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Gophers Still Finalist for Hopkins Star

April 07, 2020 - (0) comments


Hopkins coach Ken Novak told Sports Headliners Monday morning coveted Royals shooting guard Kerwin Walton might choose the University of Minnesota as his college destination later this month.

Novak said Walton is likely to announce a decision in late April after selecting from a final list of Arizona, Creighton, Minnesota, North Carolina and Vanderbilt. Walton’s Hopkins teammate of a year ago, Zeke Nnaji, had a breakout freshman season at Arizona and is declaring for the NBA Draft. Creighton was the first program to offer Walton a scholarship and with all its key players returning will be a preseason top five team next fall. North Carolina is one of college basketball’s “blue bloods” and coach Roy Williams has personally been recruiting Walton. Vandy coach Jerry Stackhouse, who was an accomplished NBA shooting guard, has also made a favorable impression on Walton.

An indication of Walton’s interest in the Gophers was his attendance at multiple Minnesota home games this past season. Hopkins has a rich basketball tradition and former Royals who played for the Gophers (including Kris Humphries and Blake Hoffarber) are encouraging Walton to play at the U, per Novak.

“He is really up in the air (regarding a decision),” the coach said. “I really don’t think he knows yet.”

Novak talks regularly to Walton and is helping him sort through things. “Everybody (all five schools) has got some positives,” Novak said.

Ultimately the coach believes the college choice will be a family decision involving Walton and his parents. Since Walton is close to his mom and dad, the hometown Gophers might have an edge over rival schools because the Minnesota-based family could watch all his home games at Williams Arena.

Ken Novak

The 6-5 Walton averaged 27 points per game for the Royals. He shot 50 percent on three-pointers. “Kerwin is as good a shooter as you can find in the country,” Novak said.

Novak describes Walton as “low-key” and likeable. “He is a very unselfish kid,” the coach said.

The superlatives don’t end there. Last winter Walton, who is a good defensive player, would not only practice with the Royals after school but also in the evenings head to a local fitness club to work on his basketball skills. “He is probably the hardest working kid I’ve ever had,” said Novak who has a long list of alums who went on to success in college and the NBA.

Worth Noting

Former Hopkins superstar Royce White, whose anxiety issues messed up his NBA dream, is pursuing a career in MMA while training in suburban Minneapolis. The 28-year-old White talks about his life in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. “He could play in the NBA now,” Novak said.

White attended Hopkins practices this past year and was helpful to the players. The coach said the public may not fully understand what a good person White is. “He is very close to my heart,” Novak said.

White turns 29 on Friday.

Drew Peterson, a potential basketball transfer to the Gophers, told the Houston Chronicle website last week he wasn’t going to leave Rice until two teammates made the decision to pursue other schools. The 6-8 Libertyville, Illinois native can play guard and forward. As a sophomore last season, he led the Owls in both rebounding average per game at 6.5 and in assists at 3.5. He was third in scoring at 11.1.

The NCAA has yet to rule on whether players can transfer one time during their college careers and become eligible to play the next season (rather than sit out a year). That will impact former Drake center Liam Robbins, a shot blocking specialist who is transferring to the Gophers. The guess here is the NCAA will approve the immediate eligibility rule. Keeping players on the field or court is in the organization’s best interest for marketing the college product. It’s also a difficult argument to say free-wheeling coaches can leave one school for another but players cannot.

The coronavirus epidemic limiting social contact has put a halt to NBA tryout sessions and that can’t help the draft prospects for Gophers sophomore guard Marcus Carr. Even if the evaluation sessions were in place, Carr could be a long shot to be drafted. He seems likely to withdraw his name from draft consideration.

Former Vikings Adrian Peterson (RB) and Cordarrelle Patterson (kick returner) are members of the 2010s All-Decade team announced yesterday by the NFL and Pro Football Hall of Fame. Peterson is one of eight unanimous selections among the 53 players honored. Minneapolis native Larry Fitzgerald (WR) is also on the team.


Changes Coming in Sports World

April 03, 2020 - (0) comments


The Minnesota Twins’ 2020 home opener was to have been played yesterday at Target Field against the Oakland A’s. Of course, it wasn’t and schedules for athletics on every level have come to a halt because of the coronavirus and all its implications. What can we anticipate in the months ahead?

There is speculation the Twins and their Major League brethren will start the 2020 season in July. However, there is no certainty on a timeline, nor is there as to whether teams will play in empty stadiums without fans. There is so much frustration among the public from the absence of live televised sports, the return of MLB or other sports will prompt a ratings bonanza.

An explosion in TV viewership will be fueled even more if sports like baseball become (for awhile at least) “studio television.” Geez, will they even use a soundtrack with crowd noise including a few “Bronx cheers”?

When crowds are invited back into stadiums and arenas, what will that look like? Imagine fans crowding the gates again at Target Field or U.S. Bank Stadium to watch the Vikings? Could the new norm be to herd fans into smaller groups and then allow them through security?

Even if the choice is there, who is going to attend games later this year or next year? A good guess is older fans will be reluctant to fill seats until the all-safe message rolls out regarding the coronavirus including a vaccine. The most gung-ho demographic figures to be teens and young adults. After all, part of their DNA screams, “We are invincible!”

Patrick Klinger

Patrick Klinger is the former vice president of marketing for the Twins and still lives in the Twin Cities where he is president of Agile Marketing Partners. During his many years with the Twins, Klinger was known for his innovative promotions, events and marketing that enhanced the fan experience at the Metrodome and Target Field.

Klinger is an optimist, but also a realist who understands the sports and entertainment public. He believes when American sports resume there will be a great appreciation for the impact they have on our lives. He shared several other thoughts about what could lie ahead in the American sports environment in an email yesterday. The email was edited for publication below:

“I believe there will be a contingent of fans reluctant to go back into arenas, ballparks and stadiums (where strangers sit shoulder to shoulder) until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, or an assurance that the crisis has completely passed. We’ve learned that ‘social distancing’ is the key to containing the spread of viruses. Sports attendance is unlikely to snap right back. However, I do believe it WILL come back in full force in time.

“I’m sure teams, leagues and venues are considering how to ensure fans are safe and comfortable when they return. Will a fan still be able (or want) to get a hot dog passed from a vendor through the hands of six strangers before it lands with the customer? Will concession stands still be manned by volunteers or part-timers with no professional experience with food service? If so, will they be required to wear masks?

“Will venues be completely wiped down with anti-bacterial solution following every game, a special challenge for MLB with its long homestands? Will additional hand washing stations and/or hand sanitizer be placed throughout the venues? There is also the need to keep high-priced players safe in the close confines of locker rooms and dugouts where sweat and spit is ubiquitous.

“We’ll likely think twice before high-fiving the person next to us after a home run, touchdown or game winning basket or goal. Just another way sports may look and feel different when the games begin again.”

Worth Noting

The opening pitch for yesterday’s Twins’ home opener was supposed to be 3:10 p.m. The temperature at that time was 60 degrees, with overcast skies, per AccuWeather. The coldest temp ever for a Twins opener was 33 degrees at Metropolitan Stadium April 14, 1962.

Viking wide receiver Adam Thielen’s foundation is partnering with KFAN and iHeart Radio Minneapolis to host the Thielen Foundation MN COVID-19 Relief Radiothon April 9. Programming throughout the day will feature Thielen on-air from his home with call-ins by Minnesota athletes, coaches, team executives and community leaders. Campaign donations will be equally divided between four charities and applied to their most urgent COVID-19 needs. The foundation has already committed $100,000 to organizations in need during the state’s crisis.

Former Golden Gophers head football coach Tim Brewster, long known as a top recruiter, will have an impact on the University of Florida’s success where he joined the Gators’ staff of assistants in February. Brewster left North Carolina for Florida, and the Tar Heels are No. 4 in the 247Sports recruiting rankings for the class of 2021. The Gators are No. 3.

The Gophers are No. 20 in the rankings.

State of Minnesota college hockey fans have reason to follow the April 10 announcements of the Hobey Baker and Mike Richter awards. Hibbing’s Scott Perunovich, a junior defenseman from UMD, is one of three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award recognizing the nation’s top college player. Minnesota State’s Dryden McKay, an Illinois native, is one of the five finalists for the Mike Richter Award given to college hockey’s top goalie.

I tweeted this “gem” on Wednesday: “Anyone remember in 1998 when on April Fools’ Day Burger King introduced ‘left-handed whoppers?’ ” (Sure hope nobody tried to order a “lefty” at BK drive-thru this week).


Hobey Baker Award ‘Born’ at Right Time

April 01, 2020 - 1 Comment


This month the Hobey Baker Award celebrates its 40th anniversary of honoring college hockey’s top player. The three finalists for the 2020 award will be announced tomorrow. Next week, on April 10, the winner will be named on the NHL Network.

John Justice was one of the key organizers of the award from its inception in 1980. The Edina resident owns Iron Horse Root Beer (advertiser on this site) and once held an executive position with Pepsi in Burnsville, but few experiences in his life compare with helping to launch the Hobey Baker Award.

“Absolutely one of the top three or four things that I’ve ever been involved with,” Justice told Sports Headliners Monday. “And it’s…because there were so many people that played a part. That were willing to take a role and then fulfill it, and took a lot of pride in it. It’s hard to do when you’re talking about trying to pull that many volunteers together to do a lot of work.”

Justice was not a volunteer. He had the title of operations officer and athletic director at the old Decathlon Club in Bloomington, located across Cedar Avenue from the Met Center which the Minnesota North Stars called home. His boss, Chuck Bard, was chief executive officer. It was Bard who one day came home from southern California with the idea of creating an award similar to college football’s Heisman Trophy, or college basketball’s Wooden Award. Bard had met with a make-things-happen guy named Duke Llewellyn who ran four clubs in southern California and had convinced UCLA coaching legend John Wooden to lend his name to the annual Wooden Award honoring college basketball’s premier player.

