John's Journal
Governor Dayton Proclaims “Bob McDonald Day” in Minnesota2/10/2014
Governor Mark Dayton has proclaimed Tuesday, Feb. 11 as "Bob McDonald Day" in Minnesota, honoring the longtime boys basketball coach at Chisholm High School, who is in his 59th and final season.

Read the announcement from the governor by clicking here.
The Voice Of Hockey: Gary Thorne Set For Boys State Tourney 2/7/2014
If you want to listen to someone who is excited about the boys state hockey tournament, listen to the familiar voice of Gary Thorne. The veteran broadcaster, who is well-known for his work with the NHL, Major League Baseball, ESPN, the Olympics and college hockey and football, will handle play-by-play duties on KSTC-Channel 45 for the Class 2A state tourney March 6-8 at Xcel Energy Center.

I talked with Thorne on the phone recently, and his excitement was palpable. He has never attended the MSHSL boys state hockey tournament and he is thrilled to be part of it in 2014.

“It’s one of those events, that if you like hockey it’s certainly up there among the major events in the country,” he said from his Florida home.

Thorne has seen it all. As a radio broadcaster for the New York Mets, he made the call when a ground ball got past Boston first baseman Bill Buckner in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. Currently he is a broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles; he also has been the voice of ESPN Radio’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts.

His hockey broadcasting career began at the University of Maine, his alma mater.
From 1992 through 2004, Thorne called NHL games for ESPN, ESPN2 and (beginning in 1999) ABC.

During his years in the NHL he came to know many players who grew up in Minnesota. He learned a lot about the state hockey tournament through those relationships.

“They’ve said that next to winning the Stanley Cup, winning the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament is their biggest thrill,” Thorne told me.

Several years ago Thorne met Dennis Silva, the KSTC executive sports producer in charge of MSHSL state tournament television coverage. As they chatted, Thorne told Silva to keep him in mind if Silva ever needed a play-by-play person for the state hockey tournament. When Silva contacted Thorne recently, they had a deal in a short period of time.

“I knew it was the No. 1 high school tournament in the country, with big crowds, a tremendous viewing audience and a great level of talent on the ice,” Thorne said. “I told him, ‘If you need anybody, give me a call.’ ”

Thorne is already doing homework for the tournament by following the top teams in Class 2A.

“I’ve got a rundown on the teams that might be likely to be involved, and their players,” he said. “I’m trying to get a little familiar with everything involved.”

His broadcast partner at the tournament will be Lou Nanne, who will be attending his 50th boys state hockey tourney. Thorne and Nanne have known each other for years.

“I’ve known Lou from his days in the NHL and we’ve crossed paths many times over the years, I believe going back to my days of doing college hockey at Maine. I couldn’t believe it when I heard this will be Lou’s 50th tournament. That’s just unbelievable. What a run.”

Thorne will arrive in the Twin Cities a few days before the tournament begins to have meetings with the rest of the KSTC broadcast team. He can hardly wait.

“Everyone’s told me that the atmosphere is one of the things that makes the tournament so special,” he said. “That it’s just unbelievable, the passion of the fans and the players. It’s engaging to me. I can’t wait. It will be great fun. It’s one of those things that will seem like it’s over before it starts.”

His contract to work at the tournament is for one year. But …

“That’s not to say that it couldn’t happen again.”

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 279
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,331
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Adapted Floor Hockey: Strategy, Competition And Lots Of Fun2/5/2014
Coach Dan Slinden was thinking about strategy. His team trailed by one goal in the final minutes when he had a quick chat with Jake Yancy, who already had scored once in Tuesday’s game.

Jake was taking a breather on the bench when Slinden asked him, “Can you go back in and score a goal?” Jake replied, “Give me one more whistle, coach.” The message was clear; Jake wanted to catch his breath for a few more seconds before returning to the action and doing everything he could to tie the score.

The plan didn’t work out, but that didn’t take anything away from a great day of competition as the Rochester Raiders defeated the South Suburban Flyers 3-2 in an adapted floor hockey game at Eden Prairie High School.

Floor hockey is one of four adapted sports offered by the MSHSL. The others are bowling, softball and soccer. They offer students with physical or cognitive impairments the opportunity to be members of teams that are engaged in competitive sports.

And the competition Tuesday was at a high level. Players from both teams kept the plastic puck moving all around the floor. Players wear protective gear such as helmets, facemasks and gloves, along with jerseys, short or long pants and athletic shoes. The athletes work extremely hard.

“We practice three times a week,” Rochester coach Jeff Copler said after his team’s victory. “We started practice right after Thanksgiving so we’ve been practicing for a little more than two months now.

“The kids do a great job. They really love coming out and playing hard. You can see the emotion out there.”

