Wade Belak

What the NHL and NHLPA should learn from a year filled with tragic death

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There’s no way to be able to wrap your head around what’s happened off the ice in the hockey world this year.

Since the start of 2011 we’ve seen four tragic deaths. Sharks minor leaguer Tom Cavanaugh, Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard, former Canucks tough guy Rick Rypien, and now recently retired scrapper Wade Belak. Of those four, three of them are believed to be suicides (Rypien’s cause of death is still yet unknown while Belak’s is suspected to be a suicide) and Boogaard’s came thanks to a toxic mix of painkillers and alcohol all stemming from being upset with missing time thanks to post-concussion syndrome.

We’re not here to hypothesize on what caused these young men to reach that dark place where killing their body with toxins or taking their own life seemed like the right answer to the situation they were in. Doing that is a folly. Trying to figure out if the life of an NHL tough guy or a concussion victim leads to being consumed by the saddest of sad thoughts is too much for people not in the know to speculate on. While you could draw conclusions with a guy like Rypien, using the same methodology for a guy like Belak doesn’t make sense. We just don’t know what made these guys tick and that’s part of the frustration in dealing with their untimely deaths.

What needs to be looked at is how the NHL and the NHLPA are trying to take care of their troubled souls. Former NHL tough guys Tyson Nash and Matthew Barnaby took to Twitter to point the finger at the NHLPA for not helping players prepare for their post-career lives. In Belak’s case, this makes some sense although Belak wasn’t lacking in opportunity post-hockey. Belak was set to be a rinkside reporter for Predators broadcasts and was also set to compete on CBC’s Battle of the Blades celebrity figure skating competition.

The fact here remains that pro hockey players are guys that have been playing since childhood and have known a professional schedule lifestyle that consisted of virtually nothing but hockey. When it comes time to retire or if you’re forced out of the game by injury, it’s a colossal culture change for players which sometimes leaves guys feeling lost.

It’s the sort of situation that makes you think of the character Brooks from the film “The Shawshank Redemption.” After so many years on the inside of prison, when he was set free he became a lost soul unable to adapt to a new way of life on the outside. That’s not to say that the hockey lifestyle is like a prison, just that when everything you’ve ever known is thrown into disarray, if you’re not ready for it you can be left feeling swamped over.

Whether it comes from preparing players for their post-career lives, helping them with substance abuse, or getting them help when it feels like there’s no way out of the darkness that’s enveloping their lives being proactive to let the players know there’s help when they need it is the absolute least they can do and it has to start early.

The NFL and NBA hold rookie symposiums for incoming players to help them better prepare for the perils of being a professional athlete. Having the NHLPA and NHL work together to let players know that there is a program in place to help (the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Health Program) can get the word out early and let it be known that help is there if needed. Whether the problems stem from abusing alcohol or pain killers, the assistance is there.

With depression is one of the most personal and most private mental illnesses, teaching players early on what the signs of it are and that reaching out for help when it’s needed. That’s not nearly enough to help those who are depressed, but doing something is better than doing nothing. Depression is such a difficult thing because even with proper counseling and a great circle of friends, it still might not be enough to save someone from their thoughts. Ignoring it, however, is not an option.

With  so much sadness and so many questions left unanswered for those players and their families, the time is now for the NHL and NHLPA to work together and make sure that sadness and avoidable tragedy will not happen in the future. One death is one too many, four is a sign of a much larger problem that must be addressed.

Canada beats Team Europe 3-1 in Game 1 of World Cup Final

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27: Steven Stamkos #91 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a first period goal against Team Europe during Game One of the World Cup of Hockey final series at Air Canada Centre on September 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The good news for Team Europe is they were able to hang with Team Canada for most of the night in Game 1 of the World Cup final on Tuesday night.

The bad news for Team Europe is Canada, while playing perhaps its worst game of the tournament, was still good enough to win, 3-1, and take a 1-0 lead in the series. Canada is now in a position where it can win the tournament with a victory on Thursday night.

