Kevin Constantine


Hockey’s getting closer

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Boy, I’m exhausted. It’s hard working everyday again, so hard I’m going to Florida in an hour for the long weekend :)

You may not see it in the paper yet, but I’ve been busy sitting down with people in preparation for the Star Tribune’s daily hockey coverage, which begins again late next week.

Just got back from the arena, where there are plenty of signs that hockey’s on the horizon. Equipment managers Tony DaCosta and Brent Proulx were running around, new strength coach Chris Pietrzak-Wegner was working out players and new video coordinator P.J. DeLuca was pulling clips of Wild games last year for new coach Todd Richards.

Got to meet assistant coach Dave Barr, and he and assistant Mike Ramsey were at their desks preparing for camp.

Mikko Koivu and Antti Miettinen arrived to meet Richards for the first time, and both looked in shape, tanned (well, tanned for two Finns) and ready to go. Marty Havlat gets to town for the first time since his initial press gathering tomorrow.

Richards, GM Chuck Fletcher, assistant GM Brent Flahr, Houston coach Kevin Constantine and Houston assistant coach Troy Ward also gathered the prospects and tryouts kids in the locker room for a meeting and highlight video as they prepare to travel to Traverse City for the prospects tournament.

So hockey is clearly on the horizon.

Players report for camp one week from tomorrow with on-ice sessions beginning in eight days (Sept. 13). Good news: The first two days of scrimmages (Sept. 13 and 14) are going to be open to the public.

The locker room area is a lot different than last year. Amazing what a fresh coat of paint and new carpet can do, but gone are all the pictures of players and big Wild moments that the team wallpapered the locker room with last year. That’s been painted over with “Champions Are … ” and Richards will likely have the players fill in the blanks. Richards also has added some inspirational messages all around, like his favorite, “The Man on Top of the Mountain Did Not Just Fall There.”

Richards also re-did his office, modernized the players lounge, added a room specifically for massages and modernized the fitness center. It looks good; the players should be happy.

Later today, the Wild is expected to release its new scouting staff. The team kept many, but replaced others. As I mentioned earlier this summer, Barry MacKenzie and Todd Woodcroft won’t be returning. As reported in July by Sid the Kid Hartman, part-time scout Glen Sonmor has retired from the NHL but will remain doing Gophers radio. Also, Marty Nanne, Lou’s kid, will be joining as a part-time scout.

Nanne is a former scout of the Florida Panthers, so he knows Fletcher well. In fact, yesterday Fletcher reminded me of the time in 2000 when Nanne begged the Panthers to take Paul Martin 58th overall. They took Vladimir Sapozhnikov instead. Nanne was so upset, he called the travel agent from the draft table to get out of Calgary.

Nine years later, uh, … the Panthers should have listened to Nanne.

That’s it for now, but when I land later tonight, I’ll publish a fresh blog you’ll be interested in. After tonight’s, unless there’s news, the blog will likely be dormant until mid-next week.

Update: The Wild announced changes to the team’s scouting staff today, adding Chris Kelleher (professional), Pavel Routa (European), Craig Channell (amateur) and Marty Nanne (Amateur/part time). Among the notable scouts who are no longer with the team: Marian Gaborik’s brother Branislav Gaborik and Glen Sonmor.

Backstrom’s hip feeling good as new, excited about Richards’ system; Constantine, staff returning

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

Just got off the phone with Niklas Backstrom, who infuriated me because he was sitting by the pool at the Palms.

Tough life, pal. Me, I just walked the Stone Arch Bridge. Nice, but not the same.

Backstrom’s jacked to be in Vegas, where I gave him some advice on must-see’s, like the “Love” Beatles’ Cirque du Soleil show at the Mirage. He’s a Beatles fan, as his girlfriend, Heidi. I gave him some other advice, too.

He’ll be up for the Vezina (Best Goalie) on Thursday night’s NHL Awards Show, which can be seen on VERSUS at 6:30 p.m. He’s a finalist with Boston’s Tim Thomas and Columbus’ Steve Mason. At the Show with Bax offering him support so to speak will be Heidi, Wild goalie coach Bob Mason, GM Chuck Fletcher and P.R. guru Ryan Stanzel — yes the same Stanzel who constructs the famed R.S.S. Feed on the Wild’s web site.

I talked to Backstrom about a variety of things that you’ll see in future sports sections, but here’s a few quotes I’ll offer up now.

