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Noah Welch on Olympics, educating hitters, pledging his brain to science

The U.S. men’s Olympic hockey teams plays its first game in nine days, but for Noah Welch there’s some business to care of before jetting off to PyeongChang.

On Tuesday, Welch and his Vaxjo Lakers of the Swedish Hockey League will take on Finland’s JYP Jyväskylä in the final of the Champions Hockey League. The following day he’ll get on a plane heading to South Korea.

“It’s still sinking in, to be honest,” Welch told Pro Hockey Talk last week. “I think [it will] when the plane lands, when I get to South Korea. It hasn’t completely sunk in yet.”

Welch is in his seventh season playing in Sweden after a career in North America that saw him suit up 209 times in the AHL and play 75 NHL games with four teams. After establishing himself as a regular defenseman overseas, does he see the Olympics as a stepping stone for a return home?

“For me, no. I don’t think. I’m 35-turning-36. It’s a young man’s game right now in North America,” he said. “I’m comfortable where I’m at in my career and this would be an incredible way for me to go out and win a [Champions Hockey League] championship and then medal in the Olympics and then my team is Sweden has a great chance to win the championship. I’m going to do everything I can to leave it all out there and almost treat this like it’s the last year.”

Welch is one of a number of players on the men’s Olympic roster that has NHL experience. It’s a lineup that has elicited a large amount of “Oh, I remember that guy” responses. But while you might recall the Brighton, Mass. native’s time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning or Atlanta Thrashers, a decade ago he made news for a unique decision that will help others after his death.

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It was in 2008 that Welch met fellow Harvard alum Chris Nowinski. Nowinski told him about what is now known as the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which he co-founded, and how he was committed to raising awareness and studying the long-term effects of concussions. When the idea of brain donation came up, it was an easy decision for Welch, who was already an organ donor. “I didn’t think much of it, didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I just said ‘yeah, sure,’” he said.

Welch became one of 12 athletes, and the first hockey player, to agree to donate their brains after their deaths.

It’s been 10 years since that decision and there are now 190 pledges from current and former men’s and women’s hockey players, among other athletes, with Ben Lovejoy of the New Jersey Devils the only active NHLer involved. There have been numerous finds since as researchers continue to learn more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Welch was way ahead of the game and has seen the impact that the spotlight on concussions in all sports has made.

“Overall, it keeps players safe, especially when it comes to their brain,” he said. “That’s extremely important. On the one hand, hockey players — this is what we sign up for. It’s a physical game, we know we’re going to get injured — part of the job, right? You’ll take an elbow, a shoulder, a knee, all that stuff, but when it comes to your brain, that’s where it gets scary. I think it’s great that there’s more awareness, especially on little things like keeping a guy out for an extra five days, how that can make such a big difference in their recovery period of a first trauma to the brain. Maybe that’s something we didn’t know years ago, where a guy rushes back to make one game that might not be that important gets hit again and now he’s out for a much longer time.

“It’s helping, and that’s great but there’s another side to it, too. Athletes are actually, in some situations, returning to their sport quicker and more prepared than they were before. Maybe they come back a little too early, they’re still foggy and then they’re more vulnerable and then if you get the total time of how long an athlete is out, maybe it could have been a lot less if they just followed the protocol.

“I think, overall, it’s a good thing. Sometimes, maybe, we get a little carried away and everything might be a concussion nowadays. But I guess if you’re going to err, you err on the side of safety when it comes to the brain.”

Welch wouldn’t disclose exactly how many concussions he’s suffered during his career, simply saying “a few.” It’s been so long since he pledged his brain that he was pretty sure that none of his current teammates at Vaxjo are aware of his plans.

In the decade since, Welch has seen progress by sports leagues to minimize head trauma and protect players from returning too early, but there’s still plenty of educating to do.

