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Mike Yeo, Wild Notch Down the Heat

April 23, 2014 - (0) comments

 

Mike Yeo and his players energized their supporters with an overtime win on Monday night at Xcel Energy Center against the Avalanche.  Tomorrow evening Minnesota can tie the series at 2-2 with another win at home.

The opener last week in Colorado was an opportunity to not only earn a 1-0 lead in the best of seven series but also put pressure on a young Avs team featuring flashy 18-year-old forward Nathan MacKinnon and 21-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog.  Instead, the Wild lost a more than winnable 5-4 overtime game, and then followed up with a disappointing performance and 4-2 loss in game two.

Monday night’s win did more than make the series 2-1 in favor of the Avs.  The victory made it possible to place more pressure on the youthful Avs (seven players born in 1991 or later).  Sending the series back to Colorado tied at 2-2 will mean momentum for Minnesota and maybe an Avalanche ready to fall.

That’s what the Wild needs for a franchise that has competed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs just five times and advanced beyond the opening round once. Moving on to the second round of the playoffs may be needed for Yeo, the team’s third year coach, to save his job.  The talk about his uncertain status just doesn’t go away.

Yeo was reportedly in jeopardy during the season but the team played effectively enough to make the playoffs for a second consecutive season.  He guided a team that had to use five different goalies this season, no minimal assignment for any coach.  “It’s amazing they’ve done as well as they have,” a supportive source close to the team said on Monday night.

Still, Yeo was faulted by another source who criticized the coach for sometimes staying with a player longer than he should.  Yeo is known as a player’s coach but the argument is loyalty can sometimes go too far.

A coach can make mistakes but even his best strategies, teaching lessons and locker room psychology can only accomplish so much.  Yeo’s predecessor, Todd Richards, was fired for not winning enough games but now he’s earning praise in Columbus where the Blue Jackets are making a rare playoff appearance and finding some success.

The Wild, who played with new defensive energy on Monday night, struggle with goal scoring and penalty killing.  They have just seven goals in the first three games with the Avs.  On Monday evening it took 46 shots on Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov before the Wild scored a goal on Mikael Granlunds big overtime shot.

A press box observer watched the game and thought about how the Wild have to become better offensively next season.  Job one in the offseason could be signing former Gopher Thomas Vanek who plays for Montreal.  He makes his home in the Twin Cities east metro, not all that many miles from the Xcel Energy Center.

But there will be time later for sportswriters and perhaps the Wild to think about Vanek, a potential 30 goal scorer and unrestricted free agent this offseason.  For tomorrow night at least the Wild will take just one goal if goalie Darcy Kuemper can again shutout the Avs.

Worth Noting

StubHub website offers tickets in a price range of $94.40 to $501.01 for tomorrow night’s Wild-Avs game at Xcel Energy Center.

Pioneer Press scoop sports columnist Charley Walters retires from full-time work at the end of May but will continue with the newspaper as a part-time employee writing Sunday columns only.

When the Gophers football team plays at TCU on September 13, they could be facing quarterback Matt Joeckel.  He was Johnny Manziels backup at Texas A&M last season but because he has his undergraduate degree he can transfer to TCU as a senior and have one year of eligibility.

The Minnesota Fellowship of Christian Athletes will present Joe Ehrmanns “InSideOut Coaching Seminar” on Sunday in the DQ Room at TCF Bank Stadium.  He is a former defensive lineman and captain for the Baltimore Colts.  He also has career experiences as a football coach, author, national speaker and minister.

On Sunday Ehrmann will address several hundred Minnesota coaches. His message will be about the powerful impact coaches have on players and the opportunity to exert that influence with positive, values-based methods.

Seminar sponsors are Manchester Companies, MKS and TCF Bank.  More information about the event is available from Minnesotafca.org.

Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino lists the following “unofficial” award winners for last season on his Gophersports.com blog: Team MVP, DeAndre Mathieu; Most Improved: Mo Walker; Best Defender, Austin Hollins; Hardest Worker, Austin Hollins; Best Attitude, Maverick Ahanmisi; Sacrifice Award, Oto Osenieks; Best Moment, Austin Hollins 3-pointer vs. SMU in the NIT Championship game.

