On the Topic Of the NHL in North Dakota

When you hear people talk about Ralph Engelstad Arena, you hear the chorus of how beautiful it is and how much it’s as good as or better than (in some cases) most NHL arenas. With a passionate fan base for the University of North Dakota, along with the tradition the program has; it’s easy to see why they would want to have such a top-notch facility for their student-athletes and be able to use that to bring in top talent.

Now, it could be time to see how it does shape up to the NHL standard.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman dropped some knowledge Sunday night that the NHL is looking at options if they should get their season back together in one way, shape, or form. One of the options has been Grand Forks, North Dakota and The Ralph. Friedman says that nothing is eminent, but it’s been floated around due to the facilities and the low population density that North Dakota does have in comparison to other states with rinks. Considering places like Toronto and Calgary say that they won’t have games in those cities until June 30th at the earliest; neutral site games are a must.

Logistically, however, could be an issues. While the Greater Grand Forks area (Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, MN) has about 30 hotels— not all of them are the nice, five-star places players may be used to and some hotels may not want to have a sharp influx of people from out of town given the climate of things. Of course, adding to that is the US/Canada border being closed for the time being, on top of the leagues voting how their season should go along and what format it needs to be in.

Not to mention, whether or not the state would be willing to take people in given North Dakota has a 14-day quarantine for incoming travelers, then to decide if there should be fans in the arena for the events given the pandemic, how you put first responders into the arena while taking away from the hospital in town and other red-tape that would be necessary to have this happen.

Personally, living here– it’d be a huge buzz for the area and something that people wouldn’t forget if it were to happen. Emphasis on “IF.” There’s no doubt that the facilities of The Ralph are beyond comparison in some instances and that it does have the ability to house a regional tournament should that be the case. And it’s not like they haven’t hosted NHL game before, albeit preseason games— but the area has houses many IIHF events with multiple nations represented with teams and with fan bases.

While I’m still of the opinion the NHL should shutter the season for the sanity of everyone and not to give people false hope only to diminish that hope later, this could be interesting overall. It’d give the local economy a boost with lodging and food and such, it’d give people something to look out for when it comes to sports in the area, and it’d being back some kind of normalcy to the landscape a whole.

Plus, if I can get in to cover some of these games– I’ll take it.

But you also have to think about the long-term venture over the short-term solution. If it all makes sense and things are trending properly– then by all means, go with North Dakota and other neutral sites. However, if the states are cautious to it and don’t want it to happen– you have to respect their decision to keep the interest of their residents the top priority over the allure of a tick of normalcy.

About That Gretzky/McDavid Thing

GQ’s Sports department did a thing where they have a “One on One” segment where they usually have a current player from a certain league and an entertainer that roots for that team or grew up in the area. Recently, they bucked that trend and had Connor McDavid and Wayne Gretzky on there to talk about Edmonton, being a hockey phenom, and Gretzky reassuring McDavid that he’s going to win a Stanley Cup.

It was probably the most…cringe, but interesting thing I’ve seen in a bit, but far from an “epic conversation” that GQ would have you believe.

A couple things here. Thing the first– this is the Gretzky we kind of need. Sure, the Great One was currying favor to McDavid– especially reassuring McDavid he’s going to win a Cup in Edmonton and all of that– but he was actually very talkative. Gretzky was lively, he was more than the corporate figurehead that the NHL trots out in special events, and he showed some kind of personality. So much so, it made McDavid look much more milquetoast than usual.

Now, thing the second– McDavid looked like he did want to be there. Not in an uninterested way, but in a way that he was too nervous and not comfortable with the limelight (much less being there with Gretzky) and didn’t know what he was supposed to do in a situation like this when they’re talking about the greatness and the link between Edmonton and the two superstars. It came off as McDavid sitting there anxiously waiting for it to be over while Gretzky was trying to reassure him that he’ll get the Oilers to a way like they were in the ’80s.

