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: Mangiapane tricks Ducks; Lightning win record 11th straight

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THREE STARS

1. Andrew Mangiapane, Flames

The Flames’ 6-4 win over the Ducks was powered by Mangiapane’s first career hat trick. Two of his three goals came during a third period where Calgary entered it trailing 3-1 and scored five times en route to the win. He would register an assist on Matthew Tkachuk‘s 20th of the season to add to a career-best four-point night. The hat trick is also the first by a Flames player this season.

2. Antti Raanta, Coyotes

Arizona won for the second straight game behind Conor Garland‘s 20th goal of the season and 28 saves from Raanta. The 2-1 win over the Islanders gives the Coyotes a winning streak for the first time since Dec. 31-Jan. 7 and also puts them into a tie for the final Western Conference wild card spot. Raanta’s been in net for both wins and has stopped 64 of his last 66 shots faced.

3. Nikita Kucherov, Lightning

The Lightning set a franchise record with their 11th consecutive win by topping the Avalanche, 4-3, in overtime. During the extra period, it was Kucherov beating Pavel Francouz five-hold to keep Tampa red-hot. How hot? They are 23-2-1 since Dec. 21.

AVS LOSE RANTANEN

Adding to the bad night against Tampa, the Avalanche lost Mikko Rantanen to an upper-body injury in the second period. He’ll be out for “weeks.”

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE NIGHT

• Here’s Alex Ovechkin catching up with old teammate Nate Schmidt:

• They don’t see each other often, but the temperature certainly rose when the Avs and Lightning met:

STATS OF THE NIGHT

Jonathan Huberdeau picked up his 50th assist of the season in the win over the Sharks. He now joins Aleksander Barkov as the only two players in Panthers franchise history to record multiple 50-assists seasons.

• Via the NHL, Matthew Tkachuk is now the fourth player in Flames history to record three 20-goal seasons before his 23rd birthday. Sean Monahan (4 times), Robert Reichel (3 times) and Jarome Iginla (3 times) are the only others on the list.

SCORES
Coyotes 2, Islanders 1
Panthers 5, Sharks 3
Flames 6, Ducks 4
Golden Knights 3, Capitals 2
Lightning 4, Avalanche 3 (OT)

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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.

Avs lose Rantanen for weeks after crash into boards

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Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen will miss “weeks,” per the team, after he crashed into the boards during Monday night’s loss to the Lightning.

Rantanen was on a 2-on-1 with Andre Burakovsky in the second period when he tripped over a diving Erik Cernak and slid into the end boards behind the Tampa net. He left the ice favoring his left shoulder and was later ruled out for the rest of the 4-3 overtime defeat.

Rantanen, who has 19 goals and 40 points in 41 games, missed 16 games this season due to ligament damage in his left ankle.

The injury comes on the day it was announced goaltender Philipp Grubauer is day-to-day with a lower-body injury suffered during the Stadium Series game, Matt Calvert is out long-term, and a week after Nazem Kadri was ruled out for “weeks, not days” with an LBI.

Colorado sits one point behind the Blues and Stars for the top spot in the Central Division with 24 games to go.

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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.

Canucks strengthen up front by acquiring Tyler Toffoli

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Tyler Toffoli‘s final game with the Los Angeles Kings was a memorable one.

After notching a hat trick during their Stadium Series win over the Avalanche, Toffoli was dealt to the Canucks on Monday. Heading back to LA is a package of Tim Schaller, the rights to NCAA prospect Tyler Madden, and a 2020 second-round pick.

The deal also includes a conditional draft pick, which would see a 2022 fourth rounder going to the Kings if Toffoli re-signs, per Pierre LeBrun. LA will also not be retaining any of Toffoli’s $4.6 million salary this season.

“Tyler brings goal scoring abilities and is good in battles,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning. “He has great offensive instincts and experience playing in high pressure, meaningful games. We look forward to adding his skill and strength to the line-up.”

The 27-year-old Toffoli can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and was one of the bigger name forwards likely to be on the move with the NHL trade deadline a week away. In 58 games this season he has 18 goals and 34 points.

As the Canucks sit one point behind the Oilers for tops in the Pacific Division, this is Benning bolstering his roster with 23 games to go. Vancouver has been a surprise this season and with the opportunity present to make a run at the playoffs and division title, the move is a boost to the players for the stretch run.

Adding Toffoli also helps the Canucks’ forward group after the news that Brock Boeser will be out of the lineup with a rib injury and will be re-evaluate in three weeks.

The question to be answered is whether this was a premature move for Benning to pull off given the price and where the Canucks are in their turnaround. Madden, who is currently dealing with a broken finger, has 19 goals in 27 games this season at Northeastern University and adds to an already strong prospect pool for the Kings. There’s also no guarantee that Toffoli, who is reunited with his “That 70s Line” mate Tanner Pearson, will stay in Vancouver.

We always see GMs gamble this time of year, but there’s certainly an opening in the West this season, and Benning clearly has confidence his group can do something special.

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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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.

Ovechkin continues chase for 700 goals Thursday on NBCSN

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The Capitals lost for the fifth time in seven games and Alex Ovechkin remained stuck on 698 goals as the Golden Knights came out on top, 3-2, Monday night.

NBCSN has added the Capitals’ next game, Thursday at home against Montreal (7 p.m. ET), to its schedule as Ovechkin continues chasing goal No. 700.

The Golden Knights built up a 3-0 lead by the second period and held off a Capitals’ comeback as T.J. Oshie cut the led to 3-2 with pair of goals. Marc-Andre Fleury, who has surrendered the most goals to Ovechkin of any NHL goalie (24 goals in 42 games), stopped 24 shots for his second straight win. Ovechkin finished with eight shot attempts and four shots on goal.

Ovechkin is now goalless in five straight games after registering a hat trick against the Kings on Feb. 4. Of the seven members in the 700-goal club, five players took five games or longer to go from 698 to 700 career goals – Jaromir Jagr (5 games), Marcel Dionne, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner (6 games), and Brett Hull (12 games).

MORE OVECHKIN:
NHL Power Rankings: Ovechkin’s top 10 goals
By the Numbers: Ovechkin’s 698 NHL goals
Stunning Numbers as Alex Ovechkin closes in on 700 goals
Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894 goals?
My Favorite Goal: Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’

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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.