‘We work hard and we have buy-in,’ says Burke after sending O’Brien to AHL

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The Calgary Flames sent veteran defenseman Shane O’Brien to AHL Abbotsford this weekend, and based on general manager Brian Burke’s comments, it’s not hard to figure why.

“There are two important building blocks that Bob (Hartley) has put into place here,” Burke said, per the Calgary Herald. “We work hard. And that’s not just the games people see. There’s a lifestyle he’s implemented here. Practices are longer and harder than they are in most places. Weight room stuff, there’s a lot of that here and some teams don’t do as much. The video sessions, there’s a lot of teaching going on. So, he’s got buy-in from the players. We work hard and we have buy-in. Those are two critical steps if we’re going to get better.”

Given O’Brien’s reputation for, well, let’s just call it enjoying the life, Burke’s remarks came as no surprise.

It’s also worth mentioning that this isn’t the first time Burke has dispatched O’Brien from his team; in 2007, Burke traded O’Brien from the Ducks to the Lightning.

NWHL Commish: 1 women’s hockey league ‘inevitable’

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Players want a single North American women’s professional hockey league. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman does, too. And now National Women’s Hockey League founder and Commissioner Dani Rylan is on record saying she is working toward that objective.

”One league is inevitable,” Rylan wrote in an email to The Associated Press, her strongest statement regarding a potential merger with the rival Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

”We will get this done,” Rylan wrote. ”It’s on us, and we embrace the challenge,”

Rylan’s comments come nearly four years after she split from the CWHL to establish the NWHL, which became the first women’s hockey league to pay its players a salary.

The investor-funded NWHL has provided a framework for how a pro women’s league can function, but most observers agree that two leagues competing for the same talent pool and limited financial resources isn’t going to last – or help the game grow.

The U.S.-based NWHL, in its fourth season, grew to five teams after expanding into Minnesota this year. The CWHL, in its 12th season, began paying its players a salary for the first time last year and has six teams, including ones in Worcester, Massachusetts, and China.

Rylan is now echoing what Jayna Hefford said in July upon being named the CWHL’s interim commissioner. The former Canadian national team star called the formation of one league ”a priority” and projected it could happen within two years.

Rylan’s comments also come after both leagues discussed merger options this summer, a person with direct knowledge of the discussions told The AP. Also on the table is an NWHL proposal for both league champions to compete in an end-of-season playoff, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

Rylan confirmed she’s spoken to Hefford, and added: ”There is a path, and Jayna and I and our business partners will continue those discussions.”

Hefford expressed cautious optimism regarding the possibility of joining forces.

”It’s certainly something we have to figure out,” she said, while noting she’s still new on the job. ”I’m trying to understand what the challenges are, what the roadblocks are and try to figure out a way to get us to the point where we have one truly professional women’s hockey league.”

Hefford was scheduled to meet this week with NHL officials, including Bettman, for the first time since replacing former commissioner Brenda Andress.

The NHL supports the idea of one women’s pro league and has several member teams involved in both leagues.

The Sabres purchased the Buffalo Beauts in December to become the NHL’s first franchise to fully own an NWHL team. The Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens each have partnerships with CWHL teams based in their respective cities.

The NHL’s support of women’s hockey included the league stepping in at the last moment to end a wage dispute between USA Hockey and U.S. National team women players threatening to boycott the 2017 World Championships on home ice. Two people familiar with the situation said the NHL agreed to pay USA Hockey to help fund the four-year agreement. The people spoke to AP on the condition of anonymity because the league and USA Hockey have not made that information public.

The NHL has been careful to avoid the appearance of favoring one league over the other. Bettman told the AP last month he has no interest in forming a third league because he doesn’t want the NHL ”to look like a bully” by pushing the existing leagues out of business. He is also hesitant of the NHL assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL because, as he put it, ”we don’t believe in their models.”

”We need to start on a clean slate,” Bettman said.