The premise of this is solid, but it’s also the first time that they’ve seemingly done an old star and new star. The other were more athlete and musician with Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers talking with Justin Vernon, lead singer from the band Bon Iver; RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks and Spike Lee; and Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat talking with Rick Ross. Those connections have more to do with the location of the team and a person growing up there. This kind of bucks that trend, which makes for…I don’t know what it made for.

If they did this format with Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby and Gretzky, it would have maybe been little less awkward and more conversational…maybe. However, the cliche machines of today’s hockey players seem to kill any kind of starting point with this.

Also, I hate this kind of format with an off-screen moderator doling out a subject and almost forcing these two to try and relate. It just seemed so forced. Not only that, but of what I’ve seen— this is the only one where they needed questions or subject matters thrown at them from off camera. No wonder this was shorter by about 15 minutes compared to the other ones; it was all around too forced.

Should be so inclined and have nothing better to do….maybe give it a watch and make your own opinion. This just seemed like it was very unnatural when there’s so many other options that you could have presented to make the hockey connection be better than just trotting out Gretzky and the next “Great One” in Edmonton.

Black Bears 2019-20 Season in Review: My Three Wishes for 2020-21

Last year, I did this three wishes for the 2019-20 campaign and they had varying results in the grand scheme of things. First was the special teams, where the power play was better going from 12.8% to 16.7%, but they ended the season with an 0-for-47 streak, while the penalty kill was second in the East Division at 80.7% efficiency, raising from last year’s 73.3%. Next, the blue line was a bit beefier, but I think more durable than before. They worked has plenty of guys to work in and out and not have to drop a forward back there. Finally, I don’t know if there was a totally definitive first line, but they had definitive scoring strengths.

So, with that review down, my THREE WISHES for the 2020-21 season.

BRING BACK AS MANY AS POSSIBLE: There has to be a feeling of unfinished business for many of the players on this team and with the exit of five solid contributors, the Black Bears may have to reset once again. Hopefully, however, it’s not going to be a big reset for the rest of the squad. You would have to think a lot of these guys would want to come back to prove this team is a playoff caliber team and deserved to be in the playoffs for the 2020-21 season.

Granted, you’re going to have some guys trying to move up to the USHL or even possibly departing for college before the season– but if you can just tweak a little bit to fill the holes left by the graduating players– they should be good. Of course, my ideas of player personnel hasn’t had a great track record; which is why I’m in this position and now in a front office gig.

BETTER IN EXTRA TIME: The Black Bears went to eight overtime games in 2019-20, but only mustered one win in those games. Their seven losses in OT were the most in the league last season, with many of the losses coming on some bizarre instances– bad bounces on a clear, bad line changes off a turnover, and some power play goals against. While the point is nice, it still isn’t two points at the end of it.

Of course, the one thing to do is to finish it in regulation and not get into that overtime situations. However, keeping composure mentally in the extra frame is very crucial for this team where every point is crucial, as the race towards the end of this season showed.

DEFENSIVE ZONE CLEAN-UP: While they got better as they year went on, the play in the defensive zone was scary at times. Ill-advised passes, sloppy breakouts, and lapses in coverage were things that seemed to haunt the team from the beginning of the season. Like I said, it got better– but some mental lapses did happen later on in the season.

While I’m not delusional to think that it’ll be crisp and clean all the time, there needs to be better decisions made when in their own end for the upcoming season. A fair amount of goals-against were caused from turnovers inside the defensive zone and coverage being lost. Tighten up in the defensive zone and success will almost surely follow.

Black Bears 2019-20 Season in Review: Fare Thee Well

The downside of junior hockey is the fact that there is a definitive end to it all. Whether it’s leaving for college when the time comes or it means getting to the age-limit; there is a finite amount of time players have in the NAHL. It’s time to relive what they were able to bring to the Black Bears– no matter the term.

NOTE: This is for the players who are definitely leaving as of this writing. It does not take into account players who may be leaving for the USHL or elsewhere.

First things first, we start with the captain– Logan Kons. Going from fighting for every minute last season to being the leader of the Black Bears this season, Kons grew as a player in the off-season and showed off his personality off the ice as a leader for the community. It should be no surprises that Kons took home the East Division Community Service Award, as he was front and center of initiatives for the team within the Baltimore/Washington community, as well as showing his appreciation to people who came out to The Den by coming out and being around the fans after games.

