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An Interview with Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune

On the first day of the new and improved Illegal Curve, Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune was nice enough to give us some of his time and answer a few Wild and non-Wild related questions.

Here is the interview:

Richard: Hi Michael, before I ask a couple of Wild related questions, I wanted to ask how you’ve found the switch from covering hockey in Florida to covering the game in a hotbed like Minnesota?

Michael: I love it. I have nothing but great things to say about my time in South Florida. The Sun-Sentinel treated me like gold, I miss my colleagues there and I thoroughly enjoyed covering the Panthers for 10 years. I started working there at age 16 and I just turned 21 when I started covering the Panthers in 1995. I literally learned on the job. Panthers fans are as passionate as any other market, but unfortunately, because the team hasn’t won since 1996, fans started to pay their attention and dollars elsewhere. I was also seeing signs of the team becoming irrelevant in the marketplace. The paper was giving them less space, and the electronic media was ignoring them, so I was concerned what it would be like after the lockout.

I had such a blast covering the Marlins especially, as well as the Heat, Dolphins and great events like Doral (PGA) and the Nasdaq (Tennis), I started to really ponder what I wanted to do with the rest of my career near the end of the lockout. I love baseball, but two terrific baseball writers filled those jobs at the Sun-Sentinel. And still, the one thing I did know is my passion was still hockey and to give it up, I had a feeling I’d regret it.

I knew for some time that the Minneapolis Star Tribune Wild position was open. The day the lockout ended that July, I sent my resume and clips to the sports editor here, was offered the job the day Hurricane Katrina was crossing over Florida and moved here a week before training camp. I had been offered other hockey beat-writing jobs at other papers during my time in Florida, but I always said to myself, if I’m ever going to move to another paper to cover hockey, it’s got to be in a hockey-mad market. That certainly describes Minnesota. Whether you’re a hard-core Wild/NHL fan or casual one, you know what’s going on with the team. College and prep hockey is as popular, and some even say more so, than the Wild.

Minnesota hockey fans are intelligent, passionate, and I love writing to an audience like that. When you’re a sportswriter, you want to know people are reading you, you want to know that perhaps you’re adding to their enjoyment and at the very least giving them as much information as humanly possible about the goings-on of their favorite team. In Florida, I felt that less and less and just felt I needed a change in scenery. And I certainly got that here in Minnesota. It’s a little colder and snowier than Boca Raton, and I’m no longer living five miles from the ocean.

Richard: I guess the one positive of the cold winters, is the fact that you probably don’t mind being inside while you are writing your columns and blogging; which brings us to my next question.  With blogging so prominent these days (your Russo’s Rants blog is terrific), I am wondering how much time you weigh toward your blog as compared to your newspaper articles?

Michael: I have two opposite thoughts on newspaper blogs/web sites. It’s definitely a whole different world. Back in the old days, you held stuff off the Internet till midnight because you didn’t want to tip off your competition if you had a scoop. Today, the goal is to get everything out to your readership as fast as you can because we live in a world where people are finding several news sources besides newspapers. It’s a 24-7 world, and tomorrow’s sports section in a lot of cases is old news.

So I am all about the blog. My first thought always is, ‘I’ve got to get this on the blog.’ There were several occasions last season where we’d be in a press gathering around Jacques Lemaire, he’d say something newsworthy and I’d get it up on the blog from my Blackberry before he was even done speaking. I also love the blog because there’s no space constraints, I can offer instant commentary, opinion and analysis and I can be a lot more casual, offer a lot more of my personality than I can in a typical newspaper article. Deep down, I’m a hockey geek. I love the sport, wish I could play the sport, respect the athletes, and I think that passion’s conveyed often on the blog. I’m just trying to adjust to the new world.

But I will say this: the newspaper industry’s in financial turmoil. I have no doubt we’re reaching more people than we ever reached because of the Net, but we’re dying because of it. We give away all our content for free. Because of that, good sports writers are having to make real-life decisions and leaving the industry or going to the Web, and that will undoubtedly affect sports fans * especially if you’re a hockey fan. If a diehard fan wants in-depth local news on their favorite team, the newspaper beat writer is usually the one supplying that. Again, especially in hockey. In most U.S. markets, unlike the other three sports, print journalism is about the sole medium that drives the local coverage. The local electronic media either ignores the sport or learns what’s going on simply because the newspaper beat writer’s reported it. I don’t mean that to be arrogant. It’s just the truth. So in some ways, our very own blogs and webs sites are killing us because newspapers haven’t figured out a way to create enough revenue online. We’re way behind the curve, and better figure this out quick.

