Ryan Reaves promised Willie O’Ree a big game, and he delivered


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PITTSBURGH — Willie O’Ree is one of the NHL’s pioneers having broken the league’s color barrier during the 1957-58 season when he first suited up for the Boston Bruins.

The 82-year-old O’Ree, who still looks like he could take a shift in the NHL if he wanted to, was in Pittsburgh on Thursday night to take in the Penguins’ game against the Los Angeles Kings and received a pre-game promise from Ryan Reaves, one of the current players he helped open the door for in the NHL several decades earlier.

In a meeting before the game, Reaves told O’Ree that he was going to try and have a big game for him and then proceeded to go out and score the game’s opening goal in the Penguins’ 3-1 win.

O’Ree was interviewed in the arena during a TV timeout and said that he spoke to Reaves before the game and that he actually promised him a goal. At that point Reaves stood at the Penguins’ bench and tapped his stick on the boards.

He had a chance to keep the promise early in the game only to be stopped on a breakaway by Kings goalie Jonathan Quick. He would finally get that goal in the second period when he unleashed a pretty wicked shot from just above the right circle to beat Quick and give the Penguins a 1-0 lead.

After the game there was some confusion as to whether or not Reaves had actually promised O’Ree a goal.

“I don’t promise goals,” laughed Reaves. “I can not promise goals. I do not know if you have seen my scoring touch, but I said I was going to have a good game for him, hopefully get him one. Then I did.”

Reaves, one of the NHL’s current black players, said it was a huge honor and a thrill to play in front of O’Ree.

“Coming off the last game, I don’t know if you guys watch too much hockey, but I was absolutely horrendous in our last game and I needed a bounce back,” said Reaves when asked what that moment was like. “Obviously with Willie O’Ree in the house it was pretty special. He was a pioneer for players like me and it was nice to get him one.”

“That is somebody you look up to. He was big in the NHL, big in all sports for players like me.”

Given what O’Ree was able to accomplish it is fairly stunning that he has not yet been honored with a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Even though his career lasted just 45 games over two seasons and resulted in only 14 points, his impact can not be measured in games played or points. It is bigger than that, and the NHL has a specific category for people like him that have advanced the game. It’s called the Builders category, and it absolutely applies to people like O’Ree.

Here is what the NHL says about the basis of selection for builders.

Coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general.

That is pretty open for interpretation, but breaking the NHL’s color barrier seems to be a significant contribution to the game of hockey in general.

I asked Reaves after the game if it was long overdue for O’Ree to get a spot.

“Absolutely,” said Reaves. “I think it should have been done once he retired. A guy that has the balls to do something like that and jump into the NHL, he was the first black player to do that, it is a special thing.”

Indeed it is. Other sports seem to agree as almost all of the players that have broken the color barrier in the other three major North American sports have a spot in their sports respective Hall of Fame.

Jackie Robinson, having broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

Three years later Earl Lloyd broke the NBA’s color barrier and was inducted into the Basketball Hall Of Fame in 2003 as a contributor.

Marion Motley and Bill Willis broke professional football’s color barrier in 1946 when they played for the Cleveland Browns in the old All America Football Conference. Both are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (it is worth pointing out that Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, who would go on to be the first black players in the NFL several weeks later when they played for the Los Angeles Rams, are not currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame).

Probably time to get O’Ree a spot in Toronto.


Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

‘Monster year’ could land John Carlson a monster contract

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John Carlson can’t forget that he is fighting for the NHL lead for points among defensemen because his Washington Capitals teammates keep razzing him about it.

”The guys do a good job of pumping that up in the locker room,” Carlson said.

Carlson’s 61 points have him tied with the Dallas Stars’ John Klingberg, and he is a dark horse candidate for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.

”John’s having just a whale of a year,” teammate Matt Niskanen said. ”Monster year – production, been carrying the load all year. He’s been a stalwart back there for us.”

This breakout season with a career-high 15 goals and 46 assists is coming at a perfect time for Carlson, who is set to be an unrestricted free agent this summer but has been flying under the radar compared to New York Islanders captain John Tavares. Carlson command upward of $7 million per season on a deal that’s almost certain to be eight years if Washington re-signs him or seven if he hits the market July 1.

The 28-year-old has outperformed the six-year contract he signed in 2012 that pays him just under $4 million a year. He has shown the ability to be a dominant No. 1 defenseman by averaging 25 minutes a game, running the point on the top power-play unit, killing penalties and drawing the toughest matchups.

A 2008 first-round pick of the Capitals, Carlson likes Washington and would like to stay if the fit is there. General manager Brian MacLellan has said he believes each side wants to get a deal done but will wait until after the season to try to make it happen.

