Wild Go…Wild, to Force Game 7

April 30, 2014 by · Comments Off on Wild Go…Wild, to Force Game 7
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By John Gilbert

The Minnesota Wild stretched their Stanley Cup Playoff series to a seventh game with a fantastic finish to Game 6 Monday night, blowing a 2-goal lead, but regaining their sharpness — thanks to a brilliant strategic move by coach Mike Yeo — just in time to break the 2-2 tie and seal a 5-2 victory with two empty-net goals.

Jason Pominville showed relief as well as elation as Minnesota Wild teammate Erik Haula chased him to celebrate his empty-net goal in Game 6.

Jason Pominville showed relief as well as elation as Minnesota Wild teammate Erik Haula chased him to celebrate his empty-net goal in Game 6 against Colorado.

Everything that happened in the last seven minutes of that Game 6 had significance. Even the two empty-net goals, by Jason Pominville and Marco Scandella, because twice earlier in the series the Wild let victories get away when Avalanche coach Patrick Roy pulled goaltender Semyon Varlamov with over two minutes left and his team responded with goals that led to overtime victories over the Wild.

“We were about due for a few empty-netters,” said goaltender Darcy Kuemper.

Yeo said that maybe the Wild should have just used one of the two empty-net goals, “and saved the other one for another game.” That might have been Game 7, with was back in Denver. Neverthgeless, there was plenty of drama and big performances in Game 6 to keep fans talking hockey well into summertime.

Parise, who had two goals and two assists and scored in all six games, and Koivu and defenseman Ryan Suter, both of whom had a pair of big-play assists, and Pominville, who had a huge assist and scored the first open-netter, set a standard that carried the Wild.

Which brings us back to Yeo, whose coaching poise and clarity should put him on his own pedestal, even though every time the Wild lose some media critics in the Twin Cities suggest he’s coaching the next game with his job on the line.

Yeo kept his poise when the Wild seemed to lose it on the ice through the second period, as Colorado came back from a 2-0 deficit for a 2-2 tie. Xcel Center was rocking in Saint Paul, with 19,314 towel-waving souls in the seats and the pressure squarely on.The Avalanche found success for their quick-strike offense by beating on the Wild players least likely to respond physically — Koivu, Mikail Granlund and Erik Haula, the three superb Finnish centermen. This might have been a tactical move, or it might have been the freedom to inflict physical pain knowing that the likes of the suspended Matt Cooke wasn’t around as a deterrent.

Ryan Suter continued behind the Colorado net after scoring for a 1-0 Minnesota lead at Xcel Center.

Ryan Suter continued behind the Colorado net after scoring for a 1-0 Minnesota lead at Xcel Center.

Koivu, behind the net on the left during a first-minute power play, fed a quick pass to Parise at the crease, but it glanced off him toward the right circle. Suter, alertly moving in from the point, blasted a shot that ticked Parise’s leg just enough to beat goaltender Semyon Varlamov at 0:49.

Nine minutes later, Pominville carried up the left, then passed rinkwide to Granlund, the playmaking centerman, who drilled a low shot that 5-holed Varlamov as he dropped to his knees but failed to completely close his pads.

The Wild had a great chance to go up 3-0 with a 2-man power play for over a minute later in the first period, but suddenly they started fumbling the puck, mishandling passes and losing their sharpness. Colorado’s Ryan O’Reilly blocked a mis-hit shot, just as Paul Stastny came out of the penalty box. O’Reilly threw a 100-foot pass straight ahead to Stastny, who raced in to beat Kuemper on the shorthanded breakaway. Nick Holden tied it early in the second period after some great power-play puck movement, and you could feel the air whooshing out of the building, as if the fans suddenly realized that the series might be ending right in front of them.

Paul Stastny came out of the penalty box to score shorthanded on Wild goaltender Darcy Kemper.

Paul Stastny came out of the penalty box to score shorthanded on Wild goaltender Darcy Kemper.

Inside the Wild dressing room at the second intermission, Yeo was calm and calculating, as usual. “We had to shift our mentality,” said the coach. “I told the players that what we had to do was win a period, at home, to give ourselves the chance to see what we can do in Game 7. Also, I wanted to get Mikko and Zach togeether. Everybody was doing a good job, but guys like that usually find a way.”

