NHL wins big at SportsBusiness Journal Awards

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Remember that whole lockout thing? Well, it appears the National Hockey League has rebounded quite nicely since the labor dispute came to an end in January of 2013.

These Stanley Cup playoffs, now into the conference finals, have been lauded for the speed and skill on display, as well as the factor that anything has been possible, with comebacks upon comebacks.

On Wednesday, while the Chicago Blackhawks and L.A. Kings did battle in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final, the NHL took home hardware at the SportsBusiness Journal Awards.

In all, the league earned three awards:

“Usually I’m standing with a trophy and getting booed. It’s strange to be receiving one and be cheered,” said commissioner Gary Bettman.

“Our athletes are the best in team sports. We wouldn’t be standing here tonight without the players,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, as per the SportsBusiness Journal Twitter account.

The NHL took home the award for the second time in four years, according to the league’s website.

Bettman said this year’s Winter Classic was “the biggest and best New Year’s Day party in our history.” It was a huge success in terms of television ratings and the league sold more than 105,000 tickets to the event at the Big House, which provided a beautiful setting on a snowy afternoon for a match-up between two historic Original Six rivals, the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.

As per the NHL’s public relations department, the 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo also won for this award.

Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews on Tavares, learning to win (PHT Q&A)

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It’s been an historic start to the 2018-19 NHL season for Auston Matthews. As the Toronto Maple Leafs have lit up the scoresheet with 33 goals — 10 from Matthews alone — in seven games, the star forward has been setting records almost on a nightly basis.

Toronto’s 4-1 win over the Kings on Tuesday saw Matthews record a multi-point game for the seventh time this season. He’s also on a 17-game regular season points streak dating back to last Feb. 22. With his two points against Los Angeles, the 21-year-old joined the likes of Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Stevens to record multiple points in his team’s first seven games of the season.

That’s a heckuva start for Matthews in a season where it wouldn’t be surprising if he ended it with 40-plus goals, 100-plus points and maybe a few trophies to take home from Las Vegas in late June. There is one specific trophy, of course, that he’d like to be lifting in six months. The addition of John Tavares has put the Maple Leafs in Stanley Cup contender talk, but there’s still lots to work out — hello, defense! — before they can reach that point.

“I think talking to [Maple Leafs GM] Kyle [Dubas] and the vision he has and when they were talking to John in the summer just what would happen, you know if you won a Stanley Cup in Toronto,” Matthews told NBC during NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last month. “The hockey mecca of the world, it would be absolutely crazy. Obviously, we’re trying to build something to get to the top of that mountain and obviously accomplish that goal, but we got a long way to go and a lot of young players who are very hungry. It’s definitely something you think about every once in a while.”

We spoke with Matthews about the Tavares addition, learning from playoff failures and his wicked shot.

Enjoy.

Q. Go back to the day you heard that you had Tavares as a member of your team.

MATTHEWS: “Yeah, I was home and Kyle  actually called me, woke me up. I pretended like I was up for hours, but it was on a weekend, though, so it was OK. He was like ‘Hey, we signed John. We’re gonna announce it in the next hour so, just wanted to let you know’ and you know, I couldn’t really believe it. I was so excited by it. I didn’t really know what he was thinking. I heard the meetings went well with the management with Kyle and all of them, talking to him over the phone and he had a lot of questions and I tried to answer them as best as possible for him. So, he was kind of talking to a lot of different people, a lot of different teams, so you can kind of get a feel for it, but you just don’t know and obviously [I was] extremely excited when I found out he chose to sign with Toronto.”

Q. When you look at the Leafs, what have you learned, as a team, over the course of the last couple of seasons of how hard it is to win especially come playoff time? 

MATTHEWS: “Yeah, absolutely. That’s what it’s all about right there. Come playoff time it’s not easy, I mean, you look at Washington last year they almost didn’t make it out of the first round and then they went on the win the Cup. So I think that has been a good learning lesson for us young guys, just how hard it is even in the first round to get by, and you know when you have a player like John [Tavares], who has had that experience; obviously, he is still trying to reach that ultimate goal. Him coming here is definitely going to help us, but it doesn’t just make it a cake walk.”

Q. You being one of the young stars in the NHL, how can a guy like John Tavares help a guy like Auston Matthews?

MATTHEWS: “I think he can help me in a lot of different ways. Obviously he’s been in the league for a while, his resume speaks for itself; you know he is a top ten player in the league, a superstar center. He knows what he is doing as far as the way he treats his body on and off the ice nutrition, you know just taking care of those things that make such a big difference during the season. I think not only myself, but a lot of young guys can really look at that and not only ask questions but pick things that he does and kind of use it for ourselves as well.”

[What’s the ceiling for Auston Matthews this season?]

Q. Your release is something that is very unique and it’s something that’s so quick. How did you develop that, did you realize that is what separated you from a lot of other players you know with the skills that you had?

MATTHEWS: “You know, I think I’ve always been a shoot first mentality. I’ve always had a pretty decent shot, I think the summer before my draft year, maybe after my draft year, my first NHL season I basically just worked on my shot all summer. I was working with Darryl Belfry, who I still work with today. And it wasn’t just shooting; it was all different kinds of angles, different kinds of pucks in your feet, different areas being able to get the goalie moving one way or another, being able to find different spots. So, I know for myself I’m a shoot first kind of guy, and as you get up in levels, boys are just that much better, you don’t have that much time and space and being able to get your shot off quick and pick you corner makes a big difference.”

Q. The specifics of that trait, of working on your shot. Was it specifically on the ice stuff, or was it off the ice stuff like body position and hands, where the puck might be positioned on your stick?

MATTHEWS: “I think mostly on ice, to be honest. You know, I think training is a big part and especially in our summers being able to get stronger and more explosive. And that obviously helps with your shot, but you know I feel for myself, when I want to work on something I really improve on that, and the best way to do that is on the ice because that’s what we do for a living.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

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