NHL All-Star Game returns to thriving Tampa Bay market

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By Fred Goodall – AP Sports Writer

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The NHL All-Star game is being played in Tampa Bay for the first time since Wayne Gretzky made his last appearance in the showcase and many still questioned whether the league could prosper in a non-traditional market better known for sunshine and beaches than winning hockey.

Nearly two decades later, the answer is a resounding yes.

Not only has the league flourished in Tampa and other Sun Belt locations where the game continues to grow, the hometown Lightning have evolved into what generally is regarded as a model franchise – not merely for hockey, but all of pro sports.

Now a community that’s hosted four Super Bowls, the World Series, two Stanley Cup finals and last year’s college football national championship game welcomes the spotlight for its first NHL All-Star game since 1999.

Gretzky made the last of his 18 All-Star appearances that year and had a goal and two assists to capture MVP honors.

”It’s very special to be named to an All-Star game, regardless of where it’s played. But when it’s in your home city, it’s that much more special,” said Lightning star Steven Stamkos, a five-time selection.

”I know the amount of work that’s gone into preparing for it,” Stamkos, one of four Tampa Bay players in this weekend’s game, said. ”It’s going to be a great showcase of a hockey city. … I’m sure we’ll put on a great show.”

Downtown Tampa, along with 19,000-seat Amalie Arena, has been transformed into a colorful tribute to the league’s biggest stars.

Festivities began Friday with a free outdoor concert headlined by Fitz and the Tantrums and the opening of All-Star PreGame, a three-day fun fest open to the general public as well as fans fortunate enough to land game tickets.

Media Day and the All-Star Skills Competition are Saturday, followed by Sunday’s main event featuring teams from the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific divisions playing a three-game tournament in a popular three-on-three format adopted in 2016.

And if the game’s brightest stars coming to town isn’t a big enough reason to celebrate, All-Star weekend is being held in conjunction with Tampa’s annual Gasparilla Pirate Invasion, an annual event that attracts about 200,000 people for a parade along the city’s downtown waterfront.

”It’s a big block party. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re a season ticket member or somebody who just enjoys catching an occasional Lightning game on TV,” former Lightning general manager Jay Feaster, now the club’s executive director of community hockey development, said.

Feaster assembled the team that won Tampa Bay’s only Stanley Cup title in 2004, however the Lightning never fully reaped the benefits of the championship run because a labor strife wiped out the next season.

A growing fan base ready to embrace the club’s success suddenly didn’t have a defending champion to cheer.

Feaster is excited about a resurgence led by owner Jeff Vinik, coach Jon Cooper and Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, who as the current general manager has composed a talented young roster built for long-term success.

The Lightning, celebrating their 25th season, reached the All-Star break with the league’s best record and have re-emerged as a championship contender after narrowly missing the playoffs a year ago.

The Lightning dropped the Stanley Cup final to Chicago in six games three years ago, then came within one victory of returning to the NHL’s biggest stage the following season.

”What Steve Yzerman has done I think is just masterful, the way he’s assembled this team,” Feaster said.

”He’s assembled it (to be) not just one and done. We won one Stanley Cup when I was general manager,” Feaster added. ”We got back to the playoffs after the lockout a couple of times, but never got close to an Eastern Conference final or a Stanley Cup final again.”

The Lightning will be represented by a league-leading four players in Sunday’s game – Stamkos, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and forwards Nikita Kucherov and Bryden Point, a replacement for injured Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman.

Feaster, who worked for the Lightning from 1998 to 2008, returned to Tampa in 2014 to lead the club’s youth and high school outreach efforts after a stint as GM of the Calgary Flames.

While he always felt the region had the potential to thrive as a hockey market, Feaster said the growth of the sport locally in the years since the community-minded Vinik took control of the team in 2010 has far exceeded his expectations.

In the two seasons following the Lightning’s latest appearance in the Stanley Cup final, the number of youth hockey players in the Tampa Bay area increased by 747 kids, up from a base of about 1,000.

”Jeff has done such a tremendous job of growing the brand, and the hockey team has helped, too,” Feaster said.

”As you know, if you’re not winning, the mustard isn’t yellow enough in the building,” Feaster added. ”It’s the team. It’s what Jeff puts into the community. … It truly is exponential growth.”

More AP hockey: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.