Bard wasn’t a hockey guy but Justice has always loved the game and found ways to be involved. Back from California, Bard shared his idea of having the Decathlon Club create an award honoring college hockey’s top player every year and for his prestigious facility to host a banquet to celebrate it. “It really piqued my interest immediately,” Justice said.

The first step was to establish an exploratory committee that included influential hockey and business leaders. Like any new major project, there were challenges and frustrations including approval from the group of volunteers whose roster changed. “It seemed like we spent a good part of every meeting just trying to bring new people up to speed on where we were and what we have done, and what’s next,” Justice said.

His job was to put “all the pieces together” and part of the early process was gaining the support of college hockey coaches from throughout the country. Justice spoke to most of them at a coaches meeting in Jacksonville, Florida. “The reception (reaction) was kind of amazing to me. It was like they were silent, and I think it was because they were so surprised at hearing the scope of what this award was going to entail that they just couldn’t get it through their heads…until people started asking a lot of questions.

John Justice

“I think that goes to the fact they (the coaches) always felt themselves as kind of second citizens on the list of priority to the media. You know, behind the basketball awards, (and) obviously the Heisman Award and things like that. I think it took them a little while to understand that what we were really talking about was trying to start immediately to become a nationally known award.

“To me it was breathtaking to watch them go from silence to just very…interested in knowing more and more about it. We had some coaches that really stood up and really voiced tremendous support for us.”

In the process leading up to the first winner being chosen in 1981, Bard made a trip out East and learned about a man named Hobey Baker—a Princeton legend who was considered the first American college hockey star, per Wikipedia. Baker died in World War I and even though he was still a young man he had exhibited both the hockey excellence and personal character that made him worthy of having his name on the award the Decathlon group was developing.

Justice was supportive because he thought it would be a mistake to name the award after someone from Minnesota, when the intent was to have the honor be a national endeavor. “I thought it (the Hobey Baker name), was a wonderful idea,” he said.

The name worked, and so, too, did the timing of the first award. The U.S. Olympic hockey team shocked the world at Lake Placid, New York in 1980 with its upset win over the Soviet Union. The U.S. team of amateurs had been put together in short order while the Soviet group had veteran players and was considered the power of international hockey. In a time of wounded American ego both at home and abroad, the U.S. victory over the “Evil Empire” was a game changer in spirit for the homeland.

Neal Broten, a Minnesotan and Golden Gopher, was one of the contributors on that 1980 storied team. He would also be chosen by the Hobey Baker selection committee comprised of coaches and writers to be the first award recipient. He created excitement for the sold out banquet at the Decathlon Club.

“We happened to have a Minnesota winner. He also happened to be off the Olympics,” Justice said. “We ended up with a very…ideal winner, and he turned out to be a very good representative of the award. He was charming in the sense that he was so calm and so quiet, and very quick to acknowledge the other nine people who were in the top 10 finalists.”

Justice thought Minnesota media treated the first years of the award “with modest interest.” He contrasted that with a different experience out east including when he did an interview on an NHL game televised by ESPN in late 1980. “I heard from so many people on that, and there were writers that were talking to me after that interview, and (it was) very different than here,” he recalled. “It was almost (locally) like, you know, we’ll see what happens kind of a deal. I think after a couple of years of the award…that the local guys who were covering hockey, all of a sudden, realized this is not a regional event.”

Justice looks back fondly on those formative years when the Decathlon Club and its membership were so supportive in adding another piece of Minnesota hockey lore. He said the committees were so important, and Bard was always coming up with creative ideas, and public relations specialist “Patti (Riha) was just phenomenal.”

Former Gopher and North Star Steve Christoff was among the many Minnesotans that helped, too. He served as the model for the Hobey Baker Award figure sculpted by Bill Mack. In the summer of 1980 Justice called to see if Christofff was still on for the next day’s photo shoot. Christoff was good to go except for one not so minor item: he had no hockey uniform to pose in, and his gear was locked at the Met Center.

Justice did some last minute scrambling and things worked out. “How could that have been put off to the last minute?” Justice asked with amusement. “But he was wonderful to work with, Christoff. He was very generous of his time. I am sure he’s gotten a kick out of it over the years that he was the guy that modeled, but he was almost the guy that modeled… in street clothes.”

After the Decathlon Club burned to the ground almost 20 years ago, the Hobey Baker Committee established the Hobey Baker Award Memorial Foundation to run the finances and the overall administration of activities. Justice hasn’t been involved for a long time but he appreciates the growth in prestige of the Hobey Baker Award and development of college hockey.

“I can’t believe it’s 40 years,” he said. “I mean if you told me it was the fifth year, it would be easier to believe that. The game of college hockey has come so far. The coverage of college hockey by the media is infinitely more developed and more professional than it was at that time. The number of schools that play, the facilities that they have. Everything is such a step up.

“I keep going back to that 1980 Olympic team. That was an adrenaline shot that we got that no one could have predicted. It was such good fortune for that to happen. It doesn’t always happen with awards. …This caught the fancy (of people).”


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