Last season was Pitino’s first as Gophers coach.  He wrote on the blog “his favorite moment” was walking up the stairs to the court at Williams Arena.  “It gives me goosebumps every time.”

Pitino’s contract stipulates his base salary will be reviewed each year, and annually on May 1 he is to be awarded an increase of no less than five percent.  His current salary is $500,000.  He also earns supplemental compensation of $700,000 for various activities including endorsements, fundraising and media work. Speculation is Pitino may receive a $300,000 salary increase.

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor told Sports Headliners recently that if he had known Kevin Love would become the player he is, the All-Star forward probably would have been given a five-year contract in 2012.  Instead, Love signed a four-year deal allowing him to become a unrestricted free agent after next season.

“He can still get the money one way or another (on his next contract),” Taylor said. “He doesn’t lose anything from that by coming back and renegotiating with us.  He can get all of his money.  We’re the one (franchise) that can pay him the most.”

Here’s a suggestion that likely would improve the Wolves next season, particularly defensively.  Make Gorgui Dieng the starting center and send Nikola Pekovic to the bench.  Let the two players divide minutes each game with Pekovic, a skilled low post offensive scorer, filling a valuable “sixth man” role off the bench.  The move might help the frequently injured Pekovic stay healthy and play in more games.

As a rookie last season, despite minimal playing time, Dieng became a team leader in rebounds and blocked shots.  He was the NBA’s Rookie of the Month in March when his outstanding games included 22 points and 21 rebounds against the Rockets.

The Wolves have four selections in the NBA Draft on June 26. Based on their 40-42 regular season record, the Wolves currently have the No. 13 selection in the first round with a 0.6% chance of attaining the first overall pick. The final order of this year’s draft will be determined at the NBA Draft Lottery on May 20.

The Wolves will also have three second-round picks at No. 40, 44 and 53.

Wayne Kostroski, the local restaurant owner who co-founded Taste of the NFL, has a passion for music.  He and other members of the CIRCUS band are reuniting for one night this Saturday at the Medina Entertainment Center for a show dedicated to 1970s music.  More at MedinaEntertainment.com.

Taste of the NFL, a Twin Cities-based non-profit organization dedicated to reducing hunger in America, has raised over $15 million for local and national food banks. Proceeds for the concert on Saturday benefit Water for People, an international organization dedicated to improving and preserving drinking water.

 

Matt Birk on Mission with New Book

April 21, 2014 - (0) comments

 

Matt Birks book has been in circulation for a couple of months and about 10,000 copies have been sold.  He told Sports Headliners the book has changed his life and those who have read it.

All Pro Wisdom: The 7 Choices That Lead to Greatness is co-authored by Birk and leadership expert Rich Chapman.  It’s a book, Birk said last week, to help people improve themselves because “everybody is going through something.”

People struggle to identify what they want, or to accomplish what’s important to them. “A lot of people just aren’t growing,” Birk said.

All Pro Wisdom asks readers questions and suggests how they can change their lives.  Those questions include subjects such as self-identity, purpose and where to find strength and guidance.

Birk preaches we all have choices and decisions that impact our lives.  He tells the story of “Easy EddieOHare who was mobster Al Capones lawyer.  O’Hare’s job was to keep Capone out of jail, but “Easy Eddie” was bothered by the ethical example he was setting for his son.  O’Hare decided to work with federal authorities and helped send Capone to prison.  Later O’Hare was murdered, presumably by gangsters loyal to Capone.

Choices are important.  Decisions have consequences.

During World War II O’Hare’s son Butch OHare was a pilot and war hero. Butch was a man of courage and integrity, a son “Easy Eddie” could be proud of.  Butch died during the war but is not forgotten.  The largest airport in Chicago is named after Butch O’Hare, a Medal of Honor recipient.

Choices are important.  Decisions have consequences.