Sean Healy, a sophomore at John Marshall High School, scored two goals for the Raiders and Alex Steffl (senior at John Marshall) had one goal and an assist. Patrick Healy (also a John Marshall senior) got the assist on one of his brother Sean’s goals.

For South Suburban, Yancy (a junior at Eden Prairie) and Alexei Dickinson (ninth-grader at Valley View Middle School) scored the goals and Andrew Mortinson (junior at Bloomington Kennedy) assisted on both.

One of the best parts of Tuesday’s game was the cheerleaders from Eden Prairie. They watched and performed in one corner of the court, cheering for both teams. Many of the fans carried signs supporting their teams and athletes. Up-tempo music was played over the gym’s sound system during stoppages in play. It was a wonderful atmosphere.

“Every year we tell (the athletes) what a great opportunity this is to play adapted sports,” Copler said. “We tell them to make sure they appreciate it every day, because it’s the only program of its kind in the nation.”

Late in the game, Slinden was happy when Copler called a timeout. The Raiders had more players than the Flyers, and the short break gave Slinden’s crew a needed rest.

“With not as many numbers as Rochester, I play my timeouts (two per game) and just try to keep people fresh,” Slinden said. “You try to give them time when they need a break. So I was very happy when Rochester called the timeout.

“Every year we compete with Rochester and we’re very evenly matched. They have great coaching; Jeff does a great job, (assistant coach) Cass (Wiersheim) does a great job. It’s just a lot of fun playing them because it gets competitive and it brings the best out of our kids.”

The Raiders make five trips to the Twin Cities during the adapted floor hockey season, and metro teams go to Rochester for games.

“Some nights it gets to be some long road trips, but the kids enjoy it,” Copler said. “We get to stop on the way home and get a bite to eat, compliments of the Quarterback Club of Rochester. So the kids really appreciate having a nice meal on the way home.”

--To see a photo gallery from the Raiders-Flyers game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 279
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,331
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
Coaches vs. Cancer In St. Clair: Smiles, Love And Support 1/31/2014
ST. CLAIR – The gesture was simple but powerful. It was silent but emotional.

Before the St. Clair boys basketball team played host to Minnesota Valley Lutheran on Thursday night, St. Clair coach Charlie Freitag held the microphone at center court and said a few words about the day’s Coaches vs. Cancer activities.

On this bitterly cold night, which had been preceded by a serious snowfall, basketball was played in the main gym and a wrestling triangular in a smaller, older gym. Between the two, the school commons was a beehive. Kids were having their faces painted, lollipops and valentine carnations were sold, dinner featuring pork sandwiches was available and pink was everywhere, including shoelaces and wristbands.

This is the fourth year the Cyclones have hosted a Coaches vs. Cancer night. Nine-hundred dollars was raised the first year and $7,800 the second year. Last year’s total was almost $24,000, making it the largest Coaches vs. Cancer event at any school in Minnesota and the seventh-largest in the nation. Money raised goes to the American Cancer Society.

But numbers tell only a small part of the story. Freitag talked about all the volunteers who pitched in, thanking everyone for their support. Everyone in the gym was standing as he spoke, and then he made a simple request. He asked everyone to sit down … everyone except those who were cancer survivors.

Six or seven people remained standing, ranging from grandparents to a member of the pep band. To honor them and their journeys, members of the basketball team went into the stands carrying a rose. Each survivor received a rose and a hug, offering a smile in exchange.

Freitag also talked about those who had been lost to cancer, including Neal Lang, who was diagnosed with cancer two weeks before the start of his senior basketball season in 2012. Neil was 19 when he died a year ago this week.

“It’s an unfortunate one, but it’s a great story that a community like this can come together,” Freitag, a 1997 St. Clair graduate, had said to me earlier in the evening.

Indeed, it is incredible to see a community of only 850 people raise so much money. Donations come in all sizes; the biggest single method is a program in which local and area businesses pledge a dollar amount for each point scored in the basketball game.

St. Clair beat Minnesota Valley Lutheran (which is in New Ulm) by a score of 72-52. Business had pledged a total of $80 per point, and the 124 points resulted in $9,920. When all the donations are finalized, the total could be in the neighborhood of $25,000.

Freitag was an assistant coach when he first delved into Coaches vs. Cancer. The main reason was pretty simple: he kept receiving mail from the American Cancer Society. And in a very short period of time, St. Clair became one of the nation’s top Coaches vs. Cancer sites.

“When you walk through the school, it’s unbelievable, with what the administration and the backers and some of the groups in the school have done,” Freitag said. “For us, to be the largest event in the state and seventh-largest in the nation, in a town of 850 people, it shows there is support not only here, but in Mankato, Madison Lake, all the surrounding area.”

Cancer has touched many families in St. Clair, including school staff and students. Amid the pain and sorrow that can result, Thursday’s event was filled with smiles. Cyclones cheerleaders sat on their matside pillows and performed synchronized routines as the St. Clair wrestling team hosted a triangular wth New Ulm and River Valley (which is a cooperative team involving Sleepy Eye and Springfield).

