A done deal: Winnipeg gets its hockey back

The National Hockey League is returning to Manitoba.

An agreement is in place between True North Sports and the owners of the Atlanta Thrashers to move the team to Winnipeg for next season. The city has been without the NHL for 15 years, when the Jets moved to Phoenix prior to the 1996-97 season.

For fans in Fargo-Moorhead, a team in Winnipeg gives them another option within a 3.5 or 4-hour drive.

The deal still needs approval from the NHL board of governors, which could come as early as June 21.

This is a big move, not just for Winnipeg but for the NHL. And I’m not sure how to interpret it. There was plenty of relocation in the 1990s, but this is the first time since 1981 that a team has moved from a southern market to a northern market. That was also an Atlanta team, as the Flames left for Calgary that year.

Is this just the start of what could be a migration north? I think it’s possible. But it’s pretty safe to say the NHL over-expanded 10 or 15 years ago, and the league would be healthier if there was contraction rather than relocation. Besides Quebec City, I haven’t heard of any other market that’s making much of an effort to get an NHL team. And there’s plenty of teams that are in financial trouble.

But one thing is for sure: The NHL was unable to broaden its fan base by cultivating a strong following in the southern markets. I think having teams in Phoenix and Atlanta and Dallas has actually helped the growth of the sport and spawned youth programs where there might not otherwise be. But the NHL teams themselves play second-fiddle, or more accurately, fifth-fiddle, to college football, pro football, NASCAR, etc.

I’ll leave you with this video from the Jets’ final regular-season game back in 1996. Pretty cool.

Wolves may trade out of No. 2 slot in NBA draft

How many forwards can the Minnesota Timberwolves accommodate? Apparently, not any more.

ESPN.com is reporting that the Cleveland Cavaliers are interested in getting the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft from the Timberwolves. That would give the Cavs the top two picks. They would likely take Duke guard Kyrie Irving and Arizona forward Derrick Williams with those picks.

By trading out of the No. 2 spot, the Wolves would get Cleveland’s No. 4 pick and Detroit’s No. 8 pick. Also in the trade, the Pistons would send Richard Hamilton to Cleveland. Not sure what Detroit gets in return, other than ditching Hamilton’s salary.

I like this move for the Wolves. In all likelihood, Williams would be the best player available at No. 2. But he really doesn’t strike me as what the Wolves need, and they need a lot. But the team’s two best players are both forwards – Kevin Love and Michael Beasley. Ideally, with the No. 2 pick, a team would hope to get the go-to scoring swingman or guard it desperately needs. But that won’t be the case this year.

So what would be left for the Wolves if they trade down? NBAdraft.net has a mock draft that has Cleveland taking Kentucky center Enes Kanter fourth and Detroit taking San Diego State forward Kawhi Leonard eighth.

It’s now or never time for Rubio and Timberwolves

One source has put Ricky Rubio‘s chances of playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves next season at 90 percent. My guess is there’s a 100 percent chance of some resolution between the team and it’s former first-round pick.

ESPN.com reported earlier in the week that there are still some financial stumbling blocks between the Wolves and the No. 5 overall pick of the 2009 draft.

But despite that, I believe something will happen this offseason with Rubio. It has to.

The Timberwolves are feeling the heat. Team president David Kahn is feeling the heat. And Rubio, who hasn’t set the world on fire playing in Europe, is probably feeling some heat too.

I think Kahn realizes his future with the Timberwolves is tied a great deal to Rubio’s future. I don’t think that necessarily means Rubio must play for the Wolves, but considering the No. 5 pick was spent to draft him, there has to be some returns on the investment one way or another. And what’s left of the dwindling fan base is growing impatient with the waiting.

And my guess is Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor won’t give Kahn the kind of long leash that Kevin McHale had when he was running the team’s operations.

The Twins and playing the stock market

Made my usual rounds online today and came across a column by Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In what is a pretty obvious – albeit accurate – statement now, Souhan writes that everyone should agree that Kevin Slowey shouldn’t be with the Minnesota Twins right now. The Twins should have traded him before the season started, when he had value.

I’d like to expand on that a bit. Turn back the clock to last July, when the weather was warmer and the brand of big league baseball being played in the Twin Cities was better.

The Twins were playing well, looking like contenders. To bolster their bullpen, they traded for relief pitcher Matt Capps. In doing so, Minnesota sent a struggling catching prospect – Wilson Ramos - to Washington.

Ramos’ stock had never been lower at the time of the trade. Considered one of the team’s best prospects entering last season, Ramos – despite looking good in a brief call-up to the Twins – was hitting .241 with a .625 OPS in 71 games for Triple-A Rochester prior to the trade.

Capps has proven to be a very useful reliever for the Twins, but very expensive too. He’s making $8 million this season.

Ramos has proven to be a very useful backstop for the Nats, and very cheap. This season, Ramos is hitting .255 with a .757 OPS in 34 games, having supplanted Ivan Rodriguez as the team’s starter.

Now, nobody will confuse Ramos with Johnny Bench or Mickey Cochrane. But when Twins catchers – led by Drew Butera and Rene Rivera – have posted a .151 batting average this season, there’s no doubt Ramos would have helped, maybe as much as Capps’ presence has. And with the money saved from having Ramos instead of Capps, perhaps one or two more solid relievers would be on the team.

