Risebrough says goodbye; Backstrom to have hip surgery, out four to six months?

Posted on April 21st, 2009 – 1:16 PM
By Michael Russo

Goalie Niklas Backstrom will indeed have left hip surgery Friday in Vail. Brian Stensaas was on a conference call with acting GM Tom Lynn. He reports he has two cysts on the bony part of his hip.

Lynn says they won’t know how long he’ll be out until they operate. Worst case scenario, Stensaas says, could be four to six months!

But Lynn said the doctor cautions they can’t give a timetable yet. More from Stensaas in Wednesday’s paper.

Also, I hear Brent Burns is having shoulder surgery probably on Thursday.

Just got back from Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub, where Doug Risebrough said farewell during a 30-minute press conference. He then talked on the side with the writers.

It was a classy goodbye where Risebrough thanked everyone from Jac Sperling and Bob Naegele for giving him this opportunity, to his staff inside the Wild, to the players, to the media to most importantly, the fans.

Brian Stensaas transcribed the presser (which I appreciate greatly), and it’s on the bottom of this post. I’ll throw a couple quotes up from his sit-down with the writers.

The coolest thing I saw? I’m standing outside the bar and a black SUV rolls up and I hear, “Mike!” It was Derek Boogaard, all drugged up and in discomfort literally after waking up from shoulder surgery. Boogaard’s fiancee drove him down there because he wanted to thank Doug for everything. He asked me if I could find him, and the two shared a few moments in the parking lot.

“You have no idea how much I owe him and Jacques for playing in the NHL,” Boogaard said. “I have so much respect for those two guys.”

Risebrough said he’s spoken and met with a number of players, even running into Marian Gaborik at the arena. He said after the initial natural discomfort Gaborik felt about talking to a GM that just got fired, the two shared some quality time together.

Risebrough also went to Brent Burns’ home to meet with the defenseman after the story came out about his concussion. He still maintains that this was not an easy diagnosis. You can read more about that in the paper Wednesday.

On whether he’s learned anything from Burns playing? “I went to see burnzie about that. I said, ‘brent, you should help participate in getting us to understand how we can do this better.’ One of them might be wives involved. Even when brent thought he was fine, his fiancée saw a difference in how he was feeling – sleeping longer, not eating as much. She was at the table expressing this to me. … the thing with the concussions is really a concern for the players is it’s hard to play the game with fear. You can’t enjoy the game if you’re worried. Going to see a guy like Brent saw, that guy gave him total confidence that this is just a one-time thing, don’t get all worked up about it.

“It was a good conversation with him, and I got to see the snakes, too – all 50 of them. It was quite interesting. He’s got quite the farm out there. I was glad they’re all kind of contained, too, because I can honestly say I’m not great with snakes. And then the birds, and then the guitars. That’s what I like about him. He plays somewhat the way he is.”

Risebrough also had some awesome stories to tell about Jacques, and guys like Mikko Koivu during his presser.

He admitted that there were lots of problems he’s had with agent Ron Salcer from Day One of Salcer taking Gaborik over from agent Allan Walsh. He said he and Salcer never spoke. “I get along with everybody. I think so. I’ve had a couple calls from agents. This was just an unusual one.”

But he doesn’t believe the relationship was a factor in his getting fired.

Risebrough said every decision he made with the Wild was done for the right reasons, and he knows he didn’t make all right decisions. I asked him — and this is what I was told from well-placed sources — about Leipold’s discontent with his conservative nature and the fact that he didn’t create some financial flexibility at this year’s trade deadline to make it easier to get Backstrom and Gaborik under the same salary cap for a long time.

After a long, “ahhhhhh,” Risebrough decided to decline comment because conversations with Leipold behind the scenes were “privy conversations.”

Unlike many GM’s, Risebrough is proud that he never made moves in Minnesota — especially in the last year of his deal — to save his own job.

He said he was shocked to learn of his dismissal, and Craig “will have to live with it,” but he said he didn’t blame Craig at all. He also said he’s happy Leipold fired him the say after the Lemaire press conference because even though he talked so much about the future and that was all for naught, he so thoroughly enjoyed the press conference and the fond farewell to Jacques.

“I always feel there’s a fit and if there’s not a fit, then it’s time to move on. So I wasn’t worried about that. I might be unusual that way. … There wasn’t [a fit] with Craig. But that’s OK. I spent a year, and he tried to find out, whether there was a fit. The difference is the fit’s in his control.”

