Sunday, December 19, 2010

Road Warriors, Home Alone

Two very different movies. Two very different settings. Two very different results.

Sounds like the Minnesota Wild of late, doesn't it?

On the road, away from the distractions of family, home, expectations of their own fans, etc., the Wild have quietly built a 3-1-1 December road record. The only game in which the Wild looked bad was the blowout last weekend at Anaheim (not entirely unexpected, given the Wild's history at the Arrowhead Pond/Honda Center), where the Ducks relentlessly gave the Wild a well-deserved 6-2 pounding.

On the other hand, when the Wild are at home, in the Xcel Energy Center, they proceed to continually lay more eggs than an Eggland's Best contractor farm. They relax, play with absolutely NO urgency whatsoever, let the other team get out to a lead, then get beat by continuing to not play well, and basically anger their most loyal followers, their biggest stakeholders, their season ticket fan base, by their continued lack of offensive punch.

The Wild are a paltry 1-4-1 in their last six home games, for a grand total of three -- THREE -- points in the standings. Three points at home, while the rest of the West administers drubbing after drubbing. There is no rhyme nor reason for this. The good teams -- the teams that will actually make the playoffs in April -- play their best hockey at home, where the fans are friendly, the routine familiar, the cooking not in a restaurant (recent call-up Jared Spurgeon notwithstanding), the bed after the game their own.

Maybe the Wild and the Minnesota Vikings -- the NFL's 'prodigal sons', who may never go home (to the Metrodome) again -- should change places. The Wild should stay on the road, and the Vikings should move into the 'X' and play. The Vikings have only one road win since October, 2009, and that was two weeks ago against Washington. Maybe the Vikes should just play at home, and the Wild should go on a 50-game road trip to end their season.

Then, the Wild might just have a shot at the playoffs. Maybe. Or, maybe, just maybe, the Wild should really get the act together, come out during the holidays and beat some of the upcoming teams, teams that they SHOULD BE ABLE to defeat in regulation time.

The next five home games for the Wild:

Calgary, Monday (Dec. 20) -- this is the same Flames team that YOU JUST WON against in the Saddledome. Put some effort into this, and sweep the back-to-back.

Detroit, Dec. 26 (Sunday) -- play better than you have in your last month at home. This will be the first game for both teams after the Christmas holiday break. What better way for Wild fans to celebrate the end of the Christmas holiday, than to boo the hell out of Todd Bertuzzi, instead of their own team? Or, to watch as the 'X' is over-run with Red Wings fans, a good number of whom will spend the entire day coming down from Michigan's UP.

San Jose, Dec. 29 (Wednesday) -- this is NOT the San Jose team of the recent past. This team is beatable, but you have to shadow the Sharks' top line (Thornton-Heatley-Marleau) to keep the Sharks in check. But, at least they no longer have Evgeni Nabokov to worry about in goal.

Nashville, Dec. 31 (Friday, New Years' Eve) -- too bad this opponent doesn't generate the same excitement as the evening. In a party mood, this crowd probably will be more amped up than either of the teams will. Nashville head coach Barry Trotz will have his New Years' Eve costume on ... Oh, wait: that ISN'T a costume? That's his real face??

Phoenix, Jan. 2 (Sunday) -- Just hours after the end of a disasterous Vikings season, the Wild's season could very well also end, if the Wild don't pull a win out of this game, as the Wild will end their 5-games-in-8-days holiday hockey marathon, with the final visit this season by the up-and-coming Coyotes, who have shown that they can beat any team on any given night.

So win now, boys. Because after the Phoenix game, 8 of the next 11 Wild games are back in the 'friendly confines'...of the road.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How long...will this keep goin' on?

Like the old song, we ask this question of Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher:

'How long...will this keep goin' on?'

The Wild enter this week with a morbid 1-5-2 record since the OT win in Detroit on Nov. 19th (and 3-7-2 in their last 12 since the Atlanta disaster on Nov. 11, the date I have been using for the last month to show the ineptitude of this Wild club).

Yes, there is reason for optimism (Martin Havlat's sudden upsurge, the return of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, the continued goaltending of 'Backodore') despite the number of bad goals against them lately, most as a result of inopportune screening by the Wild defense.

But, therein lies the rub. The problems of the Wild, as many of them as there are, in my opinion:

1. Not enough shots on net. You don't win if you don't score, and you don't score if you don't shoot. You shouldn't have 13-15,000 people at the 'X' screaming 'SHOOT!!!' and then still wind up passing the boards, because the forward moved to set up for a shot. I've seen this all too often this season. And the next time I see no one in front of the net, when the puck is ready to come out from behind the goal, I may just be besides myself.

2. Too many players are moving too slow. Granted, some of this is due to age (Andrew Brunette, as an example), but a lot of it is players taking the night off, for whatever reason. The first line (Brunette, Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen) especially has looked slow and erratic the last two weeks. None of those three wish to go after a puck in the corners. The lack of speed and/or urgency in their game has cost the Wild dearly, as they either get penalized after they get caught, the Wild generate no offense, or at worst, the Wild give up yet another easy goal.

3. Someone want to shake up the third line? The John Madden-Eric Nystrom combination is getting beat up fast, especially when the Wild are shorthanded (they are both -11 as of now). This is where Miettinen should reside, until either he is traded or the unrestricted free agent-to-be is allowed to go elsewhere. The fact of the matter is that the third line needs help, and right now they're not getting it.

4. I'll say it: Cam Barker is a STIFF. How can you be that well paid, and yet that much of a lumbering oaf on skates? This week, rookie Jared Spurgeon has been paired with the Human Pylon II, which has made on-ice life very difficult for the young defenseman, who some have called 'minnow'. Barker, a -9 as of today, has really worn out his welcome with his passive-non-aggressive play, and his standing at the blue line, too inept to do anything, allowing opposing forwards to spring free for breakaways.

5. We fans all love the shot-blocking exploits of Greg Zanon. However, maybe, just maybe, sometimes the right play doesn't always mean sacrificing the body to block the puck. Especially when your defensive partner (Marek Zidlicky) is on the ice more for offense, than defense.

Zanon is a good defenseman. He deserves to be a top-4 on any NHL club. Zidlicky, for all his known problems, is actually having his best season as a member of the Wild. Maybe not statistically, but in overall play, he has never been better. Any defensive pairing works better when both members are upright and skating. Zanon has been getting caught out of position way-y-y too often, then tries to make up for it by blocking shots. If the Wild are to get better, they must play better positional hockey. Starting with the No. 2 defensive pairing.

The Wild now have four days off until their Thursday night game at Phoenix, against a Coyotes team who came into St. Paul, and exposed every weakness of the Wild in one pathetic evening of puck. After that, the Wild make their annual December visit to Southern California, two arenas (STAPLES Center, Honda Center) which the Wild have not fared well in over the last few seasons.

Will the winds of change blow thru St. Paul this week? The best answer is...'we'll see'.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Time for a Change?

Something -- nee, anything -- needs to be done if the Minnesota Wild are to salvage anything from the 2010-2011 season.

After getting shelled for 5 or more goals in three of their last four games, two of which were at home, the time has come for the Wild management to do something about this team's malaises. The days of taking whole periods of games off has to stop. And, it has to stop NOW.

Yes. different players (most notably Nick Schultz and Captain Mikko Koivu) have taken the 'fall on the sword' for recent team bad performances. But, it's not just one or two players that take whole periods off. It's the whole damn TEAM that is taking periods off.

This cannot be allowed to continue. The fact of the matter is that if the Wild are serious in an attempt to even qualify for the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they need to right the ship of state NOW, or else face a long, cold winter of discontent -- something, quite frankly, that this franchise has never really faced before. Unless they get going, and soon, the only post-season activity that will be hockey-related at the 'X', will be the 2011 NHL Entry Draft June 24 & 25.

Should this poor performance continue, it will make four seasons since the Wild will have qualified for the post-season. The statistics (yes, I know, lies, damn lies, and statistics; but these don't lie, people) speak for themselves:

  • The Wild are being outshot 117-54 in the second period of the last nine games (going back to the game in Atlanta, Nov. 11), and 79-24 in the second period of the last five games alone. In fact, the Wild rank 30th -- that's right, dead last -- in shots on goal overall this season. And this for a team which is supposed to have a 'new and improved' offense, under Head Coach Todd Richards.
  • Niklas Backstrom, who was held out of the Nashville victory on Friday, should start thinking of getting a lawyer, and suing his defense for non-support. His goals-against average has ballooned from 1.90 to 2.66 in his last three starts, all of which 'featured' the Wild giving up five, six, and seven goals, against the NY Rangers, Philadelphia and Colorado, respectively. Should the Wild start Jose Theodore in their next game (against Calgary on Monday night, in the Saddledome), Backstrom would start against the Phoenix Coyotes at home, on Wednesday night, against a Coyotes team which has scored 4 or more goals in 5 of their last 8 games, winning 7 of those last 8 games, including a sweep of all three Western Canadian teams (Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver) on the road last week (something the Wild have never achieved, by the way).
  • The next seven games for the Wild (five of which are, thankfully, on the road...I don't feel as guilty shutting the TV off and going to bed, as leaving a home game early) are against Calgary (twice, home and away), Phoenix (same, home and away) and at Dallas, LA Kings and Anaheim. The fact is that the Wild, as they are playing now, stand a better-than-even chance of losing at least 5 of those 7 games, and realistically could find themselves out of the playoff race in the Western Conference before Dec. 19, the start of the NHL's Christmas holiday roster freeze.

