Stanley Cup champion Capitals to visit Trump at White House

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will get a chance to celebrate their Stanley Cup championship with President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday.

The Russian-born captain and playoff MVP and his teammates are continuing the NHL tradition of visiting the sitting president after some recent champions in other leagues have chosen not to.

”I’m looking forward (to it),” Ovechkin said in June after winning the Cup. ”I can’t wait. I never been there. I want to take pictures around it. It will be fun.”

A White House spokesman confirmed the visit to The Associated Press on Tuesday. The Capitals are Washington’s first champions in the four major North American sports leagues since the NFL’s Redskins in 1992, also the last hometown pro team to visit the White House.

This visit has political undertones given that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia and whether the president obstructed the investigation. Ovechkin has been a vocal supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and fellow countrymen Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov are also on the team.

After posting on Instagram about Putin in November 2017, Ovechkin said it was not political while adding that he had a good relationship with Putin.

”I just support my president and just support my country because I’m from there, and you know, if people from U.S. came to Russia, they care about what happen in the U.S.,” Ovechkin said. ”So, I care about what happening in Russia because it’s my home and it’s where I’m from.”

Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who is currently in the minors, told Postmedia in Canada during the final that he wouldn’t go to the White House. Forward Brett Connolly declined comment on the matter before the team left town last summer.

But the Capitals are nevertheless doing what the 2017 champion Pittsburgh Penguins did and visiting Trump. Back-to-back Cup-winning coach Mike Sullivan said at the White House in October 2017 that the team’s visit was not political and the Penguins were ”simply honoring our championship and the accomplishments of this group of players over this season or the last two seasons.”

The NBA’s Golden State Warriors decided not to go to the White House after either of their past two championships. Several players met with former President Barack Obama before facing the Washington Wizards in February.

The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles had a visit planned, but only two players planned to go to the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl win, and Trump rescinded their invitation on the eve of the gathering. After the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in February, defensive back Devin McCourty said he wouldn’t go if the team visited Trump, which it did in 2017 – absent quarterback Tom Brady and others.

Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox are scheduled to celebrate their World Series championship at the White House on May 9.

They won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history last June against the Vegas Golden Knights.

”I would like to go there,” center Nicklas Backstrom said in June. ”I think the building is pretty cool and everything. I’m not going to get into this discussion that a lot of the other athletes have been talking about. I think the building is pretty cool, and I think it’s an honor if the president invites you.”

Goaltender Braden Holtby said at the time the Capitals would make a team decision about the White House and ”weigh the positives and negatives of everything.”

”In any situation like that, you want to make sure you’re doing what’s right for what you believe in and that should take thought – and weigh a group decision,” Holtby said.

AP White House reporter Darlene Superville contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Hockey families get creative in solving time, cost concerns

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Megan Lincoln couldn’t put her son into hockey right away when he wanted to play.

She didn’t have the time to take off from work to shuttle him to practice or the money to pour into a traditionally expensive sport.

”Nothing is cheap,” Lincoln said. ”There’s nothing about hockey that is cheap. Maybe some laces.”

But Reggie Hunter became a hockey player when the family found out Snider Hockey was offering free equipment and instruction 20 minutes from their New Jersey home. He learned to play multiple positions over time as his great-grandfather drove him to and from the rink in Pennsauken. That was seven years ago. Hunter, now 21, went on to play junior hockey.

Many families wrestle with the time and money needed to play youth sports, but those challenges can be even more significant when it comes to hockey, with all of its equipment and rinks that are sometimes far away. For the less wealthy, having a child who dreams of hockey can look like a nightmare.

”The challenge is that hockey is a very unique sport and it’s a very expensive sport,” said NHL diversity ambassador Willie O’Ree, who broke the league’s color barrier in 1958. ”To go into a sport shop and outfit a 10- to a 13-year-old boy or girl, it costs about $800, and a lot of these families, they just can’t afford the money.”