Talking about the Ramos trade is the definition of beating a dead horse. But it’s a good example of what I think is the larger issue: Buying low and selling high.

In Ramos’ case, the Twins sold very low. With Slowey, they will be selling low again.

In the case of Joe Mauer‘s contract, as unavoidable as it might have been, the Twins bought high.

Baseball players are obviously people, but some argue that they have to be treated like stocks. That’s one of the things I took from Jonah Keri‘s book “The Extra 2 Percent.” It was about the Tampa Bay Rays’ front office and their approach to personnel decisions. Very interesting book. I got through it in two days. Just couldn’t put it down.

That’s a disturbing pattern that the Twins have going. And it’s one of the many reasons the Twins find themselves in the cellar of the AL Central.

Slowey chapter to close in disappointment

There’s been no shortage of drama with the Minnesota Twins’ disappointing start. And one player in particular will likely get sent packing because of his inability – or unwillingness – to adjust to his role.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Monday that pitcher Kevin Slowey will likely be demoted to Triple-A to stretch out and become a starting pitcher again after Slowey complained to management that he was struggling to warm up in the bullpen. All signs point to Slowey getting traded.

Slowey took quite a few verbal jabs last night from Fox Sports North broadcasters Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven. No surprise there. Sounds like Slowey deserved them, and as expected, Bremer and Blyleven followed the company line on that one.

Assuming that Slowey’s big league career with the Twins is over, this has definitely been disappointing. I was one of those people who had a lot of hope for Slowey. He had some incredible minor league numbers, and he posted some encouraging stats in his first full season as a big leaguer in 2008.

In fact, in one of my first posts on this blog, I made “the case for Kevin Slowey” dated Oct. 9, 2008. I basically fell in love with his K-to-BB ratio, which that season was third-best among big leaguers who had thrown as many innings as Slowey had. The two who finished ahead of him were Roy Halladay and Dan Haren. Now, I didn’t think Slowey would be a future ace, but at the very least, his minor league pedigree suggested to me that he would be a very useful major league starter.

But since that 2008 season, it’s been downhill. The production has suffered (though the K-to-BB ratio remains well over 4.5 for his career). He’s been injured a lot.

That last part – injuries – will hurt his trade value more than anything. But I do think the Twins will be able to get something decent in return. I still think there’s reason to believe he can be a good major league starter again, like he was in 2008.

But I do think the time has come for the Twins to move him. Watching him walk around the bullpen while on TV last night was embarrassing for him and for the team, considering that the Twins had turned to Anthony Swarzak and Dusty Hughes in his place.

Can Winnipeg support the NHL? I’ll say yes

When it comes to loving hockey, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place that embraces the sport as much as Winnipeg does. It’s a pretty typical Canadian city.

And look no further than the University of North Dakota men’s hockey team’s roster in recent years to find player after player from the ‘Peg.

The only question – if the Atlanta Thrashers really are going to move to Winnipeg – is whether or not the city has the population and corporate support necessary to support a franchise in one of the four major leagues.

It never made much sense to me to have NHL teams in climates that don’t suit hockey, like Atlanta. But I get it. They’re big cities, and even if attendance isn’t great, there’s still the corporate support that you’ll find in major markets.

Winnipeg may not have that to the extent that Atlanta does. But I have no doubt a Winnipeg team will draw better than the Thrashers did.

And I don’t think they’ll have any more trouble drawing free agents than they did in Atlanta. After all, in Winnipeg, the NHL team would be the only big show in town. Those players will be rock stars there, rather than playing second fiddle to Matt Ryan or Chipper Jones in Atlanta.

So I think it can work out. And all signs point to this Thrashers move as inevitable.

One thing’s for sure: Other smaller cities – many of which lost NHL teams in the last two decades (see Quebec City) – will be watching to see how successful the franchise can be in Winnipeg.

And I’m simply looking forward to having another NHL option just a drive away from Fargo-Moorhead.

For those who didn’t catch them, I had some “NHL to Winnipeg” copy in the sports section today. I talked to Moorhead resident Dave Christian – a former Winnipeg Jets player – about the rumors. And I penned a column after talking to a popular “Return the Jets” campaigner that once was a guest on our sports talk show we used to have on WDAY. Check out the stories.

David Kahn says the darndest things

From the man that brought you a memorable comparison of Chris Webber to Darko Milicic, Minnesota Timberwolves president David Kahn is at it again.

Kahn made some comments Tuesday night after the Timberwolves managed the No. 2 pick at the NBA draft lottery – despite having the best odds to get the No. 1 pick – that have drawn a lot of attention. He said, in what I interpreted as a joke, that he knew the Wolves were in big trouble when they were among the final three teams left for the top three spots in the NBA draft during the televised lottery event.

The Cleveland Cavaliers rep was the 14-year-old son of the team’s owner. He suffers from a rare nerve disorder.

