Top women’s hockey players resolute in fight for new league

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PITTSBURGH — Hilary Knight has a gold medal. What she would like is a full-time job. Not just for her. For the other 200-plus members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association too. One that pays all of them well enough to simply go play instead of forcing most to find side gigs just to get by. One that provides adequate medical insurance. One that provides something resembling stability.

At the moment, the forward who scored the first goal for Team USA in the 2018 Olympic gold medal game victory over Canada doesn’t believe such a job exists. It’s why Knight and the rest of the PWHPA announced in May they would not play in North America during the 2019-2020 season, a decision that meant the 30-year-old would be sacrificing at least one winter – if not more – of her prime in the pursuit of something resembling equality.

Six months into a self-imposed sabbatical, Knight is equal parts anxious and resolute. Asked how long the PWHPA can hold out and she’s politely blunt.

”I don’t think there’s a set answer to that,” she said. ”Obviously, as players, we want to compete. We want to play in a league right now. However, we don’t have a league right now to play in so my answer would be, ‘Yesterday is too long.’ But at the same time, it’s as long as it takes for us to fulfill our needs of finding a sustainable, viable solution.”

At least Knight is keeping busy. She knows that makes her one of the lucky ones.

While the majority of the PWHPA either plays internationally or not at all waiting for a league – preferably one backed by the NHL – to materialize, Knight and the rest of Team USA and Team Canada began preparations for the 2019-2020 Rivalry Series by working out last week at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ practice facility. In a way, the training camp, which included a pair of sold-out exhibitions was a sign the movement the PWHPA started is gaining support. The two superpowers decided to get together after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over salary and working conditions.

The PWHPA members believe there is palpable momentum for change, pointing to the support they received during the first three stops of ”The Dream Gap Tour ” earlier this fall. The three-day showcases in Toronto, New Hampshire and Chicago included intrasquad games between members of the PWPHA as well as clinics that allowed them to work alongside the girls they know will one day benefit from the stand the association is making now.

”I don’t think we knew what to expect after that news that happened in May,” Canadian star Marie Philip Poulin said. ”It was a great start and hopefully it’s going to keep going.”

The tour will likely continue in 2020, though the details have yet to be ironed out. Between that and the Rivalry Series – which officially begins in Hartford, Connecticut, on Dec. 14 – the top Canadian and American players are keeping plenty busy. At least in the short term. What happens after the 2020 World Championships wrap up in April is uncertain.

”Hockey wise, we’ve been getting what we need to to be ready in the long run (for international play),” said Team Canada forward Melodie Daoust. ”But we’re not where we want to be, being treated like professional or having more hockey games. But the answer to all of that is we’re waiting for the NHL to step in.”

A step the NHL remains reluctant to take with the National Women’s Hockey League still in play. While the Canadian Women’s Hockey League closed after 12 years of operation last spring – due in part to competition with the NWHL for talent – the five-team NWHL is in the midst of its fifth season , soldiering on without the same star power.

”It’s a glorified beer league to me,” said Knight, who won a scoring title with the NWHL’s Boston Pride before moving on to the CHWL. ”It’s serving a purpose but it’s not elite talented players that are playing at a high level.”

Asked if the PWHPA can create a league that meets its needs without the NHL’s support, American Kendall Coyne Schofield offers a qualified yes.

”If the NHL’s not going to step in, we could but I think we all have the understanding that the NHL would provide the resources that we would want to see in a true professional league,” Coyne Schofield said. ”We have not seen a legitimate professional league to date and we know that the infrastructure that the NHL has, the resources it has, the buildings they have, the staff that they have is something that this game needs. We need to wait and see what they do.”

And they intend to wait however long is necessary.

”In terms of the sacrifice players are making, I think you can ask anyone, it’s 100% worth it knowing that we’re fighting for something that’s going to last forever,” the 27-year-old Schofield said. ”And for me, my clock is ticking, but if I can leave this game better than it was, that’s what’s most important.”

