What Willie O’Ree’s Hall of Fame induction means to me

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Growing up in Toronto, I didn’t know much about Willie O’Ree.

It was the pre-Internet era. Mike Bossy, Val James and Grant Fuhr were my guys. Bossy shot right like I did, scored a lot of goals, and won Stanley Cups. The first hockey jersey given to me was an Islanders’ No. 22. The reason why I loved James and Fuhr was because they looked like me. I admired James’ toughness on the ice, always standing up for his Maple Leafs teammates. When I played street hockey with my friends, I got in net and wanted to play just like Fuhr.

As I got older, I learned about Willie’s story and what he meant to the game of hockey, which gave the No. 22 an even greater meaning to myself. So when I heard this past June that he would finally be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, I was thrilled.

I also wasn’t surprised. I always felt it was long overdue. 

***

Last year, I submitted a formal letter to the Hockey Hall of Fame Selection Committee explaining why Willie was worthy of induction. In my mind, he was without a doubt deserving to have a plaque hanging in Toronto. The funny thing is, as I’ve talked to people inside the game and with fans around North America over the years I discovered that many believed he was already a Hall of Famer. If that isn’t a sign that he should be in there I don’t know what is.

I decided to get involved in the campaign because I wanted him to be able to experience that honor. For all the work he’s done, he’d earned that level of recognition. I’m looking at the calendar and now time and age has really come into view. When you’re younger, you think you’re invincible and you can live forever, but as you get older time seems to go by a lot faster. As you watch your kids grow up before your eyes, you also become more aware of time.

Slowly, some of the greats in our game are passing away one at a time.

It really hit home when Pat Burns passed away in 2010. I played for Burnsie in Boston and he was one of my all-time favorite coaches. I remember attending his funeral feeling disappointed that he died without seeing his name there as part of the Hall of Fame. He should have had that opportunity to be recognized while he was still here on this earth. That still bugs me to this day.

Things like that make it hit home that life is finite. I also realized that Willie’s not getting any younger.

Willie’s case for induction was always a no-brainer. He was the first black player in the National Hockey League, but I always thought it was bigger than that. Just take a look at what he’s done in helping to grow the game the last few decades.

The fact that he’s going in as a “builder” is perfect. His passion and love for the game comes across every time you hear him speak.

I definitely don’t think Willie expected to be in the Hall of Fame. He hasn’t put in all this work to be a Hall of Famer. He just did it because he loves the game. He joined the NHL/USA Hockey Diversity Task Force in 1998 and has impacted over 122,000 individuals while working tirelessly to introduce hockey to people from all different backgrounds.

I’ve tried to help spread Willie’s gospel since my playing days. Whether it was the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone, the SCORE Boston Hockey program or Ice Hockey in Harlem in New York City, being part of those programs has been important to me.

I always felt it was important for these young kids to see that I wasn’t just some hockey player they watch on TV and I wasn’t a video game avatar. I wanted to show them that I was real person just like them. I wanted them feel like they could interact with me and could be just like me. Most importantly, I just wanted them to fall in love with the game as much as I did.

And there’s still plenty of work to be done.

I think what we collectively can do is find ways to continue to make hockey more accessible to kids and offer more affordable equipment. Just providing equipment for them to play can go a long way. Try Hockey for Free is something that every NHL city offers. It’s a terrific program providing young people with an opportunity to just give hockey a chance. I’ve never heard anyone say “Well, I tried it and I hated it” and I’ve never heard anyone say “I went to a game and it was brutal.” It’s the exact opposite reaction every time.

The hardest part was always getting someone to try it or trying to convince them to attend a game. The typical excuses I heard were “It’s too expensive” or “There’s not enough players that look like me.” Once they actually come, sit in the seats, and appreciate the speed and athleticism of the players inside the arena, they’re hooked. It happened to me. My parents are from Barbados. I always say that the only time they saw ice was in their drinks. The game of hockey was so foreign to them but they fell in love with it because we grew up in Toronto and it was everywhere.

