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Women’s hockey stars announce boycott in demand for one league

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Tired of the status quo and low pay, more than 200 of the world’s top female hockey players announced Thursday they will not play at all this year in an attempt to establish a single, economically viable professional league in North America.

”One hundred percent it’s a big risk,” said goaltender Liz Knox, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Players’ Association co-chair. ”But it’s like how long do we want to suffer through this and keep doing the same thing over and over again before we say: ‘There’s got to be better for us.”’

The players announced their decision on social media in a strikingly unified effort that came together in less than a month. The group includes stars such as Americans Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield and Canadian national team goalie Shannon Szabados, and all of them expressed their dissatisfaction with the current state of the sport while demanding a say in establishing a league.

”We’re not playing anywhere professionally in North America. We just want to build something better,” Knight said. ”Now, what that looks like could be a handful of different things. But our main purpose and goal is to promote the growth of the game and increase the visibility. But ultimately, we need the sustainability factor to make us all feel better about what we’re doing on a daily basis.”

The announcement stressed cross-border unity in North America, home to the top women’s national teams in the world in the U.S. and Canada. The players cited obstacles they’ve had to contend with, including being paid as little as $2,000 a year and paying for their own health insurance.

”We may have represented different teams, leagues and countries – but this is one family. And the time is now for this family to unite,” their statement read. ”This is the moment we’ve been waiting for – our moment to come together and say we deserve move.”

The decision is an immediate threat to the future of the National Women’s Hockey League, the U.S.-based five-team league that is the only current option in North America after the CWHL, which had six teams in the U.S. and Canada and China, formally shut down Wednesday.

The NWHL, however, said it planned to push forward with its fifth season this October and would offer salary increases and a ”50-50 revenue split from league-level sponsorships and media rights deals.”

The NWHL statement did not mention its earlier plans to expand into Toronto and Montreal next season.

All eyes were also on the NHL, which has provided financial support to both the CWHL and NWHL but steered clear of throwing its full support behind a women’s league.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly noted the NWHL remains in existence, and the NHL has no intention of interfering with its business plan or objectives. Daly added he doesn’t anticipate ”at this early stage” having women’s pro hockey placed on the agenda for the league’s board of governors meetings next month.

”We will further explore the situation privately before taking any affirmative position on next steps,” Daly said.

The pledge to sit out comes just two years after the U.S. national team earned a pay raise after threatening to boycott the 2017 world championships being held on U.S. soil. And it comes amid other efforts by women’s teams to be treated and paid equitably. The U.S women’s soccer team has sued the U.S. Soccer Federation over their wages and treatment.

”The unity of the players speaks volumes to what is so important to what comes next,” U.S. player Kendall Coyne Schofield said. ”I think with over 200 players and once voice and one collective unit, we’re going to continue to fight for the best option.”

The decision comes little over a month since the CWHL made an abrupt decision to shut down due to financial issues, leaving the NWHL as the only remaining pro league. But rather than make the jump to the NWHL, the players spent the past two weeks reaching a consensus to risk sitting out an entire year.

”Obviously we want to be on the ice, but I think that kind of speaks volumes to how critical it is and how important it is to us,” said Szabados, who spent last season playing for the NWHL Buffalo Beauts.

”It’s strength in numbers. It’s coming from all of us. It’s not just a few of us,” Szabados added. ”It’s not just players who play for one league or the other. It’s over 200 of us that kind of want to stop being pulled in 10 different directions and kind of get all our resources under one roof.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman previously told The Associated Press he doesn’t want the league to be seen as ”a bully” in pushing either of the two leagues out of business. As for assuming control, Bettman has repeatedly said the NHL doesn’t believe in either of the league’s business models.

Bettman reiterated his position during an interview with The AP this week. He referred to the CWHL ceasing operations as something that ”proved the point that we have genuine concerns about sustainable models.”

”What we’ve repeatedly said is if there turns out to be a void – and we don’t wish that on anybody – then we’ll look at the possibilities and we’ll study what might be appropriate,” Bettman added. ”But at the end of the day, we’re not looking to put anybody out of business. And if the NWHL can make a go of it, we wish them good luck.”

That’s not good enough, Knox said.

”The NHL’s saying, ‘Until there’s a voice in women’s hockey we’re not going to step in,”’ Knox said. ”Well, here’s a void. Here’s the players saying this is not enough. We’ve earned better than this. We’ve earned the respect we have, and we deserve what we’re asking for.”