The Wild are also hamstrung with three players on injured reserve (Josh Harding, Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard) for which GM Chuck Fletcher stubbornly refuses to request Long-Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) status to get cap relief, to bring in another player who may actually help this club turn its' fortunes around, whether it be via trade, free-agent signing (Owen Nolan is still out there, as example) or otherwise. Now, whether he is trying to 'save' his cap space, so he has more to use later on or whatever, the fact remains that there may not be a 'LATER', if he doesn't do something about turning the fortunes of the club NOW.

The Wild are in free fall, and everyone -- from Owner Craig Leipold, to the most casual fan -- knows it. Will anything be done before they hit rock bottom? The people who DO have all the answers, aren't saying. And the paying public? Those who are 'stakeholders' in this franchise? We're not pleased. And if we aren't pleased, we won't come to games anymore. We'll stop helping pay the bills.

For as fans, the best response to apathetic play, is our own apathy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Not a way to start Thanksgiving Day

Happy Thanksgiving, dear reader. May your day be filled with turkey, stuffing, cranberries and all the good stuff that the holiday will bring. Having said that:

What the hell happened last night to the Minnesota Wild?

The fact of the matter is, in my opinion, that this team has actually forgotten how to win a hockey game. Two games in a row, they have managed to get blown out, at home, in front of some fairly large crowds. Back-to-back home blowouts, to two teams who will be battling it out (literally) for the Atlantic Division title this season -- the New York Rangers and Philadelphia -- while giving up 11 (count 'em!) goals in their last two games. In fact. there was a period of time in Wednesday night's game vs. the Flyers where the Wild did not manage a shot on goal for over 19 minutes of game time. The Wild have no clue as to how to get their collective act together.

And that is the real problem, that there is no plan in place to get the act together. The coaching staff has done everything with this group of players possible to get them motivated and playing as a cohesive unit. Yet, the wheels keep falling off the wagon. Time and again, the Wild get behind in games, attempt to make a furious comeback, only to either a) get blown out, b) mirror the old Lemaire style of 'trap' hockey, or c) just flat out go through the motions and get annhilated. Too often, either A or C has occurred. Way too often, has A or C occurred.

In only one game this season has the Wild outshot an opponent. ONE. Out of 20. Now, that doesn't make for that good a percentage when you are talking about an 82-game schedule. The fact is that this team, like Wild teams before them, is an offensively-challenged unit; the difference is that in the past, when Jacques Lemaire ran this team, they played defense so well, that you would never, EVER see two games back-to-back like Wild fans have seen the last five days. Now, with six games taking place in the next eight days (beginning Friday afternoon, vs. Nashville at the 'X') you would hope that the Wild gets its' act together. They have to. Time is indeed running out. This is the time of the season when the contenders (for the playoffs) separate themselves from the pretenders.

Or are we, fans of the Wild, the ones who have been pretending all along?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Maybe, they need '5-Hour Energy'

It's kind of weird being a fan of the Minnesota Wild these days. You see your team come out like gangbusters, then continually take the second period off, then make for the big finish in the third period. And, this has been happening, game after game after game, most of the season so far.

In fact, the Wild have been outshot 71-37 in the second period of the last six games alone. So, maybe, just maybe the Wild might need that boost in the second period. Maybe they are feeling a bit tired, a bit fatigued, a bit out of it in the middle of the game. Like a lot of us feel in the middle of our shifts on our own jobs.

So, maybe the Wild should do what is advertised on both TV and Radio stations, and get some energy. Namely, 5-Hour Energy, the supplement that is readily available just a few blocks from the 'X' in numerous convenience store/gas stations.

Just think of it. The Wild dressing room at the first intermission, the boys enter the room and find a table with 25 5-Hour Energy bottles lined up in a row as they enter. Everyone grabs one, drink the contents, and then actually go out and play a decent second period, one where they outshoot the opposition and actually score a goal (or two, or three).

Coach Todd Richards says he has no answers for what ails the Wild in the second period of recent games. Maybe, just maybe he's looking in the wrong place. Maybe the answer isn't within his coaching staff, the players, or any other layer of the hockey staff or management.

Maybe it's down the street, next to the donut case, near the cash register.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I wish I was in Dixie...NOT

Wild do better when away from the Confederacy

By Wild Road Tripper

It has always been said that there are three kinds of untruths in this world: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. Sunday night, the Minnesota Wild broke one of the biggest statistics in their recent past, after a 4-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa. Here's the stat:

Until Sunday night, since October, 2008, the Wild were 0-5-2 away from the friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center against the NHL's Southeast Division. Three of those losses (2 in the shootout) came at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, and single losses at Washington, Atlanta, Florida and at Tampa in November, 2008 round out the statistic, which was finally broken today with their win against Tampa Bay at the St. Pete Times Forum.

The record for the Wild vs. the Southeast for the season stands now at 2-3-1, with one game remaining (April 2 vs. Tampa Bay in St. Paul, a Saturday afternoon game).

The Wild now go back home to face the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday.

Different game, more of the same

Wild southeastern road woes continue in 2-1 loss to Panthers

By Wild Road Tripper

SUNRISE, Fla. -- When will it end?

The Minnesota Wild just can't seem to respond in warm weather. Proof positive was displayed once again Friday night at BankAtlantic Center, as the Wild dropped a 2-1 decision to the otherwise hapless Florida Panthers before an announced (but nowhere close) 15,077 fans.

The Panthers, as motley a collection of other teams' castoffs as there can be, managed to put two goals behind backup goaltender Jose Theodore, as the Wild defense once again came unglued during a key 54-second stretch in the first period, as both Chris Higgins and Mike Santorelli scored for Florida en route to their second straight home victory (the Panthers defeated the hapless Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night) as the Wild record away from St. Paul dropped to 0-3-1 against the Southeast Division.

Andrew Brunette scored for the Wild. Radek Dvorak played in his 578th game for the Panthers, making him the longest serving Panther of all time.

At the end of the game, however, Brent Burns, following thru on a shot right at the buzzer, managed to butt-end Florida winger Steve Bernier, injuring Bernier to the point where surgery will be necessary to repair the damage to his cheekbone. Burns was suspended for three games on Saturday by the NHL for his actions.

The Wild now face another Southeast team on Sunday, as they travel to Tampa to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning, in a Sunday twilight game at 5:00 PM Eastern (4:00 PM Central) time at the St. Pete Times Forum (TV: FSNorth, Sunshine Network), a team also reeling after the loss of Vincent Lecavalier on Friday night to a hand injury while skating against the Washington Capitals.

(NOTE: Due to travel complications caused by the recent snowstorm in the Twin Cities and computer issues in the Southeast, this blog entry is indeed one day late. My apologies. -- WRT)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

'Blackhawks South' scalps hapless Wild

Thrashers win 5-1; as for the Wild, the night the lights went out in Georgia

By Wild Road Tripper

ATLANTA -- Thank God the Minnesota Wild Official Road Trip was not scheduled for tonight's game at Philips Arena. Because, they would have been better off across the street, doing the 'Dirty Bird' with 71,500 Atlanta Falcons fans.

At least, they would have had more fun. I know, sitting in the stands tonight, that I would have.

The Wild came out after what Coach Todd Richards called 'one of the best pre-game skates' of the season, with as lacklustre an effort this blogger has seen, since Hartwall Areena in Helsinki, en route to a 5-1 thrashing by the Atlanta Thrashers, in front of an announced 10,055 (were they tickets distributed or seats empty? Only the Thrashers know for sure.)

All three of Atlanta's signings from Chicago this past summer -- Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, and Andrew Ladd -- figured in the scoring. Byfuglien with two assists, Eager and Ladd a goal each, with Ladd adding an assist on Atlanta's last goal, as the Wild flat out failed to launch any offensive pressure tonight at all.

No one had a good game tonight. NO one. They all sucked. And, they know it. They'll spend tomorrow in Sunrise, Fla., prior to facing the Florida Panthers tomorrow night at BankAtlantic Center. Hopefully, the Wild will bring their 'A' game along, because it sure wasn't here in Georgia this evening.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

If only every week was like this past week...

3-0 week for Wild bodes team well despite injuries, schedule, cap woes

By Wild Road Tripper

If only.

If only every week was like this past week for the Minnesota Wild, they might -- might -- make the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, for the first time in three seasons. Now, we know that in a long season like this, not every week will be as successful as this past week was. But, you can't sneer at a 3-0 week, where the Wild somewhat returned to the defense-first style of hockey that made this franchise successful in most of the first eight seasons of its' ten-year history. Especially when you consider that the week started off, with the first regulation-time victory over the usually-pesky San Jose Sharks in five seasons.

In fact, the Wild have a record of 7-4-2 overall, and 6-3-1 since returning from the NHL Premiere games in Helsinki. Normally, a 6-3-1 record would mean the pressure is off the coaching staff. That the old adage of, 'open the doors and the people will come', would once again hold sway at the 'X', as the longest home stand of the 2010-2011 season ended on Tuesday, with a very respectable 3-1-1 record, good for 7 points in the standings, as the schedule's treacherous start has finally fallen by the wayside, giving way to a 5-game stretch of opponents who did not qualify for the playoffs in 2010.

If only we fans knew what's wrong? Why aren't the people showing up to sell out the building? Why is there still skepticism amongst Wild fans (myself included) not believing (or not wanting to believe) that this team, despite missing three forwards (Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Guillaume Latendresse, Antti Miettinen) and one of their top four defensemen (Marek Zidlicky) might be as good as they are now? That this is all a mirage, and one day we will all wake up, and find out that this was all a dream?

