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: Crawford leads Blackhawks out of slump

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Three stars

1. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks needed something to rally behind coming off their eighth straight on Tuesday. Two better periods to close out a 6-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets a night before was a start.

Scoring first would be crucial — something they accomplished on Wednesday — and they would need a solid outing by veteran netminder Crawford, which they received.

Crawford made 40 saves to help lift the Blackhawks out of their pit of despair after making 28 saves over the final two periods. Chicago squeezed out the winner in the third and that was that.

2. Ondrej Kase, Anaheim Ducks

The second hat trick of the night, but one that helped his team win (sorry Bryan Rust).

Kase opened the game’s scoring with his sixth, pulled the Ducks back to 3-2 with his seventh and capped off the hat trick to tie the game 3-3 in the third period with his eighth, which was the beginning of a four-goal explosion leading to the Ducks winning 6-3 against the Dallas Stars.

It’s been a pretty good past few games for Kase, who has six points in his past two games and nine in his past five.

3. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

There was a point in Wednesday’s game where Gaudreau had to leave after a hit from Radko Gudas. Gaudreau was shaken up after trying to duck out of the way of an incoming Gudas and probably took a bigger impact than he would have if he stayed standing.

Gaudreau returned of course, and in vintage Johnny Hockey style, scored the game-winner 35 seconds into overtime to hand Calgary their 10th win in their past 13 games. Gaudreau added two assists earlier in the game, too. Matthew Tkachuk had four apples. Sean Monahan had two goals, including the game-tying marker with seven seconds left in the third.

It was a total team effort for the Flames, who had to overcome a 5-3 deficit in the final 1:08 of the third, and it was capped off by Gaudreau’s theatrics in OT.

Other notable performances: 

  • Bryan Rust. Rust was the reason why the Penguins were in this one. His second career hat trick brought the Penguins back from a 2-0 deficit and then a 3-2 disadvantage.
  • Brandon Montour. One goal — the game-winner — and three assists for a four-point night.

Highlights of the night

Rust’s hatty:

Kase hatty:

Flames steal a victory from the jaws of defeat:

Factoids

Scores

Golden Knights 3, Islanders 2

Blackhawks 6, Penguins 3

Flames 6, Flyers 5 (OT)

Ducks 6, Stars 3


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

Blackhawks finally end their losing streak, again

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It’s finally over, again.

The Chicago Blackhawks ended their second eight-game losing streak of this season with a 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN.

Playing just 24 hours after getting thrashed 6-3 by the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, Chicago was desperate not to extend that streak to nine (which would have been a first since 2012).

Chicago had no answers following the Winnipeg game. Head coach Jeremy Colliton said his team was playing against men, sharply implying his team wasn’t.

Patrick Kane flat out called it “embarrassing.”

All the losing was taking its toll, again.

One of the biggest knocks recently with the Blackhawks is that they started so poorly in many of those games that no matter how good they played in the final two periods, it was never enough.

A winning formula would likely begin with a good start, and that’s exactly what they got at the United Center on Wednesday.

Chicago scored first — something they hadn’t done in 11 previous games — and then scored second, too, to take a 2-0 lead through Andreas Martinsen and Brent Seabrook, respectively.

It helps when you shoot. The Blackhawks failed to get a shot on goal in the first 17:36 of the opening frame on Tuesday.

They reconciled that in 19 seconds on Wednesday.

Winning rarely comes easy, and Wednesday’s ‘W’ was by no means a comfortable one for Chicago.

Twice they coughed up the lead. Bryan Rust scored a hat trick in the game, potting his first with 1:20 left in the first period. He tied the game 5:46 into the second before Alex DeBrincat regained Chicago’s advantage on the power play late in the period. But as he did in the first, Rust scored a late (and lucky goal off Seabrook’s stick) to complete his hat-trick and bring proceedings level once more.

By all accounts, Pittsburgh had an easy path to victory laid out for them. Yeah, yeah… any team, any night and all of that. But an ailing team playing the second half of a back to back is as mouth-watering as it gets in the NHL.

Instead, the Pens allowed a fourth goal to Marcus Kruger in the third and despite throwing up 43 shots on the night, couldn’t solve Corey Crawford a fourth time as he came away with a 40-save win — his first in his past nine starts.