The big question is whether the Capitals can make it work under the salary cap, which might require trades even though the ceiling is expected to go up to between $78 million and $82 million from $75 million.

Carlson might not reach the $7.875 million annual salary of Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman, who along with Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings is a Norris front-runner, but he might not be far off. Carlson has more of an offensive punch than San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, whose new deal pays him $7 million a year, and he has almost double the points of the next-highest potential free agent defenseman, former Capitals teammate Mike Green, who’s 32.

”He’s always been steady,” Washington goaltender Braden Holtby said of Carlson. ”His role’s expanded, obviously, which shows: time on ice and points and such. He’s got all the tools of a great defenseman. ”

Carlson isn’t the only player excelling in a contract year. Here are some others:

James van Riemsdyk

Thirty-goal scorers get paid handsomely in free agency because they are so rarely available. Van Riemsdyk’s 33 goals are 11th-most in the NHL, and the 6-foot-3, 217-pound left-winger has gotten better around the net. Van Riemsdyk, the second overall pick in 2007, has another one of the league’s best bargain contracts at $4.25 million a year, which Toronto inherited from Philadelphia. The Maple Leafs have expressed interest in keeping the 28-year-old.


Undoubtedly the best pending free agent, Tavares still not having a new contract with the New York Islanders is generating buzz and whispers like Steven Stamkos two years ago. Stamkos re-upped with Tampa Bay on the eve of free agency, which Tavares could do. The Islanders will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season and sixth time in Tavares’ nine years in the league. The point-a-game player with 32 goals and 43 assists could fetch $10 million a year or more if he isn’t back with New York.

David Perron

The expansion Vegas Golden Knights struck gold with Perron, whose 66 points are a career high and a big reason they are leading the Pacific Division. The soon-to-be 30-year-old winger got his game back after bouncing around to four different teams the past five seasons and could easily re-sign with Vegas like teammate Jonathan Marchessault did.

Joe Thornton

Knee surgery knocked Thornton out of the San Jose Sharks’ lineup in January, cutting short a season in which he had 36 points in 43 games at age 38. If Thornton shows he can still play at the top of his game when he returns, he will be in demand for another one-year contract.

Rick Nash

Going from the New York Rangers to Boston appears to have reinvigorated Nash’s game after just 28 points in 60 games before the trade. The 33-year-old power winger’s contract year won’t truly be judged until the playoffs, where he gets another chance to exorcise some past demons.

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Starting goaltenders battling fatigue as playoffs loom

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Behind the mask is a mind filled with a web of a thousand thoughts, worries and a singular focus of what it takes to win a game.

Then the next game, then the one after that.

”There is no shut-off for a goaltender,” retired goalie Brian Boucher said. ”The mind doesn’t shut off.”

A starting NHL goaltender bears a burden unlike any position in hockey and few others in sports, and the resulting pressure builds up over the course of a season. By this time of year, with the playoffs on the horizon, No. 1 goalies have grinded through almost six months of work and are battling fatigue that threatens to derail their team’s hopes.

Andrei Vasilevskiy of Tampa Bay is going through it for the first time while Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals is used to it by now. Goalies of all ages have no choice but to manage the physical and mental hurdles.

”It’s one of those things that you’ve got find ways to make sure you’re prepared and ready to play every game,” Holtby said. ”As a goaltender, there’s not much room to take nights off.”

It’s worse for the goalies whose teams can’t afford to start a backup. Boucher started the final 13 games for Philadelphia in 2010 to help them make the playoffs, Jonathan Quick started 20 of the final 21 games for the Los Angeles Kings when they tried to make a furious push to make it in 2015 and Kari Lehtonen could be counted on to play the final nine games of the Dallas Stars’ season now as they claw for a spot.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

”You’ll go through the whole night thinking about tomorrow, show up to the rink in the morning thinking about tonight and then you show up to the game thinking about the game,” said Boucher, now an analyst for NBC Sports. ”Not until that horn goes off at the very end can you finally go, ‘Whew,’ and take a deep breath and hopefully it’s in a celebration with your teammates. …. You have a shower, you feel good about things, you go home, you kind of decompress and then the next day it starts again: the butterflies, the nerves, the thinking about your opponent. And that’s the mental fatigue that comes into it.”

That’s what Vasilevskiy is dealing with at age 23, 58 starts into his first season as the full-time starter and the league leader in victories.

”Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before,” he told The Tampa Bay Times.

The same goes for Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who is between the pipes for meaningful games and on the cusp of his first playoff appearance. Jets goaltending coach Wade Flaherty talks to Hellebuyck almost daily about what he needs to be successful, and the staff pays careful attention to making sure the 24-year-old is good to go.

