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Wild Owner Blunt about Cup Ambitions

November 14, 2018 - 3 Comments

 

The Minnesota Wild has been making owner Craig Leipold feel better as of late. Leipold, 66, is facing his fourth hip replacement in coming months and is still on crutches following replacement No. 3, but his spirits were lifted by the team winning five of seven games on its recent road trip.

“Boy, we’re all looking at this team right now going, man, they’re playing together,” Leipold told Sports Headliners on Monday. Last night, in the Wild’s first home game since the club’s longest road trip ever, Leipold’s boys lost to the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals. It was the Wild’s first home defeat of the season, and predictable against such a quality team and after a long road trip.

The Wild has a habit of earning its way into the NHL playoffs but then making an early exit. Leipold expects more than just showing up for the postseason like his franchise has done for six straight years. “We’re not playing to come in second or third or fourth,” he said. “We’re playing to win the Cup. That’s what we want to do. That’s our objective and I think if you asked our players, that’s the reason they play hard every night.”

The Wild has mostly been receiving quality play from all four lines, and goalie Devan Dubnyk has been sharp. Leipold knows after 18 games there is a lot of hockey remaining on the schedule but he is hopeful that among the reasons this team could avoid long losing streaks is team rapport. “We really do have outstanding leadership in the locker room,” he said.

Preseason concerns included not scoring enough goals but results  have been better than expected. Mikael Granlund, long known for his potential, is part of the reason. He leads Minnesota in goals with 10 and also has eight assists for a Wild best 18 points.

“He’s a special player,” Leipold said. “I think a lot of people around the league have seen it. And now I think he’s believing it as well.”

Veteran stars Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, coming off injuries last season, are constantly scrutinized by interested fans to see if they appear healthy. They tell Leipold they are “100 percent” and even if they only currently check in at 90 the owner is happy. Suter and Parise have played in all the games so far, and Leipold praised their talent and work ethic.

After games Leipold can often be found sitting in a corner location at Herbie’s On The Park, the two-year old restaurant and bar located in the historic Minnesota Club near Xcel Energy Center. He enjoys watching patrons celebrate when the Wild win. He also allows himself to fantasize about being in Herbie’s after the Wild win the Stanley Cup.

“That is the ultimate,” Leipold acknowledged. “There is no finer dream that I could have.”

Worth Noting

In 2008 Leipold bought the Wild from Bob Naegele Jr. who died last week. The funeral is next Monday in the Twin Cities. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Leipold said. “Many Wild employees will be there. He was a very popular man and he was a mentor to me.”

Because of Mr. Naegele’s funeral, the date for the Old Timers Hockey Association Luncheon has been moved from next Monday to the following day. The Tuesday, November 20 event begins at 11:30 a.m. at Mancini’s Char House in St. Paul.

Bill Robertson

Bill Robertson, men’s WCHA commissioner, will be the guest speaker. Dick Jonckowski will emcee.

I was reminded this week how badly conference leaders and the NCAA needs to make improvements to the game of college basketball. A typical game like Monday night’s early season matchup between Minnesota and Utah was frequently slowed to a crawl at Williams Arena. In the first seven minutes, for example, there were two timeouts and two stoppages for officials to view replays on a TV monitor.

In the second half, Utah called timeout with 8:10 remaining in the game. About 22 seconds later the play on the court stopped again for one of the eight mandated media timeouts during a game. Along with the coaches’ and media’s timeouts, add in how the college game is over officiated with unnecessary foul calls. The result is a roadblock to allowing the flow and rhythm that is a natural part of basketball.

It’s way overdue for college basketball to adopt policies regarding both officiating and timeouts similar to the NBA. The pro league knows what it is doing. The college game is clueless. The NCAA is stealing a lot of showtime from its so-called student athletes while infuriating fans.

Gophers senior forward Jordan Murphy, who was a preseason All-Big Ten candidate, had 17 rebounds and 11 points Monday night. His total play looked even better than hyped. Freshman guard Gabe Kalscheur, who hit his first five three-point shots and finished the game with 19 points, might have the smoothest shooting stroke of any Gopher in a long time.

Murphy and junior guard-forward Amir Coffey received some of the most enthusiastic applause in the pregame introductions. Head coach Richard Pitino, coming off last season’s 4-14 Big Ten record, received a very quiet reaction from the fans.

The Twin Cities Dunkers hear from Gopher women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen on Friday. Then Hugh McCutcheon, the Minnesota volleyball coach, talks to the breakfast group later this month.

McCutcheon’s volleyball team, 16-0 in Big Ten matches, concludes its regular season conference schedule on the road the next two Fridays  and Saturdays with matches against Maryland, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers. No Gopher team in any sport has been undefeated in the Big Ten since the wrestlers were 19-0 in 2001-2002.

