American college football has plenty of iconic rallying points, the most notable of them being George Gipp, the subject of Knute Rockne's famous motivational speech. Each school seems to have some of their own recognizable icons that the players, coaches, fans and school rally around each week. The University of Texas has Bevo the Steer on the sidelines for all home games, and Colorado University watches as Ralphie the Buffalo sprints the length of Folsom Field prior to every home game. The icons aren't as prevalent in professional football as players tend to rally around respect, lack of respect, and disrespect, whether real or imaginary.
Hockey teams, as fans are reminded nearly every broadcast, rally around their captains and their goalies. The inspiration of the captain in the locker room, on the ice, and in the community is the shining light by which all team members set their compasses. When that isn't enough, players will rally around their goalies, block shots for the man in net and sacrifice their bodies to create a wall for their goaltender.
When a team lacks inspiration, it's typically the head coach that takes the fall. But what happens when that coach is new to the organization?
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Since taking over for Jacques Lemaire, Minnesota Wild coach Todd Richards has faced constant criticism over the way he's run the Wild. His detractors have focused on his lack of a system, which is understandable to some extent as Lemaire is likely the most system-focused coach in the NHL over the last two decades. But Richards and the Wild have also faced criticism over the team's lack of cohesiveness and inability to apply Richards' new system, or lack thereof. Typically, a coach in Richards' situation will try to find an event or person to focus on and to rally around, as Colin Montgomerie did when he had the European Ryder Cup team speak with Ryder Cup wizard Seve Ballesteros. Ballesteros, still in the midst of his fight against brain cancer, spent ten minutes on the phone with the team prior to the event.
Richards may not have an inspirational giant in his sport to call on, but Rick Rypien may have done him an enormous favor. The Wild have been in need of a reason to rally around something, a reason to focus the team on Richards' system, even if it's lacking. They've needed a "win one for the Gipper" moment for about a year, and Rypien just handed the entire organization that moment.
If Richards isn't able to get his team on board and focused after Tuesday's game against the Canucks, he should probably step down now. Not only did the Wild's enforcer beat the stuffing out of the division rival's MMA-trained fighter while Rypien was trying to "energize his team"; not only did Rypien pull a modern-day Milbury on a fan in the XCel Energy Center; not only was the entire Canucks team (save the Sedins) so thrown off that they were paying more attention to the stands than the ice; but the Wild beat the tar out of the Canucks. The Wild destroyed the heavy division favorites (and conference favorites in many places), while those favorites attacked their fans.
The next couple of weeks will be interesting for Minnesota fans. Will the players settle into Richards' system and work more as a cohesive team? Can Richards leverage the pummeling of the Canucks to motivate the team, especially guys like Guillaume Latendresse and Cam Barker? Will the fan altercation forge a bond between the Fletcher / Richards / the Wild and their fanbase? No matter how it turns out, the Wild and their fans will always have the night they destroyed the Canucks and wrecked Rypien's career.