”If at some point the leagues say, ‘We’ve had enough, we don’t see this as a long-term solution, we’d like you to start up and we’ll discontinue operations,’ then we’ll do it. But we’re not pushing it,” he said. ”If we’re going to get involved, it cannot fail, which means it has to be on us.”

Rylan, who previously worked at the NHL, took exception to the comments.

”What’s it like when Gary Bettman tells the media the model for our women’s league doesn’t work? Of course, it’s really disappointing,” said Rylan, who nonetheless called Bettman a ”gracious adviser.”

”Can we improve? No question about it,” she added. ”If Gary and more NHL owners want to get involved in women’s hockey, that’s an awesome an exciting thing. Let’s get started now.”

Hayley Wickenheiser, former Canadian national team member and newly hired Maple Leafs assistant director of player development, said, ”I think the NHL should and could do more and in a heartbeat make it happen.” But she placed more of an onus on the players to make it happen.

”They need to take control and move it forward, and the NHL is there and ready when they are,” said Wickenheiser, the first woman to be hired to a hockey operations role.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Ducks sign Ritchie; Capitals’ faceoff woes

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin rocked the Tomas Plekanec turtleneck during the forward’s 1,000th game ceremony on Wednesday night. [Getty Images]

• And then there was one. Nick Ritchie finally came to terms on a three-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks, leaving William Nylander as the only remaining unsigned restricted free agent. [Ducks]

• Jake Dotchin also signed with the Ducks, and filed a grievance against the Tampa Bay Lightning for having his contract terminated last month. He needs to pass through waivers first before joining the Ducks. [Raw Charge]

• Will Connor McDavid’s record night help spark a turnaround for the Edmonton Oilers? [TSN]

• The Toronto Maple Leafs’ centers could turn into what the Pittsburgh Penguins have, says Evgeni Malkin. [NHL.com]

• Will the real Penguins please stand up? [Pensburgh]

• Digging deep into the Vegas Golden Knights’ sluggish start. [Sportsnet]

• Those tough Western Conference battles he now experiences reminds Anaheim Ducks forward Adam Henrique of the old Devils/Rangers tilts. [ESPN.com]

• How the Washington Capitals are going about fixing their faceoff woes. [NBC Washington]

• A small sample size, but what can we take away from the Columbus Blue Jackets’ five games so far? [Jackets Cannon]

• The offense isn’t quite there yet for Nashville Predators forward Kevin Fiala. [Tennessean]

• A visual of what the Arizona Coyotes’ zero even strength goals looks like. [The Point]

• Time for the Chicago Blackhawks to start grabbing points in regulation and not relying on overtime. [Blackhawk Up]

• It’s a new, dynamic look in goal for the Boston Bruins with Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask between the pipes. [Bruins Daily]

• What should the Calgary Flames do with Sam Bennett? [Flame for Thought]

• At some point this season the depth of the Dallas Stars is going to have to step up. [Defending Big D]

• It doesn’t matter who’s in net for the San Jose Sharks, they need to play tighter in front of Aaron Dell or Martin Jones. [NBC Bay Area]

• Finally, get to know a bit about Jack Hughes, the likely No. 1 pick in next June’s NHL entry draft:

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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.

Wickenheiser, Pegula reflect NHL’s trend toward diversity

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — With a laugh, Kim Pegula’s competitive nature kicked in when the subject of the Toronto Maple Leafs hiring Hayley Wickenheiser was broached.

Impressed as the Sabres president was by the gender-breaking move in August, Pegula’s first reaction was wondering how Buffalo’s cross-border rival beat her to the punch in making Wickenheiser the NHL’s first woman to hold a hockey operations role as assistant director of player development.

”Darn it,” Pegula said, smiling. ”I wish I would’ve done it first.”

The NHL’s first female team president then turned serious.

”No, I was very glad to see that. I think it’s a long time coming,” Pegula said. ”That’s going to have staying power.”

