Capitals accept differences of opinion on White House visit

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The news is constantly on television at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility, and like any workplace, there’s no shortage of opinions.

”We’re human beings, and people share different opinions and different political views,” veteran team leader Brooks Orpik said. ”It’s no different than anybody else. People that are friends vote for different people.”

Those differences were on public display the last week when two players said they would not join their teammates in visiting President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday to celebrate their Stanley Cup championship. Canadians Braden Holtby and Brett Connolly said they’d respectfully decline the invitation.

Several other players, including Russian captain Alex Ovechkin, Americans T.J. Oshie and John Carlson and American coach Todd Reirden have said they’re going. A vast majority of the team that won the first NHL title in franchise history is expected to tour of the White House and meet Trump in the Oval Office in a private ceremony.

The Capitals are accepting of each other’s differences of opinion on going to the White House and say this isn’t a divisive issue and won’t be a distraction.

”You’re a team and you want to stick together no matter what,” Holtby said. ”For me, it’s just a personal thing. I believe in what I believe in, and in order to stick to those values, I think I have to do what I feel is right, but that doesn’t make a difference on everyone else’s decision. We stick by every single teammate we have and their decision.”

Playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly, who is black, told Canada’s Postmedia in June he would not go to the White House, citing Trump’s rhetoric. Smith-Pelly has been with the minor league Hershey Bears since late February.

Without specifically naming Smith-Pelly, Connolly said he’s ”in full support of an old teammate that I am really good friends with and I agreed with.” Beyond Holtby and Connolly, it is not clear how many players or team officials will not go to the White House.

Owner Ted Leonsis has said he’ll go if the team chose to. A spokeswoman said Wednesday that Leonsis did not have any comment about the Capitals’ decision to go.

Reirden, who was Barry Trotz’s top assistant when Washington won last season and has succeeded him as coach, said he has thought about visiting the White House while driving by it on Constitution Avenue, the same road the Capitals paraded down with hockey’s historic trophy.

”I was really excited about the invitation and will be going and be happy to be going,” Reirden said. ”I understand our players and their decisions, and I respect it. They’re allowed to make their own decisions. It’s important that we support them in whatever decision that they make.”

Holtby and his wife, Brandi, have marched in Washington’s pride parade and are advocates for LGBTQ rights. Holtby said that was a factor in his decision and that he and his family ”believe in a world where humans are treated with respect regardless of your stature.”

The Trump administration has taken steps to roll back protections for LGBTQ individuals, including rescinding guidance for schools on how to treat transgender students and attempting to bar transgender individuals from serving in the military.

”Sometimes you’re forced into situations where you have to stick by what you believe,” Holtby said. ”But in the end, I think there’s more important things I can do in the future. Trying to make a stand this way, I don’t think it does the most in terms of creating change. In the future, I just want to stick by what I believe in and trying to push towards a world where people are created equal.”

Orpik said the White House visit is not a point of contention among the defending champions like some on the outside are trying to make it. He’s quick to point out that even players who are going can agree with Holtby, but still want to experience one last Stanley Cup celebration.

”There’s a lot of guys that share a lot of the same values that Holts does, but they’re going to the White House and it’s not an endorsement of whoever’s in the office,” Orpik said. ”Whether you go to the White House to celebrate a championship, I don’t think says anything about your values or your character.”

In 2012, playoff MVP Tim Thomas decided not to join his Cup champion Boston Bruins teammates in seeing then-President Barack Obama at the White House, citing the ”out of control” growth of the federal government. Team president Cam Neely released a statement saying, ”We are disappointed that Tim chose not to join us, and his views certainly do not reflect those of the Jacobs family or the Bruins organization.”

The Bruins lost to the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs in 2012, which was Thomas’ last season with Boston because he was traded to Florida.

Thomas’ individual protest predated by many years the NBA’s Golden State Warriors’ team decision not to see Trump. Holtby said that as soon as the first championship team decided not to keep up the tradition of being honored by the sitting president at the White House, it became a topic for other professional athletes and he’s not surprised this has become such a hot-button issue.

Capitals players have been unflinchingly supportive of each other’s decisions in recent days and insist the White House is not a controversial topic internally.

”Guys are mature about it,” said Tom Wilson, who is Canadian. ”It’s like when we’re not playing well, guys aren’t yelling at each other and getting upset with each other. That’s something about our group that’s helped us with our success. We’re mature, and we deal with it as adults. This has been a similar outcome on discussions. I’m not going to lie to you: I’ve talked to Holts about it and I’ve talked to guys about it. You have that discussion, it’s cordial and you move on.”

The Capitals are in first place and figure to again be among the top contenders when the playoffs begin April 10. Despite their White House visit coming so late in the season, in the middle of a crucial stretch, they don’t believe it will negatively affect team chemistry or unity.

”We’re so respectful of each other and we’re so tight in this locker room that this won’t be a wedge or anything like that,” Oshie said. ”Guys get a chance to go to the White House. If that’s something they want to do, great. If it’s something they’re not comfortable with or something they don’t want to do, that’s fine, too. We’ll show up the next day ready to work and we’ll be just as close as we were the day before.”

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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/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.