If only we knew the answers to these questions. Part of the reason for the non-sellouts is, indeed, the fact that the economy still is in the dumper, and will be for some time, tax breaks not withstanding. People don't have the spending cash for pro hockey when they are trying mightily to make ends meet. Of course, the fact that the Wild have failed to make the playoffs (which means, you admit that you are one of the 14 worst teams in the league) for two seasons now hasn't helped things very much, either.

If only the local pro football team wouldn't grab the headlines nearly every single day, with the Peyton Place-esque behind-the-scenes issues facing that club, that the local college football team wasn't firmly entrenched as one of the sport's Bottom 10 teams, and you have a hockey team which is relegated well inside the pages of the local sports sections.

If only we knew that this past week would be what we could expect, Wild fans could prepare themselves for the future, which would be looking pretty good. Think of the future if Brent Burns holds to at least his current level of play. Wild fans know this guy shows up every night with his engine running, then goes out and plays like it. But now, for the first time ever, it really shows where it counts (on the score sheet) and when it counts (late in games, like Saturday night in Columbus, where he basically took over after the Wild got the 3-2 lead).

If only we knew that Martin Havlat would build on the upswing that we have seen over the last week, he wouldn't even need his agent, Allan Walsh, to beg the coaching staff (via Twitter) to play his guy more. Marty, we hoped you had that in you; why did we have to wait so long for this to come out?

If only the Wild had realized earlier that the power play needed real help, and then they went out and got it in Matt Cullen, who is the big difference between a power play which doesn't get shots off at all, and a power play which is top 10 in the NHL.

If only the Wild had put Burns and Nick Schultz earlier as a defensive pairing. The Wild now have two real top-4 pairings (Burns and Schultz, and the fan-dubbed 'ZZ Top' pairing of Zidlicky and Greg Zanon) on the blue line -- something the Wild has long coveted, while other Western Conference teams (Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, San Jose, Vancouver) have enjoyed this for years.

Now, if only the Wild can stay somewhat healthy while playing in the Southeast this coming weekend, they could come home with a gaudy win streak of 6 games into their next home game vs. Anaheim on Nov. 17th.

If only...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Consistenly Inconsistent

Minnesota Wild lean on unleanable Havlat, Cullen as up-and-down week ends

By Wild Road Tripper

Hallowe'en is upon us. An evening of little ghosts and goblins and kids dressed up as scary creatures showing up at your door (starting about 5 o'clock, or about the time they carry Brett Favre off in a cart) looking to get paid in candy.

Unfortunately, the Minnesota Wild thought trick-or-treat started a day early. Like, Saturday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. As they Wild went down 3-1 to the defending Stanley Cup champions, the fact that the Wild were so desperate for offense that they leaned on Martin Havlat and Matt Cullen in a version of the Washington Capitals' "all Ovie" offense, whereby Cullen (and Alex Ovechkin on Thursday) stayed out on the ice, pulling double-and-triple shifts while the clock wound down at the end of the game, giving two points was the treat at the end of a trick gone horribly wrong.

The Wild need someone -- anyone -- to come in, kick this team in the collective heine and scream, 'why don't you want to play for 60 minutes?'

The game versus Washington is an example of what can happen when everything is executed properly. You score, you play defense, you win hockey games. The game versus Chicago on Saturday, on the other hand, is an example of what happens when there is no execution. Players stand around, don't chase after loose pucks, allow opponents to get open for wrap-around chances, and so on. Players skate around at half-speed, don't check, don't make plays, until it is too late to do anything, which will affect the outcome of the contest.

And, it's been this way the entire season. That the Wild players have not seen this by now, is the failure of each individual player to face up to the fact that right now, this team just isn't playing all that well. That some players need to look in the mirror, and blame that person for not playing better.

And I'll be honest with you: Martin Havlat is quickly becoming the next version of another player from the Wild past who also had troubles with consistency, who also had troubles with the puck, who also didn't do his job.

Martin Havlat, meet Martin Skoula. Skoula, now relegated to the KHL in Russia, is the all-time poster child for the Wild franchise when it comes to ineptitude. Havlat is starting to turn down this dark, lonely, pothole-filled road as well, with his lack of speed on the rush, his poor shooting, his 'softness' when it comes to puck battles, his amount of puck turnovers (especially in the last week). He may be hiding an injury, although he will never admit it publically.

It's time for the Wild to sit Havlat out, especially if he continues to play like he did on Saturday, when his turnover in the Chicago zone, in the last minute of the game, directly led to Chicago's empty-net goal with 35 seconds left in the contest. Havlat is skating like a man who is nursing a glass groin, kind of like another ex-Wild from that central part of Europe, Marian Gaborik, so I think most Wild fans have seen enough of that to know better. Even though Havlat's agent, Allan Walsh (who also represents several other Wild players) uses Twitter as his personal soapbox, in order to lobby Wild management for more time for Havlat, the fact of the matter is that after last night, Havlat doesn't deserve more playing time. Based on his efforts the last few games, he actually deserves less. A lot less.

It worked for Skoula. It might work again, you never know:

Time to get Martin Havlat qualified to operate the Martin Skoula Memorial Press Box Popcorn Machine.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dear Wild: Why did you all stop skating?

Kings skate by Wild, win in shootout: why not Latendresse?

By Wild Road Tripper

Oh, boy, was THAT apparent last night.

What was THAT?

Speed Kills.

That road kill on the ice last night at Xcel Energy Center? That was the Minnesota Wild, snatching defeat from victory's grasp once again, as they just flat-out stopped skating in the last 45 minutes (2nd & 3rd periods, and overtime) of their game against the young, aggressive and very, very speedy Los Angeles Kings, as the Wild let a 2-0 lead collapse, en route to a disgusting 3-2 shootout loss in front of 17,094 fairly disgruntled patrons.

As the Kings continually outhustled the Wild for the last two-thirds of the contest, the glaring lack of Wild speed became evident, especially in players such as Martin Havlat (why so slow lately, Marty? Groiner??), and Guillaume Latendresse (little too much poutine during the summer, Gui?), as well as the five penalties for infractions caused by not keeping up (two interference penalties, two hooking penalties, and one trip) over the last 48 minutes of the game. The first line (which has always been slow) didn't look any better than the fourth line last night.

Niklas Backstrom, 1-8 in shootouts over the last calendar year, couldn't stop a Michael Handzus snap shot, and the Wild's fate was sealed when Antti 'Missedthenetagain' Miettinen tried to deke LA goalie Jonathan Quick, and Quick didn't fall for the ruse. I certainly question Coach Todd Richards' choice of Miettinen in the shootout when Latendresse, who has points in his last three games, was still on the bench.

Wild go (down) to 3-3-2 on the season, and Game 9 features, amongst the opponents, the best scorer in hockey: 'Alexander the Gr8'...

...Next Game: vs. Washington, Thursday, Oct. 28, 7:00 PM Central (8:00 PM Eastern) Time, Xcel Energy Center. (TV: FSNorth, CSN-MidAtlantic; both feeds in HD)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

It was SO bad, I went to bed

Canucks strike back at weary Wild, JT60 with 5-1 trashing

The Minnesota Wild ship, which fans thought had come in after last Sunday's 'bag skate' practice, ingloriously sank near the mouth of the Fraser River late Friday night.

The Vancouver Canucks, showing how and why they are considered one of the front-runners in the NHL's Western Conference, trashed the Wild with a 5-1 beating, so as to say 'Oh, Yeah? Sez You!!' after Tuesday night's Wild 6-2 win, against the Canucks in St. Paul.

Backup goaltender Jose 'JT60' Theodore took the loss, but made 35 saves in the process. The Canucks took 70 shot attempts, which had to have been some sort of record. This Wild team had no jump at all. This game reminded me of the pre-season. It was so bad, I actually went to bed after the second period. I knew the boys didn't have it in them.

Anyhow, the Wild start a 5-game homestand next Monday; 4 of the 5 are against teams which made the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. This may, or may not, be the end of the line for Coach Todd Richards, depending on how far out of hand things get in the next two weeks.

Next Game: vs. Los Angeles, Monday, Oct. 25, 7:00 PM Central (5:00 PM Pacific) Time, Xcel Energy Center. (TV: Versus, TSN2; both in HD)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wild compete level up as Canucks meltdown

Wild spot Vancouver 1st goal, then stomp on Luongo, Canucks as Rypien loses cool; suspension likely

By Wild Road Tripper

You gotta hand it to the Vancouver Canucks. Pacific Canada's favorite team becomes such an easy target, when they revert to their old, familiar, penalty-filled ways. Throw in a sure-to-be-suspended meltdown by the latest in a long line of Canucks you can love to hate, and you have the recipe for a fun evening of puck. Such was the case on Tuesday night, as the Minnesota Wild once again sent Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo to the showers, with a six-pack of goals in a row over the first two periods, as the Wild derailed the Canucks express, 6-2, at Xcel Energy Center. The pre-season overwhelming pick to win the Northwest Division is now a pedestrian 2-3-1, following the ninth all-time loss by 'Bobby Lu' in St. Paul.

There were the two goals by Daniel Sedin for Vancouver. The Canucks can hang their collective hat on that. But, they meant nothing, as what happened in the intervening 58 minutes would attest to, as the Wild rattled six straight on 18 total shots over the first two periods, including one goal and two assists for Marek Zidlicky, a goal and an assist for Guillaume Latendresse, let out of 'Le Chateau Bow-Wow', and placed back on the second line with Martin Havlat and Matt Cullen, that line combining for six points on the evening.

But, that all paled in comparison to the Rick Rypien follies, which occurred late in the second period. Following a scrum in front of the Wild bench in which Rypien, who lost an earlier fight to Brad Staubitz, was restrained from going after Staubitz a second time by the linesmen, Rypien then pushed the linesman, pushed referee Chris Lee and then went after a fan who was mildly taunting Rypien, as he made his way up the tunnel to the Canucks dressing room. Rypien was suspended immediately after the game by the NHL, pending a Friday in-person hearing, which will likely result in a long suspension for the 6th-year goon.

