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Wild Close on 2021 NHL Winter Classic

December 05, 2019 - (0) comments


Target Field could be the playing site for the 2021 NHL Winter Classic. The Twins and Wild would host the prestigious annual game that has never been played in Minnesota, and a January 1, 2021 date could help commemorate the 20th anniversary of the local NHL team.

Wild owner Craig Leipold acknowledged to Sports Headliners yesterday that his franchise is competing with one other NHL city for the Winter Classic, but the league has yet to inform him of its decision. An announcement of the 2021 playing site for the outdoor game is likely to come January 1, 2020.

Known as the “State of Hockey,” the NHL Winter Classic seems overdue for a Minnesota date. “It should be us,” Leipold said. “We think that we’ve got exciting players. We think that we have a good team, and a very competitive team, and we have a great market. No one will ever question that. Our fans are fantastic. So I think we check most of the boxes, and…we hope it’s our time.”

Local interest in attracting the nationally televised event has been ongoing for a long time by the Twins and Wild. Twins president Dave St. Peter spoke of his interest in the game as recently as August of this year. The Wild hosted a successful NHL Stadium Series game at TCF Bank Stadium in 2016, but that event is less coveted than the Winter Classic that last January was played at Notre Dame Stadium, and January 1, 2020 lands in the Cotton Bowl.

The Winter Classic was first played in 2008 to evoke the outdoor roots of hockey. The event uses football and baseball stadiums, with one game drawing over 100,000 fans to Michigan Stadium. A Sports Headliners hockey source said the NHL and TV rights holder NBC prefer historic league teams from the United States like the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. Planners also want winning teams that can attract a large TV audience.

The Wild has been a mediocre team for years and that’s been a factor in the NHL not granting the Winter Classic to Minnesota. But the team has been impressive of late and with the franchise’s 20th anniversary looming since its inception for the 2000-2001 season, and the fact so many other cities have already hosted the game, Minnesota’s lobbying efforts could finally pay off.

The Wild’s opponent might be the Blackhawks because of the rivalry between the two teams and the size of the huge Chicago TV market. The Dallas Stars, the team once based in Minnesota as the North Stars, may well be another possibility. Activities surrounding a Minneapolis Winter Classic could include an alumni game between former Wild and Blackhawks or Stars players.

The Wild is undefeated in its last 10 games, going 7-0-3. Leipold said the team is showing skill and depth, referring to the third and fourth lines as playing “fantastic.” With three goalies and a sound defense, he is excited after the Wild had a slow start to the season. “We don’t have any weaknesses,” he said.

New general manager Bill Guerin has had time to evaluate the personnel but Leipold doesn’t think there are any trades in the works right now. “But I think the next month, and month-and-a-half, is going to tell a lot as to where we think this team can go,” Leipold said.

Worth Noting

It will be interesting to see if Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle is rewarded with increased compensation this month, or shortly after the first of the year. Coyle’s work since being hired in 2016 is highly regarded, but his annual compensation of $850,000 remains unchanged from the original contract—although he did receive a three-year extension last October taking his deal through 2024.

There are many major college athletic directors earning well over $1 million including some of Coyle’s colleagues in the Big Ten. An increase of $150,000, taking Coyle to $1 million, could make sense to new University of Minnesota president Joan Gabel after the breakthrough season in football under the direction of coach P.J. Fleck who Coyle hired in 2017.

The University regents meet December 12 and 13 in Minneapolis but the agenda for the meeting is as yet unknown. Possibly blocking a Coyle increase is this week’s announcement of faculty layoffs at UMD. Although Coyle’s compensation comes from the largely self-supporting Gophers athletic department, a University system perception problem could arise because of the fiscal challenges at UMD.

Coyle’s success at Minnesota, including popular hires of hockey coach Bob Motzko and basketball coach Lindsay Whalen, is noticed by other universities. There was speculation earlier this fall USC was interested in Coyle for its AD opening. Coyle, an Iowa native who first worked for the U athletic department about 18 years ago before taking AD jobs at Boise State and Syracuse, has often expressed his liking for working at Minnesota and living in the Twin Cities with his family.

