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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.”

Which NHL player is having best contract year?

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NHL teams are getting more sophisticated when it comes to avoiding truly boneheaded free agent moves (sorry, would-be next Bobby Holik), but the truth is that contract years can still swing a player’s contract by millions.

Just ask John Carlson — no, wait, he’s currently swimming in money.

(Note: he’s probably not literally swimming in money.)

We’re only in November, so a lot can change. Injuries happen in the violent, sometimes-randomly unlucky sports of hockey. Hot streaks can go ice-cold. Coaches can lose trust in a player, killing power-play opportunities and sabotaging line combinations.

At the moment, though, these are the players who are off to red-hot starts that could really fatten their future paychecks (and drive up their trade value, too). Cap Friendly’s free agent list was very helpful in putting this together, while stats cited come from Hockey Reference and Natural Stat Trick.

(Also, this list focuses on pending UFAs, in case you were getting ready to holler at your screen about Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and other could-be RFAs.)

Mark Stone, Senators, 26, $7.35 million

Last night’s rousing five-point performance pushes Stone to six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 15 games. Yes, you can note that his shooting percentage is a bit high (17.6), but his career average of 15.6 percent argues that he’s long been a talented – if selective – shooter.

There are other reasons why Stone should rank as high-end trade bait, yet will also be tough for Ottawa to let go. He’s still young at 26, and won’t turn 27 until May. Also, if wingers received more Selke attention, Stone would likely be in that conversation. Despite being deployed more defensively (starting 56-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 47-percent), Stone’s possession stats are off the charts, especially compared to his often-overwhelmed teammates in Ottawa.

If you’re a contender who could land him in a trade, Stone might be worth quite the ransom if he’d also talk extension.

Matt Duchene, Senators, 27, $6M

Despite his Wile E. Coyote-level luck when it comes to finding himself in miserable situations, Duchene is not one of Stone’s overwhelmed Senators teammates. Granted, his possession stats haven’t been resilient like those of Stone’s, but the speedy center still has 15 points in as many games this season.

Old-school executives will also love his abilities in the circle, as he continues to be strong on faceoffs (winning 53.2-percent so far in 2018-19).

One request is for Duchene to shoot more often, as he’s been below 2 SOG per game (1.87), which is not in line with his career average of 2.46 SOG per night.

Artemi Panarin, Blue Jackets, 26, $6M

“The Bread Man” is on the other end of the spectrum, flexing his skills with a resounding 51 SOG in 15 games (3.40 per night, towering over his 2.62 career average).

It would be the latest example that Panarin is for real, except I believe people no longer need convincing that he’s a star. His 16 points in 15 games feels more like “business as usual.”

Of course, the actual business side is where things are most fascinating, as the Blue Jackets need to figure out what to do with Panarin (and struggling contract year goalie Sergei Bobrovsky). Whether he remains in Columbus or is traded somewhere else, motivation shouldn’t be an issue.

Jeff Skinner, Sabres, 26, $5.725M

with Jason Pominville, Sabres, 35, $5.6M

For one of Jack Eichel‘s linemates, it’s about Skinner lining up that first UFA mega-deal, whether it’s with Buffalo (possibly as extension?) or not. On the other end of the spectrum – and on the other wing – we have Pominville, who’s merely hoping to keep his career alive and vibrant.

Both are off to raucous starts, and both are at risk of slowdowns.

Skinner’s generated a fantastic 16 points in 15 games, with nine of those points being goals on a shooting percentage of 18. Then again, maybe the universe is merely repaying Skinner for his unlucky shooting season in 2017-18, when he only connected on an 8.7 success rate? He’s really been all over the place during his career, suffering four seasons with a shooting percentage below the general shooter’s Mason-Dixon line of 10-percent.

Skinner’s long been a very effective player who sort of leaves you hoping for even more, so maybe he’ll put it together at the most lucrative time?

Pominville felt like a nostalgia-friendly addition (and an expensive deal to make the money work) in the trade that netted Marco Scandella, yet the veteran winger has 14 points in 15 games. His eight goals come from some luck, as he’s connected on a whopping 19.5-percent of his shots. He’s also done so with a miniscule ice time average of a mere 13:43 per game, actually down from his recent years of decline.

Both are likely to slip from point-per-game play over the long haul of 82 games, but that’s fine. In Skinner’s case, he could easily exceed his career-high of 63 points. Meanwhile, Pominville could very well show that he still has a place in the NHL, possibly as the full-time “third-best guy on a good line.”

(Another Pominville-like, veteran impact who falls a little short of the top of this list is Jason Spezza, who’s managed a helpful 10 points in 15 games despite limited minutes.)

Anders Lee, Islanders, 27, $3.75M

Hey, maybe Lee is good, not just John Tavares-enhanced?

