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.

Canucks’ Tanev scores 11 seconds into OT to eliminate Wild

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The Vancouver Canucks are moving on.

They eliminated the Minnesota Wild on Friday night with a 5-4 overtime win that saw them come-from-behind on three different occasions.

Defenseman Chris Tanev scored the series-clinching goal just 11 seconds into overtime, giving the Canucks their first series win since the 2010-11 season.

That goal is tied for the second-fastest OT goal in NHL postseason history (Brian Skrudland scored nine seconds into overtime in a 1986 game for the Montreal Canadiens).

The win for the Canucks now sets the eight-team playoff field in the Western Conference (Vegas, Colorado, St. Louis, Dallas, Calgary, Vancouver, Arizona, Chicago) while the actual matchups will be determined when the round-robin phase is concluded this weekend.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Tanev’s goal on Friday is the first postseason goal of his career and capped off a massive game that saw him finish with three points (goal, two assists) in 24 minutes of ice-time.

Along with the game-winner, he also assisted on Bo Horvat‘s game-tying goal with just under six minutes to play in regulation.

At one point the Canucks trailed this game 3-1 and quickly erased it thanks to a pair of goals from Brandon Sutter and Quinn Hughes just 84 seconds apart midway through the second period. Hughes, one of the finalists for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year and a significant part of the Canucks’ young core, was one of the Canucks’ most impressive players on Friday by logging a team-high 27 minutes of ice time and recording a pair of points. Keep in mind he is still only 20 years old and along with Horvat, Brock Boeser, and Elias Pettersson gives the Canucks a wonderful quartet of young stars to build around.

As for the Wild, this has to be a brutally disappointing result.

When the 2019-20 regular season was paused they were one of the hotter teams in the Western Conference and making a strong push for a playoff spot. It was far from a given that they would play their way in, but they at least gave themselves a chance. Then they opened this series by shutting out the Canucks in Game 1, giving themselves an early edge in the series. They were unable to build on that thanks to a couple of clunkers in Games 2 and 3, and then Friday’s game where they allowed multiple leads to slip away with their season on the line.

It is entirely possible that this game will be the last time Mikko Koivu, one of the finest players in franchise history, suits up for the Wild.

Next for the Wild: Phase 2 of the 2020 NHL draft lottery on Monday where they will have a 12.5 percent chance of winning the No. 1 overall pick.

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN wins series 3-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks 5, Wild 4 (OT)

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

Maple Leafs force Game 5, stay alive thanks to unbelievable comeback

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were four minutes away from being completely buried.

Four minutes away from having the longest offseason this core of players had ever had to deal with in terms of criticism and scrutiny.

Four minutes away from maybe dealing with the possibility of major changes coming to a team that — to this point — has been unable to get over the hump in the postseason.

That is when the madness started.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just 24 hours after blowing a three-goal lead to lose in overtime, the Maple Leafs flipped the script and erased a three-goal deficit with four minutes to play in regulation to force overtime. It was there that they completed one of the most improbable comebacks in postseason history when Auston Matthews scored a power play to give the Maple Leafs a 4-3 win.

And with that, everything comes down to a winner-take-all Game 5 on Sunday for the right to advance to the field of 16 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It really cannot be understated as to how insane all of this was, and the perfect confluence of events that needed to happen for Toronto to win this game.

For 56 minutes the Maple Leafs were unable to solve Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, and when Boone Jenner scored with under seven minutes to play in the third period to give his team a three-goal lead everything seemed over in Toronto.

But with Frederik Andersen pulled for the extra attacker, Toronto started to chip away.

William Nylander started the comeback with 3:57 to play when he scored a goal that — at the time — seemed to be pointless window dressing.

When John Tavares scored less than a minute later to cut the deficit to one, things really started to get interesting.

Even then Toronto needed some extra help to go its way.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, the Game 3 hero for Columbus, had an opportunity to put the game away with an empty-net sitting in front of him, only to have his shot hit the outside of the net. Just a few moments later, Gustav Nyquist failed to gain the red line with the puck when he could have taken a shot at another empty net and gave the puck away, giving Toronto another chance.

The Maple Leafs did not waste the chance. With just 23 seconds to play in regulation Zach Hyman scored the game-tying goal to send the game to overtime. Matthews scored midway through the period, capitalizing on a Nick Foligno tripping penalty.

During their late third period comeback Toronto had the same combination of players on the ice: Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, Mitch Marner, Zach Hyman, and Morgan Rielly.

With that, Toronto now has a chance to salvage what could have been a disastrous postseason appearance. And who knows, if they lose Game 5 on Sunday all of the things mentioned up at the top (the criticism, the scrutiny, the potential changes) could still happen. This is, after all, a team that is supposed to compete for a Stanley Cup. Losing in the play-in round after three straight Round 1 exits would be awful for the perception of this core. But this win gives them a chance to fight another day and change the narrative around this team. If they do manage to do that and go on a postseason run from here, those four minutes are going be talked about for years.

As for Columbus, well, this has the potential to be the stuff of nightmares.

They had this game — and the series — all but won. If you go buy the win probability stat, they had a 99.3 percent chance of winning this game with five minutes to play.

All they had to do was avoid a meltdown, and they would have been a giant slayer for the second year in a row. But the meltdown happened.

The Blue Jackets were never supposed to be in this position this season after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene to free agency, and then dealing with a season-long run of injuries. No one would have blamed them or given it a second thought if they badly regressed or fell off the map. If they are unable to bounce back in Game 5 on Sunday this is going to be the game that will be impossible for them to shake. It was right there. They had it.

Now it all comes down to Sunday.

Honestly, it is the perfect game — and perfect series — for the unpredictable mayhem that the 2019-20 season has been.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 [OT] (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 [OT]
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs (if necessary), TBD

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.

Canucks-Wild stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Friday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Canucks and Wild. Coverage begins at 10:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Canucks-Wild Game 4 stream at 10:45 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After being shut out in Game 1, Vancouver responded with a 4-3 win over Minnesota in Game 2 and followed that up with a 3-0 victory in Game 3 on Thursday. Now the Canucks will look to win on back-to-back days and clinch their first playoff series win since 2011, when they made it to the Cup Final.

“Our players need to gain experience in these type of games, but we’re not just here to get experience,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green. “We want to win the games.”

Minnesota missed the playoffs last season and is now in danger of losing in the opening round of the postseason for the fourth time in the last five years.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Vancouver Canucks vs. Minnesota Wild
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Friday, August 7, 10:45 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Chris Cuthbert, Louie DeBrusk
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Canucks-Wild live look-in stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(7) Vancouver Canucks vs. (10) Minnesota Wild (VAN leads 2-1)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Wild 3, Canucks 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Canucks 4, Wild 3 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Canucks 3, Wild 0 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Canucks vs. Wild, 10:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Wild vs. Canucks*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

Blackhawks eliminate Oilers to continue wave of Game 4 upsets

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The Oilers put up a good fight with their season on the line in Game 4, but the way it ended was still quite embarrassing as the Blackhawks advanced with a 3-2 win. With that, the 12th-seed Blackhawks advance to the First Round via a 3-1 series win.

For the most part, the Oilers avoided the sort of stinker of an effort to end their season that, say, the Penguins were guilty of. Yet, with the way things ended, the Oilers still ended their season with frustration and embarrassment.

With their season on the line, the Oilers were whistled for a too many men on the ice penalty with 2:02 left in the third period. Edmonton had been pushing Chicago pretty hard to try to tie what was a 3-2 game, but that became a tougher task when emptying the net merely made the final moments even-strength.

Ouch.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Toews, Kubalik, Crawford make it happen for Blackhawks vs. Oilers in Game 4

To start the series, Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik outgunned Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and the Oilers. They repeated some of that magic in Game 4, including Toews setting up Kubalik for the game and series-clinching goal.

Game 4 of Blackhawks – Oilers started wildly enough that it seemed like this would be another one of those video-game-style scoring fests. Connor McDavid set up Josh Archibald for a 1-0 goal just 45 seconds into Game 4, and it was 2-2 mere minutes in the second period.

Consider a big mistake averted the possible turning point.

Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat took an egregious boarding penalty when he hit Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear. Edmonton would get a major power-play opportunity for the trouble, but couldn’t cash in. That happened in part because Darnell Nurse took a penalty during that opportunity, yet it was still the sort of moment you highlight if the game ended up being close.

And it was largely up to Corey Crawford to turn a Game 4 of trading haymakers into something the Blackhawks could manage.

Crawford finished Game 4 with 41 saves, including all 18 during a frantic third period. While goaltending was a mess for the Oilers whether it was Mike Smith or Mikko Koskinen in net during this series, Crawford stood tall at key times for Chicago.

Now all the Oilers have going for them is second-guessing moments like squandering that major power play. Oh, and hearing a lot of NHL Draft Lottery jokes between now and Monday’s drawing.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (CHI wins series 3-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Blackhawks 3, Oilers 2

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.