The Blackhawks fed two more into the back of the net — both empty netters — as Jonathan Toews and Brendan Saad drove the final nails into the coffin.

Toews, who had a goal and two assists for a three-point night, eclipsed 700 points in his NHL career. He came into Wednesday two shy of the milestone.

Chicago’s schedule doesn’t get much easier going forward. They face Winnipeg once again on Friday before welcoming San Jose and Nashville over the next week.

The Blackhawks took a stride on Wednesday and have something to rally behind now, even it was just a baby step.


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

WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks host Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues as the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Hockey with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This matchup features two teams that have combined to win 6 of the last 10 Stanley Cups, but are both currently outside of playoff position. The Penguins are in the mix though – they enter Wednesday night ninth in the Eastern Conference, and have a chance to move into a top-3 Metropolitan Division spot tonight. Chicago is last in the NHL with 23 points.

After losing 6-3 in Winnipeg on Tuesday, the Blackhawks enter tonight having lost eight straight in regulation. That stands in contrast to their current eight-game winning streak against the Penguins. The last Pittsburgh win over Chicago came on March 30, 2014.

This is the second time this season that the Blackhawks have lost eight in a row, and Tuesday’s loss means they’ve won only three times in their last 22 games (3-16-3). Once again, the team was doomed by a slow start, getting out-shot 14-0 to start the game and falling behind 3-0 after the 1st period. Chicago did eventually cut the deficit to 4-3, but Winnipeg added 2 more goals in the 3rd to seal it.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

From Oct. 30 to Nov. 19, the Penguins went 1-7-2 and were in last place in the East. But since then, they’ve gone 6-2-2 (including 3-0-1 in their past four) to vault up the standings.

Their latest win (2-1 shootout win over the Islanders on Monday) came with some drama, as Derick Brassard – who was moved up to Sidney Crosby’s line to ignite a struggling offense in the 3rd period – tied the game off an assist from Jake Guentzel. Guentzel later scored the decisive tally in the shootout on his first career shootout attempt.

“I think it was good for Brass,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “He’s such a gifted player. He’s playing a different role on this team than he has on all the other teams he’s played on. I’m trying to find more ways to keep him involvedand maximize what he brings to this team because I think he’s a unique player.”

What: Pittsburgh Penguins at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Wednesday, December 12th, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Penguins-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Derick Brassard – Sidney Crosby – Jake Guentzel
Tanner PearsonEvgeni MalkinPhil Kessel
Zach Aston-ReeseRiley SheahanBryan Rust
Derek GrantMatt CullenJean-Sebastien Dea

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Olli MaattaJamie Oleksiak
Marcus PetterssonJack Johnson

Starting goalie: Casey DeSmith

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Dylan Sikura – David KampfBrendan Perlini
Alex DeBrincatDylan StromePatrick Kane
John HaydenMarcus KrugerAndreas Martinsen

Duncan KeithHenri Jokiharju
Brandon ManningBrent Seabrook
Connor Murphy – Carl Dahlstrom

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

Hitchcock Oilers are double-edged sword for McDavid, NHL fans

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By just about any measure, the Ken Hitchcock era has been a slam-dunk success for the Edmonton Oilers so far.

Through 11 games, the Oilers are 8-2-1 under Hitchcock. Edmonton’s now on a four-game winning streak after beating the Avalanche 6-4 on Tuesday, while they’ve also won seven of eight games.

They’ve narrowly outshot their opponents 337-329 since Hitchcock took over on Nov. 20, and their possession stats have been respectable-enough during that span. With the way things are going, Mikko Koskinen could be the latest in a line of goalies who’ve enjoyed glorious times under Hitchcock, and he might actually have some staying power compared to, say, Pascal Leclaire and his nine shutouts with Columbus back in 2007-08.

People can fuss over how much this surge has to do with Hitchcock’s acumen (or the competence Hitch can wring out of fear), but the Oilers will gladly take this boost.

That said, there are reasons to have mixed feelings about the Hitchcock era and its potential impacts, whether you’re Connor McDavid, an Oilers fan, or a fan of hockey as a sport. How about we work through some of those conflicting thoughts and feelings?

The world is a saner, better place with McDavid in the playoffs

Look, life is short. Injuries can happen, whether they present speed bumps to a career or derail them entirely. Just look at the struggles Sidney Crosby eventually worked through (mostly?), not to mention how rapidly Marc Savard’s promising career fell apart. If Hitchcock’s tweaks can get McDavid to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, more fans will be exposed to the sheer, 120-mph genius that is number 97.

It’s been argued that the Oilers verge on being the best team in the NHL when McDavid is on the ice, and something quite far from that when he’s not. There are worse viewing experiences than turning your attention from another screen back to an Oilers game in time for all of McDavid’s shifts.

Aim higher

All things considered, Hitchcock’s probably close to optimizing this rendition of the Oilers.

While Hitchcock seems interested enough in the “little things” to get better results out of various players, it still feels like the plan boils down to “grind everything down to a halt and hope Connor (and to a lesser extent, Leon Draisaitl) will carry you to wins.

That might seem like an insult, until you realize that it’s the best course considering what Hitchcock’s working with. After all, a little less than a month ago, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli railed against the defense he built, admitting that none of them are “exceptional passers.” With that in mind, it would be foolish to try to emulate, say, the Mike Sullivan Penguins by hoping to play a space-age, innovative, breakout-heavy game. Slowing the game down makes plenty of sense in context, and Hitchcock remains almost freakishly effective at giving his teams short-term boosts:

So, the good news is that Hitchcock is a shrewd hockey mind who can eke out better results from this limited group.

The less-sunny-side is that there are bright, shining, neon lights pointing to this not working. It was honestly surprising that Chiarelli remained as GM after last season, considering he’s the architect of a roster that generally asks McDavid to be Superman every night.

Hitchcock’s success conjures some worst-case scenarios, then. What if he’s clever enough to get them to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, possibly winning a round or two? Such success could lull Oilers management into a false sense of security, keeping them from making the progress that might open the door for McDavid to actually, you know, have some help around him.

In that way, Hitchcock could be the best possible paint on a hole in the wall/Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Considering that Hitch is already 66, it’s likely that he’s a short-term fix. He’s a great one in that, but still.

[More McDavid, Draisaitl under Hitchcock.]

Harming a revolution?

Much of the focus has been on the Oilers, aside from notes about how all of our lives will be brightened by more Connor McDavid, particularly Playoff Mode Connor McDavid.

But the NHL is a copycat league, and there’s the more existential fear that other NHL teams will see an Oilers team that might ride low-scoring, low-event games and think, “Hey, we should play boring hockey again, that clearly works.”

This would be unfortunate, as the league’s currently continuing its upward trend of scoring, which saw a noteworthy bump starting in 2017-18. So far, teams are allowing 2.89 GAA per game, up from last year’s 2.78. Some of that disparity can be chalked up to curiously shaky goaltending, but it’s important to note that the pace of games has improved, with a modest bump in shots each night. If you were to randomly turn on an NHL game in 2018, you’d likely face higher odds of being entertained than, say, in 2015. Sometimes the bump in entertainment value is pronounced; in other ways, the differences can be subtle. Nonetheless, we’re generally seeing more skill on the ice, less dump-and-chase drudgery, and more entertaining hockey.

The worry, then, is that coaches will see situations like Hitchcock succeeding with the Oilers and return to their worst, fun-killing instincts.

Hopefully these concerns aren’t justified, but those thoughts surface. After all, Hitchcock’s history points to the Oilers’ blueprint for winning being closer to “McDavid scores the only goal” (1-0 win against Calgary on Sunday) than 10-goal games (beating the Avs 6-4 on Tuesday).

***

Ultimately, these “state of the games” aren’t Hitchcock’s concern, and the Oilers seemed to make a wise decision by hiring him. The sky won’t fall if this only portends greater success in, say, June.

Nonetheless, there’s the dream of the Platonic ideal of the McDavid Oilers: a team that embraces their speedy, near-superhuman superstar, playing fast and skillful hockey. The fear is that, if things break the wrong way, the Oilers will end up looking more like a nightmare: a bland team that mires the best player in the world in mediocrity.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.