Either way, it’s been an impressive start to 2018-19 for Lee, who presents an interesting conundrum for the shockingly fast-starting Islanders: do you take advantage of him being the “hot hand” or do you pencil him in as a core player?

Lee has 13 points in 14 games, and his 12.5 shooting percentage is actually below his career average of 14.5 (OK, that might be the Tavares effect).

Interestingly, Lee is succeeding despite being deployed in a resoundingly different way. He’s begun 59.2-percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, versus a career average of 45.1. Lee’s possession numbers aren’t the prettiest in every regard, yet they look rosier relative to his teammates.

Lee’s numbers might suffer if things really bottom out for the Islanders as this season goes along; while he’s not really riding inane puck luck, the Isles in many ways have been.

Still, it’s heartening to observe his start, whether you’re an Islanders exec pondering an extension or a team hoping to poach Lee.

Lightning round

  • Spezza: It sure seems like has a new lease on life unshackled from Hitch’s clutches.
  • Erik Karlsson and Jake Gardiner: These two defensemen are in interesting situations. Each are scoring at about a point-every-other-game pace, even though Karlsson hasn’t scored a goal and Gardiner has been limited to one. All three have the potential to go on red-hot streaks to up their value; all three will get paid nicely one way or another.
  • Jakob Silfverberg: Even at 27, it’s tough to tell if we’ve seen everything Silfverberg has to offer. Injuries diluted his totals, but his nine points are more impressive when limited to 11 games. He can’t expect to maintain a 21 shooting percentage, though.
  • Wayne Simmonds: So far, the intriguing winger has 10 points in 15 games. His value is tough to gauge, so his earning power may very well hinge on how 2018-19 shakes out.
  • Semyon Varlamov, Ryan Miller, Robin Lehner: Goalies who are having the strongest contract years so far, with Varlamov and Lehner playing bigger roles.
  • Keith Kinkaid, Jimmy Howard: Two goalies in very different situations, with very similar save percentages. A lot on the line for all of the goalies in UFA situations.
  • Bob, Mike Smith: Among the goalies penciled in as starters who are off to tough contract years. We’ll see if they can get back on track.

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.

The Buzzer: Shattenkirk’s redemption; McDavid’s heroics

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Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. There really is not anything to say other than what we said earlier: He took over and he single handedly stole a win for the Oilers. Read about it here

2. Kevin Shattenkirk, New York Rangers. Just now entering the second year of his four-year contract, the Kevin Shattenkirk experience has not been what the New York Rangers were hoping it would be when they signed him due to injury and some ineffective play. On Tuesday night they finally got a glimpse of the player they thought they were getting. Shattenkirk was outstanding for the Rangers in their 3-2 shootout win over the Colorado Avalanche, assisting on two goals and then scoring the game-winner in the shootout. He was also one of the team’s best possession players on the shot attempt chart and was not on the ice for either of the Avalanche goals. In other words: He did what a top-pairing defenseman is supposed to do.

3. Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning prevented the Carolina Hurricanes from matching their best start in franchise history with a 4-2 win that was highlighted by a Tyler Johnson hat trick. The Lightning have now won three of their first four games and should still be one of the best teams in the league thanks to their incredible depth up front. Johnson’s hat trick is the fourth of his career in the regular season.

Here come the Golden Knights

The Golden Knights did not have a great start but there was also an awful lot of bad luck at play there, too. They were playing a lot better than their early record might have had you believe and now the results are starting to match the way they were playing. They were 4-1 winners over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night, giving them their second win in a row. As always seems to be the case with them, it was their top-line doing the damage. Jonathan Marchessault scored a pair of goals in the win, giving him four on the year, while William Karlsson finally had a breakout game finishing with three points. After scoring 43 goals a year ago he finally got his first of the year on Tuesday night while also adding a pair of assists.

Barkov helps Panthers rally, gain point in wild game against Flyers

The Florida Panthers had a terrible second period in Philadelphia, giving up five goals to face three-goal deficit. They managed to rally and force overtime — where they would lose in a shootout — thanks to a big-time performance from team captain Aleksander Barkov as he scored a pair of goals including the game-tying goal in the third period. This was also a perfect representation of what the Philadelphia Flyers are this season: A chaotic team that can score a ton of goals and give up just as many. Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds both scored a pair of goals for the Flyers in the win, while Jordan Weal recorded two points (goal, assist) and scored the decisive goal in the shootout.

Highlights of the Night

Connor McDavid is amazing and borderline unstoppable when he gets going at full speed. He showed that on Tuesday night with this goal in the first period.

With that goal, as well as his third period goal and two assists, McDavid had scored or assisted on each of the Oilers’ first nine goals of the season, and each of their past 13 goals dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season.