Wickenheiser was amused when informed of Pegula’s initial reaction, hoping other teams such as the Sabres will follow the Maple Leafs in breaking hockey’s glass ceiling.

”Well, that’s a good thing,” said Wickenheiser, a five-time Olympian and one of the most accomplished women in hockey. ”I don’t see why we won’t see women in other positions like this in the near future.”

The Maple Leafs also added Noelle Needham as an amateur scout – only the third women to hold such a job in league history – in another move buttressing the idea that the NHL is making progress in welcoming women to key roles.

”I think respect, courage, getting over tradition, being brave enough to think outside the box is what took so long,” Wickenheiser said.

”Hockey’s a very traditional game, very old school in a lot of ways. And the new generation of leadership coming in doesn’t think the same way as the old school did,” she added. ”It’s just an evolution of where we’re at as a society. And I think hockey’s following along with it.”

Pegula, who with her husband Terry also own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, took over the president’s title of both teams in May after Russ Brandon resigned over an alleged inappropriate relationship with a female employee. Rather than hire a new president with both teams breaking in new coaches and general managers, Pegula took over to provide stability.

Inroads are being made at the league office, too. In the past two years, ,the NHL has hired Heidi Browning as chief marketing officer, and Kim Davis as executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stressed the importance of encouraging diversity in a league he says has a fan base almost evenly split between men and women.

”We want our clubs and our league to hire the most qualified people. But we want to consider applicants with every sort of background,” Bettman told The Associated Press. ”Diversity is a strength in all forms. So as we’re continuing to evolve and grow, having the resource of lots of different people with lots of different backgrounds and experience is only going to make the game stronger.”

Wickenheiser has long criticized the NHL’s lack of diversity, especially when it comes to hiring women as compared with North America’s other major professional sports.

Dawn Braid was pro hockey’s first full-time female assistant in being hired as the Arizona Coyotes skating coach in 2016; she is no longer with the team after a two-year stint.

The NBA now features two female assistant coaches, including Becky Hammon, who interviewed for the Milwaukee Bucks head-coaching vacancy in spring. In the NFL, Pegula’s Bills were the first to hire a full-time female assistant, Kathryn Smith, in 2016, and in August appointed Phoebe Schecter to a season-long coaching internship.

Finally, the NHL is catching up, with Wickenheiser saying: ”If you’re only hiring white men, you’re probably missing out on a lot of talent that’s out there.”

Wickenheiser’s qualifications are hard to match, male or female. The 40-year-old won four gold medals and a silver, and is the Winter Games career leader with 18 goals and 51 points upon retiring in January 2017.

Even though she is pursuing a degree in medicine at the University of Calgary, Wickenheiser jumped at general manager Kyle Dubas’ offer to mentor Leafs’ prospects both in western Canada and during monthly trips to Toronto.

Wickenheiser acknowledged there’s added pressure on her to succeed.

”I think it would be silly to ignore that fact. So yeah, I feel that expectation,” she said.

And yet, it’s no different from the challenges she faced playing on the international stage and in various men’s leagues during her 23-year career.

”To me, it feels pretty natural,” she said. ”There’s something a little bit disarming about it that makes it in some ways easier to have that conversation. They know I’m not a threat to them, because I’m on their side.”

Pegula’s rise to becoming one of the most influential women in sports grew from modest beginnings. She was an orphan in South Korea before being adopted in 1974, and eventually grew up outside of Rochester, New York.

”I really don’t take that for granted, and I realize the situation I’m in,” she said of her childhood. ”There’s nothing I can complain about. And I hope I never lose that excitement and energy of what I do, good or bad, wins and losses.”

The Pegulas are newcomers to sports. They purchased the Sabres in February 2011, a year after Terry Pegula sold his Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling rights for $4.7 billion to Royal Dutch Shell. Some 3 1/2 years later, they secured the Bills’ long-term future in western New York by buying the franchise after the death of owner Ralph Wilson.