On Vegas, Awards Show: “I haven’t been here before. Just to be part of it, it’s going to be one of the biggest days of your career personally. You never know if you ever get the chance to do it again. It really kicks in when you get here and you see all the guys – you know all these stars – and posters all over the city. I’ve never seen the Awards Show before. I don’t know how big it is. But when you get here, you start to feel it’s a pretty big thing.”

What do you think of Vegas: “I cant complain about the weather.”

How’s the surgically-repaired hip: “I feel really good actually. I’m going to see the doctor on Monday. I fly from here to Vail. I’m excited to see him there because it feels so good. I’ve never looked so forward to a doctors appointment before. Hopefully I’ll get permission to go full.

Nervous about being on camera and the Vezina? “Every athlete, you want to win. But when you go to a normal hockey game, you feel more that you want to win. It’s a great honor just to be here. You look at all the goalies, there’s only three who will be here tomorrow, but you look around the league, you could easily take 20, 30 goalies. So for sure it’s a great honor to even be here. Just looking back to where I have come from. Couple years ago, I played in Europe, and now you’re here up for such an award. I don’t want to say it’s enough. You want to be the best everyday and all the time. But it’s really good even to be here.”

Richards says the D will be running wild. Does that concern you? ”My job is going to be the same – stop the puck. If we win, it doesn’t matter how you play. That’s the only thing you’re concerned about – to win. If you’ve got a system that all the players believe in, and everybody really jumps into that, then every system is good. You look the way hockey is played now, you look at the good teams who were in the Final, even if they play some offensive hockey, I think everything starts from the defense. Even if it would be fun to have the 80s and 90s Edmonton Oilers here and score six, seven goals, I don’t think it’s possible in today’s NHL. So I think you can have a good offense, but everything still starts from the defense. Like I said, it doesn’t matter how we play, the only thing that matters is that we win.

You could be facing a few more odd-man rushes, but are you willing to give that up if it means you won’t have to be holding onto tie or one-goal games anymore? “It’s part of hockey. You have to live with that. You can’t worry about it. You have to make sure you’re ready for whatever happens. Goalies, we have to be there, we have to help the guys if that’s the case. On the other hand, if we play more offense, score more goals, maybe every now and then our goalies can make a mistake and we have a chance to win. So there’s some good and some bad things with every style. The only thing that matters is that you play good hockey. Then that gives you a chance to win.”

(more…)

“Chucky” holds conference call with print media; Highlights: He’s spoken to Gaborik, he plans to spend next week on coaching search, is working toward a Draft Day trade

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Busy Chuck Fletcher has been swamped with many things on his plate, so in the past week, he hasn’t had a chance to talk with the beat writers.

Fletcher held a conference call with the two newspapers and Associated Press this afternoon, and he discussed the coaching search, Gaborik and pro scouting meetings.

Highlights:

He spoke with Gaborik, although it was mostly just to introduce himself. Asked if he got an idea as to whether Gaborik is willing to consider staying rather than just automatically going to free agency July 1, Fletcher said, “I can tell you the conversation was not as much about the future as just introducing myself and having a general conversation. I’ll talk more in depth with [agent] Ron Salcer as I continue discussions with him.”

On whether he’s talked to Salcer about a contract, he said, “It’s starting to get to that point in time where I’ll probably respectfully decline to comment on the specifics of negotiations.”

That made it sound like there have been negotiations, but in a subsequent email I sent to Chuck, he said there have been no negotiations and that he meant that any future talks as far as a contract would be with Salcer rather than Gaborik.

– On the coaching search: He said he’s still closer to the beginning of the process rather than the end. “I’m trying to narrow it down to a smaller list of candidates. I’ve spoken with some candidates. There are still some candidates I intend to speak with in a little more detail. Next week, I’ll start to make some progress.”

He said it won’t be an exhaustive search of everybody because he has a good idea of his finalists. He said that’s because in Pittsburgh when he and Ray Shero fired Michel Therrien this past season, he and Shero reviewed and assessed different candidates and spoke to a lot of different people about candidates.

“I don’t think it’ll take lot of time once I can devote all my time and attention to the matter. Next week I’ll jump into it more aggressively.”

He said his timetable is still by the Draft, and he’s confident it’ll happen. And quite frankly, Fletcher leaves for the June 26-27 Draft on June 22, so my guess is a coach will be named by June 19 the latest.

The candidates still appear to be Todd Richards, Craig MacTavish, Peter Laviolette, I hear both Detroit assistants Paul MacLean and Brad McCrimmon and Kevin Constantine. There could be others. But these are the names I’m hearing mostly from myriad leaguewide sources.

