Sports Jeopardy: “Over”? What Is The NHL Lockout, The World Junior Tourney, And The Vikings Playoffs!

Marc Elliott

KNIFE RIVER… In exciting fashion, the Minnesota Vikings went on a 4-0 run in their final four regular-season games to get into the NFL playoffs. They did this against some fair competition, too. They beat the Bears, a resurgent St. Louis Rams club, the Houston Texans, and of course, the Green Bay Cheeseweasels. Houston and Green Bay, after this weekend past, are both moving on to Round Two of the Super Bowl tournament. The Vikings, though, are headed home and out of the playoff.

The Vikes’ Adrian Peterson dialed it up 10 notches, put this team on his back, and got them a post-season appearance. This is a testament to the superb play of Peterson, but also an acknowledgement of the Vikings as a one-dimensional team. Even with Christian Ponder at QB, the team’s passing game was one of the lesser in the league. And with Percy Harvin out for the year, it was all the more diminished. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is a bright spot, but at the end of the day this team’s passing attack was anemic at best.

Then the Vikes made the playoffs with a valiant game against the Cheese, only to have to go to their house for a playoff tilt. To top it off, Ponder was out for the game with an injury, so the seldom-used Joe Webb got the call. They roared down the field on their first drive but had to settle for a FG, and then the Cheese systematically took over the game to advance. With Webb and “AP” switching off on the run on the first couple of drives, the Pack was off balance. Then they adjusted and walled off AP. The Vikes didn’t—couldn’t—throw either, and the outcome was cast. Subtract a late 50-yard TD pass and the Vikes would have ended up with a desolate 107 passing yards for the game.

I don’t know if it is a different outcome with Ponder in, but I do know that you can’t win in this league without a passing game and the Vikes don’t have one. I’m not entirely sold on Ponder as the Vike QB of the future, or Webb either. I learned at a young age that the run sets up the pass and the pass sets up the run. The Vikes have one, but they don’t have the other. Fix it and please don’t waste the career of the brilliant Adrian Peterson. Guys like him don’t come along every day….

TEAM USA HAS WON the World U20 tournament in Ufa, Russia, besting Team Sweden 3-1. I have to admit I wasn’t quite sure what this team could do in the tourney, and was even more confounded when they got blown out in a preliminary exhibition against Finland by a 5-1 score, then lost two days in a row, by scores of 2-1, against Team Russia and Canada in the preliminaries. At that point I wasn’t certain if this edition of Team USA was even going to medal. But I had to rethink that and acknowledge that they had two strong performances in the losses though they came up short. Many observers said that if not for the Canadians’ Malcolm Subban in net, the U.S. would have beat the Canadians.

Still, I was concerned we would come up short. We had to beat the Slovaks to advance to the playoff round and did, by a 9-3 score. Then we dominated the Czech Republic in a 7-0 beat down, and throttled the Canadians 5-1 to make it into the gold medal game versus Sweden. Finally I felt comfortable in believing we had the scoring, goaltending, and coaching to take the gold, and we did. I was out and about at 7 a.m. Saturday morning but had on my sat radio, and I’m sure more than one fellow motorist looked over at me and wondered what in the world all the shouting and arm-waving was all about. That’s all right—we are the world junior champs! My three stars for Team USA are 1) G John Gibson, 2) F Rocco Grimaldi, and 3) F John Gaudreau. Congrats to coach Phil Housley and staff…

THE NHL AND THE NHLPA have a preliminary agreement in place for a new CBA. I don’t have all the details of the agreement, but the two parties will try to get this ratified within the next 72 hours and prepare to play a 48-game schedule in short order. As a longtime fan of the league, I don’t have to tell those who know me, or have read this space for a long time, how frustrating the lockout has been to me. As details leaked out over the past few days when matters appeared to be ramping up toward an agreement, I tried to think through what this meant for the league and for the players, but none of this made me feel any better about the state of things.

Even with youth hockey, high school, and the college game in full swing, it is incomplete without the show and the big boys performing for us. But you know, I had to pause and consider what has happened to our game when it can’t be on the ice because of business differences, because of how some believe the pie should be cut. I thought back to when I was a kid and how when I wasn’t with my team we would all assemble at the neighborhood rink for a game of shinny. I mean, this is the game in its purest form, isn’t it?

No hockey-related revenues to worry about, just who had enough change in their pocket to get a hot cocoa afterward. We didn’t have to contemplate a “make whole” provision. No salary cap to consider, no revenue sharing to mull over, no nuthin’. And if it was a Friday night and my team didn’t practice until 10 a.m. on Saturday unless we had a game, we kept right on skating after the auto lights timed out at 10 p.m. Even better if it was a full moon and clear night. It was hockey nirvana.

Ten to twelve of your best buddies, a cool, clear, crisp winter eve, a smooth sheet of ice, and a black rubber disk of vulcanized rubber from the Czech Republic. We flew up and down the rink, playing for “the Cup” a hundred nights a winter, long hair sticking out of the bottom of our sweat-frozen stocking hats. We could have played forever and without a care in the world, smiles etched upon our red cheeks as permanently as concrete, young hockey brothers with no adults looking over our shoulders, surely playing our game on a rink being held in the palms of the hands of the God of Hockey, blessed by the grace of the greatest game on earth… PEACE

(HOME team in CAPS)
DENVER over Balt
SAN FRAN over Green Bay
ATLANTA over Seabirds
PATS over Houston