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Racism lingers for NHL players 60 years after O’Ree landmark

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WASHINGTON — Devante Smith-Pelly got up from his seat.

The Washington Capitals forward had heard the unmistakably racist taunts from fans from inside the penalty box. As a black hockey player, he knew exactly what they meant by yelling, ”Basketball, basketball, basketball!”

”It’s just ignorant people being ignorant,” Smith-Pelly said.

That scene unfolded in Chicago in February, 60 years after Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier and paved the way for more minorities to play the sport and reach its highest level. O’Ree is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday for his pioneering career, and yet incidents like the one Smith-Pelly went through show how much more progress needs to be made, in a league that’s 97 percent white and beyond.

”It’s come a long way, but there’s still a lot of things that still need to change,” Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse said. ”That just comes through minorities as a group working together to try to eliminate those things from this game.”

Those things just keep happening.

In 2011, Philadelphia forward Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him during a preseason game in London, Ontario.

In 2012, then-Washington forward Joel Ward was the subject of racist social media posts after he scored a game-winning playoff goal.

In 2014, then-Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban was the subject of racist social media posts after he scored a game-winning playoff goal.

In April, Detroit prospect Givani Smith was subjected to threats and racial taunts and messages after a junior game in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. His team had a police escort the next time they went to the rink.

”(O’Ree) had to go through a lot, and the same thing has been happening now, which obviously means there’s still a long way to go,” Smith-Pelly said. ”If you had pulled a quote from him back then and us now, they’re saying the same thing, so obviously there’s still a long way to go in hockey and in the world if we’re being serious.”

Through his work as an NHL diversity ambassador over the past 20 years, O’Ree has tried to work toward more inclusion and better minority representation. He is eager to tell kids at YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and schools that hockey is another sport they can play.

USA Hockey and Hockey Canada don’t keep participation statistics by race, though there are fewer than two dozen black players currently on NHL rosters. The NHL celebrates ”Hockey is for Everyone” month each season and quickly condemns racist behavior.

”A lot of it’s basically on your parents and how people raise their kids,” said San Jose forward Evander Kane, who acknowledged being the subject of racist taunting as the only black player on his minor league teams in Vancouver. ”You can have all the awareness that you want, but at the end of the day, it’s really up to the individual and how they act and how they want to treat other people.”

O’Ree, 83, still remembers how he was treated in the ’50s as hockey’s Jackie Robinson. He did his best to drown out the noise by listening to his brother Richard.

”I heard the jeers and some of the racial remarks, but it kind of went in one ear and out the other,” O’Ree said. ”He told me, ‘Willie, names will never hurt you unless you let them.’ He said, ‘If they can’t accept you for the individual that you are, just forget about it and just go out and do what you do best and don’t worry about anything else.”’

Nurse said black players still have to worry about racist jeers and remarks.

”I had a lot growing up and my brother had the big one too last year,” said Dallas forward Gemel Smith, Givani’s brother. ”How we were raised, nothing really bothers me. That stuff doesn’t really get to me and things like that. My dad always taught us just to try to close it out, block it out.”

Like Smith-Pelly, Simmonds is quick to say racism isn’t an issue unique to hockey or sports in general. His solution is a zero tolerance policy, which is what happened to the four fans in Chicago who were thrown out and banned from all home games by the Blackhawks.

”I think what could be done to keep these types of incidents from happening would probably be to ban those people who are doing those lewd acts,” Simmonds said. ”I think if you set a strong example right from the start, you won’t have too many people acting like clowns.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman, who is going into the Hall of Fame with O’Ree as part of the class of 2018, considers it important to make clear to fans and players what’s expected and what’s not tolerated and said: ”Even if it’s only one incident, it’s one too many.” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said creating and cultivating an inclusive environment and building diversity are significant league priorities.

There has been incremental progress. In the aftermath of Smith-Pelly’s incident, fans in Chicago raised $23,000 to donate to the Fort Dupont Ice Rink in Washington, helping hundreds of children.

”When you see the reaction and the way that people rally around moments like that and try to make a positive out of it, I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Nurse said.

For some players like Seth Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, hockey has been a safe place. The Blue Jackets defenseman said he has so far never been on the receiving end of race-based taunts or messages and said, ”I was just like everybody else playing hockey, which is what everyone wants.”

Most black players haven’t been that fortunate. And while Jones is optimistic that people can change, Smith-Pelly wasn’t sure exactly how that will happen.

”It’s tough,” he said. ”I don’t really know a plan to stop it. That’s how people are.”

WATCH LIVE: Lightning host Oilers on NBCSN

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers at Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

The Oilers and Lightning meet for the first time this season, and both come in playing well of late. Despite their 4-2 loss in Washington Monday night, Edmonton’s still won five of their last seven games. The loss to the Capitals snapped a five-game road winning streak.

At 10-3-1, the Lightning are just one point off their 14-game start from last season, when they opened the season 10-2-2 en route to setting franchise records for wins (54) and points (113).

Connor McDavid has recorded at least one point in 13 of the Oilers’ 14 games this season, including his 10th goal of the season Monday night. McDavid is second in the NHL with 22 points (10G-12A). For the Lightning, Nikita Kucherov has 14 points in 14 games and Steven Stamkos has 10 points over the same stretch. The Lightning captain started the season by scoring only once in the first 10 games but has since netted three in his last four.

Tampa currently ranks first in the NHL on the penalty kill (90.4 percent). This efficiency is impressive considering the Lightning have been shorthanded the seventh-most times in the NHL this season (52 entering Tuesday).

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Edmonton Oilers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Where: Amalie Arena
When: Tuesday, November 6th, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers-Lightning stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

OILERS
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Connor McDavid – Ty Rattie
Tobias RiederLeon DraisaitlDrake Caggiula
Milan LucicRyan StromeKailer Yamamoto
Jujhar KhairaKyle BrodziakZack Kassian

Oscar KlefbomAdam Larsson
Darnell NurseKris Russell
Kevin GravelMatthew Benning

Starting goalie: Mikko Koskinen

LIGHTNING
J.T. Miller – Steven Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov
Yanni GourdeBrayden PointTyler Johnson
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Adam ErneCedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Ryan McDonaghAnton Stralman
Slater KoekkoekDan Girardi
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Oilers risk flubbing another high-end draft pick

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Not that long ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were ridiculed for selecting Pierre-Luc Dubois with the third pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, allowing Jesse Puljujarvi to fall to the Edmonton Oilers. You don’t have to dig too deep to realize that Jarmo Kekalainen made the right call, or at least appeared to make the right call so far.

While “PLD” settles in as Artemi Panarin‘s co-pilot (for now?) in Columbus, Puljujarvi was in street clothes on Thursday, as his Oilers run hit another low: he was a healthy scratch.

At 20, it’s too early to rubber-stamp the term “bust” for Puljujarvi. Even so, the bumpy, staccato rhythm of his development is frustrating to observe, and it sure seems like the Oilers are stumped.

“His development has to get going to where he has a positive influence on the game every night. And there is still some confusion in how that impact can come,” Todd McLellan said, via Sportsnet’s Mark Spector.

“It’s not always goals and assists — as we’ve seen, there haven’t been many of those. But there are other areas of the game that are important.”

Out of context, this is understandable enough. Objectively speaking, Puljujarvi play isn’t lighting up scoreboards, with just one goal in seven games so far this season, and just 29 points in 100 career games. So, some of this is on the player.

Still, the Oilers aren’t exactly known for making optimal decisions beyond “drafting and extending Connor McDavid,” and it’s becoming increasingly plausible that they’ve squandered another high-end draft resource.

As a reminder, the Oilers drafted Nail Yakupov with the first overall pick of the admittedly cloudy 2012 NHL Draft, only getting four seasons out of the winger before trading him for a meager return. Yakupov now finds himself in the KHL, yet you can’t help but wonder: how much of his struggles fall on poor development in Edmonton?

At minimum, the Oilers have had a tendency to burn through rookie contracts, often with reckless abandon.

Puljujarvi might be the poster child for that problem. He played 28 ineffectual games with the Oilers as a rookie in 2016-17, but also spent plenty of time in the AHL. Puljujarvi also spent a portion of last season in the AHL, although 2017-18 could be seen as his most promising stretch, with 20 points in 68 NHL games.

Again, he’s not alone in seemingly suffering from rushed development. It’s too the point where it’s honestly refreshing when the Oilers show some restraint, like they did with solid-enough defenseman Darnell Nurse.