Koivu was centering Charlie Coyle and Matt Moulson, while Parise and Pominville were flanking Granlund on another line. All four lines were playing hard, but reuniting former linemates Koivu and Parise was a master stroke for the third period. With about seven minutes remaining, Koivu absorbed a cheapshot. Finnish players tend to retaliate to cheapshots by playing even harder, and I watched Koivu closely as he came racing from right to left across the Avalanche zone. He might have cut off the puck, but Suter had moved up 20 feet from the point to block it. Instinctively, Koivu veered back to the blue line to cover Suter’s abandoned spot, just as the puck squirted out. Koivu was there, and he ripped an adrenaline-fueled slapshot toward the lower right corner of the net. Fighting off checks and cheapshots, Parise was planted, facing Koivu and with his back to the net. He deftly got his stick on the sizzling missile, and deflected it from heading low right to instead snare the net just inside the left pipe.

“Oh yeah, I got a good look at that one,” smiled Parise. The tie-breaking goal sent the big crowd into a frenzy, and lifted the Wild back to their emotional high. It was left for Roy to pull his goalie, but this time the Wild made the move backfire. Twice.

 

Gary Shopek — the Ultimate Walk-On

April 24, 2014 by · Comments Off on Gary Shopek — the Ultimate Walk-On
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By John Gilbert

There were a lot of pictures at the Church of St. Bridget in North Minneapolis for the memorial service for Gary Shopek. The most significant was on the cover of the small funeral program, showing an ever-alert Gary Shopek facing the camera wearing his No. 25 University of Minnesota hockey uniform.

Gary Shopek

Gary Shopek

That picture should serve as inspiration for every young hockey player who spends hours practicing and learning to love the game of hockey, all the while worrying and wondering if he’ll ever get the chance to play at an elite level. Gary Shopek is evidence that dreams can come true.

Back in the 1970s, Minneapolis had a strong high school hockey conference, surpassing St. Paul and even the developing Lake Conference as the premier league in the Twin Cities. Southwest was the first, and only, Minneapolis Conference team to win a state title, and the Indians (in those days) were outstanding every year, but they were challenged every year by Washburn, Roosevelt, West, Patrick Henry, South, and Edison, all of whom rose and fell with the fluctuations of their youth programs.

I remember going to the Minneapolis Auditorium — now the Convention Center — to watch four or five games in a row on Monday nights. Henry’s best  teamcame along, led by two players —  a big, lanky defenseman named Tom Hirsch, and a wiry and quick centerman named Gary Shopek. Hirsch was recruited to the University of Minnesota by Brad Buetow, while Shopek went off to try to find someplace to play hockey.

Junior hockey was in its infancy in Minnesota back then, with a league-full of “Junior B” teams and the Bloomington Junior Stars who tried to establish Junior A and subsequently the U.S. Hockey League. My older son, Jack, had the skills to move up to the next level, and he made that rag-tag group of Junior Stars. So did Shopek, and others, such as John Brandt from Edison, Mark Loahr from St. Anthony, Mike Brodzinski from Blaine, Scott Conger, who played with Shopek at Henry, Tom Almquist from Benilde, Kyle Kranz from Bloomington, and goaltender Steve Kudebeh from Breck. I had been impressed watching Shopek at Henry, and quickly became more impressed by his versatile skills with the Junior Stars. He was one of those tenacious kids who backchecked ferociously from center, and his great agility made me wonder how he might use his skills as a defenseman..

Anyone who gets into hockey joins a giant fraternity. A family, really, with kinship among teammates that even carries over to opponents. I got to know Gary Shopek as a humble, unassuming young man who weighed under 170 pounds, but it was all muscle. He was quick, highly skilled, and extremely honest, both as a player and a person. His dad had died while he was in school, and his brothers and sister had moved on, while Gary lived at home, with his mom. He slept on the couch, and he had nothing, but never asked for more than that. And he was fiercely proud of going home to North Minneapolis.

“Gary’s birthday and mine were on the same day,” said Brandt, recalling those old Junior Stars days. “We became good friends and drove to and from practice and games together. He dropped me off one day, and I invited him in because we were having a little birthday party for me. He said no, and I figured he probably was having his own party. But he said he wasn’t, but he thought he’d go home and make himself a cake.”

While writing about hockey at every level for the Minneapolis Tribune in those days, I also coached youth baseball and hockey, and I started coaching summer hockey, rising to the Midwest League, a well-organized college-age league where top college players from throughout the Twin Cities convened every summer at Roseville Arena. Coaches drafted players from a week of tryouts, and the teams were well balanced and intensely competitive. I told Shopek to try out, but to not show up after one tryout, then I picked him, eagerly. I also talked Skeeter Moore, who starred at Duluth East and UMD, into driving down from Duluth to play

He was quiet, and maybe lonely, but as with all young hockey players, I figured he’d wind up with a nice girlfriend who would care about him, and everything would fall into place. When I got the chance to see his skills close up from behind the bench in the Roseville league, I stopped over at the University of Minnesota occasionally that summer and urged coach Brad Buetow to come out to the summer league to watch him, just once. Shopek was our quarterback, a free-thinking, free-spirited competitor, whose instincts and spontaneous ability to improvise was unerringly right on, just what any smart coach might wish for. On the bench or in the dressing room, I always enjoyed sharing tidbits with Shopek, just to see his eyes sparkle, accompanied by that faint little grin. I played him at defense, but with complete freedom — and urging — to join the offense. Some coaches allow defensemen to rush; I made it mandatory.

We did well in the league that summer, and in the playoffs, we won, then we won again, to reach the championship game. As we prepared to take the ice for that final game, I spotted Dean Talafous in the stands, and he came down to exchanged pleasantries. On the final day of competition, Buetow had finally sent his assistant to watch Shopek.

It was one of those nights when fate did not smile on our team. We won the opening faceoff, with the puck squirting back to Shopek. Always plotting, he started to retreat, intending to lure an aggressive forechecker toward him so he could make a slick pass, but he stumbled and fell on his backside. The puck popped free, of course, and the forechecker grabbed it and skated in to score on a breakaway about 8 seconds seconds into the game. It didn’t get better. We rallied and made a run, but ultimately got hammered. Shopek, trying too hard to make up for the bad start, played what might have been his worst game ever.

When it was over, I was walking toward the dressing room to thank the players who had made it a special summer, despite the final game, when Talafous came down from the seats. “I see what you mean about Shopek,” he said. “We’ve got to get him.”

I was incredulous. But I concealed my surprise.  I walked into the dressing room, and despite the dispirited group awaiting me, I addressed the players, thanking them for a thoroughly enjoyable season despite the final result. Then I singled out Shopek.

“Gary, how do you think you played tonight?” I asked.

“Are you kidding?” he said, “That was the worst game I’ve ever played in my life.”

“You’re right,” I said, “but the Gophers were here scouting you tonight, and based on this game, they want you. Just think how good they’ll think you are when they see the real Gary Shopek!

Everybody in the room got a good laugh out of it, but it wasn’t long before the Gophers did get a chance to see the real Shopek. Giving full credit to Talafous, it was impressive that he saw enough potential in Shopek that night to be impressed.

Brandt, a skilled centerman, recalled talking with Shopek about friends and foes who were heading off for Division I colleges with full scholarships while they were ignored and wondering where they would end up. “We were listening to a Styx song, about waiting for a pot of gold, and Gary asked me, ‘Where’s our pot of gold? How long do we have to wait?’

“One day we were wondering where we might play, and a couple months later I was going to Gopher games and watching Gary play the point on the power play as a freshman,” said Brandt, who had an outstanding Division III career at St. Mary’s.

As a freshman, in the 1983-84 season, Shopek won the Gophers’ Frank Pond rookie of the year award. After Shopek’s sophomore season, and a run to the NCAA tournament, Buetow was relieved of his command, and Doug Woog was hired as coach. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, because Shopek always trusted his instincts on the ice, and Woog was often agitated and frustrated and chirped at his players. A friend recalled teammates recalling the time Woog started in on Shopek, and Gary, cornered but never trapped, said, evenly,  “Get a real job, Woog.”

Butters recalled that scene, which happened more than once, and said, “That was the ‘church’ version.”