[2018 Hockey Hall of Fame class changed the game]

There’s over seven billion people on this planet. Only 700 individuals earn the privilege to play in the NHL every single year. The chance that these kids play hockey at a young age and then at the NHL level is very slim. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about just picking up a stick, putting skates on. After that, if you fall in love with the game, anything’s possible.

The NHL is constantly trying to increase hockey’s global footprint in this digital age. As the sport continues to grow it’s not going to come from our hardcore base of hockey fans. They aren’t going anywhere and we can never take them for granted, but it’s going to come from people that look like myself. A popular narrative describing an NHL player when I played was “He grew up on a farm in Western Canada, so he must come from a family with good values and a strong work ethic. He has to be a good person we’re willing to take a chance on.” Well, I always wanted to flip that upside down and suggest what about a player whose parents came to Canada with nothing from Barbados and raised three successful children giving them everything they could ever ask for from scratch? That sounds just as impressive, don’t you think?

We’ll hear about those stories more frequently as the NHL continues to evolve.

***

What Willie did back in 1958, becoming the first black player to play in the NHL, it took a special person to do that. It took a special soul to handle what he had to deal with — the racial slurs, taunts and all the garbage that some fans threw his way because he looked different than everyone else.

He’s such a tremendous ambassador. He’s never had a bad day. No one’s perfect, I understand that, but every time I see Willie he’s always got a smile on his face. He always has time for people. Some people have to fake that, but for him, it comes natural.

Willie’s 83 now, but sometimes I forget how old he is because when we’re out together he’s always wondering what the next spot is that we’re going to and what group of kids we’re going to work with that day. I could never look at him and say that I’m tired of working with young people when I see him working non-stop.

***

Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player of all-time. When he was traded to the Kings the entire country of Canada was devastated at the thought of losing a national treasure like the Great One to the United States.

In reality, that was the best thing that ever happened to our game. Gretzky was the seed planted in Los Angeles that was catalyst for the growth in many non-traditional hockey markets around the U.S. that we see today. That trade moved the interest needle of the casual sports fan and put in motion the birth of expansion teams in the West and the Sunbelt states.

Gretz might be the seed, but Willie’s the water that helps it grow.

Willie’s hopping on planes, criss-crossing the country to introduce the game of hockey to kids who might not otherwise get the opportunity. He’s impacting people on a personal level and spreading such a positive message.

It shouldn’t just be people of color that should be proud that Willie’s finally being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Willie never cared what race you were, if you were a boy or girl or even what your sexual orientation might be because we both share the belief that hockey is for everyone.

Willie has always been a Hall of Famer in my eyes and now that it’s official, he’ll be seen that way by everyone else, too.

Anson Carter has served as a studio analyst for NBC Sports Group’s NHL coverage on NHL Live and NHL Overtime, NBCSN’s NHL pre- and post-game shows since 2013. Over the course of his 11 NHL seasons from 1996 through 2007, Carter played in 674 games, producing 202 goals and 219 assists with the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Carolina Hurricanes.

The Buzzer: Streaks end for Capitals and Hurricanes

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Three Stars

1. Joel Edmundson, Carolina Hurricanes

Let’s be honest, Edmundson’s start in Carolina has been forgettable at best. He hasn’t been all that effective by any measure, having a negative impact on defense, and failing to score a single point through his first 17 games with the Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes have a big edge against the Senators on paper, and that translated to the on-ice product on Monday, and Edmundson took advantage. He scored a goal and two assists for three points, had a +3 rating, fired three shots on goal, and blocked a shot.

As you’d expect Edmundson’s three-point night wasn’t the only strong part of Carolina’s 8-2 win …

2. Sebastian Aho, also Hurricanes

Aho arguably played a bigger role in Carolina ending its four-game losing streak than Edmundson did.

The still-a-bit-underrated star scored the game-winning goal shorthanded (and unassisted), finishing Monday with two goals overall. Aho generated a +4 rating and went 9-6 on faceoffs.

Aho now has eight goals and 13 points in 18 games in 2019-20. This has been a slightly slow start for Aho so far, judging by a low on-ice save percentage (81.9 at even strength versus career average of 90.2 before Monday’s game) and so-so offensive numbers by his high standards. Maybe a hot game will get the ball/puck rolling in the right direction?

3. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

While the Hurricanes’ losing streak ended, the Capitals’ winning streak closed off at six on Monday.

Kuznetsov is the main reason Washington was able to continue Arizona’s run of blown leads, even though the Coyotes eventually won in a shootout. He showed plenty of speed and skill, collecting two goals and coming one attentive T.J. Oshie swipe from having three.

That two-goal output extended Kuznetsov’s point streak to four games, giving him three goals and six assists for nine points during that span, and 18 points in 16 games overall. Kuznetsov also logged 23:28 TOI. While that total was inflated by the two teams getting through a full overtime period, that’s still quite a strong night of work — but not good enough for another Capitals win.

Highlights from both games

With there only being two games, why not enjoy the best of both?

First, the Coyotes beat the Capitals in a shootout:

Meanwhile, there weren’t many twists and turns to the Hurricanes blowing out the Senators:

Brawlin’ Bobby

Bobby Ryan delivered a big hit, and then seemed to win his fight with Brock McGinn. Maybe not the greatest idea for a player who’s been doomed by hand injuries, but then again, Ryan didn’t have much of a choice:

Factoids

  • Rod Brind’Amour has had quite the start to his coaching career. NHL PR notes that his 56 wins is the most for any coach through their first 100 games. If “Rod the Bod” is as good as “Rod the Coach” as he was at winning faceoffs, then watch out.
  • John Carlson generated an assist, so his 29 points ties Brad Marchand for fourth in league scoring. The Caps are 10-0-2 in their last 12 games.
  • Dougie Hamilton has 26 goals through his first 100 games with the Hurricanes. That’s the second-best start for a defenseman in franchise history, according to NHL PR.

Scores

ARI 4 – WSH 3 (SO)
CAR 8 – OTT 2

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Coyotes cough up 3-0 lead, but end Capitals’ winning streak

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The Arizona Coyotes can’t feel happy about giving up yet another lead (this time a 3-0 advantage), but they were able to salvage a 4-3 shootout win against the Washington Capitals on Monday — albeit barely.

Upon further review

When the Capitals made it 3-3, it was awkwardly funny, as Evgeny Kuznetsov appeared a breath away from scoring a hat trick goal to tie things up. Instead, T.J. Oshie got to the puck first. Would it have been the same difference if Kuznetsov was shooting rather than Oshie? Probably, yet when a standings point (or two) end up on the line, it’s better not to leave anything to doubt. All the laughing on the bench underscored the mixed feelings, and served up a reminder of the “passing to a teammate so they can score the empty-netter” culture of the sport.

It looked like Oshie would then match Kuznetsov with two goals on the night when Oshie scored in overtime — only he didn’t.

The NHL’s review determined that the play was offside, as wires got crossed between Oshie and Lars Eller when Eller lost his footing close to the Coyotes’ blueline. This was the second review that didn’t go Washington’s way on Monday, as an Ilya Samsonov save instead turned out to be a Christian Fischer goal.

That’s how close it really was for Washington. They almost extended their winning streak to seven games, even though the Coyotes generated that 3-0 lead.

On the bright side, there were moments where the bounces did go the Capitals’ way. When the Coyotes were really pouring things on, they fired another breakout pass behind Washington’s defense to Clayton Keller, a soon-to-be $7.15 million player who already scored the game’s first goal. Keller might be “elite in every sense of the word,” but Samsonov showed the agility and patience to wait Keller out, and Keller didn’t even end up with a shot attempt on that breakaway opportunity.