While Puljujarvi has accrued quite a few games with the big club (it’s somewhat fitting that he was scratched after his 100th NHL game), his linemates have been erratic and it’s not as though he’s been giving many full-fledged opportunities to sink or swim. He averages just 12:43 TOI per game during his NHL career, and his 2018-19 averaged is actually a bit lower at 12:28 per contest.

You don’t really need to burrow through cryptic quotes to wonder if McLellan doesn’t trust Puljujarvi. Looking at the Finn’s lack of opportunities – rarely has he skated with Connor McDavid, and he hasn’t even gotten many chances with Leon Draisaitl – and you can see that the confidence isn’t there. At best, it isn’t there yet. It’s frightening, but reasonable, to wonder if it will ever come as long as McLellan’s behind the bench.

Perhaps that’s why people are discussing some drastic measures.

On TSN’s Insider Trading, Darren Dreger said he believes that things aren’t necessarily coming to a head yet, although he didn’t dismiss the discussion as outrageous altogether.

Citing Puljujarvi’s struggles and the less-than-ideal circumstances (low ice time, irregular linemates), The Athletic’s Allan “Lowetide” Mitchell wonders if the winger would be better served being a big fish in a small pond back down at the AHL level (sub required).

The organization has handled this player poorly. Puljujarvi has far too much skill to give up on, or trade for 10 cents on the dollar. His game has been broken. It might be time to repair and rebuild in Bakersfield. This time next year the Oilers won’t be able to send him to the AHL without waivers. For Oilers fans, the blame game (player, coach, general manager) is less important than unlocking Puljujarvi’s considerable talent while he is an Edmonton Oilers winger. What is best for his development should be the only consideration.

Edmonton holds a lot of sway in how this situation works out, one way or another.

Consider some of the other factors at hand:

  • This team desperately wants to make the playoffs, and the jobs of the coach/GM likely hinge on doing so. Such thoughts complicate the urge to test out a “project” in Puljujarvi.
  • Trading a high-end pick so soon after drafting one is often a recipe for disaster, but that would be especially uncomfortable in this case. Most importantly, Puljujarvi’s stock is at a dramatic low after being a healthy scratch. You also can’t ignore the likelihood that GM Peter Chiarelli fears losing any trade at this point. That’s especially true since he’s been comically bad at assessing future value (*cough* Tyler Seguin in particular *cough this is a really bad cough*).
  • The 20-year-old is in the middle of a contract year.

That’s actually where there could be some serious sunshine if the Oilers – against all odds – somehow get this right.

There’s a scenario where Edmonton signs Puljujarvi to a cheap extension to say “we still believe in you,” give him time to rehabilitate his game, and then he becomes a huge bargain for a franchise that sorely needs value. Imagine, for a second, the Oilers signing him to a Predators-style, forward-thinking contract, only to see him blossom as McDavid’s elusive right-winger?

(Stop laughing.)

***

Right now, this situation is both bad and befuddling. It would be shocking that things hit this low point, if it weren’t for this being a bumbling franchise like the Oilers.

A third NHL season is when people really start to get impatient with a prospect’s development, yet consider that the Oilers really haven’t given Puljujarvi two full seasons of opportunities. While many would grade him an “F” so far, a more appropriate mark is an “Incomplete.”

The Oilers are remedial when it comes to developing all but the most can’t-miss prospects, yet the good news is that they can still pass this test if they get it together. As frustrating as the process has been so far, it should be fascinating to see how this plays out.

For the rest of the NHL, it could also be an opportunity to scoop up a robust reclamation project, like the Penguins did with Justin Schultz.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Connor McDavid takes over, steals win for Oilers by himself

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The Edmonton Oilers wrapped up their season-opening four-game road trip on Tuesday night with a stunning come-from-behind 5-4 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

On the surface this looks to be an awesome and much-needed victory for the Oilers.

And it is. It is all of that because not only did it come against the team with the second best record in the NHL a season ago, but wow did they just flat out need this.

They still have not played a home game after opening the season in Sweden, they had won just one of their first three games of the season and looked relatively poor in doing so, and after two periods on Tuesday night in Winnipeg looked to be getting their doors blown off by a Jets team that had stormed out to a 4-1 lead.

In the standings, this will go in the books as a big win for the Edmonton Oilers.

But let’s be serious here about what this really was: This was all about Connor McDavid single-handedly refusing to allow his team to drop another game, putting the entire squad on his back, and driving it to a win.

That is not an exaggeration as to what happened on the ice.