Richard: Now, onto the Wild.  The team’s off-season has been relatively quiet, so how would you grade the team’s summer as compared to the rest of the Western Conference?

Michael: I don’t know if I agree with the term, ‘quiet.’ I’ve worked longer and harder this off-season than any in recent years. Even two summers ago when the Wild was active in free agency, the team did all its business by July 7 and I got out of Dodge. This has been a ridiculously busy off-season. Between Lemaire’s insinuated retirement (that ended in his return), the Wild embedded in the Olli Jokinen trade talks, the daily Brian Rolston stories at a time, trading for two defensemen * Marek Zidlicky and Marc-Andre Bergeron, the team’s attempt at Hossa, Huselius, Naslund and Morrison, the signing of Nolan, Miettinen, Brunette and Weller, the Veilleux soap opera (firing his agent, being put on waivers, clearing waivers and settling before arbitration), the Bouchard five-year deal and now Gaborik’s extension talks, it’s been almost daily.

I agree the Wild swung and missed on a lot of things, but that’s what I predicted for a month leading up to free agency. This market was under-supplied and over-demanded, and there are 29 other teams you’re negotiating against. I’m not trying to make excuses for them, but that is a fact. So yes, if you look at the Northwest, I feel Calgary and especially Edmonton made significant on-paper strides this summer, as well as a number of other teams in the West.

That leads to a lot of uncertainty in Minnesota. The area I’d be terrified about if I was a Wild fan is the fact the team couldn’t accomplish getting a center. The team severely lacks depth there, and if Mikko Koivu gets injured, look out. But I do feel that IF the Wild gets to the playoffs, it’s in a lot better position to battle than in the past two one-and-out postseasons.

Richard: Which of the five main players the Wild acquired this off-season (Nolan, Bergeron, Zidlicky, Brunette, Miettinen) do you think will have the biggest impact on the team in 2008/09 and why?

Michael: I really like the Zidlicky trade. I know they gave up a lot in Ryan Jones and a puck, but I’ve always respected Zidlicky’s game. And with Rolston gone, the Zidlicky-Bergeron pickups now are extra-significant because the two of them should make impacts on the power-play point. I’m very interested to see if Miettinen can turn into the player the Wild thinks it’s acquiring. He certainly had a lot of chances to put up points in Dallas and didn’t. If the Wild gets to the playoffs, Brunette and Nolan will be a significant upgrade to what they’ve had in the last two playoffs.

Richard: Finally, with one year remaining on his contract at $7.5 million, do you think Marian Gaborik will eventually sign a contract extension with the Wild? If not, why?

Michael: I really don’t now. His agent hasn’t returned a phone call yet and he’s not commenting right now. If he doesn’t sign, it’ll be solely because he wants out. The Wild plans to make him an offer that would give him the most lucrative average contract in the NHL behind Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin. It’ll be above Lecavalier, Heatley. Spezza, Thornton and the one guy in the West I think is the most valuable, Iginla.
But Gaborik’s a year away from unrestricted status and already makes an average of $6.33 million and will make $7.5 this year. So you have to pay him, and in this case, probably overpay him.

But Gaborik’s intimated in the past year that he wonders sometimes about what it would be like to play elsewhere, and you do have to wonder if he’s willing to commit four to seven of the next years of his life to the Wild.

He never actually said after the season that he wanted to sign a long-term extension here. What he kept saying is he didn’t want to enter this season on the last year of his deal because he saw all the distractions that created in Atlanta and around the league with Marian Hossa. But that, to me, has a different connotation. It’s not saying, ‘I want to return.’ It could be saying, ‘If you can’t sign me to an extension, maybe it’ll be best if you trade me.’

I can’t say for sure, but we’ll know very soon. If the Wild can’t sign him, it’s definitely a risk NOT to trade him.

Not just because it will be a constant distraction, but because he’s got a history of groin problems. If the Wild resumed negotiations after Jan. 1 and still couldn’t sign him, what happens if he gets injured before the trade deadline? It’d be impossible to deal him.

Of course, this is a bunch of hypotheticals, and just maybe the Wild has no problem inking him. We’ll see soon.

For Illegal Curve, I’m Richard Pollock.