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Team USA won’t include NHL draft-eligible prospects at 2018 Olympics

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) General manager Jim Johannson has ruled out the possibility of the U.S. men’s hockey team having NHL draft-eligible prospects competing at the Winter Olympics in February.

Johannson tells The Associated Press he doesn’t view anyone from the 18-and-younger pool of prospects capable of cracking the projected lineup of non-NHL players, many of whom are opening this season playing in Europe.

USA Hockey’s assistant executive director says he’s also targeting a number of established college players, and would not rule out keeping a spot or two open for members of the U.S. team competing at the World Junior Championships this winter.

Johansson spoke in Buffalo, New York, on Thursday, where he is attending USA Hockey’s sixth annual All-American Prospects game. The game features the top 42 U.S.-born players eligible to be selected in the NHL draft in June.

Canucks, Kings ‘put on a show’ during first NHL preseason game in China

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SHANGHAI (AP) A golden dragon was held aloft on poles by skaters. Kobe Bryant appeared on video. NHL mascots gave the crowd a primer on what this odd game is all about.

NHL preseason hockey made its debut in China – a 5-2 victory by the Los Angeles Kings over the Vancouver Canucks – in a step by the league to crack an immense market.

The fans in Shanghai got a fast and physical display Thursday – 17 power plays and 57 shots on goal, all met with loud cheers. Each hard check drew a collective “oooh” or “aaah.”

“Obviously, you wanted to put on a show for the fans here and they got to see some goals, too,” said Vancouver forward Sven Baertschi, who scored the Canucks’ first goal.

An announcer came onto the ice to explain the finer points of the game as Fin (Vancouver’s killer whale) and Bailey (Los Angeles’ lion) acted out infractions such as charging, crosschecking, tripping and hooking.

A golden Chinese dragon came out next, hoisted on poles by seven skaters. A group of Chinese kids in hockey uniforms joined the NHL players during China’s national anthem.

With Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the NHL is showcasing two preseason games in a country unfamiliar with hockey. The Kings and Canucks play their second game in Beijing on Saturday.

Even if the rules remain somewhat of a mystery, the crowd appreciated the speed and collisions.

“To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know the crowd, the noise, the atmosphere,” Los Angeles coach John Stevens said. “I think the whole thing for me is we’re here to grow the game. It’s my hope that the more they see it, the more people like it.”

Tanner Pearson scored twice for the Kings and Alec Martinez and Jeff Carter each had a goal and an assist. Jonathan Quick made 31 saves.

Team allegiances were hard to find in the crowd, the most demonstrative fans being rowdy Canadians waving their country’s flag.

Spectator Inge Zhang was more appropriately attired for an NBA game, wearing a Miami Heat jersey with pink letters. A media manager for the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, she was excited because she heard a certain NBA great might be there.

“So we came here actually for Kobe Bryant,” she said while her friend laughed. “But I love this sport, too.”

Bryant, in fact, did show, although in a video message to support his hometown Kings.

“I see more foreigners here tonight than Chinese, but I think there are still a lot of hockey fans in China,” Zhang added. “I think the NHL should take this opportunity to grow the sport here.”

That’s the plan now that the NHL has signed a contract to bring two preseason games to China for six of the next eight years.

“The effort here really is to build from the grassroots up, to try to grow the appreciation for the sport, the understanding of the sport,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said before the game. “We’ve certainly made the Chinese Ice Hockey Federation and the Chinese government aware that we’re willing to help any way we can as they gear up and prepare for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.”

But this is the first step in a long process.

“It’s great for China itself to see the NHL live and in person, see the speed of the game, how good the players are,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “But whenever you’re bringing hockey to a new country, it’s going to take time. I think it’s great the NHL is committed to doing that.”

NHL hopes to make inroads in China with preseason games

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SHANGHAI (AP) As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck.

Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China – a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a major push in the country, beginning with its first two preseason games between the Canucks and Kings in Shanghai and Beijing this week.

The timing couldn’t be better for the NHL. With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government is putting a massive emphasis on developing winter sports. Hockey training programs and youth leagues are expanding across China, and the nation’s first professional team, the Kunlan Red Star, plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

With interest on the rise, the NHL believes it now has an opportunity to crack a market that has traditionally been more fixated on basketball and soccer.

“You don’t quite know what to expect the first time the game is coming here, but I’ve always believed that hockey is a game you need to see live,” Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said after Wednesday’s practice. “And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan.”

A glance at the numbers shows just how far the NHL has to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 1,101 registered players, compared with nearly 556,000 in the U.S. and more than 631,000 in Canada.

And the fan base in a nation of more than 1.2 billion people is still in its infancy. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the NHL has just 47,000 followers, some of whom are obviously new to the sport. (One posted a question about the temperature of the arena and what was suitable to wear to the game.) The NBA, which hosted its first preseason exhibition games in China in 2004, boasts more than 33 million followers on Weibo.

“We’re learning a lot about how to market here and we’re learning a lot about how tickets are sold,” says David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy. “We’re just viewing this as Year 1 of a multi-year project and in Year 1 we may not knock it out of the park . but we can still build over time.”

Media exposure certainly helps. State broadcaster CCTV now televises five games per week to Chinese audiences and the Internet giant Tencent streams 14 games per week on its digital platforms, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL also has an influential partner on the ground in Zhou Yunjie, the billionaire founder of a Chinese drinks packaging company who has devoted significant time and resources to building the game he fell in love with as a youth in Beijing. Zhou’s company, ORG Packaging, is the presenting partner for this week’s exhibition games.

“Hockey was actually quite common in northern China back in the ’60s and ’70s, so there is a foundation among the kids in those areas,” Zhou told The Associated Press at his company’s newly opened hockey training base in a Beijing suburb, which includes a fully stocked gym, physical therapy room and a hotel for players attending training camps.

Zhou said China’s hockey revival should focus on both universities and a professional league, using the North American, northern European and Russian systems as models.

“It will take time before ice hockey really becomes like a religion with young people as it is in the West,” he said. “But ice hockey will definitely catch on with lots of kids.”

One thing that will certainly help is developing a home-grown star similar to Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis. There are promising signs on this front, too.

Song Andong became the first China-born player to be drafted in the NHL two years ago, selected by the New York Islanders. The 20-year-old Song has committed to play at Cornell this season.

On Monday, the Vancouver Canucks signed 21-year-old Sun Zehao to an amateur tryout contract to serve as the team’s third goaltender for the China preseason games.

“He’s working with our goalie coach,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “He liked how quick (Sun) was, how competitive he was. . I just think it’s a great experience for him.”

The NHL should also get a boost in China as excitement builds for the 2022 Olympics. The league angered its players by deciding not to interrupt its season to allow them to take part in the 2018 Games in South Korea in February. That stance may change for 2022 in the much larger Chinese market.

To some, skipping the Pyeongchang Olympics is a missed opportunity to gain a bigger foothold in China.

“With 2022 coming up, winter sports are taking the leading focus of all sports in China right now – more so than football,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of the China Sports Insider website. “They’ll be promoting the Korea Olympics more than ever before.”

For now, the league is focused on taking its first baby steps in China, giving spectators in Shanghai and Beijing a good show.

“It’s going to be pretty cool, especially for people who have never really experienced it before,” Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. “It’s going to hopefully start something good here.”

 

Coyotes-Kings game canceled due to bad ice after concert

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) Poor ice conditions after a weekend concert has forced the Arizona Coyotes to cancel their scheduled preseason home game Monday night against the Los Angeles Kings.

Coyotes president and CEO Steve Patterson announced Sunday that the game – which was to be the team’s preseason opener – won’t be rescheduled.

