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Noah Welch on Olympics, educating hitters, pledging his brain to science

The U.S. men’s Olympic hockey teams plays its first game in nine days, but for Noah Welch there’s some business to care of before jetting off to PyeongChang.

On Tuesday, Welch and his Vaxjo Lakers of the Swedish Hockey League will take on Finland’s JYP Jyväskylä in the final of the Champions Hockey League. The following day he’ll get on a plane heading to South Korea.

“It’s still sinking in, to be honest,” Welch told Pro Hockey Talk last week. “I think [it will] when the plane lands, when I get to South Korea. It hasn’t completely sunk in yet.”

Welch is in his seventh season playing in Sweden after a career in North America that saw him suit up 209 times in the AHL and play 75 NHL games with four teams. After establishing himself as a regular defenseman overseas, does he see the Olympics as a stepping stone for a return home?

“For me, no. I don’t think. I’m 35-turning-36. It’s a young man’s game right now in North America,” he said. “I’m comfortable where I’m at in my career and this would be an incredible way for me to go out and win a [Champions Hockey League] championship and then medal in the Olympics and then my team is Sweden has a great chance to win the championship. I’m going to do everything I can to leave it all out there and almost treat this like it’s the last year.”

Welch is one of a number of players on the men’s Olympic roster that has NHL experience. It’s a lineup that has elicited a large amount of “Oh, I remember that guy” responses. But while you might recall the Brighton, Mass. native’s time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning or Atlanta Thrashers, a decade ago he made news for a unique decision that will help others after his death.

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It was in 2008 that Welch met fellow Harvard alum Chris Nowinski. Nowinski told him about what is now known as the Concussion Legacy Foundation, which he co-founded, and how he was committed to raising awareness and studying the long-term effects of concussions. When the idea of brain donation came up, it was an easy decision for Welch, who was already an organ donor. “I didn’t think much of it, didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I just said ‘yeah, sure,’” he said.

Welch became one of 12 athletes, and the first hockey player, to agree to donate their brains after their deaths.

It’s been 10 years since that decision and there are now 190 pledges from current and former men’s and women’s hockey players, among other athletes, with Ben Lovejoy of the New Jersey Devils the only active NHLer involved. There have been numerous finds since as researchers continue to learn more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Welch was way ahead of the game and has seen the impact that the spotlight on concussions in all sports has made.

“Overall, it keeps players safe, especially when it comes to their brain,” he said. “That’s extremely important. On the one hand, hockey players — this is what we sign up for. It’s a physical game, we know we’re going to get injured — part of the job, right? You’ll take an elbow, a shoulder, a knee, all that stuff, but when it comes to your brain, that’s where it gets scary. I think it’s great that there’s more awareness, especially on little things like keeping a guy out for an extra five days, how that can make such a big difference in their recovery period of a first trauma to the brain. Maybe that’s something we didn’t know years ago, where a guy rushes back to make one game that might not be that important gets hit again and now he’s out for a much longer time.

“It’s helping, and that’s great but there’s another side to it, too. Athletes are actually, in some situations, returning to their sport quicker and more prepared than they were before. Maybe they come back a little too early, they’re still foggy and then they’re more vulnerable and then if you get the total time of how long an athlete is out, maybe it could have been a lot less if they just followed the protocol.

“I think, overall, it’s a good thing. Sometimes, maybe, we get a little carried away and everything might be a concussion nowadays. But I guess if you’re going to err, you err on the side of safety when it comes to the brain.”

Welch wouldn’t disclose exactly how many concussions he’s suffered during his career, simply saying “a few.” It’s been so long since he pledged his brain that he was pretty sure that none of his current teammates at Vaxjo are aware of his plans.

In the decade since, Welch has seen progress by sports leagues to minimize head trauma and protect players from returning too early, but there’s still plenty of educating to do.