On the ice, he was very noticeable with 24 points in his 52 games on the season, as well as potting three game-winning goals– tying him for the team lead with Aden Bruich and Brayden Stannard. With an appearance at the NAHL Top Prospects game, Kons was able to put his hard work out on a bigger scale for scouts to see. While there hasn’t been a clear path for his future, the way Kons carries himself will make him successful as his life moves forward.

Another part of the leadership group leaving is defenseman Hampus Rydqvist. In his first year in North America, Rydqvist was able to pick up on the different nuances of the smaller rink and succeeded enough to capture the East Division Defenseman of the Year, as well as being named to the East Division First Team. With an explosive shot, smooth skating ability, and a small wrecking ball when the opportunity arises; Rydqvist provides all the tools to be successful moving onward.

His time in Maryland allowed the Swede to get recruited by Miami University to play in the NCHC starting next season. A player with a good outlook off the ice, but serious when the blade hits the ice; Rydqvist took the time in a new locale in stride and as the season went along, got plenty comfortable with his new surroundings Stateside. Here’s hoping it continues for him in Ohio.

A third member of the leadership team departing is Jackson Sterrett, the leading scorer for the team this season. With his speed and ability to find holes in the oppositions’ defense, Sterrett was able to put home 19 goals, including four short-handed. The UMass-Lowell recruit was consistent all season, never going more than three games without a point. With the departure of Wilmer Skoog, Sterrett put up 21 points in 27 games to end out the campaign.

Having moved all around North America to pursue his goal, Sterrett leaves the Black Bears having set the single-season mark for goals and short-handed goals. There’s a tremendous upside with Sterrett, which he will put on display in Hockey East starting next season in hopes of helping the Riverhawks get back to the NCAA Tournament.

One of the late-season acquisitions for the Black Bears is Aaron Swanson, who came over from the Springfield Jr. Blues. However, even in his short time; Swanson made a big impact for the Black Bears with four goals and nine points in only 12 games with Maryland, while adding a veteran presence to the squad and would have been a great asset for the playoffs.

Even with the short time, Swanson was able to leave an impression with his teammates in regards to his work ethic and with the Black Bear Nation in his hustle and grit in his games played at The Den.

To round it out, Jack Smiley was another late-season pick-up, but made a mark on the team. The physical forward brought more size to the team when he was picked up from Corpus Christi, as well as a tenacious forecheck which helped the Black Bears create some turnovers in the neutral zone.

Much like Swanson, the hard work Smiley was able to put in won the favor of Black Bear Nation. Despite only getting one goal in his 12 games, the intangibles that Smiley brought to the table helped give the team an important piece they may have been missing for their playoff run.

To all five of these men, thank you very much for your tenure with the Black Bears– regardless of service time. Even just one game makes you part of the family from this point forward. Make sure to come back and visit or call every once and a while.

Black Bears 2019-20 Season in Review: What Could Have Been

For the Maryland Black Bears, this season was one of statements. After a rough first season, the Black Bears pretty much overhauled the roster with only five players who played any games for Maryland in the 2018-19 season. There was plenty of time for head coach/GM Clint Mylymok to assemble his team, rather than the rushed circumstances of last season. And, in all honesty, there was only one way to go– and that was up.

On the new squad, Mylymok brought in seven players who had already committed to Division I NCAA schools, which would show that the talent of the team would be on the higher end. Add that to the improvement of the returnees and all that was needed was the buy-in of the players and to create chemistry in order to succeed.

The theme for the year from the players I talked to was the togetherness of this team. You could see a lot of the players playing for each other, picking each other up, and not showing defeated body language out on the ice if the chips were down. Regardless of where the lines came through, the team was able to mix and match in situations. You could see the players getting better as the year went along, even if the stats didn’t show as much.