As I reported last week, on Thursday, after the news was released of his dismissal, Risebrough got on his motorcycle and drove. He went to see Tommy Thompson, who was up in Fargo scouting the world under-18s.
“I wanted to go and talk to Tom Thompson because we’ve been together so long. And he was in Fargo. I said I want to see you Tommy, and we met halfway. And I looked up, and it was a blue sky, and I said, ‘what a great day for a bike ride.’ And it was a great day for a bike ride.”

Risebrough will leave Wednesday for three weeks in Palm Springs, then will go on a two-week solo canoe trip like he often does after the season. He hopes to manage again, and he said he will take any step to get there — meaning, maybe he consults, maybe he scouts, whatever. But he certainly wants to work again.

Asked if he’s cross over to the media, he joked, “I’m a bad writer.”

Asked about TV, he said, “I enjoy being able to communicate a perspective,” so he’d consider it. But in his mind, he said, staying in hockey means working for a team.

Lastly, from a personal point of view, I enjoyed covering Risebrough. Just a great guy to talk to with outstanding stories. He was always so assessable, which I appreciated, and even though we had a couple moments, there was a mutual respect. We didn’t always agree with each other professionally, but personally, it was a solid time.

It’s funny. I first met Risebrough at a wedding in Toronto in the summertime during the lockout. I actually sat at his table with guys like Doug MacLean, John Davidson, Dino Ciccarelli, John Shannon and a couple other league and team execs. I said to him, “Boy, you’d be a great guy to cover.” Not two weeks later, I landed in Paris, checked my voicemail and it was Star Tribune sports editor Glen Crevier asking if I’d be interested in interviewing for the Wild job.

Couple other tidbits:

– Boogaard is very sore, but had successful surgery and will begin rehab ASAP.

– From Pittsburgh sources, Craig Leipold has not asked for permission to speak with assistant GM Chuck Fletcher yet, but GM Ray Shero is expecting a call and would not only give permission, he’d advocate strongly on Fletcher’s behalf. “Quite frankly, it’s crazy that Chuck’s not a GM in this league already,” the source said. Actually, he’s been an interim GM a couple times. 

Here is the Risebrough transcript:

(Opening statements, after the thank-yous) Personally and professionally, this has been an unbelievable experience for me. I’ll carry it the rest of my career. This is my 36th  year in the NHL and the last 10 have been here in Minnesota and in the United States. Ironically, of the [36] years, this is my first time living in the US. I know in the last 10 years there’s been difficult times, but I want you to get a perspective from somebody who was not born here: I admire the resiliency of people here and certainly the passion that people have for this country. Minnesotans and Minnesota, I grew up with the same values. I grew up with the same friendliness, so this was home. I have a great affinity for the outdoors and the beauty of this state and I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy them. My family was totally comfortable living here. And family is important, especially in this business and the fact that they’re comfortable when you’re going to spend a lot of time on the job and a  lot of time away from them. We’ve made a lot of friends here and we’ve had some great support, certainly in the last week they’ve been great. And for a guy that has grown up with his life in hockey, that’s all I’ve ever done, you know, to come to a place like this where hockey fans instinctively what you’re trying to do and appreciate what you’re trying to do, debate what you’re trying to do, it was just a really fulfilling experience. I just admire the love affair that [these] fans have for the game of hockey and for the Wild. The last 10 years I’ve seen the growth of hockey in this state. I’ve seen great fan support game in and game out for our team. I’ve seen standing ovations, encouragement when the team hits the ice, encouragement when the team needs to do something and that started right from the first game against Philadelphia to the last game against Nashville.

Professionally, it comes down to opportunity. You know, starting a new franchise and being able to shape it is an unbelievable experience. More than I would have ever expected. But my satisfaction came from providing opportunity. Providing opportunity and watching people take advantage of that and being successful. The staff, whether it was their first time being a trainer, the staff on the business side being elevated to positions, players like Bombardir, Darby, Zholtok who had their best years here, watching them get appreciated when they had years where they were moved around. The high level of success the team had: wins, playoff berths, divisional titles and playoff victories. I’ll carry with me. This is a franchise that is in good shape and that’s great because the fans deserve it. The problem with a quick ending is you don’t get enough time to thank people. I’d first of all like to thank Bob and Jac for the opportunity they gave me 10 years ago to start, being the first hockey guy hired to start to do something with this franchise. The staff that worked so hard to do all the work to get things done and for a detail guy I bared them with a lot of burdens, a lot of work. The players, the commitment that they made day in and day out in probably the most competitive environment in hockey I’ve ever seen to be successful, I totally appreciate what they’ve done. And I have a lot of friends with the players. And the media. I’ve had some great discussions, great debates. And I feel that I’ve been dealt with fairly. But most importantly, it’s thanking the fans. This has been an unbelievable experience. Thank you.