“I know in the SHL, I think they’ve gone a little too far one way where they’ve taken responsibility out of the puck carrier,” he said. “Now they’ve talked about that the last couple of years and now they’re drawing back a bit. For example, if a guy’s skating up the ice with his head down and it’s a north-south hit, [it’s] hard to kind of aim your shoulder where you can hit a guy. You can just see his body move, it’s one object, just try and hit the middle. Sometimes you might get him in the head, sometimes you might get him in the chest, sometimes you might hit him in the left shoulder, and that’s hard. A lot of those what would be clean hits where your head is down were becoming suspensions just because it was a hit to the head. So the only alternative is to maybe let up, which I don’t know how I feel about that. But that’s something that the league’s are really going through right now. I know in the SHL they’ve drawn back and they’re telling players, puck carriers in particular, you have a responsibility, too, to know what’s going on around you and to pick your head up.

“It’s the east-west hits that are bad, and there’s no room for that in the game. Guy is maybe following his pass and then a guy completely comes blindside. On that play, a player can aim their shoulder. There they can locate where they want to hit the guy. They can get low and hit them in the ribs or his arm, and you can come up high and get him right in the jaw. But when it’s that north-south hit, it’s really hard to identify a particular spot on the opposing player’s body. The game’s so fast. And if he has his head down and you hit his head, it’s like, that’s a good hockey hit. You’re not trying to injure a guy but it’s a good hit and it does send a message. We found in our league in Sweden that a lot of the suspensions this year have actually been [the player getting hit has] has been a lot of young players, like junior guys. So you wonder if because the rules have gone so far one way that they’re not learning now to be more aware. There are some plays where you talk to older, veteran forwards on our team and they’re like I can’t even believe that guy would think about doing that. Everyone knew back in the day when Scott Stevens was on the ice you didn’t go up the middle. Some guys did, and we’ve all watched the YouTube clips.”

Inspired by the NHL, the SHL has been releasing videos explaining suspensions and certain non-suspensions in hopes of educating players the proper way to go about delivering hits.

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This won’t be the first time Welch has represented the U.S. in international competition. Aside from playing several youth tournaments, he was a part of November’s Deutschland Cup, the only games that the American team played before the final roster was announced on Jan. 1. Like his teammates, up until last April, he was fully expecting NHL players to be participating int the Olympic tournament, even after the NHL announced its decision.

“This wasn’t even a thought. It wasn’t even a goal or a dream,” Welch said. “Last time I thought about this was I was probably 10 playing street hockey. A door opened up in the spring. Even after they decided [not to go,] it was always a chance that the NHL players were going to figure out a way. It wasn’t on the radar until just a few months ago.”

It’s turning out to be quite a start to 2018 for Welch between the CHL Final, the Olympics and his Vaxjo Lakers cruising toward a SHL title. Eight years ago he was trying to carve out a regular spot on an NHL roster, now he’s been a mainstay on the blue line for three different organizations in the SHL. He’s not looking for a North America comeback because he’s carved out his place in Sweden.

“[My family and I] always look at it as ‘just temporary,’ like it’s not home for us, but it’s a great place to work and to play,” he said.

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

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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.

‘I want to do anything I can to help’: Lovejoy to donate brain for CTE research

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As a whole, people are more informed about concussions, brain trauma and CTE today than they’ve ever been before. One current NHLer is hoping to take it a step further at some point in the distant future.

In an interview with TSN, New Jersey Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy announced that he’ll be donating his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation in Boston. The goal is to help researchers find out more about CTE and concussions down the line. Lovejoy is the first activate NHLer to commit to this kind of cause.

Although he’s never been diagnosed with a concussion, the 33-year-old believes this gesture can help unlock some the mysteries surrounding head injuries.

“Hockey has been so good to me,” Lovejoy told TSN.ca. “It’s helped me make a ton of friends, travel the country and world, and given me an amazing job that has paid me really well. My entire life has revolved exclusively around hockey and I want to give my brain to help make this game safer.

“I’m spoiled to have done this for so long. I’ve had teammates who are superstars and others who are minor-league role players who have struggled, missed time, and ended careers because of concussions. I want to do anything I can to help.”

Even though he hasn’t had a documented concussion, he’s still played a physical brand of hockey for a long time.  Lovejoy has suited up in 432 and 218 NHL and AHL games in his career.

Earlier this year, former NHLers Shawn McEachern, Bob Sweeney, Ted Drury and Craig Adams also pledged to donate their brains to concussion/CTE research.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Devils dealing: New Jersey’s cap situation after Severson signing

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The New Jersey Devils have a long way to go, but it looks like they’re in pretty good hands with GM Ray Shero.