The cost of protective equipment, sticks and ice time is one factor that keeps hockey lagging behind sports such as basketball and soccer in the U.S. among minority children. Snider Hockey program director Dan Rudd estimates the expenses of travel hockey alone can cost a family $2,000-$3,000 a year.

Steps are being taken to address those concerns, including programs like Snider Hockey in Philadelphia, Detroit Ice Dreams and Hockey is for Everyone, Future Goals and Learn to Play from the NHL and NHL Players’ Association. Many outfit kids with all they need to get on the ice.

Detroit Ice Dreams vice president and program manager Cynthia Wardlaw likened the cost of her children playing hockey to a car bill or a mortgage bill.

”I would’ve never been able to afford hockey if it wasn’t for a program like this because it wouldn’t have ever fit in my budget,” Wardlaw said. ”No matter how much my kid might’ve enjoyed it or liked it or loved it, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. We have a lot of parents that are thankful for our program because they would’ve never been able to experience the game of hockey because hockey is very expensive.”

Neal Henderson, who founded the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club in Washington in 1978, said his organization outfits kids from head to foot with safe equipment. Some rinks rely on donated or used equipment that can be passed down from older to younger players.

Snider Hockey provides equipment, too, as part of almost $5 million in annual expenses. It also helps parents trying to figure out what to buy.

”Sometimes the parents don’t have the experience in the sport to understand what to look for, so they need mentors, they need subject matter experts,” said Jim Britt, the since-retired first employee of Snider Hockey. ”They need coaching along the way to make sure they know a $500 piece of equipment isn’t necessarily better than a $300 piece of equipment or a $200 piece of equipment.”

Coaches are also part-time drivers at Snider Hockey, and parents run carpools for practices and games. Detroit Ice Dreams Founder Jason McCrimmon said he barters with city-run rinks by offering basic classes to get favorable ice time that allows kids to practice and play after school – hours more favorable than early in the morning or late at night.

Small-ice practices, where a team needs just a third of the rink, also helps organizations keep costs down.

”You divide the dollars you spend on an hour of ice by 60 instead of 20,” Snider Hockey executive vice president Jan Koziara said. ”It’s a huge return.”

NHL, NHLPA and USA Hockey assistance goes a long way as the organizations try to grow the game. Henderson believes the onus is still on parents to explore options.

”The parents have to make a sacrifice, and they have to make a sacrifice to become involved,” Henderson said. ”(A child who asks their parents to play) knows the answer will be they’re too busy or they’ve got to work or they think that the price is too high. They have no idea of cost, and they don’t know what a commitment would be.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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In city centers, a determined effort to diversify hockey

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — In a crowded hallway at Scanlon Ice Rink, Logan Johnson slid into his pads as his brother Malakye and sister Wylla skittered around sticks and bags bulging with hockey equipment.

Their mother, April, tried to keep order and Wylla asked whether a board game of Candy Land might help fill the time until Malakye’s practice, which didn’t start until a half-hour after Logan wraps up. Snacks and homework were handy since the family knew they would be spending several hours here on a school night.

It was a standard visit to the rink for the Johnsons, who are familiar with the 20-minute drive from their Germantown neighborhood to Kensington in north Philadelphia. Four years after knowing nothing about hockey, the sport now consumes their lives for nine months out of the year between travel, practices and games, as it does for countless families of young players across North America.

The Johnsons, however, are African-American and the participation of people of color in a sport that has for decades been predominantly played by whites still stands out 61 years after Willie O’Ree broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League. Minority players in the NHL remain a relative rarity but the effort to increase diversity in the sport – some of it funded by the league – has never been more robust than it is now. The results can be seen in neighborhoods where basketball, baseball and football are still the top choices for many.

Hockey was a tough sell for the Johnson family with football the sport of choice in Germantown. April Johnson said she didn’t want to switch her children, now 13, 10 and 8, to the ice even when she found out it could be free through the Snider Hockey program that runs programs at five city rinks, including Scanlon. She now tells everyone she can about her experience, though she encounters plenty of reluctance – almost always that their child already plays football or basketball.

”Some people are just kind of gun shy,” she said. ”They don’t know what to expect, so they just don’t even want to try it out.”

