Sean Avery ready to support any hockey player coming out openly gay

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Homosexuality in sports is about as taboo a subject as you’ll find in modern culture. Whether it’s because of fear or apprehension, professional athletes are either unwilling to support those that have come out or are afraid to do so because it’s so virtually absent from the locker room culture.

New York Ranger forward Sean Avery wants to help start knocking down those walls standing between gays and being able to just be who they are in sports.

Chris Stevenson of The Toronto Sun caught up with Avery and he says that if there’s a hockey player out there that is afraid to come out, he’s happy to stand by them and support them for doing so.

“If there’s a kid in Canada or wherever, who is playing and really loves the game and wants to keep playing but he’s worried about coming out, I’d tell him to pick up the phone and call (NHLPA executive director) Donald Fehr and tell him to book me a (plane) ticket.

“I’ll stand beside him in the dressing room while he tells his teammates he is gay. Maybe if Sean Avery is there, they would have less of a problem with it.”

Avery’s open and public support like this is not uncommon in the hockey world. Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke marched in the Toronto gay pride parade as a gesture of support for his son Brendan who died in a car accident. Brendan was a manager with the Miami University hockey team and came out to his friends and players receiving overwhelming support from them for doing so.

Former Blackhawks and current Thrashers defenseman Brent Sopel took the Stanley Cup with him to Chicago’s gay pride parade last summer as a gesture of support to Burke and his family in honor of Brendan. Adding Avery’s name and persona to the list of those in the NHL who are more than happy to lend their support to gay rights shows that hockey comes out far ahead of other professional sports. Finding athletes and executives from any of the NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball that are as visibly supportive of gay rights is difficult and while we don’t doubt there are those that are happy to help out in such civil rights struggles, they’re not standing out front to do so.

Avery being such a polarizing figure in the NHL makes this such an incredible mind-blowing sort of thing as the guy we know on the ice seems like the sort that would shove your grandmother down to get what he wants. Pulling out such an outstanding way to be a stand-up human being puts a different face on Sean Avery the person as opposed to Sean Avery the player. Perhaps being such a great guy off the ice will soften the stance on what people think of him on it.

Nearly 30K stuffed animals fly during Calgary Hitmen’s Teddy Bear Toss night

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The WHL’s Calgary Hitmen fell short in their quest to reclaim the Teddy Bear Toss world record.

One week after the AHL’s Hershey Bears saw 34,798 teddy bears fly to their ice and break the Hitmen’s 2015 record, the crowd inside the Saddledome made it rain with fur Sunday afternoon after Kaden Elder’s first period goal. The 18,015 fans, many of whom brought large plastic bags filled with stuffed animals, helped break a franchise Teddy Bear Toss record with a total of 29,635, up from the 28,815 collected three years ago.

“It was an awesome experience and something I’ll never forget,” Elder said via the Hitmen website. “The atmosphere in the rink was unbelievable with all the fans and the teddy bears. It was definitely an adrenaline rush and when it went in I was thinking about the celebration and kind of zoned out because I was trying to just take in the moment and enjoy every second of it. It just a surreal moment.”

After a 41-minute cleanup delay, the Hitmen went on to win 6-3 over the Kamloops Blazers.

The Hitmen have now collected a total of 377,583 stuffed animals since their first Teddy Bear Toss promotion in 1995.

The event helps benefit 70 local agencies, including the Salvation Army, Calgary Food Bank, Siksika Nation and Hospice Calgary. The Hitmen will spend Monday delivering some of stuffed animals to Alberta Children’s Hospital.

MORE: Teddy Bear Toss season is the best season

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Can Coyotes keep playoff hopes alive without Raanta?

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One of the saddest phrases in sports is “[Player X] would really have been something, if only they could stay healthy.”

Some argue that avoiding injuries counts as a “skill,” and it’s plausible that certain players may simply be better at staying healthy than others, but there are still instances when the injury gods feel awfully cruel.

We’re rapidly approaching that point with Arizona Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta.

Even with a challenging start to 2018-19 (just a .906 save percentage over 12 games), Raanta’s been fantastic for the Coyotes so far … when he’s been able to actually play.

That caveat was frustrating last season, as Raanta missed crucial chunks of time – most painfully being unhealthy as the Coyotes went without a win in October 2017 – yet was essentially elite when he could play, generating a splendid .930 save percentage in 47 games.

Unfortunately for the Coyotes, it’s looking like 47 Raanta appearances would have been a gift compared to the likely reality. The team announced that the 29-year-old goalie is out “indefinitely,” while The Athletic’s Craig Morgan provided a more detailed (and more troubling) update: Raanta might miss the rest of this season.

Brutal.

It’s fair to wonder if this might become the story of Raanta’s career.

