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In city centers, a determined effort to diversify hockey

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — In a crowded hallway at Scanlon Ice Rink, Logan Johnson slid into his pads as his brother Malakye and sister Wylla skittered around sticks and bags bulging with hockey equipment.

Their mother, April, tried to keep order and Wylla asked whether a board game of Candy Land might help fill the time until Malakye’s practice, which didn’t start until a half-hour after Logan wraps up. Snacks and homework were handy since the family knew they would be spending several hours here on a school night.

It was a standard visit to the rink for the Johnsons, who are familiar with the 20-minute drive from their Germantown neighborhood to Kensington in north Philadelphia. Four years after knowing nothing about hockey, the sport now consumes their lives for nine months out of the year between travel, practices and games, as it does for countless families of young players across North America.

The Johnsons, however, are African-American and the participation of people of color in a sport that has for decades been predominantly played by whites still stands out 61 years after Willie O’Ree broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League. Minority players in the NHL remain a relative rarity but the effort to increase diversity in the sport – some of it funded by the league – has never been more robust than it is now. The results can be seen in neighborhoods where basketball, baseball and football are still the top choices for many.

Hockey was a tough sell for the Johnson family with football the sport of choice in Germantown. April Johnson said she didn’t want to switch her children, now 13, 10 and 8, to the ice even when she found out it could be free through the Snider Hockey program that runs programs at five city rinks, including Scanlon. She now tells everyone she can about her experience, though she encounters plenty of reluctance – almost always that their child already plays football or basketball.

”Some people are just kind of gun shy,” she said. ”They don’t know what to expect, so they just don’t even want to try it out.”

The challenge for youth hockey programs trying to add minority players are cultural, socio-economic and logistical. The sport, unlike others, has to feel more welcoming and inclusive than others in communities that have shunned or ignored it.

The Scanlon rink, in the heart of a neighborhood that has struggled with drugs and crime, is both a refuge and a showcase of what the future of the sport could look like. Far from the reputation of hockey being a white sport, children and families of all races and from all corners of the city reflect the population far more than the NHL today.

While just 5 percent of the 778 NHL players are minorities, that number is 70 percent within Snider Hockey, a program the late Flyers owner Ed Snider started in 2005 and provides free equipment, ice time and academic support for more than 3,000 students. Ice Hockey in Harlem, Detroit Ice Dreams and other organizations are also trying to bring the sport to people who never thought it was for them.

”The first barrier is just letting folks know about this opportunity that’s in their neighborhood,” Snider Hockey executive vice president Jan Koziara said. ”The biggest barrier is convincing families who aren’t hockey fans, haven’t ever really been exposed to hockey to give it a shot. From there, people become hockey fans and hockey families very quickly.”

USA Hockey counted 382,514 youth players last season, up from 339,610 eight years earlier, but has only just begun tracking participation numbers by race and doesn’t yet have any data to share publicly. Kim Davis, hired in 2017 as the NHL’s first executive vice president of social impact, growth and legislative affairs, said she believes diversity of hockey at the youth level is underestimated.

”You look across the country, you can’t help but know that given the demographics that we’re seeing regionally and state by state that the pipeline of talent, particularly for kids that are starting our sport as early as age 3 or 4, is shifting,” she said.

William Frey of the Brookings Institute, who has consulted the NHL on demographic shifts, expects the 2020 census to show the population under age 18 is less than half white, which makes the outreach to nontraditional hockey communities critical to the future of the sport.

”We don’t want to leave anybody behind,” said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who aided an effort to keep Washington’s Fort Dupont Ice Arena open amid a funding crisis. ”It’s within everyone’s best interest to make sure that we build organizations, businesses, communities that are reflective to the people that you serve.”

It remains a challenge to lure children to an unfamiliar sport. Kids in Kensington who know LeBron James and Steph Curry are less likely to know about black hockey players like P.K. Subban or even Wayne Simmonds, who was recently traded by Philadelphia to Nashville.

”A lot of kids don’t see it, so they don’t think it’s OK,” said Jason McCrimmon, the Detroit Ice Dreams president and founder. ”That’s what we still deal with in this day and age when we go out to recruit. It’s still like: ‘I don’t really want to play hockey. My friends don’t play it or what would they think of me if I played it?’ It’s an easier situation for a kid to kind of adapt and going the route of playing basketball or football because it’s so normal and it’s seen on a regular basis for kids that look like them.”

The NHL said the league and the NHL Players’ Association have invested roughly $100 million since 2015 in programs to grow the game, from the joint Industry Growth Fund to Hockey is for Everyone, Future Goals and Learn to Play. Subban, Simmonds, Columbus’ Seth Jones and O’Ree serve as inspirations in black communities across North America just as players like Scott Gomez, Richard Park, Jonathan Cheechoo and Craig Berube did for Hispanic, Asian and Native American and First Nations communities.

”When I was younger, if I didn’t see people who look like me playing hockey, that’s probably something that I wouldn’t have (gotten into),” Simmonds said.

Snider Hockey exemplifies that in Philadelphia, which is more than 40 percent black. Director of programs Dan Rudd said it was difficult to find black and Latino coaches to reflect the community at first but over the past decade alumni have come back to coach.

There is Virlen Reyes, who went from the streets of Kensington to captain West Chester University to a club hockey national title, became Snider Hockey’s first college graduate and now co-owns an art studio. There is Kaseir Archie, another Kensington kid who chose hockey over basketball and is now a junior at Drexel.

Reyes used to get strange looks carrying her bag and stick on the train and saw drug dealers and syringes not far from Scanlon. Now she sees all kinds of kids rolling their gear into the building.

”I’ve seen an immense decrease in drug influence and violence within that community,” Reyes said. ”You have people from outside the community, they are coming in and bringing their families. To see other families be comfortable with coming into a community that’s known to be one of America’s most violent and drug-influenced areas, that is a signal to know that great change is happening here.”

When he’s not watching NHL Network to learn about a sport he was entirely unfamiliar with, Chip Finney comes from West Philadelphia for his 9-year-old son Miles’ practices. A conversation with another father in the schoolyard took Finney’s family to hockey, and now Miles is the goalie for a team that also has a Muslim girl who wears a hijab on the ice.

”This unusual is his normal,” Finney said.

O’Ree, who broke the NHL color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958, has spent 22 years as the league’s diversity ambassador. He said he has noticed significant progress.

”Hockey’s a white sport? That’s ridiculous,” O’Ree said. ”You can play any sport you want regardless of what color you are if you have the will and the desire.”

Rudd and Snider Hockey coaches have honed their message at schools and churches to try to reach more kids like Malakye Johnson, whose friends still don’t play hockey. Kids and parents, after all, make up the real sales force.

”It just takes word of mouth,” April Johnson said.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Buzzer: The David Ayres show; Canucks and Coyotes win big

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Three Stars

1. David Ayres, Carolina Hurricanes. Nobody expected this. He started the day as a 42-year-old Zamboni driver. He finished the day 1-0 in the NHL after stopping eight out of 10 shots for the Hurricanes in a 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Just for good measure, he also recorded a shot on goal. One of the most incredible stories in recent NHL history. Read all about it right here.

2. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes. The Coyotes and Lightning have been at opposite ends of the NHL spectrum over the past month. Tampa Bay has been nearly unbeatable. The Coyotes entered the game with just five wins since the first week of January. So of course it was the Coyotes that cruised to a 7-3 win to help keep pace in the Western Conference playoff race. Keller was one of the big stars of the night with two goals and an assist in the win.

3. Tyler Toffoli, Vancouver Canucks. The other rout in the NHL on Saturday took place in Vancouver where the Canucks put a 9-spot on the board against the Boston Bruins. Toffoli was one of the many offensive stars for the Canucks, scoring two goals and an assist in the win. He was the Canucks’ big trade acquisition and is going to need to take on an even larger role than originally expected in the absence of Brock Boeser. He made that impact on Saturday.

