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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

Blake Wheeler on his tweets supporting U.S. protests, Jets vs. Flames

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Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler couldn’t accept staying silent as protesters reacted to the tragic death of George Floyd, including in Minnesota, where he grew up. So Wheeler spoke up with heartfelt tweets, sharing his support for protesters, while condemning “senseless violence and racism.” Wheeler continued that conversation with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.”

Wheeler on tweets supporting protesters, shares ways to help

“By staying silent, you’re not helping” Wheeler said.

With that in mind, Wheeler pleads that as many people should speak up as possible. (You can see some of the responses from NHL players here. P.K. Subban stands out, in particular, by combining with the NHL to make a $100K donation.)

Wheeler told Tirico that, for the most part, responses have been positive to his message. Granted, Wheeler admits that as a busy father, he doesn’t necessarily have time to “comb” through every response. Which … good for him, really.

Going further, Wheeler followed up that tweet with an Instagram message detailing how he’s been donating to various causes.

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Sam and I have been using this time to educate ourselves and our kids. We’ve been reading, watching, and listening. There are a ton of great organizations out there that could use our help right now. Here are a few that my family has supported over the past week: The Official George Floyd Memorial Fund through @gofundme , Neighbors United Funding Collaborative through @givemn which helps the cleanup and rebuild of the Hamline Midway Neighborhood in Minneapolis, American Civil Liberties Union @aclu_nationwide , Minnesota Freedom Fund @mnfreedomfund , and @visitlakestreet which helps in the rebuild and cleanup of Lake St in Minneapolis. @barackobama shared some great educational pieces that we are reading through and everyone should check out if you can https://www.obama.org/anguish-and-action/ #blackouttuesday

A post shared by Blake Wheeler (@26blakewheeler) on

David Yu shares links for some of Wheeler’s recommendations, if that makes it easier:

Wheeler on Flames vs. Jets

Tirico and Wheeler also talked hockey, naturally.

When asked about the Jets facing the Flames in the Qualifying Round, Wheeler notes that the two teams only faced off once during the regular season. To make things even less familiar, Wheeler also points out that the only game against Calgary was an outdoor contest, making it almost seem like an “exhibition.”

So, the Jets didn’t get the greatest feel for the Flames. Then again, with how disruptive the pandemic ended up being, such data would only be so useful anyway, right?

(Interestingly, Wheeler mentioned that he remembers Flames interim head coach Geoff Ward as an assistant with the Bruins. Kudos to Wheeler for remembering his Bruins days, honestly.)

Maybe most interestingly, Wheeler told Tirico that he’s one of the lucky players who’s been able to skate. Wheeler, 33, has been able to link up with Adam Oates for some training in Florida.

Might that help Wheeler gain a stride or two on others hoping to get in game shape? It couldn’t hurt. Check out that interview in the video above this post’s headline.

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.

P.K. Subban, NHL make $100K donation to fund for George Floyd’s daughter

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P.K. Subban has announced a $50,000 donation to the GoFundMe page for George Floyd’s daughter and added that the NHL is matching that amount.

The Devils defenseman took to social media to add to the voices around hockey speaking up about Floyd’s death last week.

“What does ‘change the game’ mean? ‘Change the game’ means change the narrative,” Subban said. “The narrative has been the same — no justice. There needs to be justice. Justice has to happen; change needs to come, but we need everyone. We need everyone and all people to look at our lives and see where we can help that change and do our part. I’m committed to that. I’m committed to that through and through.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the fund for six-year-old Gianna Floyd is nearing $900,000 from over 26,000 donors.

[NHLers speak out on death of George Floyd, U.S. protests]

In 2015, Subban, while a member of the Canadiens, made a $10 million pledge to the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

Other NHLers helping out

Subban wasn’t the only NHLer going good on Wednesday. Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins announced a $25,000 donation to the Boston branch of the NAACP as well as $25,000 to Centre Multiethnique de Quebec.

Capitals forward Tom Wilson Tweeted that he’ll be donating to East Of The River Mutual Aid Fund as well as to the Fort Dupont Cannons Hockey Program.

Finally, Andrei Svechnikov lent a hand to the Wake County Boys and Girls club. The Hurricanes forward donated 2,500 disposable masks and 25 5.25-gallon containers of hand sanitizers for COVID-19 relief efforts.

For more on the George Floyd protests around the U.S., follow the NBC News live blog.

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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.

Will 2020 Stanley Cup be the toughest ever to win?

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During the latest episode of “Our Line Starts,” Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might just be the toughest to ever win.

However you feel about that, others argued similarly. Back in mid-April, Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty also argued that the 2020 Stanley Cup might require the most from players.

“I think this will be the hardest Stanley Cup to win out of all of them,” Pacioretty told Gary Lawless of the Golden Knights’ website. “Look at all the obstacles. Who knows when we’re going to play, where, fans or no fans, everything is up in the air …”

Again, Pacioretty made that observation in April, before the NHL announced its return-to-play plans. Jones and Sharp argued their point with more information about the process. The larger arguments remain pretty similar, though.

Of course, as Jones and others also note, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear. Laying out a play to hand out the 2020 Stanley Cup doesn’t mean you’ll reach that destination.

But Pacioretty and others provide some room for debate. Could a run for the 2020 Stanley Cup prove to be the toughest of them all?

