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.

Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
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FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

“Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

“Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

“Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here,” DeBoer said then. “So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Robertson will finally be there now.

Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

TORTS REFORM

Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

“I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

BIG MO

The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

“He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

PLAYOFF ROTATION

Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

“I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

“He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

“This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

LAMBERT ISLAND

Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

“Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

MORE NEW VOICES

The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

“He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

“We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

“I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.