He says the ice at Gila River Arena “was not in suitable playing condition for the game,” but didn’t elaborate.

Latin pop artists Gloria Trevi and Alejandra Guzman played a concert at the venue Saturday night.

Patterson says the company that manages the arena has assured the team that “all measures are being taken to repair the ice as soon as possible.”

Arizona plays Wednesday night at Anaheim and Friday night at Calgary before hosting San Jose on Saturday night.

NHL stars on knocking off Penguins, the ‘heavyweight champs’

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Each time Seth Jones felt like the Columbus Blue Jackets were dominating, the Pittsburgh Penguins went down the ice and scored. The series was over fast.

T.J. Oshie knows the feeling because the Penguins did it to the Washington Capitals often during playoff series the past two years.

“It kind of deflates what we’re doing and it’s hard to trust your game after that,” Oshie said.

Opportunistic, well-coached and talented, Pittsburgh has won eight consecutive playoff series to become the NHL’s only back-to-back Stanley Cup champion of the salary-cap era and the first since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. Now everyone’s trying to figure out how to stop the march of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins as they go for the three-peat.

“It’s not one thing,” Jones said. “There’s not a Crosby stopper. There’s not a Malkin stopper. You can’t put a stop on them. You just have to contain them.”

No one has contained them so far. The Penguins mowed through the New York Rangers, Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and San Jose Sharks to win the Cup in 2016 and then the Blue Jackets, Capitals, Ottawa Senators and Nashville Predators in 2017, and only three of those series needed seven games.

Patrick Kane acknowledged that while he and the Chicago Blackhawks used to be the standard after winning the Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, the Penguins have surpassed them. While the Los Angeles Kings rivaled the Blackhawks during their heyday, the Penguins have shown to be unbeatable when it matters most.

“It seems like they’re on the brink sometimes, and they find their way out of it,” Kane said. “Just watching games, it’s almost like you have that feeling that they’re going to win, especially in playoffs. Whether that’s the coaching staff or the players or just that organization, it seems like they have something pretty special going right now.”

If there are cracks in Pittsburgh’s armor, they came this offseason with the losses of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, defenseman Trevor Daley and forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen. But Crosby, Malkin, goalie Matt Murray, winger Phil Kessel, top defenseman Kris Letang and coach Mike Sullivan remain, which explains why the Penguins are favored to win again and make it three in a row for the first time since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty.

“When you get Sid, Geno, Letang on the team, you always have a chance,” said Fleury, who went to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. “That’s how I felt every time. When every season started I always felt like we had a chance to do great. I think they’ll be dangerous again.”

Usually the grind of playing over 100 games in a season wears on a team. Ryan Getzlaf, whose Anaheim Ducks won the Cup in 2007 and lost in the first round the next year, said a team needs luck and a group that’s able to sustain a high level of game through fatigue the entire next year.

Now that the Penguins have sustained to win twice, no one’s betting against them doing it again.

“They’re a good team, and they’re going to continue to be a good team,” Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. “They’re the heavyweight champs right now, and you’ve just got to knock them off.”

Easier said than done. Now maybe Murray will struggle with a heavier workload or the depth that Fleury said paved the way to the championships will wear thin.

But if there’s a blueprint to attacking the Penguins, it might be putting pressure on their blue line.

“You have to play a physical style, but also you have to play a skill style, as well,” Jones said. “You got to get to them, you got to get to the defensemen, I think and that’s something that teams may focus on.”

The Penguins won last spring with a no-name defense while being outshot 794-718, yet they found ways to win. Oshie said any potential Pittsburgh-killer must be more resilient, and Predators defenseman Roman Josi knows there’s a mental aspect to facing a team with so much success.

“Once you win a lot of series, you start to believe more and more and the confidence grows,” Josi said. “As an opponent you’ve got to get in there and believe that you can beat them. Obviously it’s tough. They’re a great team. But you got to have that belief.”

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey