Women’s players hope NHL steps in to create new league

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Meghan Duggan need only look around sports to get excited about what an NHL-run women’s hockey league might look like.

The NBA did it with the WNBA. Soccer leagues in Europe and the U.S. have done it. And that was enough for the 2018 U.S. Olympic gold-medal winning captain and more than 200 fellow players to take a leap of faith by pledging not to play in North America this year to try to get to the point where there is a single, economically viable professional league.

”History has told all of us that startup women’s professional leagues thrive and are very successful when working with an existing professional league,” Duggan said. ”That’s definitely something I think that we would be excited about. But this is just the first step in getting there.”

The effective boycott of North America’s only remaining women’s hockey league, the National Women’s Hockey League, sent shockwaves through the sport.

Now comes the big question: Will it work?

”I think they have a better chance of succeeding than some of the men’s unions have,” said Matt DelDuca, a labor and employment attorney with Pepper Hamilton. ”Strikes have not been very effective in professional sports for players because it’s hard to maintain them long term. Women’s professional sports are a little different because of the economics. I think there is a tremendous opportunity for them.”

It’s an opportunity equipment giant Bauer Hockey wants to be a part of. Vice president of marketing Mary-Kay Messier said the National Hockey League ”must be in an ownership position” for any women’s league.

”I really do believe and we at Bauer believe that that is the only sustainable, viable option for ownership,” Messier said.

The NHL has given $50,000 annually each to the NWHL and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League that recently shut down . It has invited a handful of top players to participate in its All-Star skills competition and invited stakeholders to various meetings.

University at Buffalo sports law professor Nellie Drew wondered what happens next.

”The question is going to be whether the economic demand will be there to drive this,” Drew said. ”Right now in 2019, do the women’s hockey players have the economic leverage to make an effective stand on this position? Maybe not. But do they have the capacity to drive public sentiment strongly enough that it will make the (NHL) consider it? Yeah, I think they do.”

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league backs ”the concept of professional women’s hockey and elite women’s hockey players having the ability to play the game at a professional level,” but it is too early to commit to a bigger role.

”What is going on now with the kind of shut down of the CWHL and now the this boycott of the NWHL it’s not ideal for anybody,” he said. ”We’ll see how it all plays out. We certainly want to preserve the ability of women players to play at the highest level. So it’s really too early to say how that is going to play out and how the NHL’s role will or won’t be going forward. We’re going to have to be observers.”

The U.S. women’s national team in 2017 threatened to skip the world championships in Michigan and wound up getting an improved benefits package from USA Hockey. Those players will now make $3,000-$4,000 a month with the ability to earn about $71,000 annually. They can make up to $129,000 in Olympic years with contributions from the U.S. Olympic Committee. It was a big boost for a group of women who were getting $1,000 a month for six months around the Olympics.

That situation is much different from trying to establish a league from scratch, with questions ranging from the business model to potential locations, sponsors and investors, player benefits and more. The NWHL said it was going ahead with next season and was offering improved salaries and a revenue-sharing deal with players, who nonetheless made their decision to sit out.

Skipping a season is a question female soccer players have faced many times as a labor tactic, said Megan Rapinoe, named to her third U.S. roster for the upcoming Women’s World Cup. The captain of Reign FC in the NWSL expressed support for her fellow female athletes.

”It’s sort of a last-resort tactic that is just the labor side of things (athletes are) sometimes forced to take,” Rapinoe said Friday. ”And I think you never want to, but I think you always have to be willing to if it gets to that point.”

Players have urged USA Hockey and Hockey Canada to become involved in helping set up the framework for a professional league. Critics have questioned why USA Hockey hasn’t done more on the women’s side, particularly when it provides support to the USHL, America’s top junior hockey league for males 20 and younger.

”While we’re certainly an interested party in the happenings on the professional side of the game, our priority is on continuing to grow the game at the grassroots level and enhancing and supporting our national team program,” USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said in a prepared statement.

As for backing the USHL, USA Hockey has made the distinction the junior league is for amateur athletes, and not professionals.

Hockey Canada drew criticism for failing to respond to the CWHL’s last-minute plea for assistance just before the league announced in March it would shut down. The organization has not responded to a request for comment this week.

No one believes a long-term league will materialize overnight, but U.S. Olympian Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said she was optimistic based on the NHL’s position and the power of so many players.

”We feel confident that we potentially have a gap year now and players are prepared to sit out an entire season of professional hockey, which isn’t good for any one individual player,” Lamoureux-Davidson said. ”But hopefully that will be the maximum that anyone would have to sit out.”

As word of the women’s decision spread, NHL players said they were excited even if they’re not sure how a league run by the NHL might work.

”They’re the best in the world at what they do. They should be compensated accordingly,” Colorado defenseman Ian Cole said. ”I’m not sure how that would be structured. I’m not the chief financial officer of the NHL. I don’t know what the figures would look like. I don’t know if it’s economically feasible. I’m not sure how they would do it. Would we like to see that? Yeah, absolutely.”

AP Sports Writers Teresa M. Walker, Pat Graham and Tim Booth contributed.

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Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.