For casual fans, handing defenseman Damon Severson a six-year, $25 million contract was an eyebrow-raiser on Monday. The 23-year-old isn’t a household name, so a $4,166,666 stands as a scary (though delightfully Devils-themed) cap hit.

That deal might indeed raise some eyebrows, but maybe down the line, as Severson’s shown some very nice promise, particularly in 2016-17. If anything, there’s serious evidence that the Devils haven’t been relying on him enough.

It remains to be seen if the Devils can combine nice strides and baby steps to a leap in competition with enough speed to take advantage of the stronger parts of their roster. With that in mind, let’s break down New Jersey’s salary structure after Severson’s deal.

Masters of their trades

Opposing GMs don’t need to hit the red “Ignore” button when Shero’s caller ID comes up, but they might want to approach dealings cautiously in the future. Simply put, the Devils have been dealing well over the years, especially since Shero took over.

Taylor Hall – $6M through 2019-20.

If you’re looking for anti-Hall rhetoric, you’ve come to the wrong place.

He’s a superb first-line winger, and despite somehow being a lottery ball magnet, is still just 25. Here’s hoping that Hall gets a chance to show how fantastic he really is in games that matter before too long.

The beauty of his deal is that it’s fairly easy to move if the Devils and/or Hall believe that his best chance to compete would be to go somewhere else … while netting New Jersey some assets.

Kyle Palmieri – The Ducks must kick themselves for choosing other interesting forwards over Palmieri, who’s scored 26 and 30 goals during his two seasons for the Devils. He comes at the low-low price of $4.65M through 2020-21.

Check out how convoluted the asset situation was involving Palmieri, via Hockey Reference:

June 27, 2015: Traded to New Jersey by Anaheim for Florida’s 2nd round pick (previously acquired, later traded to NY Rangers – NY Rangers selected Ryan Gropp) in 2015 NHL Draft and Minnesota’s 3rd round pick (previously acquired, later traded to Buffalo, later traded to Nashville – Nashville selected Rem Pitlick) in 2016 NHL Draft.

*scratches head*

Marcus Johansson – $4.5833M for two seasons.

The Devils took advantage of the Capitals’ cap woes to lift a quality forward who comes at a reasonable price. “MarJo” could really drive up his value if New Jersey gives him a more prominent role.

Some concerns

Cory Schneider ($6M for five more seasons) was another nice trade get, even as the Vancouver Canucks have been very happy with Bo Horvat. Shero wasn’t GM at the time of the deal, so that’s part of the reason Schneider is in a different section.

The other: there’s a bit of concern here. Schneider’s frequently been downright fantastic, but 2016-17 was rough, and one has to worry at least a little bit that he might struggle more as time goes on. At age 31, it’s possible his best days are behind him.

Age could also be a worry for banged-up center Travis Zajac ($5.75M through 2020-21) and Andy Green ($5M for three more years), a blueliner who is used in heavy defensive situations. Ben Lovejoy and Brian Boyle seem like short-term placeholders with two years remaining on their respective deals.

Of course, the biggest concern for the Devils is also an obvious one: their defense.

Even with Severson being sneaky-good, that unit has a lot of room for improvement. Considering how sought-after defense is in the current NHL, it might not be so easy to make drastic changes to this group.

(If anyone can pull off some clever trades, it might be Shero, though.)

Young guns

The plus side of the Devils’ suffering is that they’ve been able to add some intriguing young talent. That’s most obvious in the Devils nabbing Nico Hischier in a rare moment: the Devils getting the top pick of a draft.

The key, then, will be development. Hischier might not be as much of a challenge, but can the Devils get the most out of Pavel Zacha and prized college free agent Will Butcher?

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The Devils’ forwards group has taken some remarkable steps forward, to the point that the franchise may flip its identity in the near future as an offensively potent, defensively shaky group.

Of course, that’s under the assumption that management won’t have much luck bolstering the blueline.

This isn’t a perfect situation in New Jersey, but credit Shero for putting some impressive building blocks down for a team whose past perennial status made a rebuild challenging.

After signing with Devils, Will Butcher thinks he is ‘NHL ready’

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) Will Butcher believes he is ready to play for the New Jersey Devils right now.

