reflective than the untimely October death of Saunders at age 60. It all happened so fast: in June, Saunders was on top of the world after drafting Karl-Anthony Towns No. 1 overall and trading up to get local hero Tyus Jones. In August, it was announced Saunders had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, though the outlook for recovery was positive. In September, he took a leave of absence to battle the disease. By late October, he died. In the aftermath, it seemed as if everyone had a Saunders story to share. His impact on basketball in Minnesota cannot be overstated.