Shopek’s play never wavered. In his junior year, 1985-86, he won the Mike Crupi award, voted by his teammates as the most determined Gopher, and he won the Crupi award again as a senior, in 1986-87. He was never more than 170 pounds, but he was still lean and quick and incredibly smart and competitive.

Over four years, Shopek played 173 games — a record for the Gophers at that point, before season schedules became expanded. Over four years, he had 24 goals, 93 assists, for 117 points, including 12-31–43 his senior year. That ranked him fifth in team scoring, behind Corey Millen, who led with 36-29–65, Steve MacSwain 31-29–60, Dave Snuggerud 30-29–59, and Todd Richards 8-43–52. Remarkably, Shopek’s 12-31–43 gave him more assists than Millen, MacSwain or Snuggerud.

When I covered the North Stars, and the Fighting Saints, and the Gophers, and the high schools, it was gratifying to get to know a lot of outstanding young players. I knew and liked every player on those Gopher teams, but Shopek was special. It was frustrating that with all the scholarship and partial aid packages being thrown around, Gary Shopek was still living at home, sleeping on his mom’s couch in North Minneapolis. But he was living his dream, and he never asked for more than the chance to be the ultimate walk-on.

“I think Shopek might have been the most-skilled guy I ever played with,” said my son, Jack. “At Junior Stars practice, we’d play keepaway and nobody could get the puck from Shopek. After a while, somebody would tackle him, but he’d still have the puck.”

I lost track of Gary Shopek over the last 30 years. He played a little minor league pro hockey, and he tried it in Europe, but he always came home to Minneapolis. I heard he had a lot of problems in his life. Substance abuse problems, and problems finding a good job, or making enough of a commitment to that girlfriend I had always anticipated he’d find. John Brandt had reconnected with Shopek several times in the last few years, and offered him friendship and guidance, and Bill Butters, who had been assistant coach and ran the defense at Minnesota during Shopek’s last two years, had also tried to help Shopek get beyond his personal demons.

A couple months ago, I heard Gary was seriously ill. He had been stricken with esophageal cancer. Butters contacted some of his old Gopher teammates, who visited him after he entered hospice care. John Brandt was the closest of all.

Shopek died on Easter Sunday, 2014, at age 51. The picture they ran in the Minneapolis Star Tribune obituary column showed him in his Gopher uniform, taken during the time he always said were the best years of his life. That familiar picture, wearing No. 25 with the big “M” on his chest, was the only identification Shopek needed.

It’s going to take a while to get over this one. If I had known about his situation, I would have dropped everything to help those who rallied to his side. Gary had the help of friends and relatives to straighten out his life, and I believe he really wanted to, even while those demons seemed to have the upper hand. He still had time to win that battle, and I’ll remain an optimist that he could have — if it hadn’t been for the cancer.

Butters, and a few close friends, spoke at Gary Shopek’s funeral. His sister, Laurie Modeen, and brothers Tim and Ralph were there, close friend Steve Michaud, and other friends, relatives and North Minneapolis neighbors. Former Gophers attending were Jason Miller, Steve Orth, Craig Mack, Corey Millen, Tom Chorske, Mike Guentzel, and of course Butters, who now works for Hockey Ministries and aids former players from all levels.

Former Gopher Todd Richards sent a nice note that he regretted not being able to attend, but remembered “No. 25” as his defense partner with the Gophers, and how he was the perfect partner because he was always dedicated and ready to go all-out. Richards couldn’t be there, because later Saturday night I watched him on satellite television, behind the Columbus Blue Jackets bench, coaching against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL playoffs.

Brad Buetow also sent a nice message, although it would have been nicer had Brad not recalled how he and his staff had watched Shopek so closely all through high school that they were “unanimous” about recruiting him. I got a chuckle out of Buetow’s revisionist history, and I know Gary would have, too.

Shopek was special enough that the people who conducted a fund-raiser in his behalf are using the money to seed a scholarship fund, in his name, which would go to help a young Gopher prospect who makes the Gopher varsity as a walk-on. I know Gary would be proud of that, and if you concentrate hard enough, you can see it in the twinkle in his eyes, and that sly little grin that always signified that he got the message.