(When it happened last week, were you completely shocked? How did it do down?) Well, Craig came in and told me he wasn’t going to extend my contract. And yes I was in shock because there was no discussion that day. No discussion about my extension. And that’s OK. I think you have to understand – I totally appreciate that for a guy like myself who makes decisions, they’re difficult decisions sometimes. And when somebody has made a decision like Craig had, you respect that he’s come to that decision however way that was. And that he, like I understood, will live with that decision. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about it, which I was fine with. And I’m moving on and he’s going to find a new general manager.

(You ever wonder why he did that?) No, not really. People have asked me that a lot. I don’t really wonder why because it’s not really that important, ironically. I feel really good about what I’ve done here. I feel really good about the environment I’ve worked under here. And so it’s not really, really important. I feel comfortable and confident about what’s happened here so it’s not really important. And, you know, he’s made a decision. That’s the most important thing. And I’m obviously caught in that decision but I’m excited about the opportunities going forward.

(You must  had a lot of conversations – he said he made up his mind a month ago. Did you have any idea it was coming?) No. And that’s the other good thing I feel about this relationship I had with Craig. It was a very open relationship. Very open. I had the opportunity with Craig to have somebody that went through a similar experience in a different capacity as an expansion owner in Nashville. I was asking him on a regular basis how he thought things were going and what he thought about things and what kind of input he would like. And that’s good for me because I feel the opportunity was there. I don’t feel anything more than a guy made a decision, OK? Whenever he made that decision, he made that decision. And that’s a responsibility he’s gonna live with. I’m fine with it. I don’t have any mystery where I’m worrying about any of the mystery of what’s going to happen or why he did it. It’s done. I’m moving on and so is he.

(Will the absence of Jacques next year make a big difference with this team?) I think the club, I believe the club is in really good shape, and I’ll tell you why. I think it’s got a good core of players. It’s got good youth. I think it’s got great flexibility in terms of the salary cap. It’s got lots of room this year, it’s got lots of room next year. So whether that means what do you want to do immediate signings or future signings, it’s all there. It’s got a great fan base that’s still in love with this team. So it’s going to be energized. I believe players that had poor years will rebound. I’m pretty comfortable to say the injuries aren’t going to be the same magnitude. So I think it’s a great opportunity for a manager and I think it’s a great opportunity for a coach. And I feel good about that. I made decisions on a regular basis for the right  reasons, and the right reasons never included me. They never included me, they were always for the franchise. Now I can say, I didn’t always make the right decisions, but I did them for the right reasons. And I feel good about that.

(Did the Gaborik situation have a lot to do with it?) I wouldn’t know. I have a good relationship with Gaby. I’ve probably – him and I have probably had the longest voyage together here. I’ve always had tough times signing him. But I’ve always had a good relationship with him. I wouldn’t know.

(Do you look at Colorado’s situation or any other situation? What do you want to do?) I really feel energized about working again. And from a standpoint of – personally, I’m in a good place. The kids – one of them is here, Lindsey, she’s making me the most nervous – their lives are moving on. They don’t need their dad as much. They’re comfortable in themselves. My wife is comfortable with the lifestyle we have. So personally I’m in a good place. Professionally I’m still young and I’ve always garnished experience as a major factor in people being successful. Ive had for 55 years old a ton of experience in a lot of difference areas right from coaching to assistant coaching to assistant managing to head coaching. So I’m looking forward to another opportunity. And I believe this experience here is going to help me with another opportunity, not only getting another opportunity but help me do a good job in another opportunity. And, you know, maybe if I dye my hair a different color – a little bit darker – maybe I’ll look younger too.

I haven’t been fielding calls, and I haven’t had any calls yet.

(What’s the high point of the last nine years?) The high point was obviously the playoff run. Why? Because it was all done for the right reasons. We wanted that team to get the best chance it could of being successful. And when you look back on it, it turned out: two rounds winning after down 3-1 twice. And I know a lot of people said to me ‘You don’t want this to happen because this is too soon for your franchise.’ And I never believed that I should have controlled that by trading somebody and making it not happen. I thought this franchise deserved whatever would happen. The fans deserved whatever would happen. And what it turned out to be was a phenomenal, phenomenal experience. And that has to be it. I characterize it by the debate that went on. I remember Jacques calling me in about the trade deadline. He always said ‘Doug, you know how you build a franchise in an expansion team is you’re competitive for a while and then you have to be bad. You gotta get the lowest pick possible. You gotta trade a lot of players and then you get new players and it’s the same thing: You’re good at the start and bad at the end so you get another good pick’ Well, if you know Jacques he’s too competitive so that’s not happening because of the coach; the manager’s that way. And we’re on this pretty good ride, and everyone’s feeling good about it, the players are having an experience they haven’t had before and Jacques called me in with this most serious look. He said ‘Doug, you’re going to have to do something.’ He was referring to the season. And I said ‘What?’ And he said ‘This thing’s out of control. We’re not going to be able to stop it. So we just let it go and it was great.”

(Was this season sort of the low point?) I don’t feel that way. When you’re managing a team – and I’m getting a chance to look at it in hindsight now – you don’t think about high point, low point. It’s just: get the job done. I felt when I looked at the two teams, ironically, at the end of the season I looked at the two teams on paper and I said ‘this is the better team.’ What this team was deprived of obviously was the opportunity to be better because of the injuries. I guess I was hoping that there would be – I knew Jacques was pretty well convinced that it was his last year and was hoping there would be a better ending for a guy that had good … But he won his last two games and he’s pretty excited. The thing I felt about the manager, and I said this before, the expectation was not the expectation of the  fans, it was not the expectation of what the team had won after a title. It was preparing the players for that expectation. Preparing them to say ‘You know what, this is a really close league. And we won the division. We want to keep that and want to look up at the banner and say you’re in a whole new fight this year. And there’s going to be highs and lows.’ I probably participated more with the players this year than any year I ever have and I found it very rewarding because they probably needed me more this year.”

(Do you see you and Jacques reuniting somewhere?) Probably not in the same way. Certainly, I don’t think Jacques is as interested in coaching as maybe people think. I think a unique setting, he might coach. But it was a great relationship I had with Jacques. He’s probably the smartest hockey guy Ive ever met. I learned a lot from him. I know he really appreciated the support I offered him. And so that’s probably unique and I’m probably the type of guy that says: If it’s that good and it’s been that great, don’t try and rekindle it. Maybe there will be a unique opportunity that will happen. I don’t think it will be as predictable as the last one.

(Any deal that did or did not happen that might have prevented this?) I haven’t had much chance to think about it. Maybe it’s just me – I don’t spend a lot of time rehashing. I’ll admit things didn’t work out in some cases. But at the end of the day, I don’t spend a lot of time rehashing them. Not really. You look at the success of the franchise, there’s not a lot of bad days. It’s like Jacques put it best at his press conference: We had good years and we had better years but we never had a bad year. This year, we missed the playoffs but it was by one point and some of that stuff is out of your control. You don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the stuff out of your control.

(What do you think will happen with Gaborik) I have no idea. That’s somebody else’s choice.

(Were you close with anything?) Uhh. No.

(Is being a GM again ideally your next job?) I’d like that. But I don’t know what steps it will be to get there. I’ve had some great experiences working for people. When Im talking about going forward, I’m not necessarily saying what’s the next GM out there. It’s just what’s the next experience I can be satisfied with, that I can learn from. I used to drive the staff nuts here because I was always trying to overturn another stone to figure things out. I used to say to them ‘It’s not that I don’t think you guys are doing a good job. I always know there’s better way of doing things or there’s a different way that we can get better at.’ So for me, I’d like to see, I’d like to be at another opportunity and whatever that is as long as I’m learning I’ll be happy.

(If you have that opportunity, do you want to come back and beat the Wild?) [Laughs] I wish them well. But I guess if it was me [against] the Wild, I’d probably say Yah I’d like to see them beat. But that’s the nature of being with another team. But you know, there’s too many good things that have happened to me here. And I truly am appreciative of the opportunity I was given here and the fans, they deserve the best and having them have a lot of nights of success makes me feel good. I got a chance every game – every game – to stand an watch them below. I can see everybody up from the box there – you can see the whole bowl – and it was an amazing thing to just watch the rhythms of the game when the fans would stand at that 5 or 6 minute part of the game. You know games are close, and they’re rallying the team. And they did. The last game at home, how important the game was with Nashville not only to beat them – the fans were into it. So, you know, I don’t wish anything poorly especially for the fans here.