So, it stings for the Capitals to lose in such an anticlimactic fashion, but the “what if?” game could go both ways. Finishing the night at 13-2-4 isn’t really so bad for this quietly dominant team.

Playing with fire when you play with leads

There’s an almost inevitable question when a team squanders a lead, or even comes close to squandering a lead: was this about the Capitals turning it up a notch, or are the Coyotes guilty of sitting on a lead?

It’s a point that’s relevant to the Coyotes, in particular. For one thing, they sometimes lean heavily on goalies, especially when it’s red-hot Darcy Kuemper. (In Monday’s case, Antti Raanta was mostly sharp even as he seems to settle into a backup role.)

The question is also especially pertinent right now, as the Coyotes have given up leads in five consecutive games. Winning the shootout bailed Arizona out on Monday, but they might not always be so lucky, especially when the leads are slimmer than three goals. Perhaps they need to do some soul searching about finding a better balance between avoiding back-breaking mistakes and getting to passive in “turtle mode.”

To be fair, the Capitals have been a tough team to keep down. They’re now 4-1-2 in games where they’ve trailed after the first period.

Kuznetsov on fire

Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t get that hat trick, despite hats mucking up the ice in DC. He’s still on quite the roll lately. With two goals on Monday, Kuznetsov has a four-game multipoint streak going (three goals, six assists for nine points). That also gives him 18 points in 16 games so far in 2019-20, as he’s clearly shaken off that suspension.

***

The Capitals became the first team in the NHL to hit 30 points this season, sliding to 13-2-4. The Coyotes ended a three-game losing streak and are now 10-6-2. Both teams showed flashes of brilliance while also waving a few red flags of warning about blemishes they need to clean up.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Seguin, Benn facing more internal criticism

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Last year it was the team CEO. This year it is the head coach.

For the second year in a row the Dallas Stars top forward duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn is facing some criticism from within its own building for a lack of early season production. While neither player was specifically mentioned by name, it was pretty clear who coach Jim Montgomery was talking about in the wake of their 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.

The duo — which accounts for more than $19 million of salary cap space — has combined for only four goals on the season and was held off the scoresheet on Sunday. Montgomery said he was “very disappointed” in the production of his team’s top players, and when asked if he is seeing any signs of progress as a follow up he said, “No, are you?”

When asked how to fix it, he talked about reducing ice-time and one-on-one video sessions, while also adding, via The Dallas Morning News, “They got to decide that they want to be a difference maker. I mean, look who scored for the Jets. We got really good big goals by Janmark and Faksa and that’s our third and fourth line.”

It’s not quite as harsh as when CEO Jim Lites went nuclear on the duo 11 months ago, but it is still a pretty direct message to the team’s two best players — score more goals.

What stands out this time around is that the criticism is probably at least a little more justified. When Lites called out the duo last year it came at a time when the Stars were in a playoff position thanks almost entirely to the play of Seguin and Benn. Their line had been carrying the team and providing the most significant chunk of the team’s offense even if their own individual numbers had declined. Had it not been for them the Stars probably would have been well out of playoff contention given how little forward depth the team had around them.

It’s a little different this year. The recent turnaround that has seen the Stars win seven of their past nine games (collecting 15 out of a possible 18 points) has mostly been carried by the goaltending of Ben Bishop and Anton Khubodin, as well as some secondary forwards.

Seguin does have seven points during the nine games (tied for the team lead during that stretch) but has scored just a single goal. Benn has only three assists during the stretch, only six points for the season, and has not scored a goal in 13 games, one of the worst droughts of his career.

There are a few interesting layers to this.