Knox also placed the onus on Hockey Canada and USA Hockey for providing more resources to develop the women’s game.

”Take a look in the mirror, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey,” she said. ”I mean, these are your players who are winning you Olympic medals saying, ‘We’re just not getting enough right now.’ … I would certainly hope it’s a moment for them to self-reflect and say, ‘OK, where are our interests and where do we see it fitting in the future?”

The six-team CWHL operated as a not-for-profit league and was restricted by Canadian tax laws in how much it could pay its players. Though established in 2007, the CWHL didn’t begin paying its players what was considered a stipend – ranging between $10,000 and $2,000 – two years ago.

The NWHL was established in 2015, and became the first league to pay its players annual salaries which ranged from between $26,000 and $10,000 in its inaugural season. Financial difficulties, however, led the NWHL to slash salaries by as much as half a little over a month into its second season.

The NHWL no longer publicly releases player salary numbers.

”The NWHL has time and time again shown it’s not that long-term, viable option for women in hockey, and it does not showcase the best product of women’s hockey in the entire world,” said Coyne Schofield, who most recently played for the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps. ”There’s a lot of things that go into it. … The business model is one of those, the salaries, health insurance, the treatment of the players. There’s a lot of things that make it really tough to be a professional athlete in the NWHL.”

What makes the pledge notable, Knox said, is getting a majority of non-national team players to also commit to the decision because they in some ways have more to risk in not playing.

”They’re making the ultimate sacrifice to say, ‘I would rather not play another professional game this year and possibly the rest of my life than live another day knowing we’re in a world that professional female hockey players do not have the stage they deserve,” Knox said. ”And I think that’s a powerful thing.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.

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Schwartz, Tarasenko have Blues close to Cup Final

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Jaden Schwartz is on a scoring run that has the St. Louis Blues dreaming big.

Schwartz’s hat trick in Game 5 on Sunday helped give the Blues a 3-2 series lead against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference final and set the single-season franchise record for playoff wins.

The Blues could advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970 when they host Game 6 Tuesday night.

”It’s probably tough to put into words,” Schwartz said. ”It’s something that everyone’s worked for and dreamed about. You don’t want to look too far ahead. We all know how important and how hard that last win’s going to be. It would be a dream come true.”

Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko have played huge roles in the Blues’ playoff success. Just not necessarily in the way that was expected.

Tarasenko has come up with more big assists than goals against the Sharks.

Meanwhile, Schwartz has found a scoring touch that eluded him during the regular season. After scoring 11 goals in 69 regular-season games, Schwartz has 12 goals in 18 playoff games.

”He’s obviously a tenacious player, a hard-working player,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”I know, goal-wise, he didn’t have a good regular season, but the work ethic was there and other things besides not producing with the goals.

”He’s a 200-foot player for us and he’s around the net for us, that’s where he scores. His hard work, being relentless and staying with it is paying off.”

Schwartz’s scoring run began on a quick pass from Tyler Bozak with 15 seconds left in regulation to snap a 2-2 tie in Game 5 in the first round against Winnipeg. He followed that up with a hat trick in Game 6 to send the Blues to the second round.

Schwartz is the first player to have two hat tricks in the same playoffs since Johan Franzen did it for Detroit in 2008 and he is the first to do it for the Blues.

Not bad for a guy who went 23 games without a goal during the regular season.

”He’s obviously been kind of our engine and a guy that’s scored huge goals for us throughout every series,” Bozak said.

”Pucks weren’t going in as much as he probably wanted in the regular season, but he was still playing really good hockey I thought and getting a lot of chances. And obviously what he’s done in this playoffs so far has been incredible. We’re pretty lucky to have him and we know he’s just going to keep getting better and keep doing those things for us.”

Tarasenko is the only player to get a point in every game of the Western Conference Final. But just two of his seven points in the series are goals.

Instead he has become a potent playmaker, setting up Bozak’s eventual game-winning goal in Game 4 and assisting on two of Schwartz’s goals in Game 5.

”Every time he gets the puck he puts them on edge,” Blues center Ryan O'Reilly said. ”Having such a shot like he does, teams are scared when he gets the puck and obviously they maybe will overcompensate for that and other things come available. Having played with him throughout the year, you see how dangerous he is whether it’s taking that shot or just being that threat that opens so much up.”