“I know in the SHL, I think they’ve gone a little too far one way where they’ve taken responsibility out of the puck carrier,” he said. “Now they’ve talked about that the last couple of years and now they’re drawing back a bit. For example, if a guy’s skating up the ice with his head down and it’s a north-south hit, [it’s] hard to kind of aim your shoulder where you can hit a guy. You can just see his body move, it’s one object, just try and hit the middle. Sometimes you might get him in the head, sometimes you might get him in the chest, sometimes you might hit him in the left shoulder, and that’s hard. A lot of those what would be clean hits where your head is down were becoming suspensions just because it was a hit to the head. So the only alternative is to maybe let up, which I don’t know how I feel about that. But that’s something that the league’s are really going through right now. I know in the SHL they’ve drawn back and they’re telling players, puck carriers in particular, you have a responsibility, too, to know what’s going on around you and to pick your head up.

“It’s the east-west hits that are bad, and there’s no room for that in the game. Guy is maybe following his pass and then a guy completely comes blindside. On that play, a player can aim their shoulder. There they can locate where they want to hit the guy. They can get low and hit them in the ribs or his arm, and you can come up high and get him right in the jaw. But when it’s that north-south hit, it’s really hard to identify a particular spot on the opposing player’s body. The game’s so fast. And if he has his head down and you hit his head, it’s like, that’s a good hockey hit. You’re not trying to injure a guy but it’s a good hit and it does send a message. We found in our league in Sweden that a lot of the suspensions this year have actually been [the player getting hit has] has been a lot of young players, like junior guys. So you wonder if because the rules have gone so far one way that they’re not learning now to be more aware. There are some plays where you talk to older, veteran forwards on our team and they’re like I can’t even believe that guy would think about doing that. Everyone knew back in the day when Scott Stevens was on the ice you didn’t go up the middle. Some guys did, and we’ve all watched the YouTube clips.”

Inspired by the NHL, the SHL has been releasing videos explaining suspensions and certain non-suspensions in hopes of educating players the proper way to go about delivering hits.

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This won’t be the first time Welch has represented the U.S. in international competition. Aside from playing several youth tournaments, he was a part of November’s Deutschland Cup, the only games that the American team played before the final roster was announced on Jan. 1. Like his teammates, up until last April, he was fully expecting NHL players to be participating int the Olympic tournament, even after the NHL announced its decision.

“This wasn’t even a thought. It wasn’t even a goal or a dream,” Welch said. “Last time I thought about this was I was probably 10 playing street hockey. A door opened up in the spring. Even after they decided [not to go,] it was always a chance that the NHL players were going to figure out a way. It wasn’t on the radar until just a few months ago.”

It’s turning out to be quite a start to 2018 for Welch between the CHL Final, the Olympics and his Vaxjo Lakers cruising toward a SHL title. Eight years ago he was trying to carve out a regular spot on an NHL roster, now he’s been a mainstay on the blue line for three different organizations in the SHL. He’s not looking for a North America comeback because he’s carved out his place in Sweden.

“[My family and I] always look at it as ‘just temporary,’ like it’s not home for us, but it’s a great place to work and to play,” he said.

MORE: Full Olympic hockey 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.

Sharks, Blues confident, and even, heading into Game 5

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Sharks have been at their best this postseason when they had little margin for error.

That’s probably why they feel comfortable heading home for Game 5 of the Western Conference final against the Blues after a lackluster start led to a Game 4 loss in St. Louis.

Having squandered a series lead for the second time in this matchup, the Sharks know a loss Sunday could mean they won’t get to play on home ice again this postseason.

”It’s a great spot to be in,” coach Peter DeBoer said Saturday. ”This is supposed to be hard. What happened with Boston on the other side, that usually doesn’t happen. Usually these are all six, seven hard-fought games, hard-fought series. We’re right where I expected we would be, in a good spot going home, and we’ve got to get the job done.”

After alternating wins in the first four games, the Sharks and Blues now have a best-of-three to decide who plays the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final. Boston swept Carolina in the East and will have 10 days off before the start of the next round May 27.