– Fletcher made it extremely clear he’ll be looking to swing a trade at the Draft. He comes from a long list of teams that have made big trades at the Draft — Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha the biggest. He said he and his staff are compiling free agent and trade priority lists, and that’ll continue to be refined.

But because free agency is such a crapshoot, he’d like to try to fill some holes “in advance” of free agency, which means the Draft.

I keep hearing Josh Harding is the big piece they’ll be floating. I also confirmed again the Wild offered Benoit Pouliot around to everybody last summer, so you can bet that won’t change. I also hear Derek Boogaard — one year from unrestricted free agency — will be at least shopped.

– Lastly, he thanked Mario Tremblay and said he asked Mario if he wanted to be considered for an assistant coaching position and Mario thought it was best to move on, which is what Mario told me. He said once a new coach is in place, the first order of business would be to sit down with Mike Ramsey, Matt Shaw and Bob Mason to see if there’s a fit.

Chuckie, Brown Fox or simply Fletch has landed

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

Aloha from Honolulu. About to head out into the night on Waikiki Beach suckers. I think I’ll be on KFAN live at 9:40 a.m. with P.A. — yes 4:40 a.m. Hawaii time because I’m loco like that.

Figured I’d jump back on as promised to toss on some more thoughts on the hiring of Chuck Fletcher as the Wild’s second general manager in history.

Here are the links to the stories from Friday’s papers:

Main Fletcher hired story by Russo

Jim Souhan’s take on the Wild and Wolves’ hires

Sid the Kid Hartman weighs in

As somebody joked with me a few weeks ago — and I honestly can’t remember who, so I apologize in advance — but if Fletcher got the job, he should be nicknamed the “Brown Fox,” since his dad has always been known as the “Silver Fox.”

Whoever told me this, if you want credit, send me an email and I’ll post. I give credit where credit is due, but my brain is sunburned.

Some call Fletcher Chuckie, others call him Fletch. Funny, but for a name that can easily be turned into a nickname as so often happens in hockey, I’ve always just called him Chuck.

I covered Fletcher for seven of his nine years in Florida, and I can tell you he’s a sharp cookie. I’ll throw on a bunch of stories in the weeks ahead, but as I told him a few weeks back, who would have thunk back in the late 90s that quite possibly one day I’d cover him as a GM — only in Minnesota.

Back in the day, Fletcher was always expected to become the Panthers’ GM, and quite frankly, until the lockout happened, I never considered I’d go off and cover another NHL team.

But Fletcher, considered the next big thing in the NHL for some time, has finally got his opportunity. And by the way, the thing you should know about Fletcher is he has not gone for every job out there. He never wanted just any GM job that came his way. It had to be the right fit, so for him to take this opportunity says a lot about where he thinks this franchise is and can go, and what type of hockey hotbed it is.

First up for Fletcher will be to determine a coach. In the NHL, folks usually hire people they know and are comfortable working with, so right away, Todd Richards becomes a favorite. Fletcher hired the San Jose assistant and former Gopher in Wilkes-Barre, and he had great respect for him.

Peter Laviolette, Craig MacTavish and Pat Quinn would be the obvious experienced coach pickups, Kevin Constantine warrants a look. So does Detroit assistant coach Paul MacLean and Chicago Blackhawks assistant John Torchetti. Some respected junior coaches include Portland Pirates coach Kevin Dineen and Manitoba Moose coach Scott Arniel.

Another possible candidate just popped in my head. Anaheim Ducks assistant coach Newell Brown for two reasons: 1) Fletcher’s relationship with him in Anaheim; 2) The Panthers nearly hired Brown a couple times as head coach during Fletcher’s tenure there.

As I wrote in the story, I see Fletcher going young and up-and-coming after witnessing the transformation Pittsburgh had under Dan Bylsma. These hockey players today are young. Look at 20-year-old James Sheppard, who just did not communicate very well with 63-year-old Jacques Lemaire. Sheppard even admitted it after last season with the infamous I’ve been playing hockey since I was 3 quote. 

Some of these youngsters need coaches more in tune with their generation. These players today ask why, and instead of being told “because that’s the way I told you to do it,” sometimes you need to take 10 extra minutes and explain why.

I think Fletcher believes that, too. But I think right now Richards is the guy. Word in NHL circles is Fletcher and Ray Shero wanted Richards when they fired Michel Therrien this season but obviously couldn’t get him out of San Jose in the middle of the season. Bylsma was only supposed to be interim so they could hire Richards. But Bylsma did such an amazing job, they extended his contract earlier in the playoffs. So I believe the Moose is the guy.