This game wasn’t about the Oilers rallying. This was about McDavid being the best and most dominant player in the world and showing just how unstoppable he can be when he is at his best.

On Tuesday, he was at his best.

He finished Tuesday’s game with four points (two goals, two assists) including three in the third period as the Oilers erased the three-goal deficit.

After winning each of the past two scoring titles he has already recorded nine points (four goals, five assists) in the Oilers’ first four games.

Nine points.

The Edmonton Oilers have only scored 10 goals. You don’t need to be a math whiz to figure out what that means.

They have, quite literally, been a one-line team this season and given the makeup of the roster, as well as the way things went for them a season ago, there does not seem to be much hope that will change as the season goes on.

Darnell Nurse‘s overtime goal on Tuesday night was the first goal the Oilers scored this season that McDavid did not factor into the scoring on. That nine-goal stretch even set a NHL record for most consecutive goals for a player to factor in on to open a season, breaking the previous record of seven that had been set by Adam Oates.

McDavid, for the record, seemed to have no interest in it.

“You know what, it’s whatever,” McDavid said. “I’m not overly proud of it. I don’t think it’s a stat we should be proud of either. It is what it is but we found a way to get a goal there at the end so we don’t ever have to talk about it again.”

How important has McDavid been so far: When he is on the ice they are outscoring teams by a 9-4 margin. When he is not, they have been outscored 10-1. If you go back to the end of the 2017-18 season McDavid had factored into 13 consecutive Oilers goals before Nurse’s overtime winner.

And that is pretty much what the Oilers have been for the better part of McDavid’s tenure with the team.

As he goes; they go. And they will only go as far as he is able to take them. The problem with that is hockey is not really a sport that is tailored for one player to carry a team very far because the best players — unless it is a goalie — only play about a third of the game. There has to be more. A lot more. And it remains to be seen if this team has it or if the management team in charge is capable of providing it.

McDavid is going to give them a chance to win on any given night because he is capable of having games like this. He is going to be worth the price of admission every night because he can do this.

“Each and every night, and especially tonight,” said Nurse, when asked about McDavid’s ability to carry the team. “Going into the third we could have gone two different ways, and 18 seconds in his line makes a huge play. When you have a leader like hat everyone feeds off that. For him to be able to set the tone every single game? It’s incredible.”

At some point, though, they are going to have to find a way to give him some support because while this sort of thing might work on a handful of individual nights over the course of a season, it is not a long-term recipe for success because this sort of superman effort is not possible every game. Not even for Connor McDavid.

We saw how true that is for the Oilers just this past season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Reinhart, Sabres end stalemate with two-year bridge deal

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The Sam Reinhart Stalemate is finally over.

The 22-year-old signed on the dotted line on Wednesday, inking a new two-year bridge deal with an annual average value of $3.65 million.

The deal is good value for the Buffalo Sabres, who are right up against the 2018-19 salary cap of $79.5 million. CapFriendly shows the Sabres with just over $2.8 million in cap space left but with the potential to have to pay out nearly $4 million in bonuses this season.

Like Josh Morrissey and Darnell Nurse before him, the deal means Reinhart will be a restricted free agent come the summer of 2020 and the Sabres will then have the option to hand him an eight-year deal.

And like Morrissey and Nurse, the deal is team-friendly in terms of the cap now and leaves the player betting on themselves for a significant pay raise in two year’s time.

Reinhart had a slow start to the season last year but ended up setting a career-high in goals with 25 to tie Jack Eichel for the team lead.

What’s most impressive about Reinhart’s year was how good he was down the stretch. In the final 44 games, he had 39 of his career-high 50 points and 20 of his 25 goals came in 2018, which tied him for 12th in the NHL during that span.

Important to re-hash this from The Athletic’s John Vogl, who wrote about this subject in June:

Reinhart’s passing skills and hockey IQ make him an intriguing center candidate. Though not the fleetest of foot, he can drive the offense. According to the numbers at NaturalStatTrick.com, Reinhart trailed only Evander Kane and Jason Pominville in shots generated relative to his teammates and ranked fifth in fewest shots allowed. O’Reilly was noticeably better with Reinhart than without him.

As we wrote during Buffalo Sabres Day at PHT, Reinhart could find himself in a pretty juicy scenario playing on a line with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. Given Reinhart’s ability to make those around him better, his career-highs could climb to new heights this coming season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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