Nothing has come easy for San Jose or St. Louis. The Blues went six games in the opening round against Winnipeg before needing double overtime in Game 7 of the second round against Dallas to make the conference final.

The Sharks, meanwhile, have endured two seven-game series – Vegas and Colorado. That’s happened in part because they have appeared to let up when leading a series before responding with greater desperation.

San Jose is 0-6 this postseason when leading a series. But it is 10-2 when tied or trailing, including four wins in elimination games sparked by a comeback from 3-1 down in the opening round to the Golden Knights.

”There’s a lot of emotion in the playoffs,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski said. ”We’re in the conference finals. We’ve had overtime wins, we’ve had game sevens. We’ve had emotional games for sure. You just lace them back up next game and you compete.”

The Blues got a goal from Ivan Barbashev 35 seconds into Game 4 and added another late in the first period before hanging on for the 2-1 win Friday.

It was an impressive rebound from a crushing Game 3 loss when the Blues allowed the tying goal with 1:01 left in regulation and then the winner in overtime after the officials failed to see a hand pass by San Jose that set up Erik Karlsson‘s goal.

”We’re in a good spot,” coach Craig Berube said. ”So just pushing and keep fighting and be aggressive. Just be aggressive as a team and be confident as a team. That’s our message. You’re going to have ups and downs in the playoffs and you have to move on from it. You really do. As much as we had to move on from that Game 3 loss we have to move on from last night’s win.”

The Sharks need to come out in Game 5 with the kind of play they showed in the final two periods Friday. They controlled the puck and hemmed the Blues into the defensive end for long stretches.

The only problem was St. Louis rookie goalie Jordan Binnington, who stopped all 11 shots in the second period and then nine of 10 in the third. He allowed only a power-play goal to Tomas Hertl on the way to his franchise-record 10th win this postseason.

Binnington improved to 11-2 this season in games following a loss.

”As soon as people start doubting him, he pulls another sick performance,” Blues forward David Perron said.

Another big concern for the Sharks is the health of Karlsson, who played only one shift in the final 9:24 after an apparent injury. Karlsson missed 27 of the final 33 games in the regular season with groin injuries that have hampered him in the playoffs.

He’s had big moments, with 14 assists and two goals, including the disputed overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blues. But he also seems to labor at times, as he did in the third period before taking an extended break when the Sharks were fighting for the tying goal.

He returned for the final 1:55 game with the goalie pulled but mostly stayed positioned at the point for passes and shots, his skating limited. DeBoer offered no update Saturday on Karlsson’s condition.

The Blues will again be without defenseman Vince Dunn, who took a puck to the face in Game 3.

AP freelancer Joe Harris in St. Louis, Missouri, contributed to this report

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

Bruins hope to have a healthy Chara for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — The Bruins were able to sweep Carolina in the Eastern Conference final without captain Zdeno Chara.

Now they’re hoping 10 days off before the start of the Stanley Cup Final will be enough time for the defenseman to return.

The title round begins May 27 when Boston will face San Jose or St. Louis, with that conference final 2-2. The Bruins completed their sweep Thursday with Chara out with an undisclosed injury.

”We have a lot of time to make the absolute right decision to give him the proper time to get over something that’s been nagging him,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said Saturday. ”And we’ll cross our fingers that will be the case. But we’re confident it will be.”

Sweeney stopped short of guaranteeing Chara’s return for Game 1.

”I’m not living in how or where Zee feels. I expect he’ll be fine,” Sweeney said. ”But I’m not going to sit here and make a proclamation in terms of promises. I do believe that time will be used effectively and he’ll be fine. But sometimes those are out of your control.”

Defenseman Kevan Miller and forward Chris Wagner are doubtful for Game 1 of the Final. Miller hasn’t played since April 4 because of a lower-body injury. Wagner injured his right arm blocking a shot in Game 3 against Carolina.

