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Winter 2004

John Gagliardi: The Legend Lives On

2003 Minnesota Sports Person of the Year.
Ex-Gopher Rick Rickert heads overseas to fine tune his game for the NBA.
Wild, Wild Wes
The Wild's defensive dynamo Wes Walz on stitches, fighting, scoring goals, and hostility in the workplace.

John Gagliardi: The Legend Lives On
2003 Minnesota Sports Person of the Year.

by Wally Langfellow
Winter 2004
The 2003 post season was just eight days away for St. John's University's football team. But their 77-year-old legendary coach was more than ready for a reporter and photographer on this November day. And why not? He was just three days removed from visiting with the President of the United States at the White House, where he was honored for becoming the winningest coach in college football history.
Indeed, it was just another day in a year where phone calls and letters had come in from all over the world praising the man who has meant so much to this program and university. It was a year when people outside the state of Minnesota finally started to learn about John Gagliardi.

The coach begins rustling through a pile of letters and papers that are next to his desk in his modest office. "This is the pile I'm going to try and answer," he says pointing to one of the stacks. "The others I'll at least try to read."

When quizzed, he figures there are hundreds of well wishes ranging from former players and students, to politicians, and business leaders many of whom he had never met before. His favorite, so far anyway, is from a recent student. Not even a player. But that shouldn't surprise anyone who knows anything about a coach who inisists that his players call him by his first name and not call him coach.

Maybe more so than anybody in college sports anywhere, Gagliardi understands that what he is providing as a head football coach is a chance for kids to play a game while getting an education. He hopes in the process that they are also learning some real life lessons.

Gagliardi, the son of Italian immigrants, thought at a young age that he would spend his life working in his dad's auto body shop in southern Colorado. "That's what I thought I was going to do for a living," he says. "My brother and brother-in law did that and had a pretty good life."

Photograph by Tom Dahlin
But things changed in 1943 at the age of 16 when his high school football coach was drafted into the service during World War II. Gagliardi, who was the team's captain, took over the coaching duties. He went on to coach high school football for six years.

It was then on to Carroll College in Helena, Montana where he had early success coaching players just barely his junior to three conference titles in four years. He also coached basketball and baseball at Carroll. In 1953, now all of 27 years old, Gagliardi was about to begin a trek at St.John's, a place where his predecessor Johnny "Blood" McNally said "nobody could ever win."

In his first year at the helm, Gagliardi lead the Johnnies to their first MIAC title in 15 years. Gagliardi has also coached track and hockey (five seasons) at St.John's and still has the best winning percentage (.625) of any hockey coach in school history after compiling a five year record of 42-25-1. So, could he have imagined 50 years ago all of this success including a trip to the White House? "I couldn't imagine it 50 days ago," Gagliardi says.

Photograph by Tom Dahlin
Despite having to tell his story over and over to countless reporters, Gagliardi still seems to be puzzled about all the hoopla surrounding his accomplishments.

On November 8 the Johnnies were at home against Bethel for what turned out to be the game that made him college football's winningest coach. When asked about what he remembers the most about the day that he passed Eddie Robinson with career win 409, Gagliardi says, "That we won. And that 13,000 fans showed up and stayed out in the cold all that time. I told them (the fans) after the game, I really admire you because I don't think I'd be there myself if I didn't have to be."

Six weeks later, things got even bigger and better with career win #414. Facing a team that hadn't lost in 55 games, and had won 109 of their last 110, the Johnnies beat Mt. Union of Ohio 24-6 in the Division III national championship game. It was the first national title for Gagliardi and St.John's since 1976, and his 4th overall. But the timing of this one couldn't have been any better. "Maybe it's my year," Gagliardi said.

If you think that Gagliardi is getting too old for all this, think again. Witness the whirlwind day he had on his trip to the White House, leaving Collegeville at 3:00 a.m. and returning at 11:30 p.m. some 20 hours later. In between he was on airplanes and transport vehicles visiting President Bush and other dignitaries including Minnesota Congressman Mark Kennedy, a St.John's alum who arranged the meeting.