Tarasenko’s unselfish play was evident on Schwartz’s third goal. Carrying the puck on the power play, he could have taken a shot. But with San Jose playing the shot, he found Schwartz cutting towards the net for a one-timer into a wide-open net.

”Vlady is a good passer, he makes plays,” Berube said. ”He’s got his head up a lot, sees the ice well. His hard work is paying off. He’s working hard without the puck, and he’s a powerful guy.”

Tarasenko has led the Blues in goals in each of the past five seasons. Though he has taken a back seat to Schwartz in goal-scoring, the Blues are thriving in the postseason as never before from his playmaking ability.

And they are one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup, which many thought would have been impossible on Jan. 3 when the Blues were at the bottom of the NHL standings.

”Everyone knows we have a lot of work to do and we’re going to get their best game,” Schwartz said. ”They’re going to have the most desperation they’ve had in this series. We’ll enjoy it tonight, but we know there’s a lot of work yet.”

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Bruins’ Chara says he’s on track for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara returned to practice and worked out with the full squad Monday, his first such workout since sitting out Boston’s Eastern Conference-clinching victory over Carolina with an undisclosed injury.

Chara had skated prior to practices over the weekend but didn’t participate in any full sessions. He said he felt good after the Bruins’ 45-minute workout on Monday and is on track to play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 27.

Chara was the first player on the ice Monday. Forward David Krejci also returned to practice. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci was given a ”maintenance day” on Sunday.

Being a spectator for a series-clinching victory was difficult for the 42-year-old Chara. He was a member of the Bruins, who defeated Vancouver to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost to Chicago in the Cup Final in 2013.

”It was, I’m not gonna lie,” Chara said. ”Watching games are not fun. You want to play them, you want to be involved in them. It was that feeling of an anxiousness to play. But the guys did a great job.”

But Chara was easy to spot following the Game 4 win over the Hurricanes, when he suited up to shake hands with Carolina and celebrate on the ice with his teammates.

He has one goal and two assists in 16 games this postseason.

Patrice Bergeron said having Chara paired back up with Charlie McAvoy provides a major boost to the blue line.

”I think they complement each other really well,” Bergeron said. ”Obviously the experience that ‘Z’ has is something that he shares. And Chuck is the type of young guy that wants to learn and listen to everything that ‘Z’ has to share.”

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Tarasenko getting hot at right time for Blues

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It was only a matter of time until Vladimir Tarasenko started to get on a roll for the St. Louis Blues.

Not only has he been the team’s best and most impactful player for the past five years, he has been one of the most dangerous postseason goal-scorers the league has ever seen. As we wrote at the start of the series, he was going to be one of the biggest keys for the Blues in the Western Conference Final against the San Jose Sharks, especially if his puck luck started to change a little bit.

It has definitely changed for the better, and the Blues are greatly benefitting from it.

First, just a reminder as to how good Tarasenko has been in the playoffs during his career. Before this season his 0.50 goals per game average in the playoffs was second among all players that had appeared in at least 40 playoff games since 2010-11 (trailing only Jake Guentzel), and was among the top-20 in NHL history. The only other players in the top-20 that played in the NHL after 2002 are Alex Ovechkin and Mike Cammallerri.

If you want to call him “clutch,” or a “big-game player” that is entirely up to you, but even more than any of that it is really just a matter of him being an outstanding talent that has always been a great finisher. Get him the puck and enough chances, and he is going to score a lot of goals no matter what the situation is.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That is what made his production through the first two rounds of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs a little surprising. He was definitely not playing poorly, but his overall numbers were down a little bit, he was relying almost entirely on the power play to score goals (four of his first five goals in the first two rounds were power play goals), and he had yet to record a single assist. Obviously power play goals are worth the same as any other goal, but with penalties and power plays not always being available come playoff time due to the “let them play” mindset that takes over at this time of year, even-strength scoring becomes even more important.

Despite all of that were still plenty of signs that Tarasenko was due to break out. He had 47 shots on goal in 13 games (more than 3.5 per game) and the Blues were dominating the shot attempt and scoring chance numbers at even-strength. He was doing everything right except consistently putting the puck in the back of the net. But when you have an all-world talent like Tarasenko does, it is only a matter of time until those attempts, shots, and chances start to turn into goals.

You might limit players like him for a little bit, but you are not going to be able to shut them down forever.

Starting with Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, Tarasenko’s luck started to turn a bit.