Even when, at the time, their top player– Wilmer Skoog– left for Boston University mid-season; the team banded together and got stronger after that, with a six-game win streak happening not too long after Skoog’s departure. Players like Jackson Sterrett and Brayden Stannard picked up the main offensive duties, while down the stretch Reid Leibold and late acquisition Aaron Swanson chipped in towards the end of the year.

Goaltending was stable with Andrew Takacs and Cooper Black swapping in and out before Takacs was dealt for Aaron Randazzo before the trade deadline. Black had a stellar rookie season, while Randazzo brought experience to the cage in the short time he had with the team.

Defensively, the team got better as they went along. The own-zone turnovers got less and less, the breakouts were better overall, and the team as a whole was able to support their goaltenders out in sticky situations. Not to mention captain Logan Kons and Hampus Rydqvist contributing offensively, while also taking care of their own zone.

But everyone played the role they were told and even chipped in other places. Andrew Remer was an energy guy, but potted some crucial goals and create chances down the stretch. Garrett Szydlowski had a hard shot, but played a decent board game. Cameron Recchi was a havoc on the forecheck, which created scoring chances on turnovers. Thomas Jarman had a physical presence, but also was called upon on power play duties. This team had the “next man up” mentality down, which helped if things got dicey.

It’ll always be a mystery of what could have happened in the last eight games. The tension of the playoffs were something that would have gotten a lot of people excited, anxious, and would have shined a light on the team as they moved forward. Unfortunately, that’s not something that happened. Everything was cut short, though officially the Black Bears did finish fourth in the East Division; technically in the playoffs.

The biggest factor for this team was growth. The development of the players, the development of the fan base, and the overall success rate from year one into year two. The goal should always deal with being better than your last season of play. That’s something the Black Bears were able to do, albeit getting cut short in the process. But a 20-win season and playing meaningful games late in the season should constitute a successful season, even if there wasn’t a chance to show off the hardware or banners for it.

Yet, they did the fans at The Den proud, improving immensely from where they were last season with hopes of things to come next season. Granted, the roster may, once again, see a lot of new faces on it.

Now Hear Me Out: Loser Moves On

We’re in some extreme times. The clock is ticking down on the NHL season for 2019-20, even though they’re really trying to keep a brave face considering they’re losing billions if they in fact do cancel. Especially with the postponement of the NHL Combines, Awards (NOT THOSE!!!), and the Draft; there’s some pretty crazy ideas out there about if the season were to be severely delayed– who could get the first overall pick; especially since if the league were to come back; they’d go right into the playoffs.

There’s one eager team that thinks there’s only one way to rightfully see who gets the top pick– a tournament. Basically the NIT of the NHL. Sure, seems unfair to fuck over Detroit and Ottawa of that possible pick– despite the assurances they’re allegedly going to get.

This is a good idea. I think we all like a one-and-done situation, where each game is Game Seven. However…NOW HEAR ME OUT…THE LOSER MOVES ON IN THE TOURNAMENT!!

Why would the team that wins this whole damn thing be in line for a lottery pick?? In fact, it actually proves the opposite because if they win that damn thing; they’re the team that needs the least help of a lottery pick. Of course, you have to think it’s a fringe team that proposed this in hopes of fleecing the league and other teams to bolster their line-up and really spit in the face of parity.

Yet, when you think of the whole “LOSER MOVES ON” thing, it makes sense because teams that lose need the better odds at a lottery pick. Plus, after this break, you think players really want to prolong the season they got paused for a meaningless tournament that they might not reap the benefits from.

“BUT WHAT ABOUT TANKING?!?!” You’re screaming because you’ve been couped up in the house too long. Well, if you believe that the hockey players mentality is that they want to win their last game of the year and, for contract-year players, show off their stuff and how they can excel in these games against lesser opponents…thus getting them more money on the open market. Plus, a return to their summer vacation over playing meaningless games.

Listen, if you’re going to have a tournament for the lottery picks, it needs to be limited to the six worst teams. The worst and second-worst will get byes and then face against the winners of the other games. It goes with the whole thing that a team can’t move up more than five spots. Give that hope to the sixth-worst team they could get the 2nd overall pick without the use of a lottery ball. That’s the only way in the scenario that a “winner-moves-on” idea works.

