The Minnesota Wild are the hosts of this year's NHL All-Star Game on Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Xcel Energy Center in the heart of Saint Paul.
There isn't a better arena in the league, especially when you take into consideration the hockey tradition that surrounds the concourse, like the Minnesota high school jerseys hanging in the rafters and the Hobey Baker Memorial Award display. They have done it the right way.
And the fans in Minnesota know their hockey. Last weekend my son Tyler was in a tournament in Minneapolis, so we watched two Wild games while we were there. One thing that really caught my attention was the fans' Montreal-like attention to details during the game. The guy beside me was getting on a player while the Wild were on the power play because the player wasn't getting back to his own zone. "Get him off the ice," he screamed. "He doesn't backcheck." Love that stuff.
All this leads to wonder who will represent the Wild in the All-Star game. Unlike baseball, all 30 teams don't have to be represented in the game (although it usually ends up that, including the YoungStars game, all 30 are). However, a member of the hosting team is usually selected if the fans don't pick him as a starter.
The easy pick when the season started would have been Gaborik. He was the sure thing, maybe even an All-Star starter. But he held out for the first month of the season -- losing nearly $500,000 in the process -- and hasn't played well since joining the team.
Brunette has been terrific offensively, but the strength of forwards that could be added to the All-Star team may leave him out of the mix. I would personally love to see Bruno in the game because he has great hands, can slow down the play -- really slow down the play -- and sees the ice well. With all the talent in the game, he could do some magical things out on the ice.
My pick to represent the Wild? Roli the Goalie.
Roloson keeps flying under the radar -- way under the radar. He's sixth in the league with a 1.91 goals-against average and is tied for third with a .933 save percentage. Those stats are more impressive when considering that in his 15 games the Wild have scored an average of two goals. Take away the six goals they scored against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Roli's goal support is a measly 1.7 a game -- no room for error there.
Competition in the West will be tight; it would be even tighter if not for injuries and subpar play from top-end guys.
Phoenix Coyotes goalie Sean Burke would be a natural All-Star participant, but he hasn't played as well as he can. The Coyotes have stayed in the thick of the Pacific Division thanks to solid play by Brian Boucher. Dallas' Marty Turco and Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere have struggled.
Edmonton's Tommy Salo has been a non-factor; he wasn't playing well even before his injury. His partner, Ty Conklin, has played well in spurts. Dominik Hasek does not deserve to be there, although he returned form a groin injury to beat L.A. 3-2 in overtime on Monday night, and Curtis Joseph is in the American Hockey League waiting for a trade. San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov and Chicago's Jocelyn Thibault also are injured.
The Wild could use an impact player in the game, which means Roli could get his chance. And it wouldn't be a token selection; the amiable and humble Roli epitomizes the essence of never giving up. He has gone from being a fringe backup NHL goalie to an AHL All-Star and back to what should be an NHL All-Star appearance right in his own town. That would be a nice story.
Cujo situation cooling off
Cujo may be spending some time in Grand Rapids of the AHL.
There was a collective sigh of relief when it was announced to the Red Wings players that he was put through waivers to be re-assigned. Hasek, who's not very good at the people skills part of life, didn't exactly make it easy with his very quirky personality. The guy in the middle, literally, was Manny Legace. He sat between the two in the locker room, and that couldn't have been very comfortable. Meanwhile, the on-ice yelling match that Cujo had with goalie coach Jim Bedard in Minnesota during the morning skate on Nov. 22 was enough for the Wings to send Bedard on a scouting mission to get him away from the strain and frustration of the situation. I am sure at that point Wings GM Ken Holland had seen enough.
It appears as if the teams that have a mild interest in Cujo want Holland to take at least half of this year's salary and next year's if there is a lockout. Holland is known for being creative when working out a deal, and he'll have to be for this one. In the meantime, Cujo has to get himself off the mat and go to work. He is making roughly $48,000 per day to play hockey. He has to show the hockey world he can be a winner and make a difference for some team. At the same time, he needs to show flexibility when it comes to approving the potential teams because he has to get back to the NHL before he is a forgotten man between the pipes.
U.S. kids are all right
The World Junior Championships is one of the best hockey events in the world. Unfortunately, it gets little ink in the U.S. Team USA is icing one of its best teams yet and will be under the direction of former NHLer Mike Eaves, who is also the head coach at the University of Wisconsin.
The player I love to watch on this team is Zach Parise, the New Jersey Devils' 17th overall selection in the 2003 draft from the University of North Dakota. Parise, a sophomore, is the son of former NHLer J.P. Parise and attended Shattuck St. Mary's, the Faribault, Minn., prep school.
Brady Murray, the son of Los Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray and a freshman at North Dakota, was also added to the roster. Because he has dual citizenship, Brady had a choice of playing for Canada or the U.S. He made the right (and obvious) decision. Brady is good friends with Zach and Patrick Eaves, Mike's son who is a sophomore at Boston College. All three played at Shattuck.
The trio could face another former Shattuck player if Team USA meets Team Canada in a medal-round game down the line. Canadian Sidney Crosby, the 16-year-old consensus No. 1 pick for the 2005 draft, played for Shattuck last season because he was too young to play major junior and too good for his age group.
As far as Team Canada is concerned, it received a huge boost when the Penguins loaned them Marc-Andre Fleury. Last year Fleury was the surprise star in goal en route to the silver medal and best goalie honors. This is a good decision for him as far as his development is concerned.
I said it before and I'll say it again: Fleury shouldn't, in my mind, go back to his junior team; he has little to gain from playing his fourth season there. It's time to step forward. Penguins coaches Eddie Olczyk and Lorne Molleken are watching him closely, and their relationship is a good one. Fleury has his head on straight, and the pressure of representing Canada in the WJC is perfect for him.
Unfortunately, financial details come into play with a team like Pittsburgh. But as far as his development, he has been marvelous in the net on most nights in the best league in the world. Like most goalies he has had his confidence shaken, but he has great moxie and leadership. With a work stoppage looming next year, he can go to the AHL and continue his development and grow with the young kids who are the future of the Penguins.
Darren Pang, a former goaltender with the Chicago Blackhawks, is a hockey analyst for ESPN. His goalie rankings appear every other week in Net Effect.