(Since this entry was first started, the fan involved has told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he will seek legal representation against Rypien and the Canucks.)

The victory, coupled with the blowout loss by the Canucks, now vaults the Wild into 3rd place in the Northwest Division, three points behind division-leading Colorado, who did not play Tuesday night. Vancouver faces off against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on Wednesday evening, before returning home to face the Wild at Rogers Centre (formerly GM Place) on Friday. (A little 'must-see' viewing, anyone?)

The Wild now vacate the 'X' for the remainder of the Minnesota Teachers' Weekend, as their two-game road trip begins with the Next Game: at Edmonton, Thursday, Oct. 21, 8:30 PM Central (7:30 PM Mountain) Time, Rexall Place. (TV: FSNorth, FSWisconsin, Rogers SportsNet-Edmonton, all feeds in HD)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It shouldn't have come down to that...

Third-period 'non-goal goal' is final blow, as Jackets squeak by against lackadasical Wild

By Wild Road Tripper

Kelly Sutherland is getting the same reputation amongst modern-day Minnesota Wild fans, as fans of the late, lamented Minnesota North Stars had for John Ashley and Bruce Hood.

You should hear his name announced, and immediately boo lustily.

Sutherland's 'I didn't see it go across the line' goal call, with 9:02 remaining in the third period, was just enough for the Columbus Blue Jackets to eke out a 3-2 win over the Wild, in front of the first non-sellout home crowd (17,336) in the Wild's regular season history.

Jackets' center R. J. Umberger claimed to score, Sutherland accepted Umberger's claim, then a non-review review (according to Minneapolis Star-Tribune Wild beat writer Michael Russo) from the Toronto 'war room' confirmed...absolutely NOTHING. (A later review, provided by Fox Sports Ohio, confirmed the goal however.) Sutherland's 'call' was allowed to stand, and that was the difference in the contest.

The Wild then finally turned up the pressure, but to no avail, as Jackets' backup goaltender Mathieu Garon (who tortured the Wild frequently, when Garon played for the LA Kings) stonewalled the Wild, who stormed the Columbus net for most of the last two minutes, something which they should have thought of earlier in the contest, like in the first period, where they only managed TWO shots on goal.

The Wild lost their second game in regulation in the young season, to yet another team which they really should have defeated easily. They have no one to blame...but themselves. They didn't skate at all in the first period, and for a good portion of the third, as well. This was a Jackets team which had been throttled at home (in front of a sellout crowd, BTW) by the Chicago Blackhawks Friday night, 5-1. They were embarrassed. This Columbus team should have been taken to the woodshed. They weren't. And that's the problem. Too many teams have been let off the hook by the Wild, as the Wild think they can turn it on and off like a light switch.

It doesn't work that way. Never has.

With 6 of the next 7 games against teams who made the playoffs in 2009-10, the time to make hay was against teams, like Columbus, whom you should be able to beat. Two points are two points, whether you get them in October or March. Getting the points NOW makes life in March much easier to bear.

This Wild team hasn't figured that out, yet. Hopefully, if this team has any playoff aspirations, the season doesn't come down to games like this one.

Because, it shouldn't come down to that...

Next Game: vs. Vancouver, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 8:00 PM Central Time, Xcel Energy Center. (TV: FSNorth, FSWisconsin, Rogers SportsNet-Vancouver, all feeds HD)

Friday, October 15, 2010

It's a start...but now what do they do for an encore?

As Wild perform PP lube job, Oilers fall for 14th straight in St. Paul

By Wild Road Tripper

Would the sellout crowd of 18,449 Thursday night at Xcel Energy Center believe, that the Minnesota Wild team they saw win 4-2 against the Edmonton Oilers, was a harbinger of things to come? Or would they say that this game was just a fluke, an aberration, another step in the development of the young, baby Grease, and the Wild were just there for the ride?

Whatever the point of view you take towards the Wild's North American home opener, it was a chance for the three Finns on the Wild roster -- Mikko Koivu (2 goals, 1 assist), Antti Miettinen (1 goal, 1 assist) and Niklas Backstrom (26 saves) -- to make up for their team's lack of scoring punch in Helsinki last week. Throw in the efforts of Matt Cullen (1 goal, 1 assist) and Andrew Brunette's two assists, and you have finally enough scoring punch to get some goals. Granted, all 4 were with the man advantage, but considering the last two games were about as interesting as watching reindeer graze, well, you get the idea.

Now, the question: What will they do for an encore? They will play a Columbus Blue Jackets team who will be on the second half of a back-to-back (the Jackets face off Friday night, against the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationwide Arena) while facing their own offensive demons (but at least the Jackets won one of their two games vs. San Jose in Stockholm, Sweden, last weekend, despite scoring only five goals in the two Swedish games).

Indeed, the coffin destined for the career of Wild Head Coach Todd Richards has halted upholstery, at least for now. Two of the next three games are against teams the Wild should be able to beat, if they put the same amount of effort into the next game, as into this last one.

But, as Wild fans saw as they chowed down while watching from Finland, with this club, that's always a big, BIG 'IF'.

Best moment: Greg Zanon's crushing cross-check on Gilbert Brule. Instant highlight.

Worst moment: In-arena Emcee Jim Cunningham introducing a new, even dumber in-arena intermission activity. At what point do fans throw their hands up (or, just throw up)? To watch another 'great Zamboni race' on the scoreboard, driven by fan noise? Sounds like 'Section 303' Nashville stuff to me. What's next? 'Face-Off Live' from FSNorth?

Where were you, Mikko Koivu? Now that the Finnish press isn't hounding the Captain constantly, he can concentrate on scoring goals, winning know, the stuff the folks back home WANTED to see from Mikko.

Need a new barn picture: Antti Miettinen missed twice from point-blank range. So what else is new?

Next Game: vs. Columbus, Saturday, Oct. 16, 7:00 PM Central Time, Xcel Energy Center. (TV: KSTC-45, FSOhio (both feeds in HD)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Finland XIII: No place like home

(In this 13th and final installment of my blog series regarding NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we finally pack up and head for home.)

All good things, must come to an end. And so did our trip to Europe, after ten days and over 11,000 miles, as we packed up in the middle of the night in our Helsinki hotel room, following two losses by the Wild to the Carolina Hurricanes at Hartwall Areena.

And so, here we are, 36 of us mustered in the hotel lobby at 4:20 in the morning to board a bus for the 30-minute trip out to Vanataa Airport, some 18 miles (30KM) north of the city's center. We board, depart, and drive thru the mostly deserted streets of the sleeping city, as the lack of traffic allows us the freedom to move quickly, thru streets mostly devoid of traffic. Not even the trams are running at this hour, those being replaced by special night buses also running on a limited schedule.

From the relative quiet of the city itself, the noise and bustle of Vanataa is a shock to the system, as is the realization that the trip is quickly coming to an end. We check in at Finnair for our flight to Paris, with the connection there for Minneapolis/St. Paul. Thru security for the first time, then down to our gate. I stop to look at all the destinations on the departures board; Las Palmas, Oulu, Berlin, Amsterdam, Oslo, Copenhagen, Moscow, and many, many more.

The concourse, while not wall-to-wall people, is bustling for 6:00 AM, as Europe gets on the move for another day. And the list of airlines is as impressive as the destinations: Finnair, KLM, Aeroflot, MAV (Hungarian), Bulgarian, and offshoots of numerous airlines. Our gate is occupied by an Air Berlin A320 Airbus destined for the German capital. They load, leave, and our plane is dragged into position.

Our Finnair flight, surprisisngly, is not full as we depart a few minutes late, which would hurt us later. A very uneventful flight, as average a flight as one could ask for. And then, there is Paris...

...Charles De Gaulle airport, which is northeast of the City of Lights, and a whole lot different than any other terminal I had ever seen before. The airport is three massive terminals, and for security reasons, all flights across the North Atlantic have been grouped in the same terminal area. All passengers must go thru security again before transiting the airport, even if you went thru security before (you had to go thru it before you boarded your connecting flight inbound, anyways) and that's where our simple trip home, turned into an episode of 'The Amazing Race'.

You need to take a shuttle bus from one part of the terminal to another, the terminals are THAT big. We missed the shuttle by seconds, and then were left to sit for nearly five minutes while the next shuttle loaded. Our bus stop was the second (of three) on the circular route which runs around the terminal, as massive aircraft (Airbus 380's, Boeing 767's, 777's, and the 747-400) occupied nearly every gate as we drive underneath between ends of the massive terminal.

We finally get to the end of the line (for us, anyway) then find out we have to go thru security AGAIN to get thru to the gate areas for aircraft destined for North America. The security line is not moving well. Too many families, too much baggage, too much everything. Throw in the fact that someone put speakers in his carry-on baggage and didn't declare it (and put them in the tray like he should have) and now we were in trouble. We realized, then and there, that we were probably going to miss our flight home, the only one of the day directly from Paris to MSP.

'Go thru', I said, 'let's just go thru. Something may just happen, you never know.' So, we got to our boarding gate just in see the plane being pushed back. It had happened.

We saw our plane leaving. Without us on it.

We saw the agent at the gate, who told us to see customer service at the next counter over. That, believe it or not, is where we finally caught a break.

A kind, intense young woman agent at the Air France customer services counter, took over and really saved our bacon. She worked on our reservation for over an hour in order to try and get us home. We were otherwise stranded in Paris (not the worst place to spend a night, I suppose, but I was out of clean clothes and stamina) and looking at a night in transit somewhere, somewhere we were not prepared for.