Little kids wearing painted faces played in the commons as their parents and grandparents enjoyed dinner. The pep band – wearing pink, plastic hard hats -- performed on the stage in the small gym and later played pregame music in the big gym. The walls of both gyms were covered with small placards in honor of cancer survivors; Coaches vs. Canver in the big gym and TakeDown Cancer (a wrestling-focused effort) in the small gym.

At halftime of the basketball game, a paper airplane contest was held, with winners successfully landing their aircraft inside the mid-court circle. After the game, both teams gathered for a photo. Again, smiles abounded.

Plenty of work goes into the event, work that is well worth the effort.

“I want to make sure it’s a great night,” Freitag said. “Not good, but great.”

--To see a photo gallery from St. Clair, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 275
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,169
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn
From Windom Exchange Student To MVP To The Super Bowl (In Denmark)1/29/2014
By JOEL ALVSTAD
Sports Editor
Cottonwood County Citizen, Windom

First-year Windom Eagle football coach Bobby Elwell got a pleasant surprise after the first day of practice last fall.

A foreign exchange student was coming to live with the Wayne and Julienne Antes family, whose son, Kyle, was a junior on the Eagle football team.

"I thought, ‘Great. We’ve got a kicker,’" Elwell said.

It turns out August Nielsen meant a lot more to the Eagle program than the sterotypical exchange student on an American football team.

Nielsen played five years of American club football in his homeland, Denmark, before coming to Windom.

"Usually, a foreign exchange student that comes out for football is pigeonholed as being the kicker," Elwell said. "August told me right away that kicking was probably the one thing he wasn’t comfortable doing. Hopefully, it’s something that we see more of when exchange students come to the U.S."

Nielsen went on to be the Eagles’ leading rusher and one of the team’s leading tacklers. His teammates voted him as the team’s Most Valuable Player after the end of the season. (In the photo, a Danish TV cameraman films and interviews Nielsen last week.)

But now, Nielsen is bringing his football talent to an audience of 1.5 million.

Last Monday, a Danish television crew was in Windom, taping a segment with Nielsen. The segment will appear during the pregame of the Danish broadcast of the Super Bowl.

"They called me a couple of weeks ago," Nielsen said. "They wanted a Danish person who was in the States playing football to do a story on prior to the Super Bowl. They asked to come here to do a little story.

"The theme is on how the sport is growing in Denmark, but they are also going to talk about concussion awareness, so they’re talking to doctors about what concussions do to the brain and talking to someone who wrote a book on the effects of concussions."
Elwell noted that one of the co-workers of the video crew had known August and knew he was playing in the U.S., prompting the call to set up the shoot.

Nielsen talked to Elwell about getting some equipment and some of his teammates together for a little bit of a pick-up game for the crew to tape. School was out for a teacher inservice, but several Eagle teammates came to school to brave the elements for some football in the snow.

"Most of what they filmed was while I was playing, and they asked questions while I was in the locker room," Nielsen said. "It’s pretty exciting knowing I’ll be on TV in front of that big an audience."

Nielsen said that the Danish TV audience for the Super Bowl is relatively small compared to the U.S., but he noted that American football is growing in popularity in Denmark and throughout Europe.

Meanwhile, Elwell said he feels blessed to have had the chance to coach August during his first season as a head coach.

"It was a very unique situation, having a foreign exchange student with the kind of football skill set that August has," Elwell said. "In talking to some of the other coaches in the area, they all seemed to agree that he was one of the best foreign exchange students they had ever seen on a football field. It was something we weren’t expecting, but it was certainly beneficial for our program to get a kid with that kind of ability and talent.

"More important was his work ethic and his willingness to do whatever it took for the team to have success. He was a real pleasure to have on our team, especially as a first-year coach. The guys really had a lot of fun having him around, and he set a great example."

Elwell noted that many schools, and Windom in particular, encourage foreign exchange students to be active in extra-curriculars to become acclimated to American culture. This fall, Windom’s exchange student population was seen on the football field, the volleyball court and on stage during the fall musical.

"That's something Windom takes a lot of pride in, and we’re very happy we could help August with the adjustment to the U.S. But the impact he had on our guys and our program is what we’re going to take out of this experience the most," Elwell said. "Seeing August flourish socially was probably the most rewarding part of the experience. He was pretty shy and quiet the first couple of days, but he really became a big part of the kids’ group and the school in general, in a pretty quick fashion. A lot of that has to do with the passion he brought to the football team.

"He got to know the guys pretty fast and they got to know him. His host family was a great fit for him. August and Kyle are kind of cut from the same cloth. They enjoy a lot of the same things and the Antes family has done an amazing job getting August involved. There wasn’t a huge adjustment period for him."