Women’s legend Wickenheiser among new hockey Hall of Famers

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TORONTO — Hayley Wickenheiser hasn’t had a lot of time to reflect.

The Canadian women’s hockey star – a quadruple Olympic gold medalist and seven-time world champion – retired in January 2017 and enrolled in medical school.

As if there wasn’t enough on her plate already, she then took on the role as assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs in August 2018.

Wickenheiser got a chance to look back at her standout playing career on Monday night.

The 41-year-old was among six inductees enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining three-time Stanley Cup winner Guy Carbonneau, offensive blue-line dynamo Sergei Zubov and Czech great Vaclav Nedomansky in the players’ category.

Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford and longtime Boston College coach Jerry York went into the hall as builders.

”It was not a common thing as a little girl to want to play hockey in the small town where I came from,” Wickenheiser said during her speech. ”But my mom and dad believed that a girl could do anything that a boy could.”

Wickenheiser recounted sleeping in a closet for a week just so she could attend an all-boys hockey camp.

”I wanted to play the game so bad, I didn’t care what I had to endure,” she said.

She went on to play for boys’ teams in Calgary – there weren’t any for girls, and she’d tuck her hair under her helmet to avoid standing out – but still had to fight.

”I was taking the spot of a boy, and people didn’t really like that too much,” Wickenheiser said. ”I actually developed an ulcer. I wasn’t nervous to get hit or to go on the ice. That’s actually where I felt good. It was when I had to come to the rink and change in the bathroom and then walk through the lobby of all the parents – the comments and the harassment I would often hear.

”Those things gave me thick skin and resilience.”

She went onto have a stellar 23-year career with Canada and played professionally in Europe, blazing a trail at a time when the women’s game was desperately looking for traction.

Wickenheiser, who has medical school exams Wednesday, put up 379 points in 276 games to help secure four straight Olympic golds (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014) as well as those seven world titles.

Named the MVP of both the 2002 and 2006 Olympic tournaments, the former center is the seventh woman to be inducted into the hall.

”The first Olympics that we lost (in 1998) was not a fun one, but the four after that were some of the best experiences of my life,” said Wickenheiser, who was Canada’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Games. ”One of the greatest honors I’ve ever had was to put on that Canadian jersey.”

The 59-year-old Carbonneau won the Stanley Cup in 1986 and 1993 with the Montreal Canadiens, and again in 1999 with the Dallas Stars.

He was an attacking force in junior hockey, but transitioned to the other side of the puck in the NHL, becoming one of the game’s premiere shutdown centers on the way to winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 1988, 1989 and 1992.

Carbonneau, who retired in 2000 and waited 16 years before getting inducted in the hall, finished with 663 points in 1,318 regular-season games.

”I was dreaming about playing in the NHL, dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup, dreaming of scoring a goal in the playoffs,” said Carbonneau, who had 93 playoff points. ”But being inducted in the Hall of Fame? Never in my wildest dreams.”

A smooth-skating defenseman with terrific vision, Zubov played 12 of his 16 NHL seasons with Dallas, registering 771 points in 1,068 regular-season games. The 49-year-old from Moscow added 117 points in the post-season, helping the New York Rangers hoist the Stanley Cup in 1994 before doing it again with the Stars in 1999.

Zubov, who also won Olympic gold in 1992 with the Unified Team after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said he didn’t want to go to Dallas after getting dealt in 1996.

”Get me traded,” he recounted telling his agent. ”But (Stars general manager) Bob Gainey did his homework and sent the most beautiful bouquet of flowers to my wife.

”She said, ‘Maybe we should give it a try.”’

An NHL goalie from 1970 to 1983, Rutherford was named GM of the Hartford Whalers in 1994. He stuck with the franchise when it moved to Carolina to become the Hurricanes, and built the roster that won the organization’s only Cup in 2006.

The 70-year-old took on the same role with the Penguins in 2014 and helped guide Pittsburgh to titles in 2016 and 2017, making him the only GM to win Cups with two different teams since the league expanded in 1967.

”Don’t let anyone tell you (that) you can’t do something, because that was the story of my career,” Rutherford said. ”And the more they told me I couldn’t do things, the more it turned out that I did.”

The 75-year-old Nedomansky starred for 12 years in his native Czechoslovakia before becoming the first athlete from an Eastern European communist country to defect to North America to pursue a professional hockey career in 1974.

He played parts of three seasons in the World Hockey Association before jumping to the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings as a 33-year-old rookie.

”It was difficult, complicated, stressful,” Nedomansky said of his decision to defect. ”I’m so happy that I’m here.”

The 74-year-old York, who’s in his 48th season behind the bench, owns five NCAA titles, including four with the Eagles, and has the most wins in U.S. college history.

”I just love coaching,” York said. ”I love the people we coach.”

But the night really was about Wickenheiser, who concluded by addressing her 5- and 6-year-old nieces in the audience.

”If they decide to play hockey, they can walk into a hockey rink anywhere in Canada with a hockey bag and a hockey stick over their shoulder, and nobody’s going to look twice,” she said. ”They don’t have to cut their hair short and run into the bathroom and try to look like a boy like I had to do to blend in. The road is just a little bit easier. I want to thank everyone that made that road easier for me and is continuing to pave the way.

”The game is truly for everyone.”

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

WCHA’s Alabama-Huntsville cuts hockey program

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Alabama-Huntsville is dropping men’s hockey and men’s and women’s tennis as part of budget cuts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials said athletes in those sports who want to join another team’s roster will be released without penalty and free to transfer immediately. If they choose to stay, their current scholarships will be honored for the duration of their academic careers.

Alabama-Huntsville was one of the only southern schools to have a men’s hockey varsity program. The Chargers won Division II national titles in 1996 and 1998 and were Division II runners-up in 1994 and 1997 before making the move to the Division I level for the 1998-99 season.

Men’s hockey had been the lone Division I sport for Alabama-Huntsville. It competes at the Division II level in all other sports.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

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Canada’s NHL teams have offered season-ticket holders rebate or refund options in acknowledgment that no more 2019-20 regular-season games will be played in front of fans in their respective buildings.

In a four-day span May 13-16, all seven teams contacted their season-ticket bases with options and, in some cases, deadlines to make a decision, according to The Canadian Press.

“It has become increasingly apparent, that any possibility will not include any further games being played this season in front of fans at Bell MTS Place,” the Winnipeg Jets said in an email.

That admission may seem anticlimactic given leagues and teams around the world are either playing in empty stadiums, or trying to figure out a way to just resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But season-ticket money is a key element of NHL business. Clubs are loathe to part with it.

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money.

Toronto Maple Leafs season-ticket holders had to declare they wanted their money back by Victoria Day or a credit would be applied to their accounts.

Their Montreal Canadiens counterparts had to make a decision by Friday, while the Vancouver Canucks’ deadline is June 3.

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

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We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

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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.