'You will be sleeping in your own bed tonight, I promise you'. With those words, she reassured us that we would be going home today, not tomorrow. That really helped what otherwise was a disasterous situation. She found two seats on a 747-400 bound for Logan Airport, Boston, then we would change there for Minneapolis/St. Paul on Delta. She had done it!

With a very heartfelt 'Merci, madame', we took our new boarding passes and then joined the crowd boarding this massive jet for New England and, eventually, our own bed, which was really sounding good right about now.

We had Row 53, Seats 'B' & 'C', near the tail of the aircraft. But, at that point, who really cared? We were just happy to be crossing the North Atlantic at this point, as the 747 departed Paris bound for the USA. I almost wanted to shout 'Hooray! We made it!' or something like that, but I just squeezed my wife's hand and said, 'Here we go'.

They served two meals on this flight, and of course, being an Air France flight, four different kinds of wine. The flight was a long, 7:20 trip across the Atlantic, all in daylight; it was 2:40 PM when we departed Paris, and 2:40 pm when we turned over Quincy, Mass., on final approach to Logan Airport. At this point, we had been on the move for the better part of 21 hours. And, we still had 5 hours to go before arriving at home.

Another round of security, this time inbound, for both baggage and passengers, then re-check the bags onto the Minneapolis-bound flight, then cross the Logan concourses to the 'A' concourse for our connecting Delta flight for MSP.

We went thru security (for a fourth time), then made the long walk to the very far end of the 'A' concourse, and waited for our Minneapolis-bound flight. Another packed plane, but we were able to sit together for the last 2:15 as the familiar sights of Minneapolis approached, we felt a great sigh of relief.

We were finally at home, after 26 hours on the road. Turned on the TV at home, just as the Yankees' Nick Swisher put the final nail in the Twins' playoff coffin, with a home run off 'Moon Shot' Scott Baker. And then we knew.

All was right with the world, once again.

(end of series)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Finland XII: Out and About

(In this 12th installment of my blog series in regards to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we focus on life with Finns in various settings, and how the tourist benefits from traditional Finnish stoicism.)

Finland is the land where everything is slow and warm. Very warm.

You walk into any Finnish building in October, and the heat is ON. Not just barely working, but full-bore, cranked-up ON. From our hotel room, to the souvenir shops, to Central Station, Helsinki, all the way to the Visitor Center at the Summolinna Sea Fortress, you will never, EVER be cold in Finland. You would have to take it to the extreme, in order to be cold in Finland.

It was the best week for that time of year most Finns could remember. Last week was the annual Herring Festival at the City Market in Helsinki, where various types of herring are available for sample (and, purchase) in both cooked and uncooked versions. There are other things at the market, also, such as faux firs, artwork, crepes and numerous ways to serve reindeer meat. But this week, the herring holds sway, and from what I had of it, it's really good herring, also. Of course, it's also really, REALLY fresh herring, just caught less than 24 hours before being served.

Finnish food is very subtlely flavored, but since we stayed at a hotel which caters to international travellers, they actually had such items for us Americans as Tabasco sauce. Scrambled eggs and bacon were as much on the menu at the breakfast buffet each morning, as were the ever-British porridge, wiener sausage and baked beans in tomato sauce. For the Russians, the traditional zakuski of soft-or-hard boiled eggs, cucumber, tomato, meats and cheeses were available. Five different kinds of cold cereal were available, as were every topping imaginable. You could also enjoy some of the world's best breads, as the Finns have the bread thing down pat.

A lot of Finnish restaurants would be closed until at least late afternoon (dinner hour in Finland generally is not before 7:00 PM) but they do stay open until late evening. Lunch is the domain of the two fast-food imports (McDonald's and Subway, who are everywhere) or of places like the Forum shops, a Finnish 'Loondale', complete with Finnish versions of your favorite mall food court eatery.

The No. 1 option for why people go into central Helsinki, however, is the massive, 10-story, 12-floor Stockmann department store. Stockmann's is the place for EVERYTHING -- this store has everything from fashion, to souvenirs for the folks back home, to the toiletries you need for your next trip, to the luggage to haul it all around Europe in, to an in-store deli, and not one but THREE places to grab an ice cream cone while you shop. This massive throwback to old-fashioned consumerism, circa 1967, is the busiest single location in the country. It was so busy there when I walked in, you had to go on a down elevator, in order to go UP on an elevator, to the upper floors. And how old is this building? There are NO escalators to serve the hordes of people who venture out to brave the crowds in order to look really, really good.

Finnish stoicism abounds. Everyone knows that with time, you'll figure it all out, and you will be just like them. Stoic, reserved, and happy just to be warm and in Finland. That's when you know that they've got you, and that you will be back, someday, and for a long, long time. Everyone knows it, whenever that hits, you will be 'one of us'.

I could go on, but real Finns never brag. They're too stoic to blow their own horn.

(to be continued)

Minnesota Wild in Finland: Failure to Launch

The point of the matter was, that those NHL Premiere games the Minnesota Wild were supposed to play in Helsinki against the Carolina Hurricanes? Those were supposed to be confidence builders for the rest of the 2010-2011 season.

The reality, however, was much, much different. If the Wild actually had played two decent periods over the two games, they should consider themselves lucky. Confidence builders, they weren't, by any stretch of the imagination.

The way the series played out, the biggest disappointment is the lack of intensity right now amongst the current players. No urgency whatsoever in anything that they do. Time's a wastin', and the season has already started. The same players are making the same mistakes. Niklas Backstrom got caught out of his net twice (once in the exhibition game at Tampere, and again on Friday in the second Carolina game) and got burned both times. Greg Zanon leads in penalties (granted, he's second in time on ice to Brent Burns) but it's not only why you take penalties, it's also when you take them. None of Zanon's penalties came at good times for the Wild.

And, continued poor shooting by Martin Havlat and Antti Miettinen did the Wild in also in the Friday game. Both had wide open chances to score. Both missed the net. Dumb puck luck? Hardly. Bad ice? Perhaps (the ice at Hartwall Areena seemed slushy and snowy). Poor aim, where a picture of a barn should be placed in a net? Probably.

You could tell that the Finnish players for the Wild (Backstrom, Mikko Koivu, Miettinen) were under a lot of pressure to do well in front of their countrymen. And, the media circus which the NHL put all six Finns thru was unrelenting. Daily press briefings, very little time for themselves to just go out and enjoy the town, etc., was their daily grind, as the time change screwed up their internal clocks, as well as those of the fans who came over from North America to see them (about 350 Carolina fans came to Finland, as did about 125 Wild fans from Minnesota).

The end result was, that for a trip which was to promote team unity, as Coach Todd Richards had hoped it would, the mission was NOT accomplished. The team seems as fragmented as ever. The Wild are about as inconsistent a hockey team as there is right now. And that is an ill wind which blows no good, for an organization trying desperately to sell tickets these days.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Finland XI: Highballin' to Helsinki, Part 2; Helping to clean up the Swedish gene pool

(In this 11th installment of my blog series, leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at the second half of the trip itself, featuring three different modes of transportation, several hundred drunk Russians, all in the same place; and one very dumb Swede.)

As we sat and waited to depart Copenhagen's Kastrup Airport rail station, our Swedish SJ conductor came on the public address system and started to go on about something. It took him a while to get all the info out, but then, they came back in English, and said:

"There is an accident ahead on the tracks just east of Malmo. You will stay on this train to Malmo, then you will take the bus to Lund, where another train will then take you to Stockholm."

In other words, we are getting bussed around whatever the hell happened up there. At this point, we didn't know what it was, nor did we really care. There were 1 1/2 busloads of really sullen people on this train, then, as we crossed the Oresundbanen (Oresund Rail Link, the tunnel and bridge connection across the North Sea between Denmark and Sweden) and headed on into Malmo.

At Malmo, it was mass chaos, as we tried to get off, and everyone from the connecting train (they got bused to Malmo from Lund) was trying to get on, all at the same time. We finally found the right buses and settled in for the short, 25-minute bus ride to Lund. The bus had to pick its' way thru the center of Lund on a Saturday shopping day, so it was not exactly the fastest trip in Swedish history. At Lund, we found out what happened:

Some idiot in a private auto tried to play 'beat the train' at a grade crossing, one of the few on that route segment, and lost the bet. I do not know if the driver was injured or killed, but if there ever was a reason to shoot a Swede, that moron would have been one, right there. The Swedish national traffic management agency (Trafikverket), responsible for safety of all modes of transport within the country, had shut the railway down in that immediate area, to conduct their investigation of the accident, so that precipitated the 'bustitution' of our train around the site.

At Lund, we found our new X2000 train waiting for us, but it was one car short of what we had originally had. Instead of a 6-car train, we were now a 5-car set, departing Lund 40 minutes late, and going upwards of 180-200 KPH over the Swedish mainline towards Stockholm. I had made arrangements to have lunch on board the train, which, it turns out, was a very precipitous move, as we would see when we got into Stockholm Central station.

The rest of the afternoon was spent quietly observing the Swedish countryside, a far cry from the bustle of the previous day in Paris and Cologne. No wonder why so many Swedes come to Minnesota each and every year; it so much reminds them of home in Northern Minnesota, that they come over in droves. I though for a minute or two several times we were up near the Iron Range as we shot past smaller Swedish towns, each of which had a neat, tidy station on the main line from where the locals take local trains to larger towns, where trains like ours stops, and then takes them to Stockholm or Copenhagen to fly from there internationally (like, overseas.)

