Jason Brough

400,000 fans greet Pittsburgh Penguins at Stanley Cup parade

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins turned around a once-disappointing season and fired a coach before winning a fourth Stanley Cup, adversity that seemed to make Wednesday’s city-wide celebration that much sweeter.

Fans lined the victory parade route more than 10 deep as the players, coaches, their families and support staff rolled by in pickup trucks, convertibles and amphibious duck boats.

“We were slow at one time but, man, were we fast when we finished,” general manager Jim Rutherford told the crowd at the end of the parade route.

The parade was held seven years to the day that the 2009 team also celebrated its Stanley Cup championship with a downtown victory lap. That parade drew about 375,000 spectators and city and county public safety officials said this one topped out at 400,000.

“Well the one thing I’ve learned is this is one crazy sports town,” said head coach Mike Sullivan, hired to replace Mike Johnston when the team was out of playoff contention in December.

Some fans arrived 12 hours ahead of time for the 11:30 a.m. parade, despite overnight drizzle.

The skies largely cleared, though, as fans threw ribbons and confetti, peered out of office windows and from parking garage platforms, and thronged the city’s main downtown streets.

Twin brothers Pat and Joe Stevens, 19, drove 10 hours from Phil Kessel‘s hometown, Madison, Wisconsin, to honor their favorite player now that he’s joined their favorite team.

Kessel joined the team in an offseason trade from Toronto, where fans often took out their frustrations on him in a city that hasn’t witnessed a Stanley Cup championship since 1967 – the year the Penguins joined the National Hockey League as one of six expansion teams.

“I was a big fan before, more now,” Pat Stevens said. “I always thought that he had good talent, but he didn’t have much around him.”

Zachary Sheler worked a 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift at a convenience store in Johnstown Tuesday evening before driving 60 miles west to grab a spot near the parade-ending stage by 3 a.m. He was holding a plastic replica of the Stanley Cup glued together from “a five-gallon bucket and just a bunch of Betty Crocker bowls from the Dollar Tree.”

“I just wanted to see the Pens bring back Lord Stanley,” Sheler, 18, said.

Allie Hosinski, 21, a university of Pittsburgh student, has culturally adopted two of the team’s Swedish stars, Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin. She’s studied their language for three years at Pitt and will be studying abroad in Stockholm next month.

She wore a plastic-horned Viking helmet and held a sign that, translated, means, “Congratulations to Hornqvist and Hagelin.”

“Pittsburgh Egna Vikingar,” the sign also said, meaning, “Pittsburgh Our Vikings.”

Harry and Lisa Mosser, 59, have been fans since before they got married in 1979 and used their wedding present money to buy season tickets. They knew finding a parking place would be daunting so they drove 20 miles downriver from New Kensington and spent Tuesday night at a hotel to be sure they could get to the parade.

“I paid $200 for a parking space, that’s the way I look at it,” Lisa Mosser said. “We’re both going to be 60 this year and we don’t know how many of these we’re going to see.”

Watch out for the Carolina Hurricanes

Ron Francis
AP
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Anyone who was surprised by what the Florida Panthers did in 2015-16 clearly hadn’t been paying attention to what they’d been building in Sunrise.

So let’s talk about the Carolina Hurricanes, because this could soon be another “surprise” team (that nobody should really be surprised by).

Today’s acquisition of Teuvo Teravainen from Chicago gave the ‘Canes yet another talented youngster. The 21-year-old Finn joins a forward group that already included Jeff Skinner, 24, Victor Rask, 23, Elias Lindholm, 21, and Sebastian Aho, 18, while on the back end there’s Justin Faulk, 24, and a couple of 19-year-old blue-chippers, Noah Hanifin and Haydn Fleury.

Aho and Fleury have yet to play in the NHL, but both have the potential to be significant contributors. The former just signed his entry-level deal after a big season in Finland’s top league. The latter was drafted seventh overall in 2014; he represented Team Canada at the 2016 World Juniors.

On top of all that, even more high-end talent will be added in the upcoming draft. The ‘Canes have their own selection at 13th overall, plus they’ve got the Kings’ pick, 21st overall, from last season’s Andrej Sekera trade. They’ll also pick 43rd, 67th, 74th, and 75th.

Now, granted, some big questions remain about their roster.

For starters, is there a legitimate first-line center? Jordan Staal is solid, and he’s still only 27. Eventually, Lindholm could maybe do the job. But the most recent Stanley Cup winners have had Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, and Patrice Bergeron. That’s the bar that’s been set for centers. It’s a high one.

That’s why many expect the ‘Canes to target a center next Friday. While it’s unlikely that Logan Brown or Clayton Keller will still be around when the ‘Canes pick at No. 13, it’s possible that one of them could fall that far. And if not, there are others like Tyson Jost and Michael McLeod that could be had.

Another big question is, who’s the goalie of the future? Last season with Cam Ward and Eddie Lack, Carolina’s team save percentage (.902) was better than only Calgary’s (.892). The ‘Canes have a decent prospect in Alex Nedeljkovic, but he’s only 20 and hasn’t even played a pro game yet.

So patience will still be required. When GM Ron Francis took over in 2014, it was never going to be an overnight turnaround.

“We came up with a plan and we’re sticking to that plan,” Francis told reporters recently. “We think we’re moving in the right direction. … I know it’s been tough and a struggle but I certainly think we’re making strides toward [getting back to the playoffs].”

