In city centers, a determined effort to diversify hockey

Getty Images
8 Comments

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

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

kris letang
Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
3 Comments

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
Getty Images
1 Comment

PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.