The X2000 arrived Stockholm 40 minutes late, just as it had left Lund; now the problem was how to negotiate the labyrinth, which is the Central Station -- Cityterminalen complex to find our next transport; the Flygbussarna bus to the Viking Line ferry dock at Stadsgarden, where our ferry to Finland would be arriving at the same time as we would be.

My wife bailed us out here, as she acutely observed that there was a red line on the floor, to direct people to Cityterminalen across the street. We dutifully followed the red line, and made our way first to the Viking Line ferry office to buy our bus tickets, then out to the bus itself, in order to get out to the ferry slip.

The bus was not full by any means, as we departed on time at 6:30 PM for the Viking Line ferry terminalen at Stadsgarden, which is about 5 miles east of Central Station. We then proceeded to obtain our ferry tickets and the all-important coupon for the Viking Buffet dinner service, then waited in the terminal's waiting room until the ship's 7:40 PM boarding time.

That's when the drunk Russians showed up. One even managed to get himself dragged onto the boat by his buddies, he was so in the bag before they even opened up the ferry for service, and even more Russian alcohol consumption.

The Russians love to drink. And drink. And, drink. And drink some more. There were so many drunk Russians on this boat, no wonder why they painted the outside of it red; to honor the bloodshot eyes of all the hung-over ex-Soviets who ride to and from the West on 'booze cruises' whereby they go to Scandinavia to get away from their bleak, Russian existence. Now, I had been warned prior to starting this trip (by several people, mind you) that there would be a LOT of drinking on this trip. Not even those warnings, dire as they sounded, could have prepared me for what was to come.

The dinner buffet was an exotic array of dishes from all over the place, but what impressed the most is the amount of Russian alcohol consumption in the buffet, where the beer and wine were all included in the price. The best thing about all this is when we retired to our cabin, and we could lock the door and peacefully sleep, knowing full well that we wouldn't be disturbed, so long as the bars and cocktail lounges on the ferry stayed open. After that, all bets were off.

As we passed thru the night, we went thru the Aland Islands, stopping at Langnais, then it was on towards the Finland coast, and our date with a train Sunday morning at Turku Satama (Harbor) station. Towards morning, when the last of the bars closed, the hallways started filling with loud, drunk Russians, all trying to find a place to sleep it off before starting in again.

As our ship neared the Finnish coast, it was time for breakfast, so it was back to the buffet line we went, only to find that the Russians were already there, trying to eat as much as possible, before boarding their buses to take them home, from their three-day drunkfest. They were rude, cut in line frequently, and the crew could do nothing about it, as there weren't enough of them to take on the number of Russians who were causing the trouble. All this, while the Finnish coast was quickly coming into view, in the fog of a Sunday coastal morning.

The boat docked at 7:35 AM, right on time. The passengers were led down the gangway, and all was going well, until someone stopped the whole thing by falling down...drunk. We won't tell you the nationality. (Do we HAVE to by now?)

We quickly made our way the one-half block to the Turku Satama train station, where our Finnish railways train to Helsinki would shortly arrive. And in it came from the fog, a six-car train with a locomotive at each end. We boarded, found our assigned seats, and found that we were the only ones booked in Business Class for the 197-KM (122 mile) trip to our final destination of Helsinki.

Despite having what one would call 'normal' equipment, we still clipped along at 75 MPH across the south of Finland, which reminded me of parts of the Iron Range, where everything is covered in rock. Granite predominates in these areas, as we shot through on a very sleepy Sunday in super-Lutheran Finland. You didn't expect anyone on Sundays, but we picked up a pretty fair number of passengers as we approached Helsinki.

Once in the suburban train zone, we started seeing something we hadn't expected: Minnesota Wild apparel! Seems that the Mikko Koivu influence on the young of this country means that there were a lot of Wild-apparelled families on trains to Pasila, the station which is direct across the parking lot from Hartwall Areena, where NHL Premiere is to happen on Thursday and Friday.

Final arrival time at Helsinki was one minute early, at 10:56 AM, local Finnish time. We had done it! 1766 train miles, 162 nautical miles by seas and the 22-mile bus ride from Malmo to Lund. And my wife's final comment at the end of it all?

'Let's got to the hotel, and take a nap.'

And so, we did.

(to be continued)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Go See Cal! Go See Cal! Go See Cal!

Clutterbuck makes Finnish SM-liiga team pay for concentrating on countrymen, as Wild finally get off pre-season schneid with 5-1 win

By Wild Road Tripper

HELSINKI, FINLAND -- Cal Clutterbuck. You can't forget him. You can only hope to contain him.

Did you ever think Wild fans would say that?

In Tampere, Finland Monday night, the Ilves Tampere (Tampere Lynx) were shown that they coudn't contain him, either, as the Minnesota Wild came away with a 5-1 win, the only win the Wild will have in pre-season, before an announced 4,625.

The Finnish locals, who came out despite the ticket prices of upwards of 75 Euros each, gave both sides a standing ovation at the end of the game for a great show, despite the fact that for the first two periods, the Wild looked like once again they were going thru the motions. Fans in the Wild official cheering section were noticably disappointed, in the first two periods of this one.

But Clutterbuck went about his work, not exactly setting a single-game record for hits, but being in the right place, at the right time, sure helped the Wild to their first win of the pre-season, in their last pre-season game.

That entire line -- Clutterbuck, John Madden, and Chuck Kobasew -- proved to be the difference last night. But the fact was that the Finns were so intent on shutting down the Wild's No. 1 line, Mikko Koivu-Antti Miettinen-Andrew Brunette, that they quite literally forgot that with the expanded SM-liiga 22-man active roster, the Wild could roll four lines and four full seats of defense. And, they did.

Practice was cancelled for Tuesday, as the team awaits the arrival of the Carolina Hurricanes from St. Petersburg, Russia, where they lost last night to Evgeni Nabokov and SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, 5-3, after 'Canes coach Paul Maurice benched star forward Eric Staal, after it was said that the Russians were going after his knees.

Hopefully they won't say the same things, after Thursday night's NHL Premiere regular season opener.

Next Game: vs. Carolina, Thursday, October 7, 11:00 AM Central Time (7:00 PM East European Time), Hartwall Areena, Helsinki. (TV: Versus).

Friday, October 1, 2010

Finland X: Highballin' to Helsinki, Part One

(In this tenth installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at the first half of the trip to Helsinki itself; some surprises, and some disappointments.)

We are finally on our way to Helsinki.

After eight months of planning, saving, more saving, more planning and still more saving, the hockey holiday has indeed begun. And so far, the only glitch is that we didn't start this trip sooner, so as to enjoy more of what modern, united Europe has to offer.

We would have arrived London sooner than we actually did, but for the British Airways Authority (BAA) not allowing planes to land outside of their alloted 'slot time'. As it was, we were both so screwed up over the 6-hour change in time that the first thing we did in Europe, was...

...take a nap.

Friday, it was up REALLY early for the first Eurostar train of the day thru the 'Chunnel' to Paris. Travelling thru the eighth wonder of the engineering world is really something, especially when one considers that plans for a trans-English Channel link had been in the works for nearly 150 years when the Channel Tunnel opened in 1995. It was really an eye-opening experience as we sped across northeastern France between Lille and Paris, with other trains passing us every 4-5 minutes.

We arrived Paris 4 minutes late (due to SNCF commuter train traffic, just north of Paris) then, after spending a few minutes reconnoitering our position, we spent the day trying to ascend to the summit of the Eiffel Tower. The operative word here is TRYING. Not succeeding. There was a four-hour wait to ascend from the second level to the summit. The people were packed in like sardines in a giant steel can, waiting in line, after line, after line, to be elevated to the summit level. Some, like us, just gave up. Others decided to just stand there and wait, and shuffle, and wait some more. It was not the way we wanted to spend our day in the fabled City of Lights, so we moved on.

We had a delectable lunch at the Brassiere Terminus Nord, directly across the street from the station where we had arrived, and were also due to depart later that afternoon. A real, French, white-linen, businessman's lunch. My wife enjoyed it immensely, and we both had a wonderful time.

We then went across the street, back to the station where we were to depart for Cologne (en route to Helsinki) on another high-speed train, this time the Thalys high-speed service, which uses the same tracks between Paris, and the outskirts of Lille, that Eurostar uses. So, more 300 KPH (186 MPH) running thru the light rain that was falling as we sped towards Brussels, Liege, and eventually Cologne.

There we changed again, this time to the overnight German 'City Night Line' sleeper train for Copenhagen. This would be the longest single train trip in our itinerary, covering 661 miles (or roughly the distance from Fargo to Chicago) in a shade under 12 hours. Our room was already made up as we boarded in Cologne, and after a few formalities, we quickly fell asleep. In the morning, we were in Denmark, which reminded me of parts of central Minnesota in that there cows, cows and oh, yeah, cows. Windmills (old style and modern-day turbines) abound. Also, the bicycle as a commuter tool is very much in vogue in Denmark, as well. No wonder why Europeans are generally healtier that their American counterparts. Our train lost an hour of running time (we had to go in the siding for other passenger trains no less than four times in Denmark alone) so we arrived Copenhagen one hour late.

After another train change, we now departed for Stockholm aboard a Swedish X2000 high-speed train, as we departed Copenhagen we were just settling in as we arrived at the stop for Copenhagen's Kastrup Airport. Or so we thought...

(to be continued)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Finland IX: Ramped Up and Amped Up

(In this ninth installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at the past week as the date draws closer.)

OK, so we finally are in the home stretch of the planning phase. Now the preparing and packing really begins in earnest.