Sid Hartman’s 100th birthday will be March 15 of next year, and that day just happens to be a Sunday. It’s perfect timing to celebrate the milestone on WCCO Radio where Hartman has been heard for decades on the Sunday morning “Sports Huddle” program.

Dave Mona

Show co-host Dave Mona told Sports Headliners the station will do a “Sidtennial” celebration. A list of about 50 potential celebrity guests for telephone interviews is being reviewed to reach a smaller total. The Sid salute March 15, Mona said, will continue during a WCCO Radio Twins spring training broadcast in the afternoon and on into the evening with more interviews, stories and tributes to the legendary radio personality and Minneapolis newspaper columnist.

The Twin Cities Dunkers organization that supports Minnesota professional and amateur sports has provided $690,500 in combined gifts to the athletic departments of the Minneapolis and St. Paul high schools over the past eight years. The organization was originally known as the Minneapolis Dunkers and dates back to 1948.

Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman was named the Big Ten’s wide receiver of the year Wednesday (Richter-Howard Award). Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck raved about Bateman recently, describing him as “incredibly talented.” But Fleck also praised the sophomore for his work ethic and selflessness. “When you start combining the skill with that, that’s an inferno, that’s a bonfire, instead of the fire in your fireplace with one log,” Fleck said.


Rhodes 2020 Vikes Status Appears Iffy

December 03, 2019 - (0) comments


A Tuesday notes column including commentary on the Vikings following last night’s loss to the Seahawks in Seattle.

It seems probable this will be cornerback Xavier Rhodes’ last season with the Vikings. He had a glaringly inconsistent performance last night that included an apparent communications mix up leading to a Seahawks touchdown in the 37-30 loss. He also clearly showed poor judgment in committing a personal foul leading to a first half Seattle touchdown. He lost his temper on the sidelines during the game and for awhile was replaced by Mike Hughes.

The 29-year-old Rhodes is paid like one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks with a reported $70 million deal he signed in 2017. He had a disappointing season in 2018 and has been inconsistent this year, including some poor moments. He has obviously tested the patience of head coach Mike Zimmer.

The Vikings will enter the 2020 offseason with challenging salary cap numbers. At Rhodes’ age, and with his sizeable contract and recent performances, he looks like an easy cut from next season’s payroll.

A couple of team stats stand out from last night’s game. The Seahawks’ time of possession was 39:45, the Vikings’ 20:15. It’s difficult to win when one team is so in dominant controlling the football.

The game officials allowed an aggressive style of play. Each team had just 30 yards in penalties, with Vikings fans not happy with the officiating.

With an 8-4 record the Vikings face a favorable remaining schedule that could see them win their final four games. “I kind of think they will,” former Viking Matt Birk told Sports Headliners this morning.

Three of the last four games are at home, with the Green Bay Packers appearing to be the only team who might be favored against Minnesota.

The Seattle loss was costly, though, because even if the Vikings make the playoffs they may not have home field advantage. Right now several NFC teams, including the Packers who lead the NFC North, have better records than Minnesota.

The Vikings need to have key players heal up soon from injuries including wide receiver Adam Thielen who missed last night’s game, and running back Dalvin Cook who was injured in the second half. Left tackle Riley Reiff was injured in the first half and replaced by Rashod Hill who appeared to struggle in his performance.

Zimmer could provide injury updates at his 4 p.m. news conference today.

Zimmer refers to Cook as a “model citizen” in the December 2 issue of Sports Illustrated. A feature story on the star running back looks back at Cook’s off the field problems as a teen and how his “rap sheet” deterred teams from taking him in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. In the pre-draft interview process Vikings GM Rick Spielman became confident enough in Cook’s character to select him in the early second round.

“I can’t even fathom a time when there has been a question about this kid’s dedication to what we are trying to do,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski told S.I. “There’s been no prodding with Dalvin Cook.”

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is now 0-7 in his NFL career playing in Monday night games.

Bill Robertson

Renaissance man Matt Birk is the latest guest on “Behind the Game,” the Twin Cities cable TV program co-hosted by Patrick Klinger and Bill Robertson. Birk, the former All-Pro NFL center, has led a varied life since retiring as a player. He has worked for the NFL, started a Catholic High School in Burnsville, done standup comedy, written a book, spoken to groups as a corporate speaker, and been linked to a possible future in politics. He and wife Adrianna have eight children. “Behind the Game” episodes can also be viewed on YouTube.

A popular projection is the Gophers will play in the January 1 Outback Bowl in Tampa. That’s a desirable destination because the Gophers have never been to the Outback Bowl, Tampa is an easy direct flight from Minneapolis, many retired Minnesotans live on the Gulf Coast and a prestigious SEC opponent awaits. As do sun-splashed beaches.

Via email former Gopher Scott Mullen on the possibility SEC powerhouse Alabama could be the bowl opponent: “If that’s the case, best ditch the oars and get an outboard motor for the boat.”

Mike Nealy, a Roseville native and University of Minnesota alum, is executive director of the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona that hosts a College Football Playoff semifinal game December 28. The Fiesta Bowl could be a Gophers destination in future years, as might the Arizona-based Cheez-It Bowl that Nealy is also executive director for.

Nealy was in Minneapolis last weekend and owns four Gopher football season tickets.

The Gophers finished with a 10-2 regular season record and had good fortune with keeping most of their key players healthy and available to play. Head coach P.J. Fleck labels his Dan Nichol “the best strength coach in America.”

The Gophers value strength and conditioning, but there’s more in their pursuit to stay healthy. “I also think it has a lot to do with the mental health as well,” Fleck said. “It’s not just the physical health. It’s the mental health, emotional health of your football team. Are they in the right place mentally, emotionally, to be able to perform at a high level? A lot of times that keeps players out almost more than the physical injuries these days.”

With Minnesota’s season ending loss to Wisconsin, Fleck didn’t get the birthday present he wanted when turning 39 last week.

Big Ten football teams played 96 home games this season but only 32 were sellouts. The Gophers had two sellouts at TCF Bank Stadium, reflecting the Big Ten and major college football status of struggling to fill seats.

With the Minnesota Twins not bringing back C.J. Cron, they could move Miguel Sano from third to first base and potentially tighten infield defense.

The new Minnesota Timberwolves City Edition uniforms may seem a little familiar to those who watched the Minneapolis Lakers play in the early years of the NBA. The uniform is baby blue and bears the letters MSP on the front. “The design pays homage to the Lakers but is done indirectly,” Wolves executive Ted Johnson wrote via email. “That is because the Minnesota Timberwolves do not have the rights to the Lakers logos, colors or historical uniform designs. All of that belongs to the current franchise located in Los Angeles.”

Wolves ticket marketers have been aggressive in recent days with a full page Star Tribune newspaper ad Thursday promoting 50 percent off single game tickets and a Cyber Monday offering of 25 to 50 percent discounts for December game tickets.


Despite Loss, Gophers’ Future Bright

December 01, 2019 - (0) comments


The Golden Gophers lost two of their last three games, including getting axed last night by border rival Wisconsin, 38-17. But their regular season ended with a 10-2 record and a share of the Big Ten West Division title with the Badgers. Prior to the season Minnesota was a popular media pick to finish sixth among the division’s seven teams.

It was the kind of season more than 100 FBS programs wish they had experienced. And most Gophers players and coaches from the last 50 years didn’t even come close to the highs achieved by the 2019 team that was coming off a 3-6 Big Ten record last fall.

Minnesota won a school record seven conference games. The Gophers were 7-2 in the Big Ten, with the other league loss coming two weeks ago to another hated border rival, Iowa. The Saturday prior to the Iowa loss, the Gophers had upset No. 5 ranked Penn State in Minneapolis. The victory was the most significant in the 10-year history of TCF Bank Stadium, and vaulted Minnesota into a top national 10 ranking, and into the conversation of qualifying for the four-team College Football Playoffs.

That’s a lofty place for a program that hasn’t had one of its teams finish a season in the national top 10 since 1962. Minnesota will drop from that grouping when the polls come out later today, but this Gophers team will be the first with 10 wins since 1905. That team from long ago had a 10-1 record.

What head coach P.J. Fleck, his assistants and players did this fall was to revive a dormant program and make the Gopher brand respected here and nationally. The last two home games of the season sold out, with a beyond capacity crowd yesterday of 53,756 turning out on a snowy day. ESPN College GameDay came to town and Gophers fans packed the Northrop Mall Saturday morning despite the wintry weather.

The Badgers spoiled the fun later in the day, showing better line play on both offense and defense. The Badger coaches made successful adjustments including sustained blitzing of Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan and having their defensive backs push the boundaries of pass interference. On offense, the Badgers found the Gophers packing the line of scrimmage to stop Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor from dashing through the snow unrestricted, but dialed up misdirection plays and mismatches that confused Minnesota.

The Badgers travel party left Minneapolis with Paul Bunyan’s Axe and a ticket to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis next Saturday to play the nation’s best team, Ohio State. That will be the Badgers’ sixth conference title appearance in the nine year history of the game.

Overlooking the program’s success is the man who started a remarkable change in Madison in 1990, Barry Alvarez. Now the Wisconsin athletics director, Alvarez’s first assignment in Madison was as head coach, taking over a laughing stock program that had minimal talent and fan support. The cocky Alvarez, though, had a plan to change the culture of Wisconsin football and after a few years it was evident to the college football world he was a winner.

The 1993 Badgers won the Big Ten title and earned their way to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1963. Among those witnessing the Badger miracle was athletic department administrator Joel Maturi, who would take over as Minnesota’s athletic director in 2002.

P.J. Fleck

Maturi told Sports Headliners he sees similarities between Fleck and Alvarez, who during his 16 year head coaching career won three Big Ten titles and Rose Bowls for the Badgers. “I’ve said that more than once (the similarities),” Maturi said.. “There is no question, and I was there when that happened.”

Although the Badgers didn’t take off under Alvarez until year four, Fleck came up with a breakthrough year in his third season at Minnesota. “But they both had a plan,” Maturi said. “They both stuck with the plan. It was sold internally immediately. The kids bought into it, and then eventually the fans bought into it, and that’s what happened at Wisconsin and that’s what happened here at Minnesota.”

Alvarez created a new culture in Madison, and Fleck used the “C” word from day one in Minneapolis. Fleck’s enthusiasm was at first over the top for a lot of Gophers followers but his “Row the Boat” philosophy caught on inside the program and eventually in the community.

“I don’t think he cared what everybody else thought about it,” Maturi said. “I think he said that very openly and publicly. I think that rubbed some people the wrong way. But winning has… changed that. It’s…(gone) from the team rowing the boat to everybody rowing the boat.”

Fleck inherited a program that was in a better place than Alvarez did. The Gophers won nine games in 2016, the season before Fleck took over at Minnesota. That 2016 season and in 2014 Minnesota had winning Big Ten records, twice having five victories. But Fleck started chasing and getting higher ranked recruits like potential All-America wide receiver Rashod Bateman, and he fixed what seemed like a forever struggle at quarterback, with Tanner Morgan becoming one of the most efficient passers in the country. Yesterday had a disappointing result, but dating back to last year Minnesota has won 13 of its last 16 games.

“You gotta give the guy credit,” Maturi said. “He’s done one heck of a job. I think what I am excited about is I don’t think it’s a one time thing. I am excited…for the future of Gopher football.”

The Gophers benefitted this year from a favorable schedule, with only four opponents having above .500 records. But Fleck, his staff and players made the most of their opportunities, including winning close games and upsetting Penn State. They handled their success as the season developed, with their only losses coming in games where they were underdogs. A week from today they will receive a quality bowl invitation and a chance to build momentum and fan interest for 2020.

In a heartbeat Gophers fans would take a career path from Fleck like that of Alvarez.


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