The Big Ten Network reported Monday that among major college football teams there are only four who are 13-1 in their last 14 conference games. Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Northwestern who the Gophers play on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Northwestern Wildcats, 6-1 in league games, have clinched at least a share of the Big Ten West Division title and are playing for the best bowl game invite in their remaining games. Minnesota, 2-5 in the conference standings, is averaging 452 yards of offense in its last four games. This is Minnesota’s longest streak of at least 400 yards of offense since it went seven straight games over the 2005-06 seasons.

 

My Journey to See Uga & SEC Football

November 12, 2018 - (0) comments

 

While the Gophers were surprisingly beating up on Purdue and the Vikings had their bye date, I was in Southeast Conference football country watching the No. 5 ranked Georgia Bulldogs and No. 24 Auburn Tigers in Athens, Georgia. It was my first SEC game ever, and kind of a bucket list thing.

Uga

Being in Uga land a few days before the Saturday night game got me ready for the Bulldogs and Tigers. Athens makes many a short list of America’s best college towns, and among its proud citizens is Uga, the University of Georgia’s popular bulldog mascot. While the real Uga watches each home game from the sidelines, there are replicas of the famous dog around town including one creation that wears glasses and is positioned outside an eye doctor’s office.

Word is you don’t want to mess with the real Uga. I am told that years ago an Auburn player was showing off after a touchdown. He spun the ball on the ground near Uga, who then lunged toward the player showing disapproval. Presumably the charged-up Georgia players took their cue from Uga and won the game!

While Sanford Stadium is a scene of pom-pom waving, madly cheering Georgia fans on game night, there are a few detractors. Near the stadium I encountered a proselytizing Baptist minister who preaches the game of football is a false idol that besmirches the Lord. The minister seemed to be a lone voice in the wilderness as game time approached and throngs of fans marched toward the stadium gates, completely ignoring the preacher.

No, the minister didn’t have many converts. This is not to say religion isn’t important in the South. It certainly is, but college football is—to put it mildly—about as important as life or death. College football Saturdays down in Dixie can be labeled High Holy Days.

Southern college football authority Paul Finebaum wrote a story for Time magazine last August headlined the “The Holy Game.” Finebaum said: “If college football is America’s lay religion, the South is its ecumenically evangelical center. Nowhere is the passion more intense than on the campuses of the 14 colleges of the Southeastern Conference and among their fans.”

Along with the fervor can also come Southern hospitality and civility. Matt Hall, my game companion on Saturday, got an unexpected offering of that after he realized he lost one of his season ticket passes. He concluded this occurred at a spot in the concourse after he had reached into his pocket to give me a ticket. Returning to the suspected site of his loss, he immediately saw a stranger holding the ticket, with intentions to turn it into fan relations. Now that’s good timing.

Georgia fans were happy Saturday night as their beloved Dawgs won another game in the oldest college football rivalry in the Deep South. The two SEC powers have been playing each other since 1896 and they have won not only league titles but national championships.

The Bulldogs, now 9-1, were pretty much on cruise control Saturday night. Georgia led 20-10 at halftime and added a second half touchdown to make the final score 27-10. Just as important the Bulldogs held fast in the chase for an invitation to the four-team playoffs.

The Bulldogs showed an aggressive defense and balanced offense. Auburn, now 6-4, couldn’t match Georgia’s productivity on the ground including D’Andre Swift’s 186-yard rushing performance.

My guy Matt is a professor at Georgia so he’s on board with the Dawgs. Georgia is just behind No. 4 Michigan in the four-team playoff race. Matt grew up in Ann Arbor so he’s all in on the possibility of the Wolverines getting a shot at the national title. Either Dawgs, or Wolves, Matt is well positioned.

College Football’s Shrine

For many years I have wanted to visit the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. Mission accomplished.

Helmet wall

Entering the building’s lobby fans are greeted by over 700 helmets representing every level of college football including NAIA schools. While registering, each Hall of Fame guest can identify a favorite team, and then that team’s helmet lights up on a giant wall. Technology also allows highlighting of your favorite team at exhibits.

Much of my focus in touring the facility was on the Gophers. There are 22 individuals with Gopher ties in the shrine including Lou Holtz, who coached only two seasons at Minnesota.

I told fan experience senior manager Robert Bready that there are still copies of a Hollywood movie from the 1940’s about Bruce Smith, Minnesota’s 1941 Heisman Trophy winner. “Smith of Minnesota” starred the hero from Faribault, Minnesota, and was as wholesome of a production as Hollywood has ever produced.

I also shared a mythic tale about the legendary Bronko Nagurski, the Gophers’ fullback and tackle from the 1920s who made All-American at two positions in the same year. Nagurski was said to be strong as an ox, and legend has it that a Gopher coach discovered him on a farm near International Falls. Bronko was using a large plow to dig up the earth when the coach drove by and stopped to ask for directions. The mighty Bronko gave directions by lifting the plow into the air and pointing toward the road the coach should follow.