It’s chaos out there– so why not flip the script on tournaments and have the losers move forward for losing…like how the Draft is supposed to be weighted.

NASCAR Does Right With iRacing Event

There’s a lot of things NASCAR has done that is considered silly and inane, but what the drivers did on Sunday in conjunction with iRacing was fantastic. It wasn’t the real racing we all know and love, but it was something to get the stress of the world off people’s mind in all of this. Especially since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was up at the front, even with Denny Hamlin taking the win.

Some people are on the fence with eSports because it’s virtual and the onus on the virtual sporting world is that they’re lazy people who just play video games for a living. From the small sample size I’ve seen, it’s probably more mentally wearing for these competitors than physically; which takes its toll in a different way. But this is the evolution of sports for people, especially with iRacing out there and NBA 2K leagues. Hell, people have been clamoring for Madden Leagues since the early-00s with having podcasts about it by that age.

But the racing today was fun from the virtual Homestead. A lot of racers who don’t get many TV mentions on the actual Cup races were front and center because they use the iRacing site for the testing their small teams can’t afford. Guys like Garrett Smithley, Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe– all of them are very fluent in the iRacing scene and finally had a chance to really shine out there.

And let’s not forget the Fox NASCAR crew of Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon, and Larry McReynolds during this race– actually calling it like a real life race. Granted, they had some fun with it every now and again, but they didn’t mock it like they could have because they don’t know much about it. They did it with a good sense of professionalism during a really bizarre time for everyone.

NASCAR is one of only a couple sports that could pull this off with all their stars in one stage since it is a single-entity race. Maybe golf and tennis, but it’d be hard for NHL, NBA, NFL, and MLB players to play as themselves in a virtual world and have it worthwhile for a viewing audience. Too many moving parts, I would think.

If this were to happen for a while, I would definitely watch again. It didn’t take up my whole day, it was fun, and it was a different side of the sport I didn’t think I would enjoy– but I did. Congrats to the Fox and iRacing team for making this a great event to deal with and for getting people’s mind off some things for a bit.

On the Topic Of Leagues Shutting Down

The SPHL is over. The ECHL is over. Given the CDC’s suggestion of two months being the earliest this dystopian, confined atmosphere can maybe move toward living normally again– we could probably see the AHL and possible NHL do the same thing.

For the lower minor leagues, it’s understandable with the uncertainty of the ever-changing guidelines in the face of this whole ordeal. Add that to players visas, travel of teams and players over the border, availability of arenas that they don’t own; it was a perfect storm for these leagues to get shuddered early.

ECHL players get their last paycheck today, which is on average $600 a payday. Players are obviously panicking for money like everyone else who has their places of business shut down or reduced hours. Teams are also going to have plenty of losses with home games being removed, thus lost revenues and all of that. It’s a bad time all around.

And in all honesty, I wouldn’t hate it if the NHL and AHL shut down for the year. Would it suck for no Cup to be awarded?? Absolutely. As a Caps fan, would it suck for Alex Ovechkin not getting 50 goals despite being so close?? Most definitely. But for the greater good and not to rush a season in a half in what amounts to a calendar year– losses should be cut and then move on from there as a people into the next season.

For the players and for the fans, it’s the best to end it now and not give false hope when there’s other things to be concerned with. It would give one less financial burden for fans to worry about, it wouldn’t rush the players back into an important game-state after a long layoff, and it would reset the clock with the Draft and then into free agency.

Like I’ve said prior, shit’s crazy right now. The hope and the hype is all over the place. Common sense fails all of us right now and while sports are a nice distraction from it all– the best way is to throw it all out and start anew in October. It’s not just the staying away from people portion, it’s the matter of money is going to be very tight and the last thing people need to worry about is paying for playoff tickets and the other items that come when you go to a game in an arena.

Step off the ledge, everyone; breathe, and let’s get back at ‘er sooner than later, but not too soon to set people back more.