Even if it leads to some potentially messy politics down the road. Though current WNHL players are not ”scabs,” – the NWHL does have its own players’ association – there is a chance one day that the women playing in the NWHL now could one day be competing with members of the PWHPA for roster spots if another league comes to fruition.

”If they’re vibing with what we’re trying to do and our mission, they’re more than welcome to hop into the PWHPA and join just as any member has joined,” Knight said. ”We’ve got a really talented group and we’re trying to carve out a better future. Not having health care and getting paid pennies to go play and call yourself professional, that’s not something any of us are interested in. So when people wake up and see the bigger picture, come and join us.”

The PWHPA remains adamant there is an appetite for professional women’s sports. The NBA-backed WNBA recently completed its 23rd season. The National Women’s Soccer League received a significant boost last summer while piggybacking off the Women’s World Cup, which led to expanded television coverage. Coyne Schofield said the WNBA in particular gives her optimism.

For now, the best players are scattered all over the world, either playing professionally overseas or strictly for their national teams or not playing at all, which in a way has added a new wrinkle to the white-hot tug of war between the Americans and the Canadians. Yes, when they pull on their respective sweaters, it’s the same as it ever was. Off the ice, however, there’s a sense of detente for the greater good.

”We’re all fighting for the same cause,” Philip Poulin said. ”We’re in it together. It’s so much bigger than the country we’re playing for right now. We’re together. We’re going to keep going. We’re going to go at it and we’re going to work together until it works.”

The Buzzer: Avalanche streaking; Golden Knights hold on for win

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Three Stars

1) Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights

The slightest mistake during three-on-three overtime hockey could be costly and Pacioretty benefitted from a poor Dallas Stars line change on Friday evening. Defenseman Shea Theodore sent a beautiful stretch pass to help No. 67 get behind the Stars skaters and have a clean breakaway. Then, Pacioretty forced Ben Bishop to leave the crease before performing a highly-skilled maneuver in the Golden Knights’ 3-2 victory.

2) Valeri Nichuskin, Colorado Avalanche

The goal Nichuskin scored was nothing spectacular in Colorado’s 3-1 against New Jersey, but the play he made to receive the puck in the neutral zone was impressive. While skating up ice and looking to his right, Nichuskin blindly received a puck on his backhand, before gaining momentum and entering the offensive zone. Without the highly-skilled play, the Russian forward never would have had the scoring opportunity.

3) Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars

Benn showed why he is one of the premiere power forwards in the NHL late in the third period to help the Stars force overtime against the Golden Knights. Dallas’ captain raced to the corner after a faceoff to control a loose puck before sending it over to Tyler Seguin. Then, Benn boxed out William Karlsson in front of the Vegas net and positioned himself to redirect Seguin’s pass to even the score at two and help the Stars earn a point in the OT loss.

Other notable performance from Friday

Pavel Francouz, Colorado Avalanche

The Czech goaltender made 37 saves in his ninth win of the season and fifth victory in his last six appearances. Several NHL teams are starting to adopt a two-goalie philosophy and Francouz is proving to the Avalanche that he is worthy of more playing time even when Philipp Grubauer returns to the starting lineup.

Highlight of the night

Nathan MacKinnon faked a slap shot and delivered a perfect touch pass to set up Gabriel Landeskog in the slot to open the scoring for the Avalanche.

Factoids

  • Taylor Fedun opened the scoring in his return to the Stars’ lineup and has collected a point in seven of his nine home games this season [NHL PR].

  • The Golden Knights own the best record in NHL history by a franchise through its first 100 regular-season road games in terms of wins, points and point percentage [NHL PR].

  • The Avalanche are the only NHL team with 10 wins at home and 10 wins on the road so far this season
  • MacKinnon reached the 50-point mark in his 32nd game of the season, one fewer than when he hit the milestone in 2018-19 (33 GP) [NHL PR].

Note:

  • Stars defenseman John Klingberg is expected to be available Saturday after he missed Friday’s game due to a family illness.

