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)