OK, I’ve got an early flight to the Big Island on Friday morning to cover the Kona Coffee Pickers against the Hilo Gilamonsters in the Hawaiian Hockey League, so I’ll be reluctantly out of touch and will miss the Brown Fox’s introduction to the “State of Hockey.”

But we at the Strib have you covered, so no worries.

Talking Aeros hockey; Getting out of dodge for a bit

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Good day everybody. Just thought I’d jump on to say goodbye.
Not for good (unfortunately for some), but I’m heading outside the continental U.S. Saturday for a little more than a week. But I’ll have the cell phone, blackberry and laptop at my side, so I’ll be paying attention to the GM search as best I can on the sands of Hawaii.
How great were those Game 7’s last night, by the way? The conference finals should be extraordinary.
I did a Kevin Constantine story for Saturday’s paper. Remember, many considered him the potential frontrunner to replace Jacques Lemaire if Doug Risebrough was doing the hiring. But once Risebrough was fired, everything changed – for Constantine, too. Now his future is up in the air.
He should still be a candidate, especially after coaching the Aeros to at least the AHL’s Western Conference Finals. But it’ll be tougher for him just because of the perception he’s also a defensive coach, and the Wild’s new GM almost certainly will want to change the Wild’s style to a more up-tempo type in the post-Lemaire era.
I wasn’t able to squeeze in a lot of stuff about the Aeros, so I figured this would be a good venue for that.
Constantine never realized the Aeros had this run in them. After the team won its first four games, the Aeros battled inconsistency due to injuries and callups, including Cal Clutterbuck, Krys Kolanos, Peter Olvecky and John Scott.
Clutterbuck never left Minnesota after his Oct. 16 promotion, while Kolanos, Olvecky and Scott played a combined 72 games for the Wild.
“Whenever guys were gone, we weren’t that good to be honest,” Constantine said. “It just shows how much the players are the most critical factor in wins or losses. When we were healthy and had bodies, we put together runs.
“The turning point might have been when Kurtis Foster came down [on his rehab stint]. We won six in a row with guys like Foster, Kolanos and [Benoit Pouliot] all playing. So we went through stretches where we said, ‘Maybe this team has something.’”
Critics like me have blasted the Wild for not having much talent in the minors, and the reality is even though the Aeros have reached the AHL’s Final Four, they’re nothing without the scoring of veterans Kolanos (37 goals in 59 Aeros’ games), Corey Locke (15 playoff points) and Jesse Schultz (second-leading scorer in the regular season, injured right now), who all could become unrestricted free agents. And quite frankly, there’s a chance they all leave. Heck, a guy like Kolanos can probably make $1 million net in the KHL.
“Those guys carry us offensively, and then you try to wrap some detail around that,” Constantine said. “But I think there’s pieces here. I really do. I’m still a believer in Pouliot because I see talent and improvement. I just think sometimes in pro sports we’re not allowed to be patient, so sometimes it’s like now or never. But I think the guy’s going to be a good player. I don’t know what role. Don’t know if it’ll be a first- or second-line center role, but I think there’s a role for him as he matures through the business.
“[Justin] Falk, in the third [period Wednesday], looked like a very big, strong, calm defenseman. [Maxim] Noreau turned into a good defenseman. I don’t think the main future of the Wild are here, but I think there’s a lot of pieces here.”
Other bright spots include role players in Irmen and Robbie Earl, up-and-coming defenseman Marco Scandella, defenseman Clayton Stoner, who’s rebounded after years hampered by injuries, and goalie Anton Khudobin, who’s extremely unorthodox and raw but has carried the Aeros through the playoffs with injuries to goalies Nolan Schaefer and Barry Brust.
Remember, Carson McMillan’s there now practicing, and Cody Almond will be there too next year. And quite frankly, probably Colton Gillies.
Anyway, that’s my take on the Aeros. It was fun actually getting to see them play in Wednesday’s Game 7, 5-2 win at Milwaukee. 

I also wrote a Tom Lynn feature that should appear some time in the next few days on what he’s been up to the last month and the job he’s done in Houston – which makes him at least a candidate to be the Wild’s next GM – or certainly a GM in this league somewhere someday.
Chuck Fletcher and Pierre McGuire are still the frontrunners, I believe, but knowing Lynn, he probably impressed in his initial interviews with owner Craig Leipold. I still think Leipold’s at the very least a week away from naming a GM. To me, it was necessary to have a far-and-wide search, and Leipold’s done a quality job with it.
Like I said, I’ll do my best to keep tab from Hawaii. Talk to ya later Wild fans.