A day after signing a two-year, $1.85 million contract with the rebuilding Devils, the 22-year-old Butcher said he was ready to make the jump from being college hockey’s top player to the NHL without a stop in the minor leagues.

Speaking on a conference call, the defenseman said he chose to sign with New Jersey because he felt good after meeting coach John Hynes and he thought the Devils’ up-tempo system best fit his game.

Butcher was drafted in the fifth round by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013 at the Prudential Center – the Devils’ home rink. He became a free agent on Aug. 15 after failing to reach an agreement with Colorado, although the former University of Denver player said he knew by May he intended to test the free agent market.

After meeting with a number of teams, his decision came down to the Devils, Las Vegas, Buffalo and Los Angeles.

“It seemed like a great fit in how I wanted to play, and they saw me being in a better role with what they wanted to do there,” Butcher said of choosing New Jersey. “It kind of reminded me a little bit of how we were going to play with my college hockey.”

Butcher knows there will be competition to make the Devils’ roster with veteran defensemen Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, John Moore and Brian Strait and youngsters Damon Severson, Steven Santini and Mirco Mueller on the roster.

“I think my game is NHL ready,” Butcher said. “I think there is always stuff to learn and to pick up. That’s mostly the reason why I chose New Jersey, because I felt with coach Hynes (there) was the development and how they cater to guys and help you get ready for the NHL game.”

Butcher described himself as an offensive defenseman who can play defense.

“I am definitely more offensive than defensive,” he said. “I try to cater to my game in the sense of making smart decisions with the puck, joining the rush at the right opportunity and using my experience to help me play in the league that I want to play in.”

When asked what players would have a similar style to him he named Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks, Torey Krug of the Bruins and Greene.

“If I was fortunate to make the big team, he would be a great mentor to me, just because he does everything,” Butcher said of Greene. “He penalty kills, power play, all situations. He is a smart player, not necessarily the biggest guy, but he uses his abilities to defend well and play the game of hockey.”

Butcher could also help the Devils’ power play, especially feeding the likes of Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson and newcomer Nico Hischier, the Swiss-born center who was the No. 1 pick in the June draft.

“I might not be the fastest guy or biggest guy out there, but I like to pride myself that I think fast and use my brain to be fast, in a sense that I try to anticipate plays and just try to use my hockey smarts to help me be effective,” Butcher said.

Besides helping Denver win the national championship this past season, Butcher won the Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate player.

A Wisconsin resident, Butcher had seven goals and a team-high 30 assists in 43 games last season. He had 28 goals and 75 assists for 103 points in 158 games with the Pioneers.

Matt Murray discusses the ‘new look’ Penguins

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Save for the loss of Ben Lovejoy, the Pittsburgh Penguins of 2016-17 looked a heck of a lot like the Penguins of 2015-16.

Both those teams won the Stanley Cup, of course.

But the Pens of 2017-18, while still boasting superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, will have to attempt a three-peat without some key pieces from the 2017 run.

Gone are Marc-Andre Fleury, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey, the latter of whom proved a savvy pickup by GM Jim Rutherford at the trade deadline.

It’s also possible that Matt Cullen opts for retirement.

True, the Penguins added Matt Hunwick in free agency, and they don’t expect to be without Kris Letang again next spring.

But for goalie Matt Murray, winning it all in 2018 seems a larger challenge.

“Obviously it’s not easy to win at all in this league, especially with the salary cap and the turnover that teams go through. Last year we were lucky that we didn’t lose too many guys and we had a lot of the same guys come back,” Murray told SooToday.com.

“This year it’s a little bit different. We lost some key pieces and we’re going to have a new look going into this season. But I think we’ve added some key pieces as well and I think we’re in really good shape. Of course it’s going to be difficult, but I think if there’s a team that can do it, we can do it.”

For any team that loses important players, the key to success is usually found in the organization’s youth. Enter forwards Daniel Sprong and Zach Aston-Reese. If those two can become contributors by the playoffs, it would sure help.

Rutherford will also have to come through by finding a new third-line center. That’s no easy task given the importance of the position. Bonino was a tremendous bargain for the Pens, but he’s in Nashville now.

Related: Pens can’t ‘panic’ to replace Bonino