That was enough for the coach to direct Bronko to Minnesota.

Former Vikings wide receiver Terry LeCount works at the Hall of Fame. He played for the Vikings from 1979-1983, and in 1987.

More on the Hall of Fame at cfbhall.com.

 

Big Stage for Tre Jones Tuesday Night

November 05, 2018 - (0) comments

 

Apple Valley’s Tre Jones will be on the biggest stage of his life tomorrow night when he makes his college debut in Duke’s game against Kentucky. The ESPN nationally-televised matchup of No. 4 Duke and No. 2 Kentucky is part of a network doubleheader Tuesday evening from Indianapolis that includes No. 1 Kansas and No. 10 Michigan State.

“It will be exciting, and I know he is looking forward to that,” Tyus Jones said about his younger brother who is following his path as a starting freshman point guard at Duke.

Tyus Jones

Tre and Tyus led Apple Valley to state championships. Tyus, in his one season at Duke, helped the Blue Devils to the 2016 national championship and was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player.

As for advice from older brother to younger bro, Tyus said: “Continue to be yourself but at the same time soak everything in just because it’s something (college) that will fly by. You’re also playing for the greatest coach of all time (Mike Krzyzewski). So he is someone that every single day he can teach you something new. So make sure you’re paying attention. …”

Tyus is in his third season with the NBA Timberwolves, and a West Coast road trip with the team won’t allow him to be in Indy for tomorrow night’s game. However, he is looking for an opportunity later to attend one of his brother’s games. “It’ll be tough but gonna make something work,” Tyus told Sports Headliners.

Tyus isn’t the only Wolves player interested in the Blue Devils-Wildcats game. Wolves center Karl-Anthony Towns played for the Wildcats in the 2015 Final Four and knows about the rivalry of Duke-Kentucky, two of college basketball’s historic power schools.

Towns was asked about a possible wager with Tyus for tomorrow night’s game. He answered emphatically and said: “No, but I know for a fact that he better be ready for the trash talking that goes with that game. …”

Minnesota viewers of Duke-Kentucky will also have home town interest in the game because Reid Travis from Minneapolis plays for the Wildcats. The senior 6-foot-8 forward transferred from Stanford where last season he averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds. He was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection.

Worth Noting

Tyus is a restricted free agent after this season. He has never played for another NBA team except the Wolves and realizes he is fortunate to be in his home state.

“You know, I’ve always said I’d like to stay here,” he said.

Jones, who has mostly been a reserve with the Wolves, said there were no talks about a new contract during the past offseason. “We’ll revisit it after the season…and try to get something done. So I know it’s not personal. It’s part of the business.”

Sports Illustrated’s college basketball issue that came out last week has only three Big Ten teams in its top 25—Michigan State No. 10, Michigan 18 and Purdue 20. The issue includes an eight-page feature on former Wolves assistant coach Eric Musselman whose Nevada team is ranked No. 6 in the nation just three-plus years after taking over the Wolf Pack.

The magazine reported Musselman earns $1 million per year, after starting at $400,000. Talk about a bargain.

JT Gibson, the 2015 Minnesota Mr. Basketball, is a redshirt junior guard on the Omaha team the Gophers host tomorrow night at Williams Arena. The former Champlin Park prep played in 31 games last season, started 12, and averaged 10.2 points per game. The Summit League Mavericks had a 9-22 overall record last season, 4-10 in conference games.

All 14 Big Ten teams have games from November 6-9. Minnesota’s second game of the season, November 12 at home against Utah, figures to be one of the most entertaining on the early schedule.

The football Gophers gave up 646 yards to a poor Illinois team Saturday while losing 55-31. A friend asked via text if Gopher teams coached by Tracy Claeys ever gave up that many yards. As interim head coach for six games in 2015, and then as head coach in 2016, the most yards was 506 versus Iowa in 2015.

Known for his defensive coaching intelligence, Claeys coached the Gophers to a 40-17 win at Illinois two years ago when Minnesota gave up 245 yards.

The NFL is moving the Vikings-Bears game November 18 in Chicago from a start time of noon to 7:20 p.m.  The game will be telecast by NBC instead of Fox as originally scheduled.

The game’s winner could take a significant step toward winning the NFC North Division title.  Pittsburgh at Jacksonville had originally been scheduled for the nationally televised 7:20 p.m. slot.

Bill Brown, the former Vikings fullback who died yesterday, played in the 1960s when NFLers helped support themselves and their families with offseason jobs. Brown was a substitute teacher in the Minneapolis school system.

Chad Beebe, the Vikings rookie wide receiver who made his NFL debut yesterday after moving up from the practice squad, is interested in a career in corporate communications if pro football doesn’t work out for him.

 

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