Aeros advance to the conference finals

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Lookee here

 constantine.jpg

After keeping one eye on the Caps-Pens Game 7, for the first time in the series, the game didn’t exactly live up to the hype. Boy, the Pens just kicked butt, eh? Can you say butt on a blog?

The reason why I only kept half an eye really on the NHL game is I attended the Houston Aeros’ Game 7, 5-2 victory over the Milwaukee Admirals. The Aeros became only the third club in AHL history — and second Aeros’ team — to win two Game 7′s on the road in the same postseason (Peoria last round).

Kevin Constantine — or KC, as I’ve learned he’s called — won three Game 7′s as an NHL head coach — all three on the road, meaning that’s 5-0 in the NHL and AHL. And he says it’s even better because he did the same thing a few times in junior.

“I have no idea why, either. I wish I did,” Constantine laughed.

By the way, and I’m sure it’s been written by Ms. Conduct & Gang on their great Aeros’ blog, but the playoff beards are out and Constantine’s got the chops going for sideburns. Great story on that I’ll probably throw into the paper tomorrow.

They’re the triangle sideburns all the way down his cheek. Very John Fogertyish. I’ll think of a better description and blog it during my drive home (I’ll pull over first, I promise). And if you don’t know what Constantine looks like, he’s got red hair, so it’s a great look. I nearly almost took a picture of Constantine just for the blog with my camera phone while I was interviewing him, but to be quite honest, Constantine scares me.

Oops, thought of one. It kinda looks like this — Hans Klopek from the Tom Hanks’ movie, the Burbs (as a kid, I toured the Universal lot when they were filming that movie) — only much more grown in and nothing on his chin.

hans.jpg

After losing 7-0 in Game 6, the Aeros shockingly bounced back. Corey Locke and Krys Kolanos scored 49 ticks apart in the first, Milwaukee cut it to 2-1 and then there were several tense moments until the third as the unorthodox Anton Khudobin made some great saves and offered some heart attacks. He’s raw folks, very raw.

Clayton Stoner, who played a great game, scored a huge power-play goal, then former Admiral Tony “Circus” Hrkac set up former Admiral Bryan Lundbohm for the backbreaker on a beauty of a 2-on-1. Locke popped one in an empty net.

Justin Falk, I thought, was the best defenseman. Outstanding game, especially in the third. Robbie Earl can skate like one of those NHL ’95 games I used to play where you can press a couple buttons and the player goes into turbo boost speed. He’s one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen. Effortless, like the Niedermayers, but with more speed, believe it or not. Danny Irmen played a solid game as well. A couple other players didn’t play so well, but I won’t mention them and one particular because I’ll keep it positive for a change (give it a guess though).

I had other things I wrote down, and of course, I left the paper in my car (I didn’t blog last night because there was no wireless in the Bradley Center). I also watched the game from owner Craig Leipold’s suite along with Tom Lynn, Chris Snow and pro scout Todd Woodcroft — on condition the words “GM” and “search” never came out of my mouth :)

I appreciate the invite by Leipold. He’s a lot less stressed during non-Wild games, but still stressed enough. So it was interesting to get that up-close perspective. Next year I plan on watching every game from the owners’ suite at the X :)

Leipold had the Aeros over to his home earlier in the series, and he said it was a blast. So Leipold’s current farm team knocked off his old farm team — and actually the Wild eliminated Nashville twice if you consider the last home game of the NHL season. And continuing the theme I mentioned before the series, Tom Lynn beat Paul Fenton in the battle of the Wild GM candidates. Just a joke.

Funny moment during the game. They flashed the Marlins-Brewers score. I had no clue the Marlins were in town, and one of my best friends happens to be one of their announcers. I phoned (Canadian verb) him, happened to catch him between innings and we got to hang after the game for the first time since last hockey season when the Wild was in S. Fla. (he’s a Panthers’ announcer, too).

So that was cool and random. I know I had other things to mention, but I’m on little sleep and it’s on that sheet of paper that’s conveniently in the car. I’ll hop back on later.

So, after the game, the Aeros took a bus to Chicago to spend the night. They fly to Winnipeg today and open the conference finals against the Manitoba Moose on Friday-Saturday.

I have to hit the road for five-plus hours. It was a cool trip over to Milwaukee to see the Wild’s farm team in person for the first time.