Now Hear Me Out: NHL Playoffs…March Madness Style

The NHL is going through their pause with everything else on Earth. Now, the NBA said that they’ll be delayed at least 30 days, which you’d have to think the NHL would be in the same boat. That puts us into mid-April right when the playoffs were to start.

Most teams have played around 70 games, leaving 12 games or so to finish out the season. That puts us until about early to mid-May for playoffs. There’s really two options: play out the season and really delay the playoffs or end the season and start playoffs right then and there when the season comes back. The first option will have some complain that the season is too long and isn’t give player recovery time for next season. The second makes people who have teams in heavy playoff races mad because they could have gotten in with the last games of the season.

So, here me out– end the season as it is, but everyone makes the playoffs. The NHL does a March Madness style playoff. The first round will be a one-and-done game, the next rounds will be Best-of-Five until the Cup Final, which will be Best-of-Seven. Seed in the way of points percentage to balance it out better, with the top team getting a first round bye to make sure the brackets are even through the rest of the playoffs. Opening round– 2 vs. 31, 3 vs. 30 and so on to get the 15 winners, then reseed again as per usual.

We’re in pretty crazy times in the world, so why not make it a crazy playoff as well. Is it a bit unfair?? Sure, but it’s also a bit fun and unpredictable. Why not make this season a fun one and bring some hype to the game, while also not getting too far off the track on how things are done in the off-season and maybe ending the playoffs early to get players more rest going into next season.

UND HOCKEY: What Could Have Been

Ralph Engelstad Arena, 03/12/20; Photo by Scotty Wazz

After I drop Jen off at work, I usually go for a ride around the city to decompress before going to bed. On a night like Thursday March 12th, it was probably much needed. Sports stopped on that day. Rightfully so, but still a bummer that the thing many used to distract themselves from the issues around them is not there. In any case, I decided to drive to Ralph Engelstad Arena and just zone out.

As I pulled up, no lights were on in the building or outside. Light adorn the plaza area with the statue of Sitting Bull, but not much else. It was a fitting scene for the night, as the NCHC cancelled their tournament, as did the NCAA. Again, rightfully so– still a bummer.

Mostly a bummer for the student-athletes on the University of North Dakota squad who had come back to life this season following two years of missing the big tournament. They were on pace to be one of the all-time great teams in North Dakota hockey history, as they were ranked 1st in the Pairwise and were odds-on favorites to win the National Championship.

Now, it’s a case of what could have been.

With the cancellations, all anyone can do is wonder if this team would have won the NCHC playoff title to go with the Penrose Cup, if they could have dominated the NCAA and have won the school’s ninth National Championship, and if there’d be another Hobey Baker Award winner from this team. It was a season to remember for the right reasons and for the reasons that could have been.

You hate it for the team, of course, but you really hate it for the seniors of this team. Colton Poolman, who came back because he had unfinished business; Cole Smith, the heart and soul of this team; Andrew Peski, who bookended his tenure with two solid seasons; Casey Johnson, who became a valued utility option for this club in any spot; Zach Yon, who fought through injuries his last season and was a bit of an energy guy; Dixon Bowen, who carried on the UND tradition his father started, as well as being an energy guy; Westin Michaud, who came to UND as a graduate transfer and made people wish this team had him for a full four years. Those are the guys who may not get much closure on this season.

Then you look at guys outside of the seniors that may think about leaving, but could reconsider given the way this year ended. This is going on nothing at all, but you’d have to think the Ottawa Senators were heavily invested in what Jacob Bernard-Docker did this year and may have even taken a look at him moving forward. Jordan Kawaguchi’s Hobey Baker-esque season could have gotten him looks by NHL teams, but he might stay to finish this fight off. Then there’s Shane Pinto, who was looked at by the Senators heavily in the World Juniors– like JBD– but assured everyone that he would be staying at UND; but time can changes things.

Those are the stories to look at now– who stays, who goes, who comes in. There is no pomp and circumstance, no banner, no one-last-hurrah for the seniors. It’s just over. And now UND fans and players alike will have a chip on their shoulder with how this season ended and what could have been.

Rightfully so.