Last night we attended the pre-trip meeting, an opportunity to meet some of our fellow travellers (a.k.a. crazed Wild fans) in a hospitality area at Xcel Energy Center, then were given the opportunity of remaining in a suite for the pre-season game between the Minnesota Wild and the Philadelphia Flyers, a game which the Wild lost, 3-2, in the shootout.

We have a very diverse group of 110 people travelling in three distinct groups; those, like us, who will get to/from Helsinki on their own; those who will travel via SAS (Scandinavian Airways System) between Minnesota and Finland; and a third group, who will fly Delta/KLM both ways to and from Europe.

They split us up into three bus loads (apparently) for all events, including the trip on Monday night (October 4) to Tampere for the exhibition game vs. the Tampere Lynx (Ilves Tampere); Tuesday's team practice and lunch at Hartwall Areena; the optional trip to Porvoo on Wednesday (my wife and I will not be doing this, we will treat this as a 'lay day' in Helsinki); the two games at Hartwall vs. the Carolina Hurricanes (Thursday and Friday, Oct. 7 & 8); and, most importantly, the all-important airport transfer on Saturday morning, in order to depart Helsinki and get back to Minneapolis/St. Paul.

We were also asked to fill out emergency contact forms (you all know why, if you're over about age 6) and were given a black book-bag style backpack with more pockets than any human being has a right to have. Even has a pocket in the padded shoulder strap itself. If I load every pocket on THIS thing, people might think I've developed apoplexy. This bag would definitely give the TSA people fits, if this thing shows up at the Lindbergh Terminal when we depart Wednesday night.

Already in this bag were the following items:

  • an official puck, specially labeled for our group
  • a Wild-logo Totes umbrella
  • a scarf, with the Wild logo on one side and the NHL Premiere Helsinki logo on the other

We also received a list of who our 'team mates' were for this trip, in a notebook which also doubles as our itinerary, assembled in AAA TripTik style, sort of like a reporters' notebook. We were also given contact information, and the all-important luggage tag for our bag, for the various buses we will have to take during our six days in Helsinki.

We raised more than a few eyebrows, when we said we were only taking carry-on baggage (as we normally do, when travelling in North America) especially after someone asked me why we weren't checking baggage, I replied:

"There's no checked baggage on European trains."

They smiled, and wished us a pleasant trip.

(to be continued)

So what else is new?

New season. Different players. And, so far, same old style of result.

If this is what the Minnesota Wild have in store for their fans this season, it's really a bad harbinger of things to come.

The fact of the matter is that they still will not shoot when shooting lanes develop. This team is still looking for the 'pretty play' goal, the perfect tip-in, the 'wait for the puck' rebound. Yes, I know, it's the pre-season. EX-hibition hockey. So far, what they've ex-hibited after three games is not ex-actly what Coach Todd Richards and his ex-panded staff have wanted to see being ex-pounded by the players.

After Friday night's disasterous trip to St. Louis, where the young, up-and-coming Blues once again demolished the Wild, 5-0, while the Wild watch as Josh Harding blows out two ligaments in his right knee, ending his season, the Wild then come home on Saturday night, and actually score twice, but their lack of effort on the back end allows the Philadelphia Flyers, playing with only a limited amount of their regular lineup (which is standard in the pre-season), to come from behind and win in the shootout, 3-2, as 16,742 (supposedly...looked like about 11,000 in the house to me) saw the Wild end their scoreless streak at just over 122 minutes.

You have to ask yourself: Could the pre-season schedule be strung differently so as to avoid the disasterous start to the season? Yes, teams are limited as to the amount of time available to make roster decisions, and get the team into game shape. And, as we have seen, to also sustain devastating injuries. 4 games in 5 nights is really too much. Even the NHL should know this. So should the NHLPA. This pre-season scheduling issue really needs to be a labor/management issue.

Not saying, just sayin'...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wild pre-season opener: It's Deja Vu, All Over Again

Wild suffer blowout defeat by St. Louis at home for second straight pre-season; 409-game sellout streak ends

By Wild Road Tripper

It was really bad enough the first time. Really, guys. It was.

But, proving that you can never stop learning, the Minnesota Wild scored in the first minute of Wednesday night's game at Xcel Energy Center, then proceeded to roll over and play dead, losing for the second straight pre-season to the St. Louis Blues 5-1 in front of an announced crowd of 16,219, which breaks the Wild's nine-season streak of sellouts at home. It was the first time there were ever seats available for sale at game time at the box office.

While starting goaltender Niklas Backstrom could have sued his defense for non-support, the Blues, playing their second game in as many nights, looked to be the fresher team as the Wild stumbled, bumbled, and generally did not give their faithful followers a whole heck of a lot of reason for optimism, going into their 3-games-in-3-nights marathon, which starts Friday night at Scottrade Center and follows with games at home vs. Philadelphia Saturday night, and at Montreal on Sunday evening.

I'll leave it at this: if this is the type of play we see in Europe, the Wild can say all they want, but the NHL will never ask them to go across the street, much less across the 'pond'. This team was not ready to play tonight. And, it showed.

'Nuff said. G'night, folks...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Finland VIII: Making a list, checking it twice...

(In this eighth installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, we look at preparing to depart the USA and some of what one must bring when travelling over 5,500 miles away from one's own bed.)

"If you pack it, you take it, and you're responsible for it."

I recently told my wife this in regards to the amount of items she was planning to take with us on our trip to NHL Premiere 2010 in Helsinki. She was worried about a hair dryer. "I would think that the hotel would have one, dear," I said. "Besides, that's one more thing to worry about, and have to deal with the changes in voltage over, and so on."

Yes, Virginia, not all electrical current is created equal. While the USA and Canada have standardised 110/120 volts, 50Hz electrical power pretty much everywhere, Europe runs on 220 volts, 50Hz power pretty much everywhere in the EU. You need adapter plugs for most every thing that is electrically powered (and the knowledge that most modern items are set up for dual voltage use). Computers, medical devices (such as a C-PAP machine, which I use while sleeping) and today's electrical gadgetry (Ipods, DVD players, etc.) require that the power keep on coming, no matter what. Since I didn't want to blow out everything I own, I proceeded to a local area travel store to obtain adapter plugs for the upcoming trip. What I got was a short course on adaptability.

"You don't need a converter for most of what you've got," the sales clerk replied. "Most of your electrical items -- computers, Ipods, etc. -- are dual-voltage. Just make sure you have the right plug for where you are, and you'll be OK."

(I wondered at that point if I could quote her on that, as my netbook computer suddenly blows up somewhere in Helsinki.)

Traveling in Europe will be an abject lesson in learning what's important to you, as there is no such thing as checked baggage on the European railways. 'You tote 'em' is the rule of thumb, so if you can carry it without assistance, you can take it with you onto the trains of Europe. Now, there are exceptions (skis on Eurostar, as an example) to that rule, but they are very few and very, very far between.

Planning for this trip has taken a sharply upward turn in the last week. The Wild have a pre-trip meeting scheduled at the 'X' for prior to the Philadelphia-Minnesota pre-season game this coming Saturday, where we all finally get to meet one another. (In other words, we have to admit, in public, that we are all, indeed, crazy screwed-up Wild fans.) The up side (should there be one) is that we will get the final itinerary for the trip, and meet the tour guides (for whom we shall be leaning on heavily, as neither my wife nor I speak any Finnish).

Not to mention the fact that we will be able to stay for the game that night in a party suite (the same ones where the major TV networks had set up shop, during the Republican National Convention in 2008) so I might finally, after all these years, get a crack at that five-layer chocolate torte I always see, while going up Minnesota's longest escalator to the 200-level at the 'X' on game nights. (I could never get one handed over to me, 'on the fly', as I go up the escalator, could I?)

Now that, dear readers, would be a way to welcome me back to the hockey season...

(to be continued)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Finland VII:'s making me wait...

(In this seventh installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at the season ahead, and also a few updates on other items, from earlier installments of this series.)

Well, folks, in less than three weeks the Great Adventure will indeed begin. And, there is a calm optimism in the WRT household. I am optimistic that all the planning, the research, the investigating, the hours at the computer will have all been worth it. My wife continues to say that she hopes her husband will come back to her, after the Great Adventure is over.

Her husband does, too, let me tell you. After this, all other road trips will seem extremely tame. Even the one to Detroit later this season. Tame, tame, tame, almost to the point of being boring. But, let's look ahead to the question of the day:

Where will the Minnesota Wild end up this season?

Wild fans are a hopelessly optimistic bunch, especially after the free agent signings of Moorhead native Matt Cullen, ex-Blackhawk (and NJ Devil) John Madden, and the second-generation grit of Eric Nystrom show the way to an upgraded roster, where a lot of the dead weight that ex-GM Doug Risebrough saddled the franchise with has now been swept away, and shown the door.

Granted, two fan favorites -- Owen Nolan, a.k.a. 'Cowboy' and 'the Irish God of War', or 'IGoW', and enforcer extraordinare Derek Boogaard -- were released; Boogaard winding up with DR in Gotham with the NY Rangers, Nolan still waiting for a call from one of the California clubs (he lives in San Jose, where he co-owns a restaurant) as his career winds down. Ex-SJ Shark Brad Staubitz now fills the 'enforcer' role with the Wild, but at least he can score a goal now and then, something which finally caught up with the likeable Boogaard, as no one was willing to even fight him, making his roster spot even more vulnerable. Boogaard's new $1.65M/season contract was too much for the Wild, who are now within $2.9 million of the NHL's salary cap, and that's including the contract of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who will attempt to return from his concussion first suffered March 25, 2009 at Nassau Coliseum, in a 6-3 victory against the lowly Islanders.