Early on this seemed like it was going to be Europe’s chance to get the upper hand in the series, but they just could not generate enough offense, especially on the power play that has still not scored a goal in the tournament, to take advantage of what was probably an off night for Canada. That sort of off night from Canada probably will not happen again on Thursday.

Even though it did not look as dominant as some of their other performances in the tournament, it was still pretty much the same recipe for Team Canada. The Sidney CrosbyBrad MarchandPatrice Bergeron line provided the bulk of the offense, they shut the game down over the second and third periods defensively, and Carey Price built a wall around his net and made the saves his team needed him to make.

Marchand, just one day after signing his eight-year contract extension with the Boston Bruins, opened the scoring just two minutes into the first period when he scored his third goal of the tournament. Ten minutes later Steven Stamkos gave Canada a 2-0 lead when he scored his first goal of the tournament, finishing an odd-man rush with Ryan Getzlaf.

After a Tomas Tatar goal cut the deficit to just a single goal for Team Europe in the second period, they had a great opportunity to tie the game when Andrej Sekera had a breakaway that was turned aside by Price to keep the lead. Even though the game remained close, they never really had a better opportunity to tie the game. They were clearly missing Marian Gaborik who was injured in the semifinal game against Sweden. He could be sidelined for eight weeks as a result of that injury.

Bergeron added to the Canada lead and pretty much put the game out of reach midway through the third period with his second goal of the tournament. That goal was assisted by Crosby, his second point of the game, giving him a tournament leading nine points.

Canadiens’ Andrew Shaw ejected for boarding Capitals’ Connor Hobbs

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Will Montreal Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw be the first player to get a phone call from the NHL’s department of player safety this season? Based on the second period of Tuesday’s preseason game against the Washington Capitals, he certainly could be.

Shaw, playing in his first exhibition game with his new team, was ejected from the game late in the second period for boarding Connor Hobbs.

Immediately after the hit, Shaw found himself in a fight with Washington’s Nathan Walker, a sequence that involved Shaw earning 30 penalty minutes — a five-minute major for boarding, a five-minute major for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct, and a 10-minute game misconduct. As Shaw was involved in his fight with Walker, he was gesturing to the Montreal crowd for noise and then managed to get one extra shot in at Walker after he was down on the ice.

It was a eventful period for Shaw who found himself in the middle of multiple incidents in a short period of time. Along with everything mentioned above, he was also taken down in the neutral zone by Jay Beagle on what looked to be a slew foot. Here is a look at both of those incidents (the Beagle on Shaw incident, and the Shaw on Hobbs hit) via @MarcDumont.

Shaw was a major addition for the Canadiens this offseason, along with Shea Weber in the P.K. Subban trade, as they tried to add more toughness to their lineup.

Islanders goalie situation could leave Jean-Francois Berube in tough spot

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 02:  Jean-Francois Berube #30 of the New York Islanders watches a shot just miss the net during the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 2, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The problem with having two capable NHL goaltenders is that only one of them can play at a time, and somebody that probably deserves to get more playing time is going to be stuck on the bench.

That situation gets even more complicated when you have three capable goalies, all of whom are signed to one-way contracts.

That is the situation the New York Islanders are looking at as they enter training camp with Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube all under contract for this season. It is a similar situation to the one they faced at times last season when all three goalies were healthy and Berube spent most of the year sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch, never really getting any meaningful playing time at either the NHL or AHL levels.

With Halak and Greiss both playing for Team Europe at the World Cup (Halak is stealing the show, and perhaps the tournament) it is allowing Berube to get some early playing time in camp. But once Halak and Greiss return, things are going to get very crowded, very quickly.

Berube acknowledged that possibility on Tuesday. Here he is talking about the situation this week, via Newsday‘s Arthur Staple:

“I know it’s a possibility to happen again. I have no idea what’s going to come when those guys get back. I’m trying to focus on getting as much work in as I can and use this time to get prepared for the season.”

“We all know it’s not the greatest situation,” Berube said of having three goaltenders. “For me, I play my best when I play a lot and I’m used to playing a lot. We just have to see what happens.”

Halak is by far the most established of the three goalies, both in terms of experience and performance.

His overall career numbers don’t put him among the NHL’s elite at the position, but he has always been a solid starter. Plus, as he has shown in the World Cup (just as he did in the 2010 playoffs) he is capable of going on hot streaks where he carries his team. There is a lot of value in that. He still has two years left on his contract.

Behind him you have Greiss and Berube. Greiss has turned into a rock solid backup over the past few years and played great for the Islanders in the playoffs last season while Halak was sidelined due to injury. Berube has pretty much established that he has little left to prove in the AHL and is probably ready to be a full-time NHL player in some capacity.

A trade at some point is probably the easiest way to remedy this situation for the Islanders, but even that isn’t going to be easy. Trading Halak (which the Islanders reportedly considered over the summer until he had surgery) doesn’t seem like it would make a great deal of sense at this point because there are almost no teams that are in the market for a starting goaltender. That would make it next to impossible to get a worthwhile return, and you don’t want to just give him away.

Berube is still only 25 years old and still eligible for restricted free agency after this season, is still cheap against the cap, is still the youngest out of the trio (by a few years), and seems to have an upside that the Islanders like. That leaves Greiss, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

The only other option, outside of a trade emerging at some point (even though the market is slim now, it should pick up once the season begins as teams need upgrades for starters and backups), is a repeat of most of last season where they carry three goalies until one gets injured, which means Berube is likely to once again be the odd man out.

The NHL will reveal its 100 greatest players as part of centennial celebration

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27:  NHL icon Wayne Gretzky attends the unveiling the league's Centennial celebration plans for 2017 during a press conference at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre on September 27, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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On Tuesday the NHL announced all of the festivities that will take place during its centennial celebration that will kick off on Jan. 1.

The first major announcement was that Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in the history of the league, will serve as the ambassador for all of the celebrations that will take place on Jan. 1 during the outdoor game in Toronto at BMO field between the Detroit Red Wings and Maple Leafs. It’s fitting that Gretzky is going to be a part of this celebration because naming the greatest player in league history is going to be a big part of the celebration.

“A century of great players, great plays and great moments deserves a year-long celebration, and we invite everyone to join our party in 2017,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Tuesday, via NHL.com.

“We are delighted that Wayne Gretzky — whose spectacular contributions on the ice matched his immeasurable graciousness and popularity off the ice — will serve as our Centennial’s official ambassador as we honor all the drama, suspense, excitement and memories that have thrilled the best fans in sports for generations.”

Along with the outdoor game in Toronto, the NHL has a full schedule planned to mark its 100th anniversary, including the top-100 most iconic moments in league history, NHL time capsules that look back at the history of the league, and a number of documentaries that cover everything from the Stanley Cup, to all of the key moments and milestones in league history.

But the one event that seems like it will draw the most attention (mainly because we love to argue about lists) is the announcement of the top-100 players in the history of the league. According to the league, the list was assembled by “a blue ribbon panel of distinguished members from across the hockey community – including former and current executives, media members, and NHL alumni.”

“It’s like when you’re a kid and you collect hockey cards, you want to trade this guy for that guy, and everybody wanted to have the right cards,” said Gretzky. “Here we are now, we’re going to pick the top 100 players and it’s not going to be easy because there has been so many great players all the way back to the 30s and 40s and 50s. So obviously it’s a tough task for everyone. There are so many great young players today, there were great players when I played and before I played. So picking this is going to be difficult, but it’ll be a thrill for anyone who is part of that top 100.”

The list will be announced in two parts.

As part of the outdoor celebration in Toronto on Jan. 1, the league will announce the players on the list that played their career between the 1917 and 1966 seasons, covering the pre-Original Six and Original Six eras. The remainder of the list, which covers the post-expansion era, when the league doubled in size from six teams to 12 in 1967, will be announced during the All-Star weekend celebration in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Kings were one of the six teams that gained entry into the league during the 1967 season.

It seems quite likely that Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leader in goals, assists, and points, and also the ambassador of the centennial celebrations, will top that list. He become the NHL’s all-time leading scorer while a member of the Kings.

The big question for debate then becomes the order players like Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau are in after him.