Gagliardi said the one disappointment on his White House visit was that the President didn't invite him to accompany him to meet the Queen of England the next day. "I was ready to go" Gagliardi quipped. So much for being too old.

So what about retirement? Gagliardi has been hearing that question for years, but right now it's not in the cards. He says he'll continue doing what he does as long as he's healthy and as long as he's producing. "My whole team, my whole years I've never had goals, just great expectations," Gagliardi explains.

As the coach politely but abruptly wraps up the interview by saying he has work to do for next week's playoff game, the subject of his Italian heritage comes up. After finding out that the reporter's ancestors are also from Calabria, Italy, Gagliardi whisks the reporter back to his desk.

"Listen to this," he says as he plays a voicemail from an Italian reporter based in New York. "I think this guy wants to do a story on me for some newspaper in Italy. Can you understand what he's saying?" Gagliardi asks. The reporter also struggles to understand the broken English on the voicemail, but confirms the coach's hunch is correct.

"I have a new found respect for you," the coach jokingly says as he finally shows the reporter out.

Respect from a legend. Now that's Italian.
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Ex-Gopher Rick Rickert heads overseas to fine tune his game for the NBA.

By Bruce Leonard
Winter 2004
Rick Rickert sought the sanctuary of his fiancee's parents' home in suburban Minneapolis on a Wednesday morning last June. He read from his Bible and prayed, but it did little to keep his mind off the events of the previous day: his slide in the NBA Draft from potential first rounder to the 54th pick taken by the Timberwolves, the unsettling silence afterwards among family members who looked on in disbelief, and the "bust" label that was quickly applied to him moments after the draft ended. And you thought agent Jack Bauer had a rough 24 hours.

"It was not at all what I thought was going to happen," Rickert says in a voice that suggests he's still a bit shocked by it all. "But what's done is done. There's no time to pout. It's time to go back to work, hit it hard, and prove the people wrong that didn't believe in you."

Rickert's quest to turn doubting Thomases into full-fledged believers has taken the former McDonald's High School All-American on a path he could have scarcely imagined when he announced he was leaving the University of Minnesota after his sophmore season to turn pro.
People close to him marvel at his work ethic, his diamond like clarity and focus, and his bottomless cup of fuel. It's as if he's got his own Van Halen concert raging away at the back of his brain.
Just a few months removed from his draft day debacle, he has resurfaced far from the bright lights of the NBA in Novo Mesto, Slovenia after signing with KRKA of the European League. "It's a great team to get started with," Rickert says of his new employers. "I'm getting a lot of the playing time and experience I need so I can come back and play in the NBA."

After watching Rickert struggle to find his mojo against fellow rookies and veterans clinging to their own NBA dreams with the Wolves summer league team, Wolves President Kevin McHale gave his young forward a choice, languish on the bench this season, or go overseas, get some playing time, and work on all aspects of your game. Rickert chose the latter.

"You can't argue with the boss," says Lew Rickert, the patriarch of a very closely-knit family. "We trust what McHale says, and Europe so far has been good for Rick. He's getting more hands on work and is getting the chance to work on the fundamentals every day."

Getting used to the European game has taken some time. "The traveling calls are the worst, and the refs call way more ticky-tack fouls over here," Rickert laments. But after some expected initial awkwardness, Rickert's natural talent has taken over garnering him a regular spot in KRKA's rotation. He tossed in 17 points in a loss to KK Split: 15 more in a win over Geopli-Slova and now is a steady double-digit performer averaging about 13 points and 7 rebounds a game. "Things are coming along. I'm always developing, growing, learning new things. It's just a good experience, as well as a life experience."
"God has a plan for me and I'm going with that. There's a saying that hits home with me, 'Tough times never last, tough guys do.'"
His improvement overseas has not gone unnoticed by the team that sent him there. "From all reports he's doing well and making progress," says Wolves Director of Player Personnel Rob Babcock, who plans to see Rickert's progression firsthand in January. "Our biggest concern is that he stays on the weight program we've designed for him to get stronger. We'd like to see him put on 10 pounds of good solid muscle. But he's motivated to get better and he works extremely hard."

Rickert's skeptics are only too quick to point out that he still should be doing all his learning and improving wearing Gopher maroon and gold. He should have listened when coaches, scouts, and general managers all told him he wasn't ready for the NBA.

"Rubbish," says Rickert. "All talk like that does is get me motivated to prove the naysayers wrong. I'm not going to let them bring me down. Things happen for a reason. God has a plan for me and I'm going with that. There's a saying that hits home with me, 'Tough times never last, tough guys do.""

It's easy to see why words like these resonate with Rickert, because to meet him is to encounter someone who is determined not to be shaken. People close to him marvel at his work ethic, his diamond like clarity and focus, and his bottomless cup of fuel. It's as if he's got his own Van Halen concert raging away at the back of his brain.

"Rick's engine is always revving. I've never been around an athlete who works as hard as he does to improve," says Gopher basketball coach Dan Monson, who maintains a close relationship with his former star player conversing by email on a regular basis. "He has the skill and drive to play in the NBA, but you also need the right fit. Going to Europe isn't the route he expected to take, but that doesn't mean he still won't wind up in the NBA. I believe he will get there. Remember, he's only 20 years old."

Back in Novo Mesto, the 6'11" forward with the soft shooting touch continues to push himself practicing his trademark jump shot, pumping iron, getting stronger, improving. In his mind, he can picture himself doing battle with Shaq and Kobe, while going to battle with KG and Wally, and knocking down the winning jumper before a packed house at the Target Center. But reality dictates that he's currently paired with guys named Vujcic, Ivaskovic, and Mihajlovic, while playing in half empty arenas smaller than those when he starred in high school at Duluth East.

Rickert doesn't know if someday he'll be a one-name wonder like Michael, Magic, and Larry, or today's wunderkinds, LeBron and Carmello. But ask where he plans to be in the not too distant future and he has no doubt. "I'll be in the NBA. Whether it's playing for the Wolves or another team I don't know, but I will be in the NBA."
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Wild, Wild Wes
The Wild's defensive dynamo Wes Walz on stitches, fighting, scoring goals, and hostility in the workplace.

by Bruce Leonard
Winter 2004

photo by Michelle Carpentier
Wes Walz admits it. He's lost count. "I have absolutely no idea how many stitches I've taken to the face over my career," he says flashing a smile that is missing its two front teeth. "All I know is, it's a lot."

In his fourth year with the Wild, Walz's hounding in-your-face style has permanently marked up his mug, but it's also made him one of the NHL's top two-way players. His performance in last season's improbable playoff run (he scored 13 points and was a continual source of frustration for opponents like Peter Forsberg and Todd Bertuzzi) garnered him league-wide acclaim. By season's end, he was a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, given to the league's top defensive forward.

Recovering in the safe confines of the Wild locker room after a particularly exhausting practice he explains why he loves a game that leaves its victims scarred, crippled, and most often spent. "I've been playing hockey since I was 6 years old. I don't know any other life. I just go out and play and don't even think about the brutality. You just get numb to it."

MS: If such a category existed, you would probably lead the NHL in shots to the face. Do you have a magnet hidden in your noggin that attracts all the sticks and pucks?

WW: It seems that way sometimes. As a center, you're around the puck a little more, especially defensively, so you tend to get a few more sticks in the face. Plus I tend to skate bent over. I think that's why I eat more lumber than most guys during the course of the year.

MS: You're not an expert, but is the old pull the jersey over his head move still the most effective way to apply a beating?

WW: It use to be years ago, but now they've got tie downs on the back of the jersey making it almost impossible to pull the jersey over somebody's head. The best way now is to try and get one quick shot in before they grab your jersey.

MS: Who's the baddest dude in the NHL?

WW: Matt Johnson. He's one of the toughest guys for sure, and I'm glad he's on my team.

MS: Isn't it odd that some of the toughest men in all of sports wear girdles?

WW: Some of the things we put on are odd, but I'd never want to question one of the tough guys as to their choice of undergarments.

I remember a guy by the name of Rob Ray coming around the net and that's all I remember. I had my head down and it was lights out. I learned to play with my head up after that.
MS: Describe the most painful hit youíve taken in an NHL game.

WW: It was in my rookie year with Boston. I was 20 years old and I remember a guy by the name of Rob Ray coming around the net and that's all I remember. I had my head down and it was lights out. I learned to play with my head up after that.

MS: Hockey players have quite a female fan base. You're married now, but what was the wildest thing you've seen an enamored fan do?

WW: In juniors, there was this bunch of girls that we called the Ferrari girls. They'd always drive by in their Ferrari whenever we were in town to play a game. They'd follow our team bus around on the highway and do different things that I won't go into. Let's just say you'd often catch the bus on two wheels.

MS: Violence on the ice isn't your thing, so what drives you?

WW: Just to stay in the league. I want to play in the NHL forever. I don't want it to end. I'm having so much fun here in Minnesota. That's all the motivation I need.

MS: Can you flip the switch in any other sports?

WW: I used to play baseball a lot growing up, but I couldn't play baseball year round in Canada, so I switched to hockey, which probably worked out for the best.

MS: Which can you hit harder, a baseball or a slap shot?

WW: Definitely a slap shot. I was never really a gifted hitter. I was always good in the field and had a good set of hands, but hitting was not my forte.

MS: Could you thread it into Steven Tylerís extra large pie hole from center ice?

WW: I doubt it, unless his pie hole has gotten bigger the last couple of years. The last time I saw him, it wasn't big enough. Maybe Mick Jagger, but not Steven Tyler.

MS: Who has the deadliest slap shot in hockey?

WW: Al MacInnis has the hardest slap shot in the game. No question about it.

MS: You're one of the NHL's top defensive forwards. What's the bigger thrill, shutting down your opponent or scoring a short-handed goal?

WW: Scoring a short-handed goal is very exciting. As a defensive player you don't get that opportunity to score too often, so when you do you try to enjoy it as best you can.

photo by Michelle Carpentier
MS: If you were useless on the ice, what profession would you shoot for?

WW: I'd probably be a fireman. I've had a lot of cousins and uncles on my side of the family that have been fire fighters. I've always thought that would be something I would be interested in.

MS: Say you get an office job. How should co-workers settle a dispute hockey style?

WW: A good rule of thumb: use what is around you. A good chair over the back will take someone out. If you're going to check someone into the wall, remember to lead with your shoulder.

MS: Time for the hockey speed round. If we were to make the Wes Walz biopic, what music would be playing during the obligatory training sequence?

WW: Anything by Creed.

MS: Worst locker room prank?

WW: Rookie year in Boston, the veterans turned my jeans into a pair of cut off shorts. I had to walk out of the arena wearing shorts when it was 20 below zero outside.

MS: Worst hockey hair cut youíve ever had?

WW: Definitely in juniors, I kind of had that mullet thing going.

MS: You list "Caddyshack" as your favorite movie. Are you more Chevy Chase or Rodney Dangerfield?

WW: Rodney Dangerfield. I just think of him saying no respect, no respect. That's sort of how it's gone for me throughout my career.

MS: Finally, pretend you sell a life size cutout of yourself on your Web site. Which room in my house is the appropriate place to put you and spend some quality Wes Walz time?

WW: In the bathroom. When youíre sitting on the toilet with nothing better to do, you could count how many stitches I have on my face.
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