Eleven seasons covering the Wild, I think I covered my second, maybe third outdoor practice.
I’m a soft New Yorker/Floridian, so I usually beg off this type of thing. Actually, my standard joke is, “I have it written into my contract that Kent Youngblood covers outdoor practices.”
Apparently, Kent’s on vacation or something, so I hiked down to Braemar and took in the Wild’s outdoor practice behind the arena. Real glad I did because it was fun to see the team have fun (breaks up the dog days of the season) and the estimated 1,000 kids and adults have fun watching them.
The players were accommodating, posing for pictures and signing autographs galore.
For a taste of what it was like, check out this photo gallery from Star Tribune photographer Liz Flores.
“Very similar [in Finland],” Mikko Koivu said of the outdoor practice. “That’s all we did as a kid. That reminds you of all the fun times growing up and playing with your friends and just having fun on the ice. To me, that’s what outdoor hockey is all about.”
I wrote a big story on the practice for Wednesday’s newspaper, but here’s some quotes and some scene setters:
1. First the news: Zach Parise didn’t practice. He instead got treatment on his lower-body injury inside the warm confines of Braemar. Coach Mike Yeo expects him to practice Wednesday. Goalie Darcy Kuemper did not practice. Yeo maybe will give us a better update Wednesday, but as of now, Yeo doesn’t think it’s major. However, he didn’t know if Kuemper would make the road trip. You know that the Wild would love Kuemper to start Sunday’s game at Florida and not have to start Devan Dubnyk on consecutive nights less than 24 hours apart (the Sunday game is 6 p.m., the Saturday game is 7 p.m.) or start Niklas Backstrom for the first time in almost a calendar year.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a two- or three-day thing, but I also don’t think it’s going to be a two- or three-week thing,” Yeo said of Kuemper’s status. “Right now that’s pretty much just speculation on my part, too.”
Dubnyk, who cut his wrist in Sunday’s practice and beat Detroit on Monday, practiced for the first part of the skate. He wanted to break in some new pads and experience an outdoor practice. He is completely fine for the upcoming road trip to St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Florida and Columbus.
Backstrom and local goalie Tino Vasquez, who is the Wild’s goalie on emergency occasions and also is an emergency goalie for opposing teams (he was for the Rangers recently when Antti Raanta got hurt; read his Player's Tribune piece about it here), filled in the rest of the way.
2. Practice began with a reverse-handed, two-puck pickup game where lefties used a righty stick and righties used a lefty stick.
Nino Niederreiter and Thomas Vanek played defense.
Let’s put it this way: Parise’s sarcastic nickname for the offensive-minded Vanek is “Selke,” the award that goes to the NHL’s best defensive forward annually. Vanek’s new nickname may have to be “Norris,” the award that goes to the league’s best defenseman.
“A couple hard rims I had, I think they pay guys $4.5 million for that, so I think I did pretty good,” Vanek joked. “I’ve got a future there.”
Yeo called Vanek a “workhorse” out there Tuesday.
The shinny hockey was a convoluted mess. Yeo told me with a chuckle that he told the guys “it looked like our game against Pittsburgh.”
Yeo said the intention of Tuesday was fun: “We’ve got the opportunity [Wednesday] to have a good, working practice and get geared up for St. Louis. Today we wanted to give the players a chance to have some fun in front of a great crowd.”
3. Some guys wore tuques. Some guys wore hoodies. Koivu went back in to get a hoodie, and GM Chuck Fletcher ribbed him for it, saying to his captain that he must be from southern Finland, not northern Finland.
Yeo wore a tuque with a pom-pom on it Asked if he knows his attire yet for the Feb. 21 Stadium Series game against the Blackhawks, Yeo said, “I’ve been a little paranoid about that, I’ve been asking every day. As long as I don’t have a big pom-pom on top of my head – I’m not crazy about that look. The scissors almost came out today. But the top of my head is going to have to cover up the cuts (see last night’s blog to know what he’s talking about), but it’s also going to have to keep me warm.”
4. Vanek has played in the 2008 Winter Classic and in a 2014 Stadium Series game. He told his teammates the practice Feb. 20 will be the part of the weekend. The family gets to come out on the ice after practice.
“I think the game itself is usually a little bit sloppy, but I think that everything comes with it, that’s the fun part of it,” Vanek said.
As for the Feb. 21 game, Vanek said, “The biggest thing I’ve learned is you’re not as cold as you think you are because you are moving, the benches are heated. The only thing is maybe your under gear you change in between just because it’s wet and you go into the warm and then you go back out. As far as the game, the puck is so cold, these graphite sticks freeze up, so every pass kind of blows up. So it’s just about shooting the puck on net and hope for a rebound.”
Ryan Suter said he felt bad for the kids today at the end of practice because it was so cold out.
Vanek had a great line, saying the fans were OK: “It’s Edina here, so I think they’ve got fire pits and who knows, the ground’s heated probably.”
No heated grounds in Stillwater, Thomas? “No, taxes are lower.”
5. Suter, like many of his teammates, didn’t wear a hoodie or hat to stay cold. His ears were exposed to the elements. He said it was cold at first when the wind was howling but got warmer as the players started sweating.
Brooks, his 5-year-old son, plays on the Edina Penguins, a mite team that often plays outside on that same rink.
“He told me to wear some long underwear, and I didn’t listen to him,” Suter said. “It wasn’t bad. … It was fun. The ice was nice. The puck wasn’t bouncing, you notice that?”
On the fans coming out, Suter said, “That just shows the passion out here in Minnesota.”
6. Koivu said, “It was fun. A lot of fans again and it’s a fun way of us spending a morning on the ice. You could see the kids there were excited. It was a lot of fun.”
On the outdoor game, Koivu said, “It gives you a little feeling of what it’s going to be like. It’s going to be a lot bigger obviously and you play for two points, and for a lot of us it’s going to be a first time experience. So, we’re excited for that. It’s going to get a lot colder. It’s going to be tough for the players and the fans, but it is what it is. It was a lot of fun here and that’s going to be a special night.
“It’s going to be a special day for the whole state of Minnesota. I don’t really care what it’s going to be like. If it snows or it’s going to get cold, I think people in Minnesota will handle that just fine.”
7. On the outdoor game, Yeo said the anticipation has been “building. It starts with the jerseys being revealed and then something like this. As we keep getting closer to it, there will be more talk about it. I feel the excitement level is starting to grow. You get excited when you hear about it and then it goes away for a little while. But right now things are building and it’s not too far away now. It’ll keep getting more exciting. I know it’s going to be an amazing event. It’s something that finally we have one here. It’s obviously deserved in this market, in this fan base and with the history of hockey here. I think it’s going to be a great event.”
Yeo loves playing outdoor hockey.
“I still try to get out,” he said. “It’s been tough this year – not a lot of outdoor hockey this year. But the weather is certainly looking like it’s changing its mind and starting to bring what it’s supposed to bring this time of year. I’m sure the outdoor rinks will get going. I know the lakes are starting to freeze. It’s fun.”
Talk to you after Wednesday’s practice. I’ll have to hustle to the airport afterward, but I’ll blog before my flight and will be tweeting updates (@russostrib) throughout practice.