College Hockey Takes Center Stage

April 13, 2014 by · Comments Off on College Hockey Takes Center Stage
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By John Gilbert 

   It’s cordial of NCAA hockey to willingly — as if they had a choice — step aside and put their season on hold for a full extra week to make way for the basketball tournament to conclude before convening for their championship.

   But now, it’s time. Just before the NHL starts its three-month marathon to decide the Stanley Cup, the NCAA Frozen four will be held at Philadelphia this week.

   This one is special, because while hockey has maintained status quo in the East, it has been totally disrupted in the West.

   We know that Boston College is a perennial power, and so are Minnesota and North Dakota. We also have learned in recent years not to take lightly the rising stars such as Union — which won it last year!

   Nevertheless, Boston College will be everybody’s favorite when the Eagles take on Union in the first semifinal on Thursday. And, if you go by ratings, Minnesota’s Golden Gophers will be the big favorite over North Dakota in the 7:30 p.m. second game. Those winners will collide Saturday.

   We’ve been over this before, how the NCAA selection committee and its Pairwise computer plan are instantly outdated by the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference — clearly, from top to bottom, the toughest league in college hockey. The result is that maybe it should have been predictable, but Minnesota, BC, and Union all were No. 1 seeds in their regionals, which seem to be proof positive of their ratings. But North Dakota was a No. 4 seed, and had to take out Wisconsin, which was Big Ten runner-up and a higher seed by the NCAA. North Dakota then had to beat Ferris State, the WCHA champion, in order to reach the Frozen Four.

   The Golden Gophers have been at or near the top of the ratings all season, and remain No. 1 through this week, when that honor may only offer extra incentive to a North Dakota team that never needs any incentive to be sky-high for the Gophers. This time, though, there also is prestige and credibility for the new NCHC, in the face of the mountain of publicity about the Big Ten.

   My pick, before the tournament started, was North Dakota. Shorn of their Fighting Sioux nickname, North Dakota chose to go without a nickname in the aftermath of the ugly confrontation with the NCAA. So it will just say North Dakota on their jerseys, even though they will be pure Fighting Sioux in our hearts and minds

    I think it will be a couple of great games in the semifinals, but I think it would be some sort of justifiable irony if North Dakota won it all, just to expose the absurdy of the ruling that took away their “offensive” nickname, which originated as a tribute to the most highly esteemed class of the Plains Indian tribe from which the name came.

Wild Stage Wild Finish

   The pressure had never been greater on the Minnesota Wild than it was last week. The Wild’s grip on the two wild card slots, eighth and ninth in the West, was slipping, as Phoenix had risen to a tie with Minnesota’s NHL club, and Dallas and Vancouver were close behind. The Wild seemed to have lost its fire, scoring dwindling and the once-splendid goaltending of third-string netminder Darcy Kuemper had cooled off. Turns out, he was injured, and right after getting shelled 5-1 in St. Louis, Kuemper joined Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding on the disabled list. I had written last week that no NHL team could survive the loss of its top two goalies, and now the Wild have amended that to three.

   But Ilya Bryzgalov, acquired as late-season insurance, stepped to the fore, and led the Wild to victory at Phoenix in a huge game, then another at Los Angeles, where the Kings never lose. Back home, the Wild then had to face the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are the Boston Bruins top rival in the East. Incredibly, the fourth line got two goals, Bryzgalov made all the saves, and the Wild stunned the Penguins 4-0. The NCAA basketball semifinals were a huge television draw, but a Wild record turnout of 19,409 managed to choose the live hockey game at Xcel Center.

   That sent the Wild to Winnipeg where Bryzgalov won another shutout, 1-0 Monday night. More than just a victory, the closing three road victories at Phoenix, Los Angeles and Winnipeg lifted the Wild to a 17-17-7 record in road games. I go back to Glen Sonmor, and his protege Herb Brooks, who taught me that a lot of teams are good, but the true mark of a great team is how it does on the road. Rising up to finish an even .500 on the road is an enormous accomplishment for the Wild, and should help send them winging into the playoffs with confidence. If not all their bodies.