The challenge for youth hockey programs trying to add minority players are cultural, socio-economic and logistical. The sport, unlike others, has to feel more welcoming and inclusive than others in communities that have shunned or ignored it.

The Scanlon rink, in the heart of a neighborhood that has struggled with drugs and crime, is both a refuge and a showcase of what the future of the sport could look like. Far from the reputation of hockey being a white sport, children and families of all races and from all corners of the city reflect the population far more than the NHL today.

While just 5 percent of the 778 NHL players are minorities, that number is 70 percent within Snider Hockey, a program the late Flyers owner Ed Snider started in 2005 and provides free equipment, ice time and academic support for more than 3,000 students. Ice Hockey in Harlem, Detroit Ice Dreams and other organizations are also trying to bring the sport to people who never thought it was for them.

”The first barrier is just letting folks know about this opportunity that’s in their neighborhood,” Snider Hockey executive vice president Jan Koziara said. ”The biggest barrier is convincing families who aren’t hockey fans, haven’t ever really been exposed to hockey to give it a shot. From there, people become hockey fans and hockey families very quickly.”

USA Hockey counted 382,514 youth players last season, up from 339,610 eight years earlier, but has only just begun tracking participation numbers by race and doesn’t yet have any data to share publicly. Kim Davis, hired in 2017 as the NHL’s first executive vice president of social impact, growth and legislative affairs, said she believes diversity of hockey at the youth level is underestimated.

”You look across the country, you can’t help but know that given the demographics that we’re seeing regionally and state by state that the pipeline of talent, particularly for kids that are starting our sport as early as age 3 or 4, is shifting,” she said.

William Frey of the Brookings Institute, who has consulted the NHL on demographic shifts, expects the 2020 census to show the population under age 18 is less than half white, which makes the outreach to nontraditional hockey communities critical to the future of the sport.

”We don’t want to leave anybody behind,” said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, who aided an effort to keep Washington’s Fort Dupont Ice Arena open amid a funding crisis. ”It’s within everyone’s best interest to make sure that we build organizations, businesses, communities that are reflective to the people that you serve.”

It remains a challenge to lure children to an unfamiliar sport. Kids in Kensington who know LeBron James and Steph Curry are less likely to know about black hockey players like P.K. Subban or even Wayne Simmonds, who was recently traded by Philadelphia to Nashville.

”A lot of kids don’t see it, so they don’t think it’s OK,” said Jason McCrimmon, the Detroit Ice Dreams president and founder. ”That’s what we still deal with in this day and age when we go out to recruit. It’s still like: ‘I don’t really want to play hockey. My friends don’t play it or what would they think of me if I played it?’ It’s an easier situation for a kid to kind of adapt and going the route of playing basketball or football because it’s so normal and it’s seen on a regular basis for kids that look like them.”

The NHL said the league and the NHL Players’ Association have invested roughly $100 million since 2015 in programs to grow the game, from the joint Industry Growth Fund to Hockey is for Everyone, Future Goals and Learn to Play. Subban, Simmonds, Columbus’ Seth Jones and O’Ree serve as inspirations in black communities across North America just as players like Scott Gomez, Richard Park, Jonathan Cheechoo and Craig Berube did for Hispanic, Asian and Native American and First Nations communities.

”When I was younger, if I didn’t see people who look like me playing hockey, that’s probably something that I wouldn’t have (gotten into),” Simmonds said.

Snider Hockey exemplifies that in Philadelphia, which is more than 40 percent black. Director of programs Dan Rudd said it was difficult to find black and Latino coaches to reflect the community at first but over the past decade alumni have come back to coach.

There is Virlen Reyes, who went from the streets of Kensington to captain West Chester University to a club hockey national title, became Snider Hockey’s first college graduate and now co-owns an art studio. There is Kaseir Archie, another Kensington kid who chose hockey over basketball and is now a junior at Drexel.

Reyes used to get strange looks carrying her bag and stick on the train and saw drug dealers and syringes not far from Scanlon. Now she sees all kinds of kids rolling their gear into the building.

”I’ve seen an immense decrease in drug influence and violence within that community,” Reyes said. ”You have people from outside the community, they are coming in and bringing their families. To see other families be comfortable with coming into a community that’s known to be one of America’s most violent and drug-influenced areas, that is a signal to know that great change is happening here.”

When he’s not watching NHL Network to learn about a sport he was entirely unfamiliar with, Chip Finney comes from West Philadelphia for his 9-year-old son Miles’ practices. A conversation with another father in the schoolyard took Finney’s family to hockey, and now Miles is the goalie for a team that also has a Muslim girl who wears a hijab on the ice.

”This unusual is his normal,” Finney said.

O’Ree, who broke the NHL color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958, has spent 22 years as the league’s diversity ambassador. He said he has noticed significant progress.

”Hockey’s a white sport? That’s ridiculous,” O’Ree said. ”You can play any sport you want regardless of what color you are if you have the will and the desire.”

Rudd and Snider Hockey coaches have honed their message at schools and churches to try to reach more kids like Malakye Johnson, whose friends still don’t play hockey. Kids and parents, after all, make up the real sales force.

”It just takes word of mouth,” April Johnson said.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Sharks defenseman Radim Simek needs knee ligament surgery

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — San Jose Sharks defenseman Radim Simek needs surgery for torn ligaments in his right knee.

General manager Doug Wilson said Thursday that Simek tore his ACL and MCL after a hit in Tuesday night’s win against Winnipeg.

Simek has one goal and eight assists in 41 games this season. He has mostly been paired with Brent Burns.

The first-place Sharks have depth at defense and will move Joakim Ryan into the lineup. Erik Karlsson remains sidelined by a groin injury but is expected to be healthy for the playoffs.

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Malkin at 1,000; a star hiding in plain sight

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By Will Graves (AP Sports Writer)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The cameras crowd around Sidney Crosby‘s stall, parting only to let the Pittsburgh Penguins captain slip through and tug on a baseball cap before the lights flip on, the microphones close in and the questions come.

Fifteen feet away, Evgeni Malkin goes about his business quietly as part of his game-day routine, consulting with a staff member about a piece of equipment before ducking out, a star hiding in plain sight.

In another era or in another NHL city, it wouldn’t be this way. Yet this is Malkin’s lot, one the 32-year-old Russian and most recent member of 1,000-point club readily accepts. Drafted one spot behind fellow countryman Alex Ovechkin and one year ahead of Crosby – whom he’s partnered to win three Stanley Cups with over the last decade – Malkin is forever being nudged ever so slightly into the shadow of the two players who have defined the league for a generation.

”I think he likes it that way, to be honest with you,” said former teammate Brooks Orpik, now a defenseman for the Washington Capitals. ”He lets Sid do a lot more of the media stuff. And he kind of does his own thing and flies under the radar. I think he’s good with that part of it.”

Even if Malkin’s affable public reticence plays in stark contrast to the way he goes about doing his job, where the 2012 Hart Trophy winner, four-time All-Star and two-time scoring champion is a study in contrasts. Hulking yet nimble. Intimidating yet imaginative. A 6-foot-3, 195-pound anomaly of speed, power and skill who joined Ovechkin and Crosby, San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Toronto’s Patrick Marleau as the only active players to hit four digits when he collected two assists in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 victory over Washington on Tuesday night.

Malkin picked up secondary assists on Crosby’s second-period goal and Phil Kessel‘s third-period marker and celebrated by getting mobbed in the corner as the sellout crowd that included his parents and his wife rose to its feet in appreciation. Not bad for a kid from Magnitogorsk, Russia who never imagined he’d called America home.

”I grow up in small city and never think I play in NHL and score like, 1,000 points,” Malkin said.

Yet what once must have seemed impossible became inevitable as the years passed, the goals piled up and his reputation as one of the NHL’s most dynamic and daunting players blossomed.

”He makes it look easy, that’s the thing,” Crosby said. ”It’s so effortless for him.”