After his three-point effort on Sunday in the Blues’ 5-0 win, a performance that included his nearly unstoppable penalty shot goal in the second period to help put the game away, he is now riding a five-game point streak and has at least one point in every game of the series.

He was probably the Blues’ best player in their Game 2 win when he finished with a game-high six shots on goal and set up Jaden Schwartz‘s goal early in the first period, and then assisted on Tyler Bozak‘s game-winning goal in Game 4 to even the series. He followed that up by playing his best game of the playoffs on Sunday with three points (his second multi-point game of these playoffs) in the win that brought the Blues one game closer to the Stanley Cup Final.

His seven points in the series are two more than any other player on the team while he has been on the ice for nine of the Blues’ 18 goals (literally half of them) in the series.

If the Blues were going to put themselves in a position to win this series — which they have if they can win just one of the next two games — they were going to need Tarasenko to be one of their best and most productive players.

He has been with what has been his best five-game stretch of these playoffs.

The timing could not have been better for the Blues.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

‘Canes surge into summer with confidence after playoff run

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Hurricanes enter the offseason confident of one thing: They shouldn’t have to wait another decade to return to the playoffs.

They hope their nucleus will make postseason appearances an every-year thing.

The Hurricanes made their first playoff berth since 2009 last much longer than most expected, advancing to the Eastern Conference final before they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

After getting a taste of postseason hockey, this largely young team wants to do it again.

”I think we all know now what it takes first of all to get to the playoffs, and to go through those tough series,” forward Sebastian Aho said Monday. ”Now we’re even more hungry.”

There’s reason to believe this group has staying power.

The entire defensive corps – including young stars Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce – is under team control for next season, with six of them signed and Haydn Fleury a pending restricted free agent.

Key winger Teuvo Teravainen is locked up through 2023-24. Promising forward Andrei Svechnikov oozed with promise during his rookie season. Aho, who also will be a restricted free agent, looks to be a candidate to receive a long-term deal. He declined to discuss his contract status.

This core was responsible for turning the franchise around and bringing entertainment – both during and after games – to the rink.

They brought back those beloved Hartford Whalers uniforms for a couple of games. They broke out the ”Storm Surge” celebrations, those choreographed on-ice parties after regular-season victories at home. They wore the jabs from curmudgeonly commentator Don Cherry as badges of honor – plastering his ”Bunch of Jerks” insult onto T-shirts that sold for $32 at the team shop. They welcomed a live pig named Hamilton into the building for home playoff games.

And, of course, they played winning hockey – especially after the calendar flipped to January. Their record of 31-12-2 was third-best in the league and propelled them from last place in the division to the top wild-card berth.

”As the year went on, as the record shows, it was a lot of good results, and coming to the rink was a lot of fun,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

A few things to watch entering the offseason:

THE CAPTAIN’S FUTURE

The big question is whether 37-year-old Justin Williams will return for a second season as team captain with his two-year contract expiring this offseason. The three-time Stanley Cup winner known around the league as ”Mr. Game 7” for his exploits in those final games brought credibility and leadership to the dressing room and helped steer the young team’s midseason turnaround. ”I put everything I had into it this year, and if I have everything again, then I’ll be here,” Williams said. ”I haven’t gotten that far yet.”

THE GOALIES

The Hurricanes have some decisions to make with both goalies – Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney – facing free agency. Mrazek accepted a one-year, $1.5 million deal last offseason to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s job, and the team snatched the 35-year-old McElhinney off the waiver wire when Scott Darling was hurt. They both played well enough to make Darling an afterthought, and now the question is whether either or both will wind up sticking around.

FREE AGENCY

The only other unrestricted free agents on the roster are forwards Micheal Ferland and Greg McKegg. Ferland provided a strong physical presence on the ice, but he didn’t score any goals after February and had a single assist in the playoffs. The Hurricanes should have some money to spend when July 1 rolls around. According to salary tracking website CapFriendly.com, Carolina had the most room under the salary cap ($16.2 million) of any team in the league.

SPECIAL TEAMS FIX

Carolina has plenty of work to do on its power play, which led to the team’s undoing against Boston. The Hurricanes scored on less than 10% of their postseason chances with the man advantage – the worst rate of any team that reached the second round – and went stretches of 24 and 13 consecutive power plays without scoring. During the regular season, they scored on nearly 18% of their chances to rank 20th in the league.

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