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)