Mean Gene, the World Juniors and the resurgent Minnesota Wild

Marc Elliott

Mean Gene Okerlund has passed away  at the age of 82 in Florida
Mean Gene Okerlund has passed away at the age of 82 in Florida

STONY POINT… At some point in the early seventies we first saw him as a fill-in for the man who was known as the “Dean” of wrestling announcers, Marty O’Neill. There was little doubt at that time that Marty was the best in the business. We could not have known at that time that Eugene Arthur Okerlund, who we came to know simply as “Mean Gene” would go on to become the best ever in the business of professional wrestling. Last week the Hand of Mercy and Grace came calling for Gene and took him home. As his son Todd stated on a Twin Cities radio program last week after the sad news broke, his passing was a gift, his health had been up and down for years, and this time around he was having serious issues. Gene had been the recipient of two kidney transplants over the years and his time had come. 

While I am sad that he passed on I also give thanks for the gift that his life was to us. If the wrestling business really is all about entertainment over the purity and excitement of true athletic competition (it is) then it is safe to say that Gene just may have been the best wrestling interviewer ever. That he may have learned and honed the craft through his keen observation of Marty isn’t lost upon me. Most folks wouldn’t give it much thought, but the stagecraft and timing necessary to do what Gene did over the years was as vital to what he did as arm strength is to a good headlock. His ability to play the straight man to good guys and villains alike is what sold the show over the years to legions of fans who came to feel as if they knew Gene personally, that he was literally their next-door neighbor who just happened to be on your local wrestling show. 

In pro wrestling, the matches are one thing, the interviews are quite another. If the aura of the bad guy getting comeuppance from the good guy was the likely draw of the business, the interviews were your personal reinforcement for having bought tickets to go and see the spectacle. When Gene held that microphone in front of an enraged Mad Dog Vachon while he told the viewing public what he was going to do to Sheik Adnan al Kassie when he got a hold of him and Gene never flinched, never betraying the show’s quest to make the viewers think this was all real, you had to know at that moment that Gene was a pro’s pro. The “promo’s” as they are called in the business are an artform in my book. In my view the best ever at promo’s were Vachon, Ric Flair, Jesse Ventura, Bobby Heenan and Nick Bockwinkle. Gene worked with all of them at one time or another. Conversely, a wrestler that would perhaps be the most well known ever, Hulk Hogan, was one of the worst at promo’s in my view. His spots were kind of boring. Not even Gene could change that for me. 

My best memory of Gene was at the height of the early eighties Vachon-Sheiks feud during a promo spot with al Kassie and his partner Jerry Blackwell, when Vachon and then partner Baron von Raschke came out and attacked the Sheiks. Chaos ruled the moment. As the burly men continued to battle behind him and with Gene keeping up some banter, he calmly took 3 steps forward toward the camera and looking straight at it said; Gentlemen, PLEASE! If we could only get back to the basics of wrestling and settle our differences in the ring!!! Without batting an eyelash or changing his expression he then launched into the ticket purchasing information for that evenings card and with the four combatants still going at it and the show ready to fade to the credits stated, “we’ll see you in St. Paul”! If the arena wasn’t quite sold out yet for that night, I’m most certain it was as soon as the show went off the air. 

In living rooms across the Metro, the words “honey, we’re going to the matches tonight” were uttered. The matches and promos were sales brochures and the wrestlers and on-air personnel were the agents. The early eighties AWA was the peak of the business for me. Gene and others would eventually leave for a bigger show out East and he became a household name. But he never quit just being “Gene”. And he just got better and better at his craft. For that his many, many fans and colleagues will be forever grateful, RIP Gene…  

TEAM USA won Silver at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Vancouver last Saturday eve. They lost a hard-fought battle to Team Finland 3-2 on a late 3rd period score by the Finns. I was left to contemplate how this tilt may have gone if there had been a day between the semis and the final. The US club had an epic battle in the semis with Russia prevailing in a 2-1 win while the Finns had an easier road in my view, taking a 6-1 decision over the Swiss entry. Most were surprised to see the Swiss make the semis but in reality, there are now about 6 hockey playing countries at this point that are ultra-competitive and the Swiss had many returnees from last years entrant. The Russians were a tough out for the Yanks and it showed. The Finns played with a slight edge for a lot of the game. In gauging the collective power, strength, size and skill of the teams in the tourney, and their staffs, I believed the USA to have the best entry. At the end though, next to the Stanley Cup, it is said this is the second hardest trophy to win in the sport. I’d have a hard time disputing that. Congrats to the boys and Coaches Hastings, Sandelin, Miller, Keefe and Lassonde. Well Done!

The WILD is back on track going 2-1 last week, losing 3-2 to PIT, then beating TOR and OTT 4-3 each. Tonight, in Montreal they won 1-0 on a Mikael Granlund score in the 3rd. Devan Dubnyk got his first SO of the year. They play @ BOS this eve, then vs. WINN and DET in St. Paul to close out the week. WILD DATA; The ATHLETIC; (1/7) 15th, trending for 92 points with a 2% chance for a SC win. The SAGARIN; (1/8) 12th on a 21-20 record, 4-10 vs T10, 6-13 vs. T16, ranking 11th in schedule difficulty. NHL STATS & STANDINGS; 16th on 21 wins, t17th with 45 points, 17th on pct. of points available @ .549. 5th in the Central division on 45 points, back in 2nd Wild Card position based on ROW advantage over ANA. (21 vs 16) 20th in GF/119, 4th in GA/113, 9th in PP%/21.8, 3rd in PK%/85.1 and 19th in PIM’s at 368. The club may need 25 wins the rest of the way to get a playoff spot. Can they do it? PEACE