Again, the Finn fought nagging injuries last season, and this year’s been even worse. At 29, he’s not ancient, but Raanta isn’t exactly a spring chicken, either. (If you need a glum example of how quickly a goalie can start looking older-and-more-fragile, look at all of the injury headaches Carey Price has been dealing with at just 31.)

That said, Raanta’s limited starts pre-Arizona came from him being a backup, not necessarily from injuries. There’s the hope that, in hindsight, these past two years will look like speed bumps rather than Raanta’s promising career hitting a brick wall. If nothing else, Raanta is listed at just 6-0, so he’s not one of those prototypical towering goalies whose huge frames only increase odds of additional injuries.

Either way, Raanta’s lengthy absence deals an enormous blow to the Coyotes’ fledgling playoff hopes.

You could argue that they’d be in tough to land a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs even with a keyed-in Raanta. As of this writing, Arizona’s record is 13-13-2 for 28 points in as many games, leaving them in 12th place in the West (five points behind Vegas for the final wild card spot, and seven behind Anaheim for the Pacific’s third seed).

Various projections aren’t totally dismissing the Coyotes’ chances of waging a comeback, but few give them much better than a 20-percent shot to pull that off … and those odds likely only drop once you factor in Raanta’s absence.

The Coyotes haven’t just been without Raanta, who’s been sidelined since Nov. 27. Backup goalie Darcy Kuemper has been hurt, too, making way for Adin Hill and waiver claim Calvin Pickard. To Hill’s credit, he began with a four-game winning streak and currently boasts a .939 save percentage, but his larger history indicates that he probably won’t be able to produce such results over the long haul.

All of this leaves Coyotes GM John Chayka in a tough spot.

If you’re the Coyotes, do you try to trade for a more seasoned goalie, particularly one on an expiring contract?

Or, do you do the uncomfortable and all-too-familiar, and punt on the season?

This Coyotes team is structured largely to compete, with an increasing number of longer-term contracts crowding the team’s salary cap.

Granted, the Coyotes have an interesting player or two. Would someone pay up some futures to land, say, Alex Galchenyuk? The 24-year-old’s endured a quiet first season with Arizona (just 11 points in 21 games), but there’s plenty of talent there. While Galchenyuk isn’t on an easy-to-move expiring contract, his deal doesn’t last much longer, as his affordable $4.9 million cap hit runs out after 2019-20. If you’re a contender, would you hand the Coyotes some futures to add some skill for Galchenyuk, particularly if the Coyotes absorbed a contract you wanted to get rid of (and/or retained some of Galchenyuk’s salary?).

It’s not pleasant to discuss who the Coyotes might sell off in a trade, and it’s even more unpleasant to wonder if Raanta will be injury-prone for the remainder of his career, but Arizona at least needs to ponder these scenarios. They might not have much of a choice, even if Raanta technically finds a way to play a bit toward the end of this season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Zach Hyman suspended two games for hit on Charlie McAvoy

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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman was suspended for two games thanks to his late hit on Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins.

Hyman received a major penalty and game misconduct for the hit, which was considered interference. He also fought with Matt Grzelcyk following that check on McAvoy. It’s plausible that Hyman lost his cool as the Maple Leafs were on their way to a 6-3 loss to the Bruins on Saturday.

The league notes that the check came well after McAvoy released the puck, describing Hyman’s infraction as a “late, forceful, high hit.” The “predatory nature” of the hit also factored into Hyman being suspended.

Here’s video of the hit, along with the NHL Department of Player Safety’s explanation for the suspension:

This counts as Hyman’s first NHL suspension, something that was mentioned in the league’s video. So far, it seems like McAvoy wasn’t injured by the check, but sometimes players realize they’ve been injured more than a day following a collision. (It would certainly be crucial if McAvoy avoids missing time, as the Bruins are very banged-up right now.)

You can see the fight in this Sportsnet clip:

If McAvoy ends up being OK (or mostly OK), this could go down as a nice weekend for the Bruins, as Boston also beat the Ottawa Senators 2-1 in OT on Sunday.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Flyers’ Robert Hagg ejected for checking Kyle Connor from behind

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The Philadelphia Flyers did not have a very pleasant start to their Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg.

Already trailing 5-1 late in the second period, defenseman Robert Hagg was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct for checking Jets forward Kyle Connor from behind into the boards.

Here is a look at the play.

Connor went straight to the Jets’ locker room for the remainder of the second period but was back on the bench for the start of the third period.

That play resulted in a little scrum after the fact that also saw Jets defender Dustin Byfuglien get a two-minute minor for roughing and a 10-minute misconduct.

Given that Hagg was ejected from the game you can be sure the NHL’s Department of Player Safety will take an extra look at it. We will likely find out later on Sunday or Monday if it is worthy of any additional discipline.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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