Other notable performance from Saturday

  • Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood stayed out for the New Jersey Devils by helping them spoil Alex Ovechkin‘s big day in a 3-2 Devils win.
  • Jack Eichel scored a pair of goals to help the Buffalo Sabres stun the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 5-2 win that was not as close as the final score would indicate.
  • Scott Laughton scored two goals for the Philadelphia Flyers in a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets.
  • Carey Price recorded a shutout and Max Domi scored twice for the Montreal Canadiens as they topped the Ottawa Senators.
  • Jesper Fast was one of the difference-makers for the New York Rangers as they beat the San Jose Sharks, 3-2, on Saturday night.
  • Reilly Smith scored two goals against his former team to help the Vegas Golden Knights to a 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers.
  • Rocco Grimaldi scored the shootout winner for the Nashville Predators to cap off an eight-round shootout win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
  • Joonas Donskoi‘s shootout winner lifted the Colorado Avalanche to a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Alex Ovechkin scores the 700th goal of his career. Read all about it here (and here).

Artemi Panarin helped the New York Rangers keep rolling on Saturday, and this ridiculous play set up the Rangers’ first goal of the night.

The entire eight-round shootout for the Predators and Blue Jackets.

Moment of the Night

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour addresses his team and his temporary goalie.

Factoids

  • David Ayres became the oldest goalie in NHL history to ever win his debut. [NHL PR]
  • No denying that Ovechkin is not only one of hockey’s all-time greats, but one of the all-time greats in all of major North American sports. [NHL PR]
  • Carolina’s Sebastian Aho extended his point streak to 12 games, currently the longest in the NHL. [NHL PR]

Scores

New Jersey Devils 3, Washington Capitals 2
Philadelphia Flyers 4, Winnipeg Jets 2
Buffalo Sabres 5, Pittsburgh Penguins 2
Carolina Hurricanes 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 3
Montreal Canadiens 3, Ottawa Senators 0
New York Rangers 3, San Jose Sharks 2
Arizona Coyotes 7, Tampa Bay Lightning 3
Nashville Predators 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (SO)
Vancouver Canucks 9, Boston Bruins 3
Vegas Golden Knights 5, Florida Panthers 3
Colorado Avalanche 2, Los Angeles Kings 1 (SO)

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.

Miracle on Ice team honored before Panthers-Golden Knights

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Amidst a sports-filled weekend that included the heavyweight championship boxing match and a NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, hockey fans were reminded about believing in miracles on Saturday night.

Prior to the game between the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers, member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team were honored, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the team’s epic run to the gold medal in Lake Placid, New York.

”I think as time has gone on I’ve had a greater appreciation for my good fortune that I had and to be able to make that team and how it all worked out and that I could be a part of that,” John Harrington said. ”I think that as the years have gone on that it’s humbling to think that I was a part of that. I’m humbled because it’s still being talked about 40 years later and I was lucky enough to be a part of it.”

The only missing players were Mark Johnson, who is head coach of Wisconsin’s women’s hockey team, Bob Suter, who died in 2014, and forward Mark Pavelich, who was jailed last year on assault charges and ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial. Also missing was coach Herb Brooks, who was killed in a car accident in 2003.

The ceremony 40 years to the exact day veteran broadcaster Al Michaels asked the world, ”Do you believe in miracles?” culminated a two-day celebration that included President Donald Trump introducing the team during a rally and a meet-and-greet with fans on Friday night.

”Relive the Miracle,” originally planned for UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center on Saturday afternoon, was canceled due to poor ticket sales.

Saturday’s sellout crowd greeted Michaels and the former Olympians with enthusiasm and pride, providing them with a standing ovation and a thunderous ”U-S-A!” chant as they exited the ice after Florida’s Aleksander Barkov and Vegas’ Max Pacioretty took the ceremonial opening puck from Team USA captain Mike Eruzione.

NHL Network analyst Brian Lawton, who became the first US-born hockey player drafted first overall in the NHL Entry Draft when he was taken in 1983 by the Minnesota North Stars, said although the league was not akin to American-born players back then, watching the U.S. team strike gold gave him a bolt of confidence he could play at the next level.

”You could count the number of first-round picks that were American on one hand back then,” said Lawton, who is still the only U.S. high school hockey player to be drafted first overall, and one of only eight Americans to be taken first overall. ”It was Canada’s game and Canada only, and I felt that my first few years in the league. For me it was significantly important. I wasn’t a great player in the NHL, but obviously just by virtue of no one else having done it before -I was the first American ever pick first and all that stuff – in some small way hopefully helped other kids down the road.”

Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said while it was a tremendous sports story – one that was chronicled in several films, most notably the 2004 motion picture ”Miracle” – it was the opening puck drop for the evolution of ice hockey in the United States.

”It was the single most important event in the growth of hockey in the United States, McCrimmon said. ”When you compare the landscape of U.S. players today with what it would have been at that time, it’s incredible how the sport has grown. I just think it was on the front end of tremendous growth in the sport in the U.S.”

Hurricanes’ emergency goalie David Ayres beats Maple Leafs

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The Carolina Hurricanes had to turn to 42-year-old emergency backup goalie Dave Ayres on Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He not only held his own against one of the NHL’s most powerful offensive teams, he beat them.

Ayres, a Zamboni driver for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and the emergency backup for both teams on Saturday night, was forced into action midway through the second period after Hurricanes goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer had to exit the game due to injury. He ended up stopping eight out of the 10 shots he faced — while also recording a shot on goal of his own — in a 6-3 Hurricanes win.

The fact that an emergency goalie had to enter the game is fascinating enough.

But that he played as well as he did, and managed to get credit for the win makes it one of the most stunning accomplishments in recent NHL memory.

When Scott Foster, an accountant by day, made his emergency appearance for the Chicago Blackhawks two years ago he only had to play 14 minutes against the Winnipeg Jets. He also did not get credit for the win.

Ayres played double that on Saturday, on the road, against what should have been a desperate Toronto team that fighting to make the playoffs and avoid one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history. Instead, it was the Hurricanes that found an extra gear and completely dominated the game from the moment Ayres entered.

The Maple Leafs managed just 10 shots on goal against Ayres, and after scoring on two of their first three in the second period, were completely shutout by him in the third period.

For Ayres it adds another fascinating chapter to an already unbelievable story.

He has dressed as a backup for a number of American Hockey League games, and has also filled in at practice for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He is also a kidney transplant survivor.

The Hurricanes ended up in this situation after Mrazek — who was already filling in for Reimer, the Hurricanes’ starter on Saturday — was leveled in a collision by Maple Leafs forward Kyle Clifford.

Obviously the big concern for the Hurricanes now is the status of Mrazek and Reimer (there is a report out of Chicago that the Hurricanes already reached out regarding a potential goalie trade), but this is a massive win for the Hurricanes, both in the standings and emotionally. Imagine the boost that has to give them to be facing that situation and not only play the way they did, but also collect two huge points in the standings.

On the other side, well, this is bad.

While the hyperbole around the Maple Leafs can sometimes be way too much, whatever they hear regarding this game is going to be completely justified.

They, too, are in a fight for a playoff spot and not only laid an egg in a huge game, they were thoroughly embarrassed from the time Ayres entered the game until the final horn. They could not generate sustained pressure, they managed just 10 total shots in 28 minutes against a 42-year-old emergency goalie, and they just looked bad. Not only that, but it was also a Hurricanes team that was already playing without one of its top defenseman (Dougie Hamilton) and then lost another one (Brett Pesce) during the game.

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.

NHL stars praise Alex Ovechkin as he hits 700 career goals

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There’s a new member of the 700-goal club and his name is Alex Ovechkin. At 4:50 of the third period against the Devils on Saturday, the Capitals captain fired one by Mackenzie Blackwood to reach the historic mark.

Ovechkin scored goal No. 699 in an OT loss to the Canadiens after five straight games without a point. No. 8 controlled a rolling puck after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone, then fired a wrist shot past Carey Price.

The Washington Capitals captain is now the eighth member of the exclusive NHL club. He joins Mike Gartner (708), Phil Esposito (717), Marcel Dionne (731), Brett Hull (741), Jaromir Jagr (766), Gordie Howe (801), and Wayne Gretzky (894).

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Ovechkin has been doing this since he broke in the league in 2005 and his peers continue to marvel at his goal-scoring exploits.

NBC Sports recently sat down with T.J. Oshie, Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, David Pastrnak, Max Pacioretty, Nathan MacKinnon, and John Carlson to talk about Ovechkin’s career and his pursuit of Gretzky’s all-time record.

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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.