Related: Hurricanes GM latest refutes reports of possible relocation

No indication that NHL will seek to ban betting on Vegas team

LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 02:  The betting line and some of the nearly 400 proposition bets for Super Bowl 50 between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos are displayed at the Race & Sports SuperBook at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino on February 2, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The newly renovated sports book has the world's largest indoor LED video wall with 4,488 square feet of HD video screens measuring 240 feet wide and 20 feet tall.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Compared to the amount of wagering that’s done on football and basketball, the amount that’s gambled on hockey is a paltry sum.

But with the NHL reportedly set to award an expansion team to Las Vegas, many have wondered if the league could seek to ban betting on the local team in Nevada’s casinos.

So far, there’s been no indication of that.

“I haven’t had any conversations with the NHL, and it would certainly be out of the ordinary if that were to occur,” A.G. Burnett, Chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, told the Las Vegas Sun on Tuesday. “It seems to me that a lot of the sports leagues are seeing that professional sports can thrive without any issues in a well-regulated betting environment.”

It’s worth noting that betting on Nevada’s college teams used to be banned, but that ban was lifted in 2001, allowing wagers to be placed on UNLV basketball and football.

If that’s allowed, bookmakers argue, why shouldn’t it be allowed for pro teams?

“If they were to entertain the idea of a betting restriction in the state of Nevada, that would be sending the wrong message,” Westgate sports book director Jay Kornegay told the Review-Journal earlier this year. “That would indicate something is wrong with it, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. By accepting wagers on the Rebels for the past 15 years, that has been proven. There has not been a problem in 15 years.

“I would not be in favor of a restriction. It would be very hypocritical, not to mention it would be awkward to accept wagers on the local college team and not the local pro team. They are always talking about the integrity of the games, and they want the same thing we do. We want to protect the integrity of the games. A lot of people don’t realize it, but we’re on the same side.”

Kornegay was actually referring to a potential ban on NFL betting, should the Raiders move to Vegas, but his point stands for the NHL.

We’ll no doubt hear more about this topic next week when the NHL is expected to make expansion to Las Vegas official.

UFA of the Day: David Backes

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 17:  David Backes #42 of the St. Louis Blues looks on in Game Two of the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 17, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Every day until June 30, we’ll write about a pending unrestricted free agent. Today’s UFA of the Day is…

David Backes

Blues GM Doug Armstrong has called re-signing the 32-year-old captain a “priority,” and Backes has said there’s “no question” he wants to stay in St. Louis.

So how come there hasn’t been an extension yet?

In a nutshell, the Blues are wary of signing Backes to a contract that could turn into a liability.

“There’s things I can potentially do with roster players here to open up some space,” Armstrong told the Post-Dispatch. “But I think what you’ve seen around the league, too, is if you get too aggressive, those contracts are sometimes difficult to maneuver around.”

He added, “I thought this year for sure, the NHL got faster. It just seemed like I came to the rink one day and it was fast, and it seemed to get quicker and quicker. So I think it’s trending into a younger-leg game.”

It’s a tough decision for the Blues, since losing their captain would hurt in the short term, and they’re still in their Stanley Cup window. Backes had 45 points (21G, 24A) in 75 games during the regular season, then added 14 more (7G, 7A) in 20 playoff contests. Remember that St. Louis could also lose Troy Brouwer to free agency, so there’d have to be confidence that a youngster like Ty Rattie could step in and fill the void.

If Backes hits the open market, he’ll garner interest no question. Teams will still have the same worries that the Blues have, but all it takes is one with the cap space and urgency to make a big offer.

“I think David’s got a lot of good years left in him,” said Armstrong. “I’d love to keep him here, but it has to work out for David and his family first and foremost and then it has to work into our math equation.”

Click here for all our 2016 UFA profiles.

The hockey world has gathered for Howe’s funeral

DETROIT — Gordie Howe has drawn some of the biggest names in hockey, including Wayne Gretzky and Gary Bettman, to the Motor City to celebrate his life and legacy.

Howe’s funeral was to begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday in a packed Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Thousands of people, famous and relatively anonymous, paid respects to Howe at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday. He died Friday at the age of 88.

The home of the Detroit Red Wings, Howe’s team for more than two decades and four Stanley Cup championships, was opened at 9 a.m. and was scheduled to close at 9 p.m. – for No. 9, of course – but so many people showed up that the visitation lasted longer than planned.

Paul Snapp was ready and willing to wait as long as it took to honor his hero.

The 66-year-old Snapp was one of more than 100 people waiting outside to get in Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday afternoon. Inside, a longer line snaked through the darkened arena.

“I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity to see him one more time for anything in the world,” said Snapp, sporting Howe’s No. 9 Detroit Vipers jersey from his one-game stint as a 69-year-old forward during the 1997-98 International Hockey League season, his sixth decade of professional hockey.

Howe broke records, threw elbows and fists and became an idol to Gretzky and many others while elevating the profile the NHL had in the U.S. With strength, speed and grit, he set NHL records with 801 goals and 1,850 points – mostly with the Red Wings – that stood until Gretzky came along.

Gretzky said he was “embarrassed” to break Howe’s records because he played in an incomparable era.

The Great One wore No. 99 in a tribute to Howe, a man he got to know when he was a kid.

“Not everybody gets to meet their hero or their idol,” Gretzky said. “And sometimes when you meet them, it wasn’t as good as you thought it would be. I got so lucky that the guy I chose happened to be so special.”

Howe had bulging muscles – unlike many players in his day – on his 6-foot, 205-pound frame and had a great shot both with his fist and stick.

“He had so much power,” said Scotty Bowman, who won an NHL-record ninth Stanley Cup as a coach with the Red Wings in 2002. “He was perfect. If you were going to make a mold of a player, you would want to make it of Gordie.”

Related: Howe visitation draws thousands