First, you can not ignore the fact that just like last year when they were the focal point of criticism, Seguin and Benn are being crushed by abnormally low shooting percentages scoring on just four of their 93 shots this season (4.3 percent). You can talk about not bearing down, or not getting to the right areas, or not getting enough quality chances all you want, but there is a pretty big element of bad luck for any two players to only score on 4 percent of their shots. As I’ve pointed out several times (including last year when we were talking about Seguin and Benn) nobody scores goals consistently. Even the top goal-scorers go through phases where they score goals in bunches, and then follow it up with lengthy dry spells. We tend to overrate what they are doing during the hot streaks, and overreact to what they are not doing during the cold streaks. In the end it will all balance out.

The concern isn’t the number of shots they aren’t scoring on, but rather the number of shots they aren’t getting. As of Monday Seguin is averaging 3.01 shots per game, more than a full shot less per game compared to a year ago, and his lowest total since he was a first-and-second year player in Boston. Benn is averaging just 2.11 shots per game, the lowest mark of his career. That is where the concern should be. At some point the shooting luck is going to change and more pucks will start going in for them, but if they’re not generating as many shots they still may not score as much as they normally do.

The last point here is the Stars became way too defensive and conservative in the first part of the season (something that Montgomery recently admitted to) and that has to have limited the play of their top players at least a little bit. For the longest time this team wasn’t playing to its strengths.

I like to bet on talent, and it’s more likely than not that Seguin and Benn are going to start scoring more goals sometime soon, not because they are responding well to criticism, but because that is how hockey works (talent eventually wins). When it happens it could make the Stars an interesting team to watch. They have the goaltending, they have two great top-pairing defenders when healthy, and they improved their depth. They just need their top players to get going, something that hasn’t typically been an issue for them during their time in Dallas.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Coyotes visit Capitals on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Arizona Coyotes and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals have gotten off to a blazing start to the season, taking points in 16 of their first 18 games and currently sitting with the best record in the NHL. They have earned points in 11 straight games (10-0-1) and enter Monday’s game riding a six-game win streak.

John Carlson is the Capitals’ leading scorer this season and is top-five in the league with 28 points in 18 games (8G-20A). Carlson, who was named the NHL’s First Star of the Month for October, has 10 more points than any other defenseman and already has 10 multi-point games on the year. The 29-year-old is in his 11th season with the Capitals and was named an alternate captain this season following Brooks Orpik’s retirement. Carlson signed an eight-year, $64 million contract prior to the start of last season (under contract through 2026).

The Coyotes have been inconsistent this season and enter Monday on a three-game losing streak. Arizona has been in close games all season, with six of their eight losses coming by one goal.

Phil Kessel was traded to the Coyotes from Pittsburgh this summer in a deal that saw Alex Galchenyuk go the other way. Kessel has had a slow start to his time in Arizona, having scored in just two of his first 17 games (three goals total). Despite Kessel having some early-season struggles, he has been extremely consistent throughout his career. The 32-year-old has scored 20+ goals in 11 straight seasons, while the Coyotes were the only team in the NHL without a 20-goal scorer last year.

[COVERAGE OF COYOTES-CAPITALS BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Arizona Coyotes at Washington Capitals
WHERE: Capital One Arena
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 11, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Coyotes-Capitals stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

COYOTES
Christian DvorakNick Schmaltz – Phil Kessel
Clayton KellerDerek StepanVinnie Hinostroza
Lawson CrouseCarl SoderbergConor Garland
Michael GrabnerBrad RichardsonChristian Fischer

Oliver Ekman-LarssonJason Demers
Jakob ChychrunAlex Goligoski
Aaron Ness – Jordan Oesterle

Starting goalie: Antti Raanta

CAPITALS
Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Jakub VranaEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Chandler StephensonLars EllerRichard Panik
Brendan LeipsicNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Dmitry OrlovRadko Gudas
Jonas SiegenthalerNick Jensen

Starting goalie: Ilya Samsonov

John Walton and Pierre McGuire will have the call from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Ahmed Fareed will host coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Anson Carter.