Birk played 15 seasons in the NFL, 11 of them for the Vikings, before retiring from the 2013 Super Bowl champion Ravens.  Now 37, he is on a mission to spread the word about his book and help people.

“Right now it’s so rewarding,” Birk said.  ”It’s what we’re supposed to be doing—taking this message out and sharing it with groups and sharing it with people.

“It’s not about how many books we sell, but every day getting emails and notes from people telling us how much they appreciate the book.  How the book was so appropriate at this point in their lives and what they’re going through, what they’re dealing with.”

Birk is speaking to youth groups, churches and Fortune 500 companies in various parts of the country.  The message isn’t always about the book but often is.  The opportunity to talk in front of so many people, and diverse audiences, is something he welcomes more than ever.

“For a lot of my career, for a lot of my life when I was younger, I made it all about me,” Birk said. “Pretty selfish.  I took a lot (but) I didn’t give a lot.  There are a lot of people that helped me along the way.  Didn’t have to.  Just wanted to help me out so I am grateful for that.

“You know what?  I’ve eaten enough.  Now it’s time for me to feed some people to try to help them out.  It doesn’t matter to me what I do, as long as I feel I can have an impact and make a difference in people’s lives, and that’s what the 7 choices is allowing me to do right now.”

If Birk sounds like a man of faith, it’s because he is.  Raised a Catholic in Saint Paul, Birk and his family attend services at the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul.  When asked about his identity, Birk doesn’t talk first about his career as a football player that included six Pro Bowl selections.  Birk identifies himself and all of humanity as “spiritual beings” who can know themselves and make their most important life choices and decisions by realizing they are “children of God.”

In addition to speaking engagements, Birk is an NFL appeals judge for the NFL, deciding whether players will be disciplined by the league.  “I am fortunate to do that,” he said.  “It’s hard work but it’s important work.”

Birk and his wife Adrianna have six children.  The family spends much of the year in Naples, Florida but also returns to Minnesota.  He considers his responsibilities at home—being a “good husband and father”—his most important role.

But that doesn’t mean he plans on being a homebody.  “As my wife will tell you, I am not much for sitting still,” he said.  “I don’t really watch TV.  I like doing stuff.  I like trying different things and trying to make a difference.

“I am so stupid I think I might actually be able to change the world.  I think that we can change the world.  That is what I am trying to do.”

Worth Noting 

Birk was a sixth round draft choice of the Vikings in 1998, a long shot to make the roster after playing for Harvard in the Ivy League.  When asked about the NFL Draft today, he said there’s more to identifying a player than assessing physical skills.

“Well, I guess it’s still pretty amazing that (with) all of the time and money and human resources that can be pumped into scouting good players, at best it’s still a 50-50 proposition at the end of the day.  You can’t measure heart.  You can’t measure what’s inside a person.”

The Vikings have the No. 8 pick in the first round on May 8.  What is Birk’s advice for his old team?  “The biggest position they’ve got to get figured out is quarterback.  I think they’ve done a good job in other places in filling the team. You have a great running back (Adrian Peterson), the finest football player I’ve ever played with in my career.”

The Wild, trailing the Avs 2-0 in the playoffs, will hold a pre-game party outside Gate 2 of Xcel Energy Center this afternoon starting at 4 p.m.  NHL alumni Henry Boucha, Dan Mandich, Shjon Podein and Tom Younghans will be available for autographs from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.  “Five Man Advantage” will provide music for the 90 minute party preceding the 6 p.m. game.

Timberwolves and Lynx owner Glen Taylor had his73rd birthday yesterday.

The Minnesota Chapter of the National Football Foundation will recognize eight scholar-athletes at the seventh annual Minnesota Football Honors Awards May 4 at the Hilton Minneapolis. The following individuals were chosen for academic excellence, outstanding leadership and commitment to their communities: 

Andrew Blake, Pine City High School linebacker; Brett Brenden, Rothsay running back and linebacker; Bronson Bruneau, Lakeville North long snapper and tight end; Jack Dummer, Edina cornerback and strong safety; Tobias Knight, Washburn outside linebacker and fullback; Josh Sitarz, Totino-Grace linebacker; Michael Strand, Barnesville running back, defensive back and punt returner; and Austin Swenson, Spring Lake Park quarterback.

The Minnesota Chapter’s mission is to serve the state and nation “by developing leadership, sportsmanship, competitive spirit, and academic excellence in America’s youth through promoting amateur football.”  The awards event, presented by the Minnesota Vikings, is open to the public.  Tickets can be purchased online by visiting www.nffmn.org.

 

Advice to Vikings: Get Johnny Manziel

April 18, 2014 - (0) comments

  

Who says Johnny Manziel isn’t worth risking a high draft choice for?

“Draft experts” ranging from sportswriters to seamstresses, that’s who. But “experts” from sportswriters to Sunday school teachers also say he is worth the gamble.

Here’s the point: there’s no sure draft prospect.  Never has been.  Quarterbacks who became Super Bowl champions had doubters going into the draft and later.  Roger Staubach, a 10th round pick, had to shake off the rust of a U.S. Navy stint before joining the Cowboys.  John Elway, it was said, couldn’t put enough finesse on his passes but he sure made the Broncos a champion.  Tom Brady played in the shadows at Michigan and was a sixth round draft choice before helping the Patriots become an NFL power.

Manziel, at 6-foot (maybe), is too short to play in the NFL.  He’s more interested in being a celebrity than a winning quarterback.  He’s not worth the risk to a team like the Vikings who have the No. 8 pick in the May 8 NFL Draft.

That’s the kind of stuff you hear.  Maybe you endorse the chatter.  Everybody has an opinion about Johnny Football who combines a strong and accurate arm with the athleticism and vision to dart around the field as if Fran Tarkenton stepped out of a time machine.

“Nobody really played like I played. This kid plays like I did more than anybody else,” Tarkenton told Jim Corbett in a March 11 Usatoday.com story.  Tarkenton also said he would like to know more about Manziel’s off-field activities like leaving the Manning Passing Academy early.

Now everybody, please admit this much: Manziel has made the build-up to the 2014 draft more interesting than the usual prelude.

Some mock drafts have had Manziel being drafted by the Vikings, potentially adding a quarterback who will improvise on plays and perhaps stir memories of Sir Francis.  The opinion here is the Vikings would be fortunate to find him still available after seven other teams drafted.  It’s no cinch the Texans, with the No. 1 pick, will take South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.  That franchise needs a quarterback and maybe it will be fate that Manziel, a Texas native who captured the nation’s attention at Texas A&M, ends up playing in Houston.

The Vikings probably will have to move up in the draft to secure Manziel who could be the first quarterback taken or the second after Central Florida’s Blake Bortles.  Both have impressed in workouts for NFL scouts.

But do the Vikings, also quarterback hungry, really want Manziel? New head coach Mike Zimmer reportedly values character in his players.  In a March 31 Nfl.si.com story by Josh Sanchez, the Vikings coach talked about the importance of a quarterback’s work ethic and leadership.

“We asked him all kinds of questions. …There are some flags that come up,” Zimmer said of Manziel.

Were those the words of a coach throwing up a smoke screen?  Or was it a pronouncement the Vikings don’t want the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner who found himself answering to the NCAA about an autograph controversy after that season?

Manziel is a brash self-promoter and this off-season made a cameo with LeBron James in a McDonald’s commercial.  But lots of athletes have run their mouths and lined their pocketbooks while winning championships.

Manziel supporters will argue he is all about the team.  He was often the hero at A&M, delivering big plays in close games.  After an A&M turnover, he even chased down a Louisiana Tech defensive player who was running toward the end zone.

Staubach knows a lot about doubters and character.  He served in the Navy for five years before joining the Cowboys.  He ended up a Hall of Fame quarterback.  Appearing on the NFL Network’s “NFL AM” program on April 9, Staubach said he would take Manziel over Clowney as the No.1 pick.  “I just think there’s something about this kid,” he said.

Staubach compared Manziel with Russell Wilson, another short-statured quarterback who the Seahawks chose in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft.  Wilson is the starting quarterback now for the Super Bowl champion Seahawks.

Former Gophers quarterback Adam Weber has been in NFL camps trying to make a career in pro football.  His experiences include time on the Broncos’ practice team.  Weber talked about the adjustment Manziel and his NFL team will need to make.

“His size (about 6-feet, 205) and the way he plays can get him exposed,” Weber said. “As a quarterback in the NFL, your job is to stay healthy and stay on the field. …Whoever takes Johnny is going to get a very talented quarterback—kind of a lightning-in-a-bottle type, but I think they’re gonna have to learn to kind of bring (rein) him in a little bit and keep him from exposing his body to big hits because the guys are a little bit bigger and faster in the NFL than they are in college.”

Weber, though, believes Manziel is worthy of a team’s high draft choice.  “He goes out there on his pro day when everyone is watching him, and he puts together one of the best pro days that any quarterback had this year. I don’t know what else you would want.

“The only thing I see is questionable is his size,” said Weber who mentioned smaller quarterbacks like Drew Brees have been effective. “… I would take him.”

Maybe Manziel will end up in Houston.  But Internet stories this month have Manziel applying for a trademark to protect the phrase, “The House That Johnny Built.”  While the slogan is reportedly a tie-in with the renovation of Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, it’s a match with the Vikings’ new stadium opening in 2016.

And there you have it about the most polarizing quarterback prospect in the 2014 draft.  There’s even controversy about how best to market the slogan “The House That Johnny Built.” 

Twins Notes

Stats and impressions about the Twins after almost three weeks of regular season play:

Minnesota is 8-7 after yesterday’s doubleheader wins against the Blue Jays.  The Twins have been swept by only the A’s this season.  Minnesota swept the Royals, won two of three games from the Indians and Blue Jays, and won a single game in the season opening series against the White Sox.

The team’s run production has been a pleasant surprise, including scoring runs with not a lot of hits in some games.  Off-season and spring training personnel decisions appear to have improved the sputtering offense from last year.  Management and coaches can feel good about adding the bats of catcher Josmil Pinto, and outfielders Chris Colabello and Jason Kubel.  Also, the club’s long time patience with second baseman Brian Dozier and third baseman Trevor Plouffe seems to be paying off.

Kubel is hitting .340 while Colabello is the American League RBI leader with 19.  Pinto, with a designated hitter role, is second on the Twins in home runs with three while Dozier, the team’s leadoff hitter, leads the club with five—tied for second in the majors.  Plouffe is hitting .309 with 11 RBI—second best on the team.

Personnel decision makers reshuffled the starting pitching rotation in the offseason.  Results have been disappointing, although rookie Kyle Gibson has been impressive with a 3-0 record and flashy 0.93 ERA.  The bullpen has been more reliable than the starters with Glen Perkins ranking with the league’s best closers.

The Twins appear to be a better club than the team that was 66-96 last year. The guess here is they can win 10 more games than in 2013, perhaps more.

What would it take to push the record closer to .500 or even above? The starting pitching has to improve a lot and the anemic offensive production from shortstop Pedro Florimon and center fielder Aaron Hicks is problematic, although both are superb in the field.

Among the franchise goals entering the season was eliminating last year’s habit of being out of one-sided games by the middle innings.  The 2014 Twins have been almost perfect in avoiding early blowout losses.  That represents progress and puts some air into their hopes.

Former Twins pitcher LaTroy Hawkins is pitching for the Rockies and has a 1.59 ERA with four saves as a reliever.  The 41-year-old Hawkins has been in 949 MLB career games.  “My goals this year are to reach 1,000 career appearances…and to win my first World Series,” Hawkins wrote as a guest columnist in the March 31 issue of Sports Illustrated.

His Rockies teammates include ex-Twins Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau who have .317 and .346 batting averages.

 

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