(What about your players. Who’s got the most potential) I think Koivu is an entity. I think he is the guy, when you look at the way the games played – you watch the playoffs today they’re battles, they’re wars. You gotta look guys in the eye and you can’t blink. Mikko doesn’t blink. I remember telling him once when a couple years ago he was just starting out on the voyage of trying to figure out how good of player he was. We played in Edmonton and they all went after him. Physically. And he was pushing back and arguing with them because he’s a competitor. And I said to him afterwards ‘You know why they’re doing that?’ and he said ‘no.’ And  I said ‘Because they’re afraid of you; that’s why they’re doing that. They’re afraid of what you can do and they’re trying to discourage you.’ So that’s a good compliment to you. And he is the engine. I think Burns is a spectacular player. He didn’t have a great year this year. But he’s so young and when you look at his upside, you know. And getting Backstrom signed was a huge thing for this franchise because goaltending is so important. And I think Harding’s going to be a good goalie. I just didn’t want to put Harding in that predicament last year of having to be the guy because he might be too young. Couple years from now, he might be as good as anybody in the league. But when Backstrom is doing it the way he’s been doing it, and he truly wanted to be here and truly had a fan connection, so that’s a great thing. I think they have lots of good players here.

(Some of us thought your best team was a few years ago when you ran into that Cup team) I remember saying to the players afterwards we had had a great ride. There was an element of the Minnesota Wild beating Colorado – who are the Minnesota Wild? We were truly the underdogs. If you’re going to go and become a champion, you have to move past that. I thought playing Anaheim, it showed the distance that we were. They went on to play in the Finals. We still – and they won – we still had some growth. It showed the importance of some of the players recognizing that challenge and I said to them afterwards ‘That’s the yardstick.’ You’ve seen a Stanley Cup Champion, you’re gonna see a Stanley Cup Champion, you played against a Stanley Cup Champion.’ That’s the yardstick and that’s what you have to do. The next year – if there was a bit of a down moment about that, I’d say this: I felt some of the players hadn’t learned as much as I thought they would over the summer from that experience of playing the team that won the Stanley Cup. I could see it in their play. And that’s why I was convinced we needed to make some chances going forward because having them see that, a chance to say ‘Well, that’s what its all about’ Watching what they lost weeks later in the Stanley Cup, encouraging them that there were things they had to grow in and then seeing it happen the next year where they just weren’t quite there, I realized there had to be changes.

(Had you and Jacques stayed together, could you have put this together?) No – Jacques was gone and I was hoping to stay and a day later found out I wasn’t. So, no. It was just time to move on. I was excited about the challenge. I’ve been on Stanley Cup champion teams, watched a team grow to become a Stanley Cup champion. It’s a lot harder now than it ever has been. And I’d say the element of luck is even higher. When you watch the first round, you see what teams are going through in the first round right now. You got to have a little bit of luck on your side because the teams are all close. So you know, the lesson I learned is you can work at it. Some of it is not always going to be in your control and you’re still going to need an element of luck to be a Stanley Cup champion. But, you have to give yourself the best chance when you get a chance.

(Were you not happy that you talked about next year at Jacques’ press conference and then found out a day later? Would you have rather found out earlier?) No. In some ways I’m glad it was that way. I truly enjoyed Jacques’ press conference. I truly felt challenged to get up there and talk about Jacques and talk about the importance that he is as a representative of this franchise. Boy, I guess if I had known the news the day of that press conference, I probably wouldn’t have been at the press conference. If I was, it wouldn’t have been comfortable. It was the right time. And I appreciated Craig telling me the next day versus a week later. It was done. I was glad, I had a lot of people say to be afterwards how good they thought that press conference was and Jacques deserved that.

(In 10-15 years from now, what do you hope your legacy is with the Minnesota Wild?) I remember when I first came here I asked a lot of questions about the North Stars to a lot of people. And I was very surprised when people’s response to the North Stars was about the early North Stats.  The foundation of the North Stars. It was more about JP and Gumper. I guess if this team is going to have success, truly the first eight years of playing, nine years of the organization is the foundation, the importance of connecting with the fans, I feel very fortunate that I was a part of that. And, you know, 20 years from now when people start talking about the Wild, they might be talking about the early years and I was a part of it.

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