Everyone who couldn't wait to flush 2020 and jump into 2021 this time a year ago should look back on this year and find reasons for both optimism and caution today.
This past year was, on the whole, objectively better than its predecessor. But it still might not crack a list of the top 25 years from 1995-present.
Here's to 2022 being the year we truly hoped 2021 would be. To help our collective hopefulness, here's a look back at 10 things from Minnesota sports that we really liked in the last 365 days.
Fans back in stands
Within a sports context, there wasn't much that was stranger or sadder than the sight of cardboard cutouts filling spaces where screaming fans used to sit or the sound of piped-in noise replacing natural sounds. That was the reality for much of 2020, but it was gradually replaced by the real thing in 2021. Athletes talked en masse about the difference. And nothing in the sports world provided more normalcy than the sounds of cheers (and boos).
Normally, any one of these stories would have warranted our rapt statewide attention: Lakeville teenager Regan Smith winning multiple medals in swimming; Apple Valley's Gable Steveson winning a dramatic gold medal in 125-kilogram freestyle wrestling; and St. Paul's Suni Lee taking home the individual all-around gold medal in women's gymnastics. But we had ALL THREE, and more, at the Summer Games. We stayed up late. We got up early. And it was all worth it for an unprecedented run.
Kirill the Thrill
Wild fans had been waiting for years for Kirill Kaprizov, hailed as a franchise savior before his skate blade ever touched the ice at Xcel Energy Center. Living up to that sort of hype is difficult, but Kaprizov made it look easy with a dazzling Calder Trophy-winning season and a strong follow-up so far that vaulted the Wild from the fringes of the playoffs to perhaps one of the NHL's best teams.
The emergence of Anthony Edwards on and off the court was a joy. For whatever rough edges still exist in Edwards' game, consider that he made his NBA debut barely a year ago (Dec. 23, 2020) and still is 20. Edwards has star potential, some of it already realized. Off the court, he has shown natural leadership tendencies and an infectious sense of humor. He's the whole package, and if the Wolves ever truly take off, look out.
Let's count the start of the season for Gophers men's basketball as a nice surprise. Some of us (hand raised) looked at coach Ben Johnson's assembled roster this season and wondered if Minnesota would even win five games. The Gophers already have reached double-digits in victories and enter 2022 with a chance to turn a nice underdog story into something special.
Betting on Byron
Byron Buxton's contract extension: It was a bleak season for the Twins. World Series hopes gave way to a 73-89 record and last place finish in the AL Central. The pitching fell apart, and key players like Jose Berrios and Nelson Cruz were traded. It would have gone from bad to worse, though — calling into question any hope for 2022 — had the Twins traded away Buxton. Instead, they were able to sign him to a seven-year extension — a move with some risk but one that I have a feeling will get rewarded.
Sometimes in the all-or-nothing view of sports that permeates some segments of fandom (and the media), we don't appreciate consistently being in the mix. The Lynx and Minnesota United fit that description. The Lynx reached the postseason for the 11th consecutive year. The Loons made it for the third consecutive year. Both made earlier-than-hoped exits, but just getting there is an accomplishment.
Maroon and good
Gophers of many shapes and sizes turned in solid showings. The football team won nine games, including a bowl victory earlier this week, and took back Paul Bunyan's Axe. The men's hockey team returned to the NCAA tournament and reached the region final. The volleyball team reached the Elite Eight. All three were probably one win away from truly special seasons, but all of them were good.
Tommies are a-changin'
St. Thomas jumping to Division I — that's a leap worthy of recognition just in itself. It's going to be a building process, but having St. Thomas as another full-fledged Division I athletic program in Minnesota should be a very good thing. It's not hard to envision a rivalry with the Gophers in some key sports, including basketball.
And, finally, an appreciation for the biggest show in town: the always-entertaining Vikings. The season isn't over, and it hasn't gone how the Vikings have wanted. But it has never been dull. If your idea of a good time is never knowing during a given day whether the Vikings will win or lose, then 2021 has been your year.