Kahn said the NBA loves good stories and that he knew “we were done” when seeing the kid on stage with him and the rep from the Utah Jazz. He likened it to last year, when the Washington Wizards sent former owner Abe Pollin’s widow as their rep. The Wizards, much like the Cavs this year, bucked the odds and won the lottery.

The comments have built a lot of heat. At one point today, it was the main story on Yahoo’s website.

I think it’s much ado about nothing. I’m not saying the comments were in the best taste, but I don’t think Kahn meant anything harmful by them. And the idea that Kahn should be suspended for suggesting the NBA draft lottery is rigged is a bit much. I even read that a national columnist suggested Kahn be fired for the comments.

Kahn might be fired, and it could be soon. But if he is fired, it will be because the Timberwolves’ on-court product hasn’t improved, and not for the latest in a string of silly comments he’s made.

Here’s the video of his interview Tuesday night:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEuAkpUQJHU

And here’s the video of him talking to Chris Webber a year ago:

Killebrew always seemed worthy of more appreciation

I’m going to preface this blog post by saying I never met Harmon Killebrew. I’m too young to have watched him play. I don’t even have anything autographed from him.

Harmon Killebrew

Harmon Killebrew was a larger than life athlete in Minnesota. Associated Press

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t always had an opinion of Killebrew, which has been shaped by years of story-telling from others who have known him.

Killebrew died Tuesday after battling cancer in the esophagus. The last month has been quite a whirlwind for Minnesota Twins fans in regards to one of the team’s two greatest players (along with Kirby Puckett).

Killebrew was scheduled to throw out the first pitch for the home opener. And just over a month later, he’s gone. He never did throw out that first pitch, and less than a week ago he announced in a news release that he was entering hospice care.

It’s been great reading about the man known as “The Killer,” which was a nickname that reflected more on his baseball ability than his attitude. He seems like one of those stars that not a bad word is written about, along the lines of a Stan Musial for Minnesotans. That’s something that - as the years go on – we’ll appreciate more.

One thing that has stuck out to me about Killebrew’s career as that he didn’t get into the Baseball Hall of Fame until his fourth try. I’m left wondering, “How can that be?” He played in a deadball era – at least in modern times – and hit over 500 homers. Doesn’t seem right.

And as juiced-up slugger after juiced-up slugger passed him on the career home run list during the last decade or two, well, that didn’t seem fair either.

But as far as I can tell, none of that bothered him. He is as well-known for his humility as for his home runs. Maybe that’s his legacy.

Let’s return to the blog on a pleasant note

I’m back from vacation today. I haven’t been to work in 10 days, and during that time the Minnesota Twins have not won a game. So there’s plenty to talk about there, but let’s leave the nine-game losing streak alive for a moment and talk some puck.

As entertaining as the NHL playoffs can be, the lack of Versus on my provider’s basic package has kept me from watching all but a few of the playoff games that popped up on NBC.

I’ve become much more interested in Winnipeg’s pursuit of an NHL franchise. That would give the Fargo-Moorhead market two NHL teams within about a three-hour drive. So I think it was pretty big news when it was reported that the Atlanta Thrashers owners are talking with a group that’s very interested in buying the team and bringing it to Winnipeg.

The NHL – as of yet – has not interfered with this deal in the same way that it has in other potential moves of franchises, so it appears this could definitely happen. A very motivated seller with a very motivated buyer. Not much is in the way right now.

And it’s been reported that the NHL is working on a schedule for Winnipeg should this happen quick enough to bring a team back as early as next season.

I think this is pretty exciting news for our area. From an F-M perspective, this is almost as big of news as the NHL returning to the Twin Cities. I’m curious to know how many of you out there would go to Winnipeg to see an NHL team play. If Manitoba got a team, would it impact you in any way? Less Wild games for you? Leave a comment.

Twins’ season slipping away quickly

I’m living the life of your average sports journalist these days. From August until the end of March, things are much busier in a sports department than they are from April through July. So when it comes to taking vacation, the bulk of it gets taken this time of year.

And that’s why I’m on vacation again this week. So if you don’t see regular blogging until next week, you know why.

This has been a much more low-key vacation so far. Two weeks ago, I was going from the Twin Cities to Fargo to Thief River Falls and back again. This time, I haven’t gone anywhere. And that means plenty of baseball-watching on the TV. It’s a couch potato stay-cation if there ever was one.

Unfortunately this year in this market, a person is subjected to a lot of bad baseball being played by the Minnesota Twins. Tuesday night was just the latest ugly episode.

I’m nearing the point of declaring this team dead. The problem right now is that they don’t have the pitching to win these low-scoring games. And the offense just doesn’t look like it will turn a corner until the likes of Joe Mauer, Jim Thome and Delmon Young return. Young could be back real soon, possibly as soon as Friday. Thome is likely a week away. But there’s plenty of talk that Mauer might not return for a few more weeks.

But Mauer is the key. The Twins have three significant holes in their lineup at catcher (.143 AVG. – worst in MLB), second base (.173 – worst in MLB) and shortstop (.191 AVG – worst in AL). Even with Young and Thome returning, the struggles at those three positions won’t change until the personnel does.

I hate to be the rain cloud. I didn’t call the team did in 2006 when it started slow. But this team is in much worse shape on the field than that team.