[RELATED: Devils keep Hall out of lineup as trade rumors continue]

NHL Scores

Golden Knights 3, Stars 2

Avalanche 3, Devils 1

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Devils hold Taylor Hall out vs. Avs as trade rumors continue

Taylor Hall Trade Rumors
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Taylor Hall‘s days as a member of the New Jersey Devils are definitely numbered.

The team’s playoff chances are fading by the day, he is months away from free agency, there seems to be no progress in contract talks, and general manager Ray Shero is reportedly listening to offers from other teams around the league.

The Colorado Avalanche have been the odds on favorite to land him, and they were expecting to get an up close look at him on Friday with the Devils making their lone visit to Colorado. That did not happen however as the Devils held him out of the lineup due to what they called precautionary reasons.

 

Pierre LeBrun reported that Hall has not yet been traded but there is traction in trade talks and the Devils do not want to risk playing him at the moment.

With the speculation growing, it was only natural for Hall to be asked about the possibility on Friday ahead of the game.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston mentioned on Saturday’s edition of Headlines that teams believe it could take as many as four pieces to complete a trade for Hall. He also added that the Avalanche are pushing to acquire him, perhaps as soon as the holiday roster freeze which begins on Dec. 19.

Why the Avalanche still make the most sense

It’s not hard to see why the Avalanche are so high on the list.

They have one of the best rosters in the league and are already a Stanley Cup contender. Adding Hall to their second line would easily make them one of the most intimidating and dangerous teams in the league. Combine that with the fact they have the salary cap space to fit the remainder of his current contract, as well as possessing the young assets to trade, and they are a near perfect match for the Devils.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, have superstars still in the prime of their careers, with several signed to below market contracts to give them added flexibility.

It might be the right time to pounce and add another superstar to go all in on a championship while the opportunity is there if the price is right.

It all comes down to the cost

At this point Hall is a luxury for the Avalanche.

Make no mistake, he would be a huge addition and probably make them the Stanley Cup favorite. But he is not a necessity, and there are some potential risks that could come with trading for him.

Giving up significant assets — high draft picks, multiple high-end prospects — for a player that could walk in a few months is always going to be a risk a team in Colorado’s spot has to weigh. If you win the Stanley Cup with him, nobody cares. But that is always far from a guarantee.

While their salary cap situation is great right now, re-signing him could also lead to some long-term complications.

Sam Girard has a new contract starting next season. Gabriel Landeskog will need a new deal the year after that. Let’s not forget about Cale Makar and how much he is going to cost in the future given his development.

Hall will also be 29 next season, and while he is still an excellent player he would require a significant investment for a player that’s probably already played his best hockey for someone else.

Set up for success either way

The Avalanche have done enough work to fix their scoring depth, they have a kings ransom of cheap young players coming through their system they can keep building around, and they still have the flexibility to look elsewhere for potential secondary players that might be more cost effective. In terms of both long-term salary cap space and assets they would have to give up.

Trading for him without giving up a Bowen Byram caliber prospect, or re-signing him to a long-term deal that does not crush your long-term salary cap outlook would be a no-brainer for the Avalanche.

But if neither of those things can be accomplished there is nothing wrong with looking elsewhere or standing pat because the team is still set up for long-term success even without him.

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.

Flyers’ Oskar Lindblom diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma

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The Philadelphia Flyers announced on Friday that forward Oskar Lindblom has been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of bone cancer.

He will be sidelined for the remainder of the season as he goes through treatment.

Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher released the following statement:

“Philadelphia Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom has been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma by leading specialists at the University of Pennsylvania. He will undergo further testing and evaluation next week and begin treatment immediately thereafter. He is not expected to return to play for the remainder of the season. The Flyers will do everything possible to support Oskar and assist him in securing the best care available. Out of respect for Oskar and his family, the team will have no further comment at this time and asks that Oskar be afforded a period of privacy so that he may focus his efforts on his treatment and a return to full health.”