Patrick Roy set to interview for Senators’ coaching vacancy: report

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Interested in seeing more of this?

Or maybe some of this?

Well, you just might be in luck.

Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch reports that Patrick Roy is set be the last interview done by Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion as the search for the next bench boss in Canada’s capital continues.

Roy has most recently been coaching the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He last coached in the NHL in 2016 with the Colorado Avalanche, a job he resigned from following that season. Two years earlier, he won the Jack Adams Award for the NHL’s best coach after the Avalanche went from last to first in the Western Conference.

Roy is 130-92-24 during his 246-game coaching career in the NHL.

“Those close to Roy believe he’d like to return to the NHL in the right situation and initially the only pressure in Ottawa will be to develop the young players,” Garrioch wrote. “The Senators have the potential to have 17 picks in the first three rounds of the next three drafts and finding the right fit is paramount.”

The Senators, according to Garrioch, have already interviewed several candidates, including fellow former Avalanche coach Mark Crawford, along with former Senators coach Jacques Martin and Dallas Stars assistance Rick Bowness.

Roy’s experience coaching young players, as Garrioch points out, would be appealing for a team as young as the Senators, who also have a litany of draft picks coming their way over the next three years.

Can Roy work under Senators owner Eugene Melnyk? Can he work with Dorion? Roy didn’t exactly have the best professional relationship with Joe Sakic and Roy would likely want some level of control of the direction of the team.

It remains to be seen, but Roy has a decent track record that is appealing, certainly.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Has Erik Karlsson’s lingering groin injury resurfaced?

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It plagued him for most of the second half of the season.

A good chunk of January, a good chunk of February, and the entirety of March, to be exact.

And now Erik Karlsson‘s Game 5 status is up in the air after he appeared to aggravate a lingering groin injury, one Karlsson said had only progressed in the right direction throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs after Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.

“I don’t have anything for you there,” said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer when quizzed on Karlsson’s health following a 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues that evened the best-of-seven series 2-2 on Friday.

DeBoer quickly swept that question under the rug.

As did Brent Burns, who just said, “He’s doing good” followed by a “How’re you doing?” when a reporter probed Burns about his teammate.

You may not have noticed it, initially at least.

Normally guys who play 24:33 in a game don’t miss significant stretches. But from the 10:36 mark to 18:05 of the third period, Karlsson didn’t see the ice. With the Sharks trailing 2-1 at the time, you’d expect one of the game’s best offensive defensemen to be on the ice. Instead, Karlsson was grimacing in pain, coming out during commercial breaks to test whatever was ailing him.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Somehow, he played the final 1:55 of the game — nearly two minutes of madness where the Sharks tried, ultimately in vain, to find an equalizer. Karlsson bit down hard on his mouthpiece and bore the pain, but you could see its effects.

PHT’s James O’Brien wrote on Karlsson’s playoffs prior to Friday’s game.

Karlsson limped into the playoffs and said himself that he could barely move in Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Still, and as James pointed out in his story, it’s been hard to notice with two goals and 14 assists in 18 postseason games. Karlsson has played big minutes and produced at nearly a point-per-game pace in the playoffs, essentially everything the Sharks envisioned he would do when they brought him in last summer.

What they didn’t want was a nagging injury that force Karlsson to missed 29 games during the regular season and now, perhaps, some at a critical juncture for a team that’s hoping they’ve finally put it all together this year.

Maybe it’s nothing. But those painful faces that Karlsson wore in Game 4 weren’t exactly inspiring confidence in the “maybe it’s nothing” part.

If Karlsson can’t play, it’s only going to mean more minutes for guys like Burns, who is already averaging nearly 29 minutes a night. Karlsson has played an instrumental role in these playoffs for the Sharks.

A loss, even for a game, would be a massive blow in what’s now a best-of-three series.

[MORE: Blues handling adversity like champions]


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck