NCHC Picks Target Center, Challenges Big Ten

John Gilbert

Jim Scherr, new commissioner of the NCHC, and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak shared souvenirs. -John Gilbert
Jim Scherr, new commissioner of the NCHC, and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak shared souvenirs. -John Gilbert
Proctor pitcher Jake Lewis came through to stifle Cloquet 9-2 in the 7AA title game. -John Gilbert
Proctor pitcher Jake Lewis came through to stifle Cloquet 9-2 in the 7AA title game. -John Gilbert


MINNEAPOLIS, MN. --- National Collegiate Hockey Conference officials came to Target Center in the Minneapolis Warehouse District Monday to announce jointly with the arena and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak that it would hold its league tournament championships at Target Center for its first five seasons.
The NCHC has another year to mobilize before starting play for the 2013-14 season, and after examining various venues, it agreed to terms to return high-caliber hockey to Target Center in a big way.
The move will thrust Minneapolis back into the hockey spotlight, although the new league will find itself in direct competition with the first Big Ten hockey tournament, at Saint Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. If Minnesota likes to be called the “State of Hockey,” the Twin Cities definitely will be the focal point of hockey in mid-March of 2014.
The state high school tournament will take center stage on the second weekend in March, at Saint Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, but one week after that, two of the nation’s top collegiate hockey conferences will hold their tournaments 10 miles apart.
Jim Scherr, who came out of an Olympic wrestling background to be selected commissioner of the NCHC, said it was a perfect fit for the league to come to Minnesota “with its great hockey legacy and the strong fan-base here. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
UMD athletic director Bob Nielson, who also sat at the head table for the press conference, said: “It’s truly an exciting day for all of us who are members of the NCHC. There are thousands of alumni from places like UMD, St. Cloud State, and North Dakota, who will be able to come here and watch the tournament at such a tremendous venue.”
The NCHC consists of UMD, North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Nebraska-Omaha, Denver University and Colorado College from the WCHA, plus Miami of Ohio and Western Michigan from the CCHA. The eight-team league will play a quarterfinal playoff round with the top four finishers at home against the bottom four. The winners of those series will advance to Target Center where they will play semifinals and a third-place game, followed by the championship, which will earn an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. The NCHC has secured Target Center for its first five years of tournament play, with television affiliate CBS-SN broadcasting the semifinals and final live each year. The NCHC will find Target’s facility has undergone extensive renovation by then, from a multi-million-dollar cut of the deal forged by the agreement to build the new Vikings football stadium.
The NCHC emerged from an upheaval in college hockey caused by the Big Ten’s decision to start its own hockey conference, with Minnesota and Wisconsin from the WCHA joining Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and the new program at Penn State. All six of those teams will play off, with the top two teams given byes into the semifinals, where they will await the winners of two games involving the four other teams. That tournament will alternate between Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul -- where the WCHA Final Five has become a traditional fixture -- and Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, with Xcel getting the first tournament, on the same weekend in 2014.
If Minnesota is playing Wisconsin in the Big Ten final at Xcel, and North Dakota is facing UMD in the NCHC playoff final at the same time in Target Center, there will be a lot of hockey fans in the two cities. It might even make sense for the NCHC to play its semifinals on Friday, and it’s final on Sunday, which would avoid the Saturday night conflict, and also would give the new league the climactic focus of the weekend.
“I’d love to see Target Center become the permanent home for our tournament if we’re successful, and I’m confident we will be,” said Scherr. “There is no other way around having the tournament on the same weekend as the Big Ten tournament. But there are enough fans of our teams and just hockey fans in the state of Minnesota to make our tournament a success. As we develop as a conference, the tradition of this as a first-class hockey venue will grow.”
When asked if he thought the tournament might fill the 20,000-seat home of Timberwolves basketball, Scherr backed off and said that would be a tall order, “because the WCHA has been established here for so long.”
Scherr can be excused if it takes him a little time to realize what a powerful entity he now controls. The WCHA has a fabulous tradition in Minnesota, and it will continue throughout the coming season. But once the league shatters to regroup with Bemidji State, Minnesota State-Mankato, Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage from the WCHA, plus Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State, Bowling Green and Alaska-Fairbanks from the CCHA, there will be three conferences emerging. And with North Dakota, Denver, CC, UMD, and Nebraska-Omaha leading the NCHC, there is no question it will rank as the strongest of the three at the outset.
Minnesota naturally is a huge draw for the Big Ten tournament in Saint Paul, but the WCHA tournament filled Xcel Center in recent years even when the Gophers didn’t make it, because of the hard-traveling fans from North Dakota, UMD, and St. Cloud State.
“We have one great year left in the WCHA, with all our traditional rivals,” said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol, who played in Target Center in his days with the Minnesota Moose of the IHL in the mid-1990s.  “Then I’m looking forward to bringing some old rivalries and some new ones here, to build new traditions starting in the spring of 2014.”
When Xcel Center was being built to replace the Saint Paul Civic Center, Target Center was the site for two state high school tournaments, a couple of “Border Battle” college games between Minnesota and Wisconsin, and some pro games. It was originally built as a joint NBA and NHL arena, before the Timberwolves and the Minnesota Lynx turned it into a basketball-only facility in recent years.
Mayor Rybak said, “We take our hockey very seriously around here, even though I’m a Boston College alum. This will be an extraordinary event, and we’ll welcome all these people from all these places coming here for a fantastic event.”


Proctor tends to fly under the Duluth sports radar, but the Rails have a tremendous tradition for honest, no-frills competitiveness. And under coach Kyle Wojtysiak, the Rails are in the process of establishing their own tradition, which is going to the state baseball tournament. Wojtysiak is a 2005 Proctor grad who then played at St. Scholastica, and in his third year as Proctor coach, the Rails are currently in their second AA tournament. Their first game, scheduled for Thursday, is against Washburn, which is 25-0.
Regardless, Proctor showed uncommon tenacity to beat Cloquet 9-2 in the Section 7AA championship game, ironically held at Hermantown -- the tournament favorite before being beaten 9-0 by Proctor and 2-0 by Cloquet.
Proctor led 1-0, fell behind 2-1 in the third, then tied it 2-2 in the last of the third. Jake Lewis was pitching for Proctor, although he acknowledged his arm was a little tired, after throwing two innings two days earlier against Hermantown. “Nothing was really working,” Lewis said. “So I just threw fast balls and hoped they wouldn’t hit it. The diving plays we made pretty much saved the game.”
But in the last of the fourth, the Rails loaded the bases, and then captain and second baseman Jimmy Merling lined a hit to left to break the tie. That might have eventually been the winning run, but the Rails were quick to follow Merling’s lead. Jesse Scanlon hit an opposite-field pop fly that landed down the right field line, driving in another run, and a sacrifice fly gave the Rails a 5-2 lead. Merling, at second base, made the pivot on a double play to end a Cloquet threat in the fifth, and his diving catch set the tone for the Rails defense, just as he had inspired the offense.
Lewis persevered, although he walked six and gave up four hits, but he struck out seven and kept the Lumberjacks from getting back in the game. “When Lewis is in trouble, he does his best job,” said Wojtysiak. “And Merling has been our spark most of the year. He’s our leadoff hitter, and that diving catch he made was huge.”   
It was an unusual game, because before the Rails broke loose, a couple of Proctor’s pop flies fell in for key hits, while the Rails made a series of spectacular diving catches to turn Cloquet’s pop flies into outs.
“That’s’ the game of baseball,” said Wojtysiak. “You need some of those spectacular plays in a game like this.”
But you can’t practice spectacular plays; the key is to practice the fundamentals to an extent that players are prepared to make spectacular plays when the situation arises. That defines the Proctor Rails. The other thing a game like that needed was a proper celebration. As Wojtysiak and I were talking, after the medals had been given out and the television interviews were concluded, suddenly a Proctor player grabbed me and shoved me, urgently, back about three steps. Just then, a couple of other Rails dumped a Gatorade bucket for a direct hit on Wojtysiak’s head.
I sought out the kid who saved me from a peripheral drenching. Of all the great plays the Rails had made that day, I told him he made the play of the game.


Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Justin Williams, Jeff Carter -- who ARE these guys?
It’s possible that 90 percent of hockey fans, and maybe 99 percent of those east of the Mississippi, had never heard of that above list, but the Los Angeles Kings completed the most incredible run in NHL history, and maybe in all sports history. Teams just don’t come from being the No. 8 seed in their half of the league and win the playoff championship, but the Kings did it with a complete team effort that lifted numerous members of the team from complete obscurity to being household names.
OK, so maybe some had heard of Jonathan Quick, the goaltender who was the most valuable player after the Kings beat the New Jersey Devils 6-1 to win the final series in six games. Normally, I don’t agree with the automatic naming of the winning team’s goaltender as MVP, because it’s almost a cliche pick for those who don’t get into the game. But Quick established the league’s lowest goals-against average of 1.41, the league’s highest save percentage of .946, and he gave up a total of seven goals in the six-game final.
By scrambling to even make the playoffs as the West’s eighth and final team, the Kings had to face No. 1 seed, and No. 1 overall, Vancouver. The result: LA in five. Then it was No. 2 St. Louis, and the Kings swept the Blues in four straight. That brought up No. 3 seed Phoenix, and the Kings again prevailed in five, to reach the final. Against a team with a strong Stanley Cup tradition, to say nothing of Martin Brodeur and Zach Parise, the Kings won the first three games, then lost two, before claiming their first Stanley Cup in the LA franchise’s 45-year history. When the Kings lost Game 4 in New Jersey, it snapped a record NHL string of having won 10 consecutive road games in this year’s playoff season.
Brown and Kopitar, by the way, led all NHL teams with matching 8-12--20 scoring stats. Doughty, from defense, was 4-12--16; Williams 4-11--15; Mike Richards 4-11--15; and Jeff Carter 8-5--13. While they emerged from Left Coast obscurity to true NHL stardom during the last two months, Brown is truly an elite player and the team leader as captain -- the Ithaca, N.Y., native becoming the first U.S. captain of a Stanley Cup champ. And Kopitar is an amazing talent, with great hands and a determination that matches his skill for finding open spots in the goal.


Before we forget, this is the week of Grandma’s Marathon. We will wait and watch to see which Kenyan wins this year, but we also will pay special attention to the Garry Bjorklund Half-Marathon, where Duluthian Kara Goucher, the former Kara Wheeler from Duluth East, will be showing her Summer Olympic form in the early morning preliminary event.