From gold medal-winners to the Gophers reclaiming the axe to the emergence of young superstars, it was a year to remember for Minnesota sports fans. Here are the biggest Minnesota sports stories from 2021.
Wolves Name Chris Finch Head Coach After Firing Ryan Saunders (Feb. 22)
A day after firing Ryan Saunders when the Timberwolves had the worst record in the NBA, the team named Chris Finch its next head coach. Then-President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas called Finch “one of the most creative basketball minds in the NBA.”
Gophers Hire Ben Johnson As Men’s Basketball Coach (March 22)
Richard Pitino and the Gophers basketball program parted ways earlier in March, and Xavier assistant Ben Johnson was named his replacement. Johnson, a Minneapolis native, played two seasons with the Gophers, graduated from the University of Minnesota and coached there as an assistant from 2013-2018.
For First Time In History, All 5 Minnesota Teams Make NCAA Hockey Tournament (March 25)
The Gophers, Minnesota State, St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth and Bemidji State all made the 16-team NCAA Tournament. St. Cloud State lost to Massachusetts in the championship.
Boston Pride Edges Minnesota 4-3 For NWHL Isobel Cup (March 27)
The Minnesota Whitecaps fell short of winning their second Isobel Cup in a row with a 4-3 loss to the Boston Pride after the playoffs were postponed due to COVID-19.
Minnesota Native Paige Bueckers Is First Freshman Named AP Women’s Player Of The Year (March 31)
Former Hopkins star Paige Bueckers led UConn to its 13th straight Final Four appearance, averaging 20.1 points, 5.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds on the year. She received 21 votes for the award from the 30-member panel.
Twin Cities Native Jalen Suggs Hits March Madness Buzzer Beater (April 3)
Former Minnehaha Academy star Jalen Suggs sank a half-court buzzer beater in overtime against UCLA, sending Gonzaga to the championship game. Suggs’ Bulldogs would lose to Baylor in the final, and Suggs left for the NBA after the season.
Former Vikings Coach Jerry Burns Dies At 94 (May 12)
“Burnsie,” as many knew him, led the Vikings offense for 17 years before being promoted to head coach. He coached the team for six years, leading them to three playoff berths. During the entirety of his time with the team, they made it to four Super Bowls and won 12 division titles.
Kevin Garnett Inducted Into NBA Hall Of Fame (May 15)
Wolves legend Kevin Garnett entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame alongside Tim Duncan and the late Kobe Bryant. During his speech, Garnett said his “only regret with Minnesota is that I didn’t get to bring a championship.” He also said he looks forward to “rebuilding Minneapolis.”
Minnehaha Academy’s Chet Holmgren Named Gatorade Boys Basketball Player Of The Year (June 9)
Chet Holmgren, the No. 1 recruit in the 2021 class, was the first Minnesotan student athlete to be named Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year in the award’s 36-year history. He followed fellow Redhawk Jalen Suggs to Gonzaga.
Vikings Superfan Grandma Millie Dies At 102 (June 10)
Millie Wall went viral for her Vikings fandom during the team’s run to the 2017-18 NFC Championship. The Vikings gifted her tickets to what would come to be known as the “Minneapolis Miracle” game. “Our hearts are broken to hear of the passing of Grandma Millie,” the Vikings tweeted after her death. “Millie, who was named one of our 60 Greatest Fans and our 2020 Fan of the Year, will certainly be missed.”
Wild’s Kirill Kaprizov Wins Calder Trophy (June 29)
Kirill Kaprizov, the 24-year-old Russian star, became the first Wild player to win rookie of the year honors. He led all first-year players in goals.
Wild Buy Out Zach Parise, Ryan Suter (July 13)
The Minnesota Wild announced the departure of the two longtime faces of the franchise, forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter. Both had four years left on their identical 13-year, $98 million contracts signed in 2012. In the pair’s nine years with the Wild, the team missed the playoffs only once.
Alex Rodriguez, Marc Lore Officially Become Partial Owners Of Wolves, Lynx (July 21)
The Timberwolves received league approval for the partial sale first agreed to in May. Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore will be limited partners with Glen Taylor for two years before becoming majority owners when Taylor steps down.
St. Paul Gymnast Suni Lee Wins Gold Medal In All-Around Competition (July 29)
St. Paul native Suni Lee won individual gold during the women’s all-around competition in Tokyo. Lee’s win came a day after defending champion Simone Biles withdrew from the competition to focus on her mental well-being. Earlier in the week, Lee and fellow Minnesotan Grace McCallum earned the U.S. a silver medal in the team competition.
Gopher Wrestler Gable Steveson Earns Olympic Gold With ‘Thrilling Win’ In Tokyo (Aug. 6)
Gable Steveson, an Apple Valley Native, performed two takedowns in 20 seconds to win the gold in the final seconds in Tokyo.
Wolves Fire Basketball Ops Lead Gersson Rosas (Sept. 22)
After two years with the team, the Wolves fired Gersson Rosas, replacing him with VP of basketball ops Sachin Gupta. WCCO’s Mike Max said Rosas was fired for allegedly creating a toxic culture and an “inappropriate relationship” inside the organization.
Carli Lloyd Plays Final Match For US At Allianz Field (Oct. 26)
Minnesota United’s home field played host to U.S. soccer legend Carli Lloyd’s final game for the national team. Lloyd didn’t score in the 6-0 rout of South Korea, but sobbed as she left the field in the 65th minute to a standing ovation from a crowd of more than 18,000.
Minnesota Reclaims Axe In 23-13 Win Against Wisconsin (Nov. 27)
The Gophers beat the No. 18 Badgers on their home field in Minneapolis for the first time since 2003 to take back Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Gophers also won the axe with a victory in Madison in 2018, but the Badgers reclaimed it in 2019.
Twins Announce 7-Year, $100M Extension For Byron Buxton (Dec. 1)
Byron Buxton, the oft-injured but enormously talented centerfielder, put to rest all rumors of a trade by signing a mammoth contract extension with the team that drafted him. Buxton said Minnesota “is a special place for me” and the “biggest goal for me now is win as many rings as I can to bring back to Minneapolis.”
Cheryl Reeve Named US Women’s Basketball Head Coach (Dec. 8)
Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve will lead the USA Basketball Women’s National Team through 2024, including at the Paris Olympics if the team qualifies.
Minnesota Native John Madden, NFL Hall Of Fame Coach And Broadcaster, Dies At 85 (Dec. 29)
John Madden, who was born in Austin, Minnesota, and beat the Vikings in his only Super Bowl appearance as a coach, died unexpectedly, the NFL announced. After a decade-long stint as coach of the Oakland Raiders, Madden went onto a lengthy and lauded career as a broadcaster, working for all four major networks. He also became the face of the most successful sports video franchise of all time.