Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hockey Day in America Report

Sunday was Hockey Day in America on NBC, a part of USA Hockey's Hockey Weekend in America.

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The NBC coverage of the event was based out of St. Paul, Minnesota, with the pre-game show broadcast from the Wells Fargo WinterSkate, an annual outdoor skating rink set up on the street in front of the picturesque Landmark Center, just a couple of blocks from the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild, who were hosting the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in NBC's national game following their earlier regional games.

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We began our day by arriving at the WinterSkate at 11 AM in time to see Liam McHugh, Eddie Olczyk, Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire do the NBC pre-game show from a stage overlooking the rink, where youth hockey players were demonstrating USA Hockey's American Development Model of practice drills. We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to briefly chat with Milbury and really enjoyed hearing some of McGuire's anecdotes from covering the 2005 World Juniors in Grand Forks, North Dakota where temperatures of -40º made life difficult for the TV crews.

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Shortly thereafter, the mascots arrived from the five Division 1 college hockey programs in the state of Minnesota, Bemidji State, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State as well as Nordy from the Wild. After creating a mix of atmosphere and havoc in the background of the NBC broadcast and entertaining the children in attendance while suffering all manner of abuse by kids who would just as soon punch them as high-five them.

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The mascots then retreated to the safety of a pair of tents for their autograph session.

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Following the mascot autograph session, we made out way over to the giant USA hockey jersey where we met USA National Team member (and Minnesota Gopher) Amanda Kessel, sister of the Toronto Maple Leafs Phil Kessel. There, we were able to get an autographed card from Amanda and and took the opportunity to sign the giant jersey, as it will be taken to Burlington, Vermont, where it will hang in the arena during the 2012 Women's World Hockey Championships in April.

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Walking around some more, we ran into readers Richard and Jayson, who recognized our jersey and from our post on Saturday, and were each given one of our Third String Goalie hockey cards for spotting us in our 1960 USA jersey! The pair were certainly hard to miss, with Richard in his Dallas Stars "Mooterus" alternate jersey and Jayson in his Mighty Ducks jersey as worn in the feature film which inspired the name of the NHL club.

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We also struck up a conversation with Kris, who had the most unique Wild jersey we spotted all day, adorned with the franchise history of patches as well as the excellent choice of Sergei Zholtok's name and number on the back.

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While the early NHL game of the day was shown on a large screen TV set up at the WinterSkate, the next autograph session began, which featured Minnesota North Stars alumni Reed Larson, Don Beaupre, Steve Payne, Chris Dahlquist, David Jensen, Brad Maxwell and Neal Broten, the first American player to ever score 100 points in the NHL.

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While the North Stars alumni were scheduled to play a game against the local Media All-Stars, we had promised our mite hockey player that we would be inside the Xcel Energy Center in time for the pre-game warmup for the Wild vs. Bruins game, scheduled for the same time, but before going into the arena, we stopped to have our picture taken with the Herb Brooks statue.

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The game itself offered little hope to even the most die-hard Wild fan, as the Wild have had the league's worst record since mid-December and had lost seven straight heading into the contest with the defending champion Bruins and were playing without their captain Mikko Koivu. Still, a standing room only crowd of over 19,000 fans filled the arena for the nationally televised game.

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Low and behold, the Wild held the Bruins off the board to finish the first period scoreless after being outshot 14-12, turning away a pair of Bruins breakaway chances.

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Between periods, we went for a walk and took in some of the sights around the arena, the most notable displays being a tribute to the Minnesotan's inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minnesota, (from right to left) Henry Boucha, Mike Karakas, Lou Nanne, Tony Conroy and Neal Broten.

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We also took a moment to stop by the new Derek Boogaard tribute next to the Zholtok tribute for the late Latvian and former Wild captain.

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The second period was one of remarkable occurrences, as first Dany Heatley made a slick pass to recent call-up and Minnesota naive Chad Rau, who had taken off for the Bruins end following the change in possession. Rau's body language telegraphed a pass to Marco Scandella all the way, which got Bruins all-star goaltender Tim Thomas to cheat to the left which allowed Rau to fire an unexpected shot past Zedeno Chara and Thomas and into the net for a 1-0 Wild lead, making Rau the first player outside of Heatley, Koivu or Devin Setoguchi to score for the goal-starved Wild since February 4th, over two weeks time.

Wonders never ceased when another Minnesota native, Matt Cullen scored his first goal in 16 games, his first point of any kind in 9 and his first power play goal in over three months, which he called a "big relief".

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Boston threw everything they had at the Wild in the third period, outshooting the home club by a vast 22-3 margin, but Niklas Backstrom held firm in the Wild goal to record a career high 48 saves, the most ever by a Wild goaltender in a shutout to earn the game's #1 star award.

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Rau's first goal of the game was thus he game winner, his second game winner out of the two goals he has scored all season, with his first coming on Hockey Day in Minnesota, and his second now on Hockey Day in America!

Rau was not even expected to be in the Wild lineup, and was only recalled from the AHL's Houston Aeros the night before as a precaution in case Warren Peters was suspended for his crosscheck to the head of the St. Louis Blues David Backes the day before.

Rau's journey began in Abbotsford, British Columbia on Saturday when he received a text from the Aeros General Manager. At that point Rau began to do his best impression of the Dawson City Nuggets, when he first took a cab from Abbotford nearly two hours to the Vancouver airport for a flight to Los Angeles, where he missed his 9:45 PM connection to Minneapolis. He was able to take the red-eye flight, arriving at 6:45 AM, in time to have breakfast and take a nap before heading to the arena with his place in the lineup confirmed with the announcement of Peters one game suspension.

Following the conclusion of the game, our mite noticed the arena staff bringing more nets out onto the ice, not taking the two game nets away, which signaled the traditional Sunday afternoon post-game chance for kids to go out onto the ice and shoot a puck at one of the three nets.

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After each child had taken their turn on the ice, they received a very nice souvenir puck, complete with the date of the game and the opponent printed on it - a nice memento courtesy of the Wild a first class organization in every respect.

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Here is the collection of items we came home with: the mascot autograph sheet, seven signed North Stars alumni cards, our game program, a Guillaume Latendresse trading card given away at the gate, signed cards from Minnesota's favorite vendor Wally the Beerman and Amanda Kessel and the souvenir puck - total cost - $3 for the program with the proceeds going to a local youth hockey program.

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It was a really fun day being at the center of Hockey Day in America, meeting some nice people, getting some autographs and having the home team pull off a rather unexpected shutout win, all while sharing the day with our own little hockey player.

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