Myers: Wild coach Mike Yeo finally getting to unwrap his presents
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Summer camps and cruise lines try to get patrons excited with hokey "Christmas in July" events now and then. You wear red and green, you hang some lights, and try to capture the spirit of the winter holidays when shorts and t-shirts are the appropriate outdoor apparel. It never works.
Ditto for Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo, who got his own hollow taste of Christmas in July last Independence Day.
On that blazing Wednesday, the mercury hit 102 in the Twin Cities, which would prove to be the hottest day of 2012, and Yeo was handed the two brightest, most sought-after toys available on the NHL's free agent market. True to the hokey nature of Christmas in July, he didn't get the batteries to make them go.
"It's kind of like having a toy at Christmas that you're not allowed to play with," Yeo said this week as he finally, finally got to watch from the Xcel Energy Center seats as much of his 2013 team -- including free-agent prizes Zach Parise and Ryan Suter -- skated together in red and green for the first time.
A week ago, Yeo had some success on the ice, but not the kind he was really hoping for. He was pictured on Twitter hauling in a nice-sized walleye during an outing with Izzy's Ice Fishing on Lake of the Woods, shortly before the labor trouble was settled.
On Monday, Yeo wasn't allowed on the arena ice until players and owners had formally approved the recently-forged collective bargaining agreement, but just being able to watch from the back row of the lower bowl, while the players did half-ice, three-on-three small games, was enough to make the coach grin.
"I think they look great. It's been very exciting," said Yeo, rapidly prepping for his second season as a NHL head coach.
"It's been building for a couple months, so to know that it's upon us now, we're really excited and the players are excited too. There's a great turnout and the guys are in a great mood, so it felt like we're picking up right where we left off."
If the season starts on Jan. 19 as expected and the Wild can pick up where they left off on that date a year ago, it will be a good thing.
In the middle of last season, the Wild were solidly in contention for the playoffs, before a long, slow slide had them on the golf course in mid-April and helped spur owner Craig Leipold and general manager Chuck Fletcher to be extra aggressive in the free-agent market.
Still, Yeo thinks that important on-ice work, and learning, can come from last season for the Wild players returning.
"The purpose of last year was to set the table for future success," Yeo said. "The way that these guys conduct themselves, I'm real confident that we'll go out and do what winners do."
Despite last season's quiet conclusion, there's significantly more playoff experience in the locker room today than nine months ago.
Suter, then with the Nashville Predators, made it to the second round of the playoffs last season. Parise's final campaign as a New Jersey Devil ended in the Stanley Cup Finals, where his team fell to the Los Angeles Kings in six games.
But getting to the postseason will be a sprint, as opposed to the normal marathon 82-game season. The Wild will most likely play a 48-game slate, against Western Conference competition only. That will mean lots of games in not many nights, and plenty of travel to far-flung locales such as Phoenix, Anaheim, San Jose and Vancouver.
Recently, Yeo met with Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman at Target Center, where they talked about the NBA's lockout-condensed season from a year ago and how to handle it as a coach.
"I think we'll spend a lot more time on our three-point shooting," Yeo joked. "It was helpful. Obviously, the game is different, but the challenges in a lot of ways are the same with a shortened camp and the compressed schedule. (Adelman) had a lot of insight and a lot of good things to say about both of those."
For the coach, it will likely mean building in more rest days, rather than pressing minutiae in practice, and likely more off days spent on the road rather than retuning to Minnesota.
For the players, it will mean that a slow start will be the kiss of death, as teams scramble to finish among the top eight in their conference.
"I think there will be a sense of urgency, definitely," said Suter, who spent the lockout at his home near Madison, practicing with a high school-level team managed by his father and coached by his brother.
"With a shortened season, guys know we have to be going from day one. In the past, you could get away with having a little bit of a slump, but not with a shortened season."
Parise had an ear-to-ear smile in his first official post-practice scrum with the Minnesota media but acknowledged that there were no real winners with the NHL missing half a season due to the labor strife.
"It's been tough for everybody: players, management, fans. It's been a hard process and we're all happy that it's over," he said. "Now we can just get this thing going and get the season going. We want to play. The fans want to see us play, so let's all move on and forget about this."
Training camp will likely open on Sunday, with defenseman Matt Dumba -- the team's top draft pick last summer -- expected to attend, then return to playing Canadian junior hockey.
Yeo said he's had a draft of the line chart in his head since July, and the Wild haven't played a bad game yet, so he's got no reason to juggle things yet.
"We had all summer to think about what we wanted to try, so we've got an idea of the way we want to start," Yeo said. "We'll have to gauge that in our training camp, but we want to give these lines some time to develop some chemistry. You have to try to tinker and experiment too, to find your best combinations."
The games that count are still a week away, and the serious strategy will begin over the weekend, when camps begin in earnest.
For now, there are new players donning practice jerseys, laughing and joking in the locker room, and getting to know each other, quickly.
After months of anger in the media and in negotiating rooms, and dead silence on the ice, that noise coming from the locker room is the season's biggest victory so far. And while Christmas in July was a predictable bust, Yeo is more than happy to finally get to enjoy his presents in January.