This save by Darcy Kuemper bailed out the Arizona Coyotes on a 3-on-1 rush. This is tremendous goaltending, even if it was not enough to get a win.

Jamie Benn and the Dallas Stars did not score a goal against the New Jersey Devils but he did take part in vicious fight with Miles Wood.

Brock Boeser helped the Vancouver Canucks continue their surprising start with a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on the road. Boeser scored the game-winner in overtime.

Factoids

Kyle Palmieri is on quite the roll for the New Jersey Devils and with his first period goal on Tuesday did something no player in NHL history has ever done before.

The Devils are now 4-0-0 on the season.

Marc-Andre Fleury continues to climb the NHL’s all-time wins list.

Henrik Lundqvist has won a lot of shootouts in his career. He picked up another one on Tuesday night.

 

Scores
Canucks 3, Penguins 2 (OT)
Devils 3, Stars 0
Rangers 3, Avalanche 2 (SO)
Flyers 6, Panthers 5 (SO)
Lightning 4, Hurricanes 2
Wild 2, Coyotes 1
Oilers 5, Jets 4 (OT)
Golden Knights 4, Sabres 1

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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers, Sharks meet on NBCSN

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Philadelphia Flyers at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

The San Jose Sharks started their current five-game road trip with a solid 3-2 overtime win against the Los Angeles Kings on Friday. On Monday, they followed that up with a flat performance during a 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders. They don’t have much time to regroup as they face the Philadelphia Flyers a little more than 36 hours later.

In this particular matchup, the Sharks have dominated and won 18 of their last 23 meetings with the Flyers dating back to 2002.

Joe Thornton (knee) and James van Riemsdyk (lower body) will both miss out.

What could help get the Sharks going is waking up their power play, which is a shocking 0-for-10 so far. They did have nine chances Monday in Brookyln, but failed to capitalize on four opportunities.

Brian Elliott has started every game for the Flyers this season as Michal Neuvirth heals up and they allow Calvin Pickard to settle in after being claimed on waivers from Toronto last week. Philadelphia plays the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday, which would be a good opportunity to give their No. 1 in Elliott a rest.

What: San Jose Sharks at Philadelphia Flyers
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia
When: Tuesday, October 9th, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sharks-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Sharks
Timo MeierJoe PavelskiMelker Karlsson
Tomas HertlLogan CoutureKevin Labanc
Evander KaneAntti SuomelaJoonas Donskoi
Barclay Goodrow – Rourke Chartier – Marcus Sorensen

Marc-Edouard VlasicErik Karlsson
Joakim RyanBrent Burns
Brenden DillonJustin Braun

Starting goalie: TBA

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Flyers
Claude GirouxSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Oskar LindblomNolan PatrickTravis Konecny
Jordan WealMikhail VorobyovWayne Simmonds
Scott LaughtonJori LehteraMichael Raffl

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald
Travis SanheimRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Brian Elliott

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.

NHL on NBCSN: Sharks continue road trip by visiting Flyers

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Philadelphia Flyers at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here.

The San Jose Sharks’ update on Joe Thornton provided some good news, but has the cloud of bad news hovering over it.

The good news is that the swelling in Thornton’s right knee is due to an infection. “Nothing structurally. It looks like an infection, put him on antibiotics,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said Monday. “He should be fine.”

Good to hear for the 39-year-old Thornton, who was placed on injured reserve on Sunday. Of course, a knee infection was what eventually led to the end of Raffi Torres’ NHL career, and considering Jumbo’s recent health history, hopefully he’s able to come back at full strength.

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

As the Sharks await Thornton’s return, they face a Philadelphia Flyers team that got the news they’ll be without James van Riemsdyk for the next 5-6 weeks due to a lower-body injury. They split their opening two games on the road and have three of their next four at Wells Fargo Center. Dave Hakstol’s group is of the mind some home cooking might get them going on a roll.

In JVR’s place on the third line with Wayne Simmonds and Mikhail Vorobyev will be Jordan Weal, who recorded 21 points in 69 games last season while averaging just under 13 minutes a night. 

Weal, a natural center, got experience on the wing last season and appears up for the challenge of performing there when needed.

“I think every part of my game got a little more comfortable coming into this year. It’s a year-to-year thing as you get more comfortable with a team, with the guys and with the league and the do’s and don’ts,” Weal said on Monday. “I think from last year to this year, I kept working hard during the summer, trying to get better at the little things in my game that I think I need to work on and get ready to go.”

Gritty’s home debut

With all the pre-season buzz about the Flyers’ new mascot, as part of their home opener Gritty will be making its first regular season game appearance. According to the team, Gritty will make a “dramatic grand entrance” and will “participate in many stunts and games on the ice and in the seats.”

The Flyers should really just place Gritty inside the visiting team’s penalty box all night just to see what happens.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.