The 23-year-old Lindblom had been sidelined for the past week with what the team had been calling an upper-body injury. He appeared in 30 games this season and was off to the best start of his career.

Ewing’s sarcoma is an extremely rare form of cancer (fewer than 1,000 cases per year) that is usually found in the bones of the legs, arms, chest, pelvis, spine, or skull.  It typically impacts adolescents and young adults.

Adam Gretz is a writer forPro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Pastrnak the Unpredictable: Bruins winger is dominating NHL

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David Pastrnak on the ice these days is like a dazzling young magician who isn’t quite sure how his sleight of hand is going to work out.

When he has the puck, his Boston Bruins teammates don’t know what to expect. Opponents don’t know. He doesn’t even know.

”If you don’t know what you’ll do, then they’re not going to know what to do,” Pastrnak said.

Unpredictability is at the core of Pastrnak’s brilliance. His blend of creativity and skill is the reason the player nicknamed ”Pasta” leads the NHL with 26 goals.

The 23-year-old winger from the Czech Republic has been better than a point-a-game player before and helped Boston reach the Stanley Cup Final last year, but this season has put him in the discussion as one of the best goal-scorers in the world.

”He’s played great hockey this year,” said Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals star who has led the league in goals eight times and may now be passing the torch to Pastrnak. ”He’s a great shooter, a great skater and he’s on the next level this year.”

Pastrnak is on pace to shatter his career high in goals and points. He credits that to chemistry with linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand and more of a ”shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that has perhaps taken opposing defenses and goaltenders by surprise.

”I’ve been playing with these two guys so long that I know where they’re at and I know where to find them and they know where to go,” Pastrnak said. ”I’ve been shooting the puck a little more. I think when there is a shot, I take it. It used to be times when I would still look for pass. Now, I think I discover better that if I’m in a good spot, then I should shoot.”

Pastrnak is averaging almost four shots a game, but aside from the faceoff circle on the power play where he can one-time the puck, few know when he’s going to put the puck on net. He has even tried a drop pass on a breakaway this season.

Good luck to anyone trying to anticipate his next move.

”Even his own teammates don’t know what to expect from him,” said Washington defenseman Radko Gudas, who has played with Pastrnak on the Czech national team. ”I think that’s the hardest part is the reading of him, but for a defenseman, you’re staying on the defensive side, there’s only so much you can do. I guess you try to not get dangled by him.”

Teammates only have to worry about that in practice. In games, they benefit from Pastrnak’s magic acts.

Much like skating with a distributing center like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, it’s not easy playing with someone who is abruptly creative, but his linemates are finally getting the trick.

”I just try to stay predictable for him,” Marchand said. ”I tend to go to the same spots or put the puck in the same areas. So when he’s being unpredictable he at least knows what I’m going to do and then I kind of just let him do his thing and try to find space where he isn’t.”

Marchand added: ”He could do 100 different things in a game, so it’s tough to defend that.”

How about coaching it? Bruce Cassidy isn’t worried about Boston’s top goal-scorer going off script – he expects it – and figures Bergeron and Marchand would put Pastrnak back in line, if needed.

The Bruins coach understands his top line’s dynamic allows for Pastrnak and Marchand to be more offensively driven because Bergeron does so much all over the ice.

”With the puck, he’s earned the right to play his game,” Cassidy said of Pastrnak. ”The things we work with David on is playing through frustration, if teams are starting to play you harder. We’ve talked to him about how he can still help the team. We talk about his play away from the puck because he’s on the ice 18, 20 minutes a night, so that’s important.”

Opponents can sense confidence oozing from Pastrnak and see that as the reason for his breakout season. Pastrnak himself is soft-spoken and just trying to enjoy himself and score some goals.

”That’s what it’s about, to have fun, and I think that’s when you play your best hockey,” he said. ”I’m just trying to make plays that I see.”

More often than not, they’re plays no one else can see.