Kim Pegula acknowledged there’s been a steep learning curve in going from being a season-ticket holder to the owner’s box of a sports empire that also includes the National Women’s Hockey League ‘s Buffalo Beauts.

Pegula regards her role as an equal partnership with her husband, though their interests in approaching their teams differ, which is a reflection of their 25 years in marriage. Terry Pegula enjoys studying film, player development and paying careful attention during games, while Kim veers more toward game presentation, fan amenities and player needs.

”For Terry, I call him ‘a wild-catter’ in the oil and gas business. What he loves is finding and developing natural gas fields,” she said. ”I’m more, and I think it comes from being a mom, whether it’s problem solving, figuring things out, getting things done. Execution.”

It was Kim who played a big role in designing the Sabres and Bills new locker rooms and player lounges.

Pegula won’t, as she put it, tell coach Phil Housley how to run his power play, but she did have a say in hiring him, and takes a personal approach in getting to know each player.

Upon signing with the Sabres in July, goalie Carter Hutton recalled how Pegula texted his wife asking if she needed help getting settled. Pegula then sent gift baskets to Hutton’s wife and children.

”For someone in a position like that to reach out and take the time to really make sure my wife felt comfortable was really important,” Hutton said, noting that didn’t happen in his previous four stops. ”It makes the transition easier for me to focus on playing hockey when everything else is taken care of at home.”

Pegula is pleased with NHL’s emphasis on diversity.

”What we have now and women being seen in these roles, that trickles down,” Pegula said. ”So in 10 years, you’re going to have qualified coaches available, not just one, much more of a handful.”

Wickenheiser foresees opportunities opening up on numerous fronts for women, from officiating, coaching to management.

”Yeah, anything’s possible,” she said, before breaking into a laugh when asked about her next step.

”Honestly, I have given that zero thought,” Wickenheiser said. ”I’m just trying to get through today.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Buzzer: Gallagher’s dagger

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Three Stars:

1. John Carlson

Alex Ovechkin scored two goals in Washington’s overtime win, but we have to dock him some imaginary three star points for collecting both tallies from his “office” on the power play. Besides, Carlsson generated more points in the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime win, generating a goal and two assists. He also fired five shots on goal and logged a hearty 26:02 time on ice.

(Neal Pionk ranked as a strong honorable mention for the Rangers, offering up three assists and four blocked shots.)

2. Michael Frolik

Frolik heralded the reunion of “The 3M Line” with a difference-making performance, scoring two early goals in Calgary’s victory against Boston. The defensively responsible forward came very close to collecting a hat trick, sending a shorthanded breakaway attempt just a little too high against Tuukka Rask.

He ended up with a +3 rating, three shots on goal, and even won his two draws.

3. John Gibson

You could easily give the third star to Ryan Kesler, who turned back the clock to score two goals (and was Frolik-close to nabbing a hat trick while barely missing an empty net from way downtown).

Gibson’s been the motor for the Ducks’ defiantly strong start to 2018-19 season, though, and the fantastic goalie fell just 34 seconds short of a shutout, stopping 34 out of 35 shots. The American-born netminder is now on a four-game winning streak.

Highlights of the Night:

OK, it’s probably the lowlight of the night, as Colton Parayko caught up an absolutely brutal turnover in the closing moments of regulation, opening the door for Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher to combine for a stunning Habs game-winner, as you can see in these highlights:

Yeesh.

Patrice Bergeron can do it all.

Factoids

Alex Ovechkin scored two goals from his “office” on the power play, and while not every multi-goal night has been as easy as that looked, it certainly comes easier to Ovechkin than anyone else:

Johnny Gaudreau hit a nice milestone by scoring his 100th goal in his 318th NHL game. He’s not far from hitting 200 assists, either.

Scores

Capitals 4, Rangers 3 (OT)
Canadiens 3, Blues 2
Flames 5, Bruins 2
Ducks 4, Islanders 1

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.