Coach Paul Maurice said the Jets are aware of the balance between rhythm and rest but aren’t holding Hellebuyck back.

”There’s a fatigue component that a No. 1 goaltender also has to embrace,” Maurice said. ”He has to learn how to play when he doesn’t feel 100 percent right because that’s basically going to be his life.”

Winnipeg has been able to give Hellebuyck blocks of two or three days completely off, a rarity for top goalies this time of year. The Nashville Predators have a big enough lead atop the Central Division that they can afford to lighten Pekka Rinne‘s workload down the stretch, which could be a huge benefit.

”I like thinking outside the box,” former goalie Martin Biron said. ”You may have a Friday-Saturday game, have a Tuesday game, have a Thursday game. You can play your starter on Friday-Saturday and not play him on Tuesday so he gets Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday (off) and then he gets ready for the weekend again for the Thursday. There’s a lot more days to be able to decompress and really think about how to reset and re-prepare.”

Holtby got a 10-day reset from a month-plus of struggles as Philipp Grubauer started four games in a row. Having a reliable backup is a luxury Washington has – and Holtby doesn’t like taking days off, either. Toronto starter Frederik Andersen recently joked that he’s more tired of being asked if he’s tired than he is from facing the most shots in the league.

Practice shots, warmups, travel and mental and physical preparation are also part of the wear and tear. Analyst Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild said those can be spaced out over weeks and months.

”Anything you can do to get a little bit of extra sleep over the course of the season is absolutely monumental when it comes time for the playoff push,” Goldman said.

Biron, who started 59 games for Philadelphia in 2007-08 and backed up Henrik Lundqvist when the New York Rangers realized the ”King” needed more time off, figures 60 is the perfect number for a starter. For someone like Vasilevskiy who can’t afford to learn and wait for next year, Boucher said he hopes a more relaxed market like Tampa Bay helps now and the rush of the playoffs gets him through the grind in a few weeks.

”I think Vasilevskiy’s going to be fine just because you watch his physical attributes, they’re through the roof,” Boucher said. ”So the physical side doesn’t look like it’s an issue. Now it’s his time to shine.”

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Vladimir Tarasenko returns to Blues at pivotal time

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The St. Louis Blues are getting Vladimir Tarasenko back at a crucial time.

Tarasenko missed the past two games with an upper-body injury — a suspected but never confirmed concussion — and returns with the Blues sitting three points back of the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

The Blues host the Vancouver Canucks on Friday and hold a game in hand over the Anaheim Ducks

Tarasenko sits second on the team in scoring with 27 goals and 58 points in 71 games.

The Blues don’t have much wiggle room in terms of losses in their last nine games. Anaheim is going for their fifth straight win and the Colorado Avalanche have been on fire ever since the return of Nathan MacKinnon.

But the Blues have won three in a row themselves to put themselves back in contention.

The return of a talent as good as Tarasenko can only help their efforts.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Wayne Huizenga, founding owner of Florida Panthers, dies at 80

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MIAMI (AP) — College dropout Wayne Huizenga started with a trash hauling company, struck gold during America’s brief love affair with VHS tapes and eventually owned three professional sports teams.

Huizenga owned Blockbuster Entertainment, AutoNation and the world’s largest trash hauler, and was founding owner of baseball’s Florida Marlins and the NHL Florida Panthers. He bought the NFL Miami Dolphins for $138 million in 1994.

The one thing he never got was a Super Bowl win.

Huizenga died late Thursday, according to Valerie Hinkell, his longtime assistant. He was 80.

The Marlins won the 1997 World Series, and the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, but Huizenga’s beloved Dolphins never reached a Super Bowl while he owned the team.

”If I have one disappointment, the disappointment would be that we did not bring a championship home,” Huizenga said shortly after he sold the Dolphins to New York real estate billionaire Stephen Ross, who still owns the team. ”It’s something we failed to do.”

Huizenga earned an almost cult-like following among business investors who watched him build Blockbuster Entertainment into the leading video rental chain by snapping up competitors. He cracked Forbes’ list of the 100 richest Americans, becoming chairman of Republic Services, one of the nation’s top waste management companies, and AutoNation, the nation’s largest automotive retailer.

”You just have to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. ”It can only happen in America.”

For a time, Huizenga was also a favorite with South Florida sports fans, drawing cheers and autograph seekers in public. The crowd roared when he danced the hokey pokey on the field during an early Marlins game. He went on a spending spree to build a veteran team that won the World Series in only the franchise’s fifth year.