The right shoulder and right knee of captain Mikko Koivu, both of which required surgery following the season are both at 100%, and the young man who some Wild fans have dubbed, 'the Franchise', is ready for a return to his homeland next month, with about 23 of his closest friends, including new Wild assistant coach Darby Hendrickson, who leaves the Fox Sports North studios (where he was in-studio co-host, on Wild and Gopher hockey telecasts) for the bench, where he will be a 'younger influence' on the roster, a different voice that has recently played the game in this modern era. How this will sit with some of the more tenured players on the Wild roster, such as Andrew Brunette, Nick Schultz and Brent Burns, who actually played with Darby when he was a grinder with the Wild, is yet to be determined.

Optimism runs high amongst Minnesota hockey fans right now, But there has yet to be played even a pre-season game, and not even an official practice has been held. Of course, optimism runs nothing has been decided, save for the fact that James Sheppard, the favorite whipping boy for many Wild fans, will not be playing hockey until after the New Year, due to an ill-advised turn on an ATV in Colorado, during a break in pre-season workouts. Most Wild fans see this unfortunate turn of events for the former first-round pick, as another reason he should be shown the door, as soon as they can find a taker for his 'services'.

My view: After the Finland trip, 8 of their next 10 games will be at home. They must rack up regulation-time wins early, to get a leg up on the rest of the West, as 13 of the following 21 (and 22 of the following 37 games) will be on the road.

This team cannot afford another disasterous start, like last season's losing eight of their first nine debacle. Should they survive the first half of the season, the second half should be an easier half, with all but 5 games played after the All-Star game being within the Western Conference.

This team cannot afford to have long losing streaks. Their talent level is not that of even the now-gutted Chicago Blackhawks, nor San Jose, nor even Detroit, as elderly as that roster looks on paper. Vancouver, everyone's darling pick for the top spot in the West? Nah. Not even close. Maybe not even Calgary or Colorado, who surprised many in hockey and made the playoffs last season, a season which was supposedly a 'rebuilding' year.

They need to score more, especially in regulation. They need to not give up multiple goals in short defensive lapses, especially on the road against divisional opponents (games in Calgary come to mind when I say that). The synergy that was the Guillaume Latendresse-Martin Havlat pairing from last season, needs to be fed from the center position this season. Often. And in bunches.

Had the Wild been able to start the season in December last season, instead of October, they might have just made the playoffs, as banged up as the roster was going into the last weeks of the season, had they not had the disasterous start that this team did last year. This cannot happen again, and the club's hierarchy KNOWS it. The hockey minds know it.

Again, optimism reigns supreme. With that, in my opinion, the Wild will wind up as a playoff team in April. Probably no better than a No. 7 seed, which will probably mean a first round match-up against either of the top two teams in the West (San Jose or Vancouver), neither of which will allow the Wild to go farther than the first round in the playoffs.

But, considering the fact that less than two years ago, this team was totally in shambles, the first round is an achieveable goal, I believe, for this group of Wild players. You have to walk before you can run, and running with the big boys in the West is the immediate goal of this franchise. Reserving the right to change my mind...

...let's see what they can do.

As promised, some updates from earlier in the series:

Seems we've booked onto the 'party cruise' from Stockholm to Turku. The Viking Line ferry boat is known throughout Scandinavia as a 'booze cruise' (those of you who've sailed on the Duluth harbor tours know what I speak of; only this one is a LOT longer). The competing Silja Line ferry, as I said in Part IV of this series, is booked out on a charter that night, as a fund-raiser (presumably) for the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra. Several people have come to me telling me they can't even remember their crossing, due to all the liquor consumed on the ships.

(And, of course, there will be us, still trying to get over jet lag...)

Laundry update: There is no guest laundry at the hotel in Helsinki, so now our question is: Do we get laundry done professionally in Helsinki, Russo-style, by sending out the wet wash? Or, do we ship a box of clean clothes over to Finland, and that same box (with dirty clothes and some papers) back to the USA? Or, do we take some laundry soap with us, and rinse the stuff out in the bathroom sink? What do we do? (We don't want to offend anyone while in Europe...)

(to be continued)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sheppard out 3-4 Months after ATV accident: Are we surprised?

We should have known something like this was going to happen to James Sheppard, the tough-luck champion of the Minnesota Wild.

Sheppard was riding an ATV near Vail, Colorado late Saturday, when he ran into a tree while avoiding a truck while on a wilderness journey with his left kneecap, fracturing his patella, according to a team statement released late Tuesday afternoon. Already nearing the chopping block with the team for his poor play, since his being chosen as the team's No. 1 draft choice in 2006, the 22-year-old Nova Scotia native now faces the daunting task of rehabbing his knee following the surgery, while his 4th-line center spot is occupied by rookie Casey Wellman and/or vet Kyle Brodziak.

The timeline for Sheppard's rehab is 3-4 months, just in time for the Wild to possibly trade him at the trade deadline near the end of February. The Wild will be in New York at that time on a two-game road trip, at the Islanders on March 1, and at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers on March 2.

-- WRT

Monday, September 6, 2010

Finland VI: Diversions

(In this sixth installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at other diversions which interferes with trip planning, and we look at planning what to take...and what not to.)

It is now the end of the summer. Labor Day. A holiday set aside to honor the American worker, and the efforts of labor to build a great nation. Of course, in Minnesota, there is another event passing today.

The end of the Minnesota State Fair signifies the end of 'deep-fried' season, when any food stuff that can be breaded and fried, is then sold to nearly 2 million normally very hungry patrons, throughout the fair's 12-day run.

It's also start time to think about what's ahead. Specifically, four weeks from today, when the Minnesota Wild take the ice, at the Tampeeren jäähalli against the Tampere Lynx (Ilves Tampere) for their lone European exhibition game, prior to the NHL Premirere 2010 series against the Carolina Hurricanes.

So, for me (and my wife), what's ahead?

We need to make a list for exactly what we want to take, how much, and where we will put it en route, as we will be extremely limited as to the amount of baggage we will be able to carry. Unlike Amtrak (and VIA Rail Canada), European railways generally do NOT handle checked baggage. It's kind of the 'You tote 'em' theory of travel; you can bring along what you can carry on, and that's it. Period. Most people cannot carry more than two pieces of baggage, anyway, so that kind of limits what people take onto European trains (most trains between major centers run often enough, that a lot of business is done as same-day trips, anyways.)

We are already resigned to probably buying a bag in Finland, in order to take all the souvenirs back from Helsinki that we will have collected en route, for friends and others who ask.

The looming big question: will the hotel we are staying at in Helsinki have a guest laundry? (By Day 5, we will need to be washing clothes. Definitely, will need to wash clothes by that time.) The rest of the Helsinki details (since we are part of a tour this time, for the first time in our personal history) will either be taken care of once we get there, or are items we do not need to worry about, as they have been arranged in advance.

So let's see, here... underwear, socks, shirts, slacks, Wild jerseys, Wild hat, Wild pins... and of course, passport...

(to be continued)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Finland 2010, Part V: And now, the hockey part

(In this fifth installment of my blog series leading up to NHL Premiere 2010, featuring the Minnesota Wild in Helsinki, Finland, we look at the other planning, now that the overland European rail segments are complete. And, we get team news.)

The planning is complete for the land portion of this Grand Adventure. The air portion is secured, save for seat assignments on the Helsinki-Paris segment on the return (since the flight is an Air France codeshare, {actually, it's a Finnair flight} we are bound by the rules of Air France, who do not pre-assign seats on flights within Europe). I still think that one of us will be waiting for the other one at Charles deGaulle when we land. But, that's just me, I guess.

We then turn our attention to the games themselves, as the Wild post a brief video showing the inside of Helsinki's Hartwall Areena, the site for the two NHL regular-season games between the Wild and the Carolina Hurricanes. Hartwall is large by European standards, but in the NHL, this arena would stand some expansion. Especially if the team was actually GOOD.

We also hear that Pierre-Marc Bouchard is healing well from his concussion, and is skating in open scrimmages in and around his native Montreal. That is another good sign for a team which, quite frankly, could have used a few down the stretch last season. Also, as summer drags on, the good news continues as the Wild have their developmental camp at the 'X', one which hopefully will bear fruit, in the form of young, hungry NHL-quality players. And soon, as the roster turnover continues, and the mistakes of the former regime are, one by one, politely shown the door.

We call our travel advisor about the game in Tampere. We are, indeed, hoping that the trip from Helsinki to Tampere (115 miles, or the distance from the 'X' to Willmar, Minnesota) will be by 220 KPH (135 MPH) 'Pendolino' tilt train, especially since the arena where Ilves Tampere plays is less than 2 KM (1.2 miles) from the train station. No suck luck; the trip is billed as a motor coach excursion.

"Oh, well," I kind of resignfully tell him. "Yeah, we'll do it anyway."

So, it will be off to Tampere we go on that Monday, Oct. 4, leaving around 2 PM Finnish time (6:00 AM at home) for a 7:00 PM Finnish time start (again, 11:00 AM in Minnesota). The trip is billed to return to the hotel at about 12:30 AM, so it will make for a long, long day. That will be a real jet-lag day for the rest of the group, who will have just landed the night before, after their all-air journeys from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

(Here's hoping everyone isn't too grouchy...)

Now we begin looking almost daily at exchange rates between the US dollar and the Euro, as we will need spending money while we're there, and there is no point giving the banks any more than we need to, in order to get this done. The Yo-Yo nature of currency exchange shows that it's up one week, and down the next. "We have to get this right," I tell my wife, "or otherwise we could be paying upwards of $100 more than we need to, for the same amount of money."

"That's your department, dear," she replied.

(to be continued)