How a run to the 2020 Stanley Cup could be especially difficult

While the sheer uncertainty of the situation provides the best fodder, you could also lean on the nitty gritty details. Consider how difficult the path could be for a Qualifying Round team trying to win the 2020 Stanley Cup.

Said team would jump into a high-stakes, best-of-five series with a potentially dangerous opponent. Only then would they make the typical “Round of 16” you’d associate with the postseason.

The NHL hasn’t announced how long each (traditionally best-of-seven) First Round and Second Round series would be. However, we do know that the league aims for best-of-seven series during the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, along with the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

So … yeah, that could present a treacherous path. Especially for teams in that Qualifying Round, but Round Robin teams like Pacioretty’s Golden Knights wouldn’t have it easy, either. And that’s before we get into the logistics of living in a hub city, potentially away from family, friends, and other comforts.

NHL seasons have faced other extraordinary/unusual challenges

Yes, these are strange times — in some ways, unprecedented — but the NHL’s seen other serious challenges.

As you may know, the league faced serious disruption from another epidemic. The 1919 Stanley Cup was not awarded thanks to “The Spanish Flu.” (Gare Joyce recently looked back at that, and how it may illuminate the league’s struggles with COVID-19, for Sportsnet.)

If the NHL manages to award the 2020 Stanley Cup, it won’t be alone in the league forging on during tough moments. Back in 2017, Stan Fischler looked back at the NHL operating during World War II, and all of the challenges that ensued.

Each team had many players who were on active service during the war. In hockey’s “Victory Lineup” at the start of the 1942-43 season, the Boston Bruins had 16 players, the Canadiens 11, the Chicago Black Hawks seven, the Brooklyn Americans eight, the Detroit Red Wings eight, the New York Rangers 19 and the Maple Leafs 14.

Pacioretty himself weighed the significant challenges of going for the 2020 Stanley Cup with some unusual advantages. Most obviously, players will be as healthy as they’ve ever been this late in a season.

Considering how people often complain of rigorous travel, one perk of the “hub city” system would involve far more limited movement. (From a quality of life standpoint, that’s probably mostly negative. Players would prefer to see friends and family, and the comforts of home. But still, it’s worth at least mentioning in passing.)

2020 Stanley Cup not the only unusual circumstance

Thanks to lockouts and/or lockout-shortened seasons, we’ve also seen players enter postseasons in less typical circumstances. Sure, some will worry that the 2020 Stanley Cup winner might get the “asterisk treatment.” There are people who probably still discredit, say, the 2005-06 Hurricanes for winning it all during an unusual season.

Overall, Jones, Sharp, and Pacioretty all have decent larger points. The sheer uncertainty of this situation should make it difficult. That’s especially true for the NHL players who are most aptly “creatures of habit.”

Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman candidly spoke about the many obstacles the NHL faces in determining a 2020 Stanley Cup winner while managing risks. It won’t be easy to win it all, but then again, it rarely is, right?

Check out the full episode of “Our Line Starts” below:

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.

Decision on NHL Return to Play hub cities weeks away

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As the NHL moves towards resuming play this summer, the league must first narrow down the list of hub cities.

When Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the NHL’s Return to Play plan last week, he noted 10 cities in the U.S. and Canada are under consideration. Two will be chosen with the strong likelihood one will also host the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

First, here are the 10 cities in the running:

• Chicago, IL
• Columbus, OH
• Dallas, TX
• Edmonton, AB
• Las Vegas, NV
• Los Angeles, CA
• Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN
• Pittsburgh, PA
• Toronto, ON
• Vancouver, BC

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

Appearing on the Ray & Dregs podcast, Bettman gave an update on the process.

“I’m going to probably have to make a decision collectively on this probably in three weeks,” he said on the May 28th episode. “I think in two weeks we’ll start narrowing down further. Somewhere around three weeks we’re going to have to pull the trigger and finalize the arrangements and make the deposits.”

Standing out

In order to play host, a hub city will need secure hotels, facilities for games and practices, and good transportation. Most importantly, there will need to be low COVID-19 case rates, cooperation from local government, and the availability for mass testing.

The three Canadian cities face the biggest challenges. The government has a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone entering the country. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said discussions are “on-going” between public health officials and the NHL.

How badly does Edmonton want in? Alberta premier Jason Kenney sent a request to Trudeau asking that NHL personnel be exempt from travel and quarantine restrictions to improve their chances.

Vegas, baby, Vegas

Meanwhile, Las Vegas has emerged as a favorite. Nevada is about to enter Phase Two this week, with businesses and casinos set to reopen. That’s a huge boost for the city’s chances given the amount of available hotels. The lack of ice sheets compared to other cities could be helped by the installation of additional surfaces, reported The Athletic last week. The total package is a reason why the conference finals and Cup Final could also take place there.

Host cities with a team involved, however, may not get to root them on. The league may put them in the other hub city or, if they do stay home, the players would have to follow the NHL’s guidelines. “[I]f a team happens to be in its own market, the players I don’t think should be planning on going home,” Bettman said.

The NHL is expected to move into Phase 2 this week with players in small groups doing voluntary non-contact skating and off-ice training. The next step would be training camps opening up no earlier than July 10 and a possible resumption of the season by early August.

MORE RETURN TO PLAY:
Breaking down the Eastern Conference series

A look at the Western Conference matchups
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Qualifying Round storylines

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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.