   But wait! There’s more! The Wild finish the regular season with three home games, and the first of those came Tuesday, against the mighty Boston Bruins, Stanley Cup runner-up to Chicago last year. The Wild led when Jason Pomminville scored his 28th of the season, but fell behind 2-1, before Pomminville got his 29th and then assisted on  tying goal in a 3-3 tie that led to overtime, and then to a shootout. Here was Bryzgalov facing Tukka Rask, Boston’s Finnish star. Rask stopped Zach Parise, and Pommenville, but between those two, Mikko Koivu zoomed in and beat his countryman for a goal. Bryzgalov, meanwhile, stopped all three Boston shooters, and the Wild beat the team some say is the NHL’s best, 4-3 in a shootout.

   By the way, remember last spring, when the Wild swiped Pomminville from Buffalo and he got hurt before the playoffs? Twin Cities non-hockey cynics put down the Wild by saying Pomminville could be the “Wild’s Herschel Walker.” Whatever that means. Ol’ Herschel wasn’t much of a skater, had no slapshot, and didn’t backcheck. I just hope Pomminville gets No. 30 in the final two games.

   If the Bruins aren’t the best team in the NHL, remember, St. Louis is my choice to beat them in the final. And the St. Louis Blues have a Thursday night date at Xcel Center in the next-to-last Wild home game before playoffs.

   “Before playoffs,” has an extra nice ring to it this year, doesn’t it? 

    

April Brings F1 Classic, and…March Madness?

April 13, 2014 by · Comments Off on April Brings F1 Classic, and…March Madness?
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By John Gilbert

   This is the time of year when Northern Minnesota sports fans thank their lucky satellite dishes for the ability to watch cable television.

   It’s the annual time when we’re caught between the ice going out on area rinks, let alone Lake Superior, and the anticipated first sighting of green grass on a baseball field. It’s a time span that usually takes about a month in the Duluth-Superior area.

   And it also happens to be the time when the major sports of winter are reaching their climactic playoff points, just as the boys of summer — those hitting baseballs and those who might be sitting in the cockpit of race cars — begin their seasons.

   Here are just some of the highlights of the last week:

  •   The NCAA basketball tournament, which commands the nickname “March Madness” even though it now doesn’t finish until almost midway through April, was more intriguing this year than in any year I can remember. I anticipated a final game between Louisville and Michigan State, with Louisville winning the big prize. But it was thoroughly enjoyable watching my picks collapse all the way through the end, when Connecticut beat a very impressive and top-ranked Florida team, while a valiant and outstanding Wisconsin outfit got to the Final Four before being beaten, barely, by a Kentucky team starting five talented freshmen. All of that made me decide Kentucky would probably win it all, but it was UConn that got the jump on the Wildcats and led all the way to the title. Along the way, we’re apparently conceding any semblance of style to play our Final Four in a gigantic football stadium. Texas Stadium in Arlington, Texas, might be the best football stadium in the world, and it drew over 80,000 fans to watch a court that was somewhere off in the distance, dwarfed by the gigantic video screen as well as the huge field itself. How can they go back to a normal basketball arena now, after that extravaganza?
  •   The Minnesota Twins opened their season, with mixed reviews. Losing two out of three at Chicago and then winning two out of three in Cleveland brought the Twins home to open at Target Field just as the last glacial deposit melted away. (Remember, springtime comes to Minneapolis about a month before it reaches the Northland.) Cynics said the Twins are in for a long season; those eager to criticize the cynics took great heart from a 3-3 road trip to start the season; the overly optimistic thought winning 10-9 and 9-7 type games at the White Sox and Indians proved the Twins can be a contender — but remember that a lot of us don’t anticipate Chicago or Cleveland to be in the World Series this year. Still, it’s time to get fired up to just enjoy watching baseball after this winter that won’t end.
  •   The Minnesota Wild were struggling just two weeks ago, prompting me to chastise the Twin Cities non-hockey media types who were calling for coach Mike Yeo’s scalp. Again. So when things looked bleakest, the Wild rose up for a stirring surge to secure a playoff spot behind No. 4 goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, a team defensive concept, and opportunistic scorers who are patient awaiting their chances to score and don’t need 40 shots to win a game. If you want to pick the two most likely teams to reach the Stanley Cup finals, try the St. Louis Blues against the Boston Bruins. There may be a few teams that will try to alter the course of those two, particularly in the West, where Anaheim, the Chicago Blackhawks, and others, are good enough to rock the Blues boat. That means a team like the Wild have won only half the fight by making the playoffs; next they’ll have to figure out a way to knock off one of those top teams. If you don’t want to have to play St. Louis, you’re not exactly winning the lottery by earning the right to face Anaheim instead. Or Chicago, just about the time both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews make it back off the injury list.
  •   The Grand Prix of Bahrain was run at night, on the well-designed Mideast track, so it was shown, live, at 10 a.m. Formula 1 racing is the finest breed of the auto racing genre, and I don’t say it lightly when I claim that the Bahrain race might have been the most exciting example of all that makes auto racing great. It might have been the best race ever. Louis Hamilton won, by 1 second over Nico Rosburg, his Mercedes teammate. During much of the race, Rosburg moved up and tried to pass Hamilton, and several times he pulled it off by charing up the inside going into a sweeping curve, only to have Hamilton wisely see him coming, yield the right of way, all the while setting up a counter move to-pass Rosburg and regain the lead immediately. That would have been spectacle enough, but consider the rest of the top 10 finishers: 3. Sergio Perez, Force India; 4. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull; 5. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India; 6. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull;  7. Felipe Massa, Williams; 8. Valtteri Bottas, Williams; 9 Fernando Alonso, Ferrari; 10. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari. Incredibly, every time the cameras panned back into the field, we’d see teammates Perez and Hulkenberg duelling heatedly by swapping positions, and the same for Ricciardo and Vettel, Massa and Bottas, and Alonso and Raikkonen. Obviously, team rules were thrown aside and some of the most intense and heated competition was the result, with cars routinely hitting 200 miles per hour as they hurtled into the sweeping hairpin at the end of the long straight. Then the cameras would switch back to the duel for the lead, which was the highlight of a race-full of highlights.
  •   And by the way,Connecticut also won the NCAA women’s title on Tuesday, whipping a strong Notre Dame team in a battle of unbeaten teams in the final. UConn ends up 40-0, and Notre Dame 37-1.

Sports Home for Generation, Metrodome is No. 1

January 1, 2014 by · Comments Off on Sports Home for Generation, Metrodome is No. 1
Filed under: Sports 

By John Gilbert

As 2013 fades gently…make that frigidly into 2014, we are almost smothered by the sheer weight of stories and videos of media types telling us what the most important stories were during the past 12 months. It’s the same in sports, where everybody has an opinion of what the top sports stories of the year were.

This particular year, we had two of those conglomerate stories intertwine. Along with the biggest sports stories of 2013, there were all sorts of reminiscences by different sports columnists about the biggest games and events in the Metrodome’s 32-year history.

The Metrodome, located in downtown Minneapolis, ended its life when the Vikings finished their mostly miserable 2013 season with a surprising 14-13 victory over Detroit’s self-destructing Lions in a very entertaining December 29 game. It was entertaining, if meaningless, because the Lions had the division secured with seven games remaining, but lost six of those seven to pull despair out of the jaws of playoff success. And, of course, the Vikings had been out of contention since about Week 4 of a season that shall remain known for its quarterback roulette.

It is interesting, and a little amusing, to read all the insulting, denigrating comments about what a dump the Metrodome has been — mostly written by well-meaning folks who spent their years in the press box, whether at Met Stadium or the Metrodome, and had every possible creature comfort at their disposal. They have long ago lost the perspective of appreciative fans, who literally came in out of the cold when the Vikings, Twins, Gopher football and assorted state high school soccer and football teams, and assorted small college baseball teams found relief from the harsh weather to play indoors.

I had the chance to cover a number of major events in the Dome, including the deciding game the Twins Game 7 World Series triumph over St. Louis. I was there for quite a few other Twins games through the years, including the 1984 game when Dave Kingman, a huge left-handed slugger, hit a skyrocketing pop fly that went up and up and up toward the teflon ceiling — and then simply didn’t come down. The ball had, incredibly enough, gone into one of the small vent holes in one of the roof panels and disappeared. Kingman was awarded a double on the play, which is a pretty good reward for hitting a pop up, no matter how high.

I was also at the Dome when the command was given to take a knee to let the final seconds to run out the clock in the 1998 NFC championship game when the Vikings decided they were better off taking the Atlanta Falcons into overtime than in taking a shot at winning the game at the end of regulation. Atlanta promptly kicked the overtime field goal for for the conference title.

There were some problems with the Metrodome. The first one was tactical. When they decided to go with the inflatable teflon roof, it actually worked out amazingly well, even though it deflated from too much snow a time or two. But the decision to make the roof an off-white color was ridiculous, because what else in the sports world is an off-white color? If you guessed a baseball, you’d be right on. So every fly ball became an adventure for every outfielder, because as soon as the ball got higher than the seats, it became a vision test for every fielder.

It also meant that every pop fly seemed to disappear like Dave Kingman’s unique hit.

A fool might have decided to paint the ceiling a neat sky blue, as in the sky, rather than the exact color of a baseball. The other biggest problem was the first few years without air-conditioning, when the air inside during summertime seemed as artificial as the turf.

I also had the chance to play a couple of tournament games on that turf, one a “media” softball game, and the other an actual Over-35 baseball tournament, when I was recruited to play for a San Diego team. I made one great play from shortstop, when I darted to my left for a hard ground ball, with no real chance of reaching it, only to luck out when the topspin acquired on its first hop made it come up high on its second bounce — right into my glove. Those were memorable experiences, although they meant nothing in the overall picture of the place.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune did an impressive section pointing out all the biggest sports events held at the Dome through its lifespan. The reminiscing included numerous Twins happenings and Vikings events, and the Super Bowl and the two World Series, as well as state tournament games, basketball games, soccer games, and monster truck shows. When monster trucks were mentioned, I scoured the story for something, anything, on the series of Stadium SuperCross motorcycle races that ran there. I found nothing.

Working two blocks wesst of the Dome, I fought to cover the SuperCross. I had been covering motorsports along with hockey for most of three decades, and quite late in that time, I found that motocross racing, outdoors over bounding hills and jumps and obstacles, was very exciting, both for amateur and pro racers. During a couple of winters, I spotted some Stadium Supercross races on television. These were amazing events, with twisting, turning, hilly courses sculpted into off-road race courses through piles of dirt that had been trucked in.

In April of 1994, the Metrodome was selected as a site for one of the official season of Stadium Supercrosses. A young man named Jeremy McGrath had become a cult hero on television, so I suggested that this race would be worth covering on a Saturday night at the Metrodome. The suggestion was rejected. At that time, there was probably nobody else on our staff who had ever attended a motorsports event other than me. I reasoned that because of the television coverage, the event could draw a great crowd, maybe even 10,000 or 20,000 fans. The sports editor laughed out loud. Outrageous, he said.

So I went on my own, without any possibility of writing a story on it, and I was astounded to find the Metrodome was full — 47,000 fans — who hadn’t noticed the complete lack of publicity as they hustled to buy tickets and  fill the place. The following Monday I mentioned that the crowd was, indeed, pretty good, and when I informed the sports editor what it was, he was properly impressed. It was the best crowd of that particular calendar year for any sports event in the state of Minnesota!

The next year, they let me cover it, and I shot a few photos of Jeremy McGrath flying over two or three jumps at a time, soaring above hard-working riders below, and doing gymnastic tricks on his motorcycle all the way. That’s become quite standard among some other top riders over the years, but back then, 20 years ago, McGrath was in a class of one who did such tricks and gave each one a nickname.

I wrote about the Supercross for the next few years, as it continued to sell out with advance tickets annually. In years when the Twins were mediocre and the Vikings were as well, the Supercross might have again been the largest crowd in the Dome for entire calendar years. My point is that it deserves a place on any list of the major events held in the Metrodome, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to reminisce or recall any event, if you didn’t attend it.

Amid all the colorful recollections of all the games and concerts and extravaganzas held in the Metrodome, there is a star-crossed connection with the never-ending lists of the biggest sports stories of 2013 and the end of the Metrodome’s history, coinciding with the last Vikings game. In my mind, after housing so many memorable events, over so many years of being our state’s home sports facility, the biggest single sports story in Minnesota in 2013 is…the closing of the Metrodome.

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