But his popularity plummeted when he ordered the roster dismantled after that season. He was frustrated by poor attendance and his failure to swing a deal for a new ballpark built with taxpayer money.

Many South Florida fans never forgave him for breaking up the championship team. Huizenga drew boos when introduced at Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino’s retirement celebration in 2000, and kept a lower public profile after that.

In 2009, Huizenga said he regretted ordering the Marlins’ payroll purge.

”We lost $34 million the year we won the World Series, and I just said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do that,”’ Huizenga recalled. ”If I had it to do over again, I’d say, ‘OK, we’ll go one more year.”’

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He sold the Marlins in 1999 to John Henry, and sold the Panthers in 2001, unhappy with rising NHL player salaries and the stock price for the team’s public company.

Huizenga’s first sports love was the Dolphins – he had been a season-ticket holder since their inaugural season in 1966. But he fared better in the NFL as a businessman than as a sports fan.

He turned a nifty profit by selling the Dolphins and their stadium for $1.1 billion, nearly seven times what he paid to become sole owner. But he knew the bottom line in the NFL is championships, and his Dolphins perennially came up short.

Huizenga earned a reputation as a hands-off owner and won raves from many loyal employees, even though he made six coaching changes. He eased Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Shula into retirement in early 1996, and Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, interim coach Jim Bates, Nick Saban, Cam Cameron and Tony Sporano followed as coach.

In 2008, Huizenga’s final season as owner, the Dolphins had a turnaround year and won the AFC East on the final day of the regular season.

”It was a magical feeling,” Huizenga said. ”I had tears in my eyes. I kept looking away so I wouldn’t have to wipe my eyes in front of everybody.”

Miami lost in the first round of the playoffs and didn’t return to the postseason until 2016. But Huizenga won praise from such disparate personalities as Shula, Johnson and Marlins manager Jim Leyland even when they no longer worked for him.

Harry Wayne Huizenga was born in the Chicago suburbs on Dec. 29, 1937, to a family of garbage haulers. He attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but dropped out and began his own garbage hauling business in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1962. He would drive a garbage truck from 2 a.m. to noon each day, then shower and go out and solicit new customers in the afternoon.

One customer successfully sued Huizenga, saying that in an argument over a delinquent account, Huizenga injured him by grabbing his testicles – an allegation Huizenga always denied.

”I never did that. The guy was a deputy cop. It was his word against mine, a young kid,” he told Fortune magazine in 1996.

He eventually bought out several competitors, expanding throughout South Florida. In 1968, he merged with the Chicago sanitation company his uncles owned, creating Waste Management Inc., which eventually became the world’s largest trash company. That became his method of operation – becoming the first national player in industries that had been dominated by small and local operations. He resigned from the company in 1984, taking $100 million in stock.

But retirement bored him and he soon began buying dozens of small businesses like hotels and pest control companies. In 1987, a business partner persuaded him to check out Blockbuster, a small chain of video stores. At the time, video stores were mostly locally owned mom-and-pop operations. Huizenga didn’t even own a VCR.

”I had an image of them being dark and dingy and dirty types of adult bookstores,” he told The Miami Herald. ”But when I finally saw a Blockbuster store, it opened my mind.”

The stores were clean and carried 10,000 titles, 10 times more than the typical corner video store. He loved the concept and thought it could become the McDonalds of video. He and two partners bought 43 percent of the business for $19 million and he became chairman and president. By 1991, the chain had grown to over 1,800 stores, with one opening every 17 hours, on average.

”The whole deal was to move quickly before our competition saw what we were doing and moved in on us,” he told the business magazine FSB in 2003.

In 1994, Viacom bought Blockbuster, then a publicly traded company, for about $8 billion.

In 1995, Huizenga got back into trash hauling by buying Republic Waste Industries Inc. for $27 million. Mergers and acquisitions soon followed. He renamed the company Republic Industries as it branched out, buying Alamo Rent-A-Car and National Car Rental.

Republic, under Huizenga’s leadership, then started AutoNation, a national chain of car dealerships – again, an industry that had been dominated by local and regional ownership. At its peak, AutoNation had about 375 dealerships in 17 states.

Republic Services was spun off in 1998 to control the waste management portion of the portfolio, a sector that had grown to more than $1 billion in annual sales. He remained its chairman until 2002.

Huizenga became a large benefactor of Nova Southeastern University, a private South Florida school where the Dolphins train. Its business school is named after him – even though he never completed college.

In 1960 he married Joyce VanderWagon. Together they had two children, Wayne Jr. and Scott. They divorced in 1966. Wayne married his second wife, Marti Goldsby, in 1972. She died in 2017.