Crosby offered a sequence during Pittsburgh’s 4-2 win over Boston on Sunday night as proof. Malkin collected a pass at the Penguins’ blue line, raced by Bruins forward Peter Cehlarik, slipped the puck underneath Boston defenseman Brandon Carlo‘s flailing stick – spinning Carlo around completely in the process – then re-gathered it before ripping a wrist shot that soared over the crossbar. The whole thing took five seconds. Even now, 13 years into a partnership as productive as any in modern NHL history, Crosby couldn’t help but shake his head.

”You know how hard those things are to do?” Crosby said. ”And to see him do it the way he does is pretty special.”

And also a well-kept secret of sorts.

When the NHL released its top 100 players of all-time in conjunction with the league’s 100th anniversary in 2017, Crosby and Ovechkin’s names were on the list. Malkin’s was not, a fact he tried to play off by joking that if he won a couple of more Stanley Cups he could be No. 101. His friends and teammates didn’t take it quite so well, with Orpik calling the omission ”pretty outrageous.”

Maybe, but it’s also symbolic of Malkin’s unusual place in the NHL stratosphere. Famous, but not that famous. Well-respected. Just not quite as much as the two players he’s most closely associated with.

”I think of outside of Pittsburgh, I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for the body of work that he’s put together in his decade-plus years as a Pittsburgh Penguin,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. ”When you look at what he’s accomplished, it’s remarkable.”

It’s just that he happens to share a dressing room with the league’s most recognizable name and the same homeland as the greatest Russian player ever. Malkin’s 1.178 career points per game is second-highest among active players. Crosby is first. Ovechkin is third.

Even on the night Malkin reached elite company, he couldn’t hold the spotlight for long. Less than three minutes after reaching 1,000 points, Malkin watched Ovechkin set up John Carlson for a goal that made Ovechkin the 48th player to reach 1,200 points. Maybe it’s fitting. Crosby’s combination of talent and relentlessness helped make him the face of the NHL, with Ovechkin long serving as Crosby’s emotional counterpoint, raw and primal. Malkin’s persona – much like his stats – falls somewhere in between.

”He’s Malkin,” Ovechkin said with shrug. ”Everybody’s different.”

And no less effective. Malkin plays with a natural ease, producing highlight-reel plays with the casualness of someone goofing around at the end of a morning skate. That casualness is a testament to both Malkin’s immense ability and one of the primary reasons his production can be taken for granted.

What Malkin does is incredibly difficult. The fact he doesn’t make it look that way is both a compliment and a curse.

”Sid’s the hardest-working guy I’ve ever played with and I think he has to do that to be at the level he’s at,” Orpik said. ”You can see Geno take a month off and come back and most guys are usually pretty rusty, he’s pretty much right at that level all the time.”

Well, maybe not all the time.

Malkin’s milestone moment came during an uncharacteristically uneven season. He didn’t score an even strength goal during November, his minus-23 rating heading into Tuesday ranked worst on the team and he’s shown a penchant for taking needless offensive zone penalties.

”It’s a tough year for me but every game, team play better and I think my game, it’s like back and I feel so much better every night,” Malkin said. ”My confidence back.”

Pittsburgh’s best chances at emerging from the crowded race for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference will rely heavily on Malkin being Malkin over the last three weeks of the regular season.

There have been signs of late, like his sizzling end-to-end rush against Boston or the way he quarterbacked a resurgent power play that scored twice against the Capitals. They are things that he’s done with astonishing regularity through the years, so much so that when he doesn’t do them the discussion centers on what he’s doing wrong rather than an appreciation for all the things he’s done right.

Those who get to witness his excellence on a day-to-day basis think it’s time for that perception to change. Malkin might not care. But they do.

”We all understand what he means to this team,” Sullivan said. ”He doesn’t get the credit he deserves outside of Pittsburgh in the hockey world. He’s been one of the elite players in this hockey league for more than a decade and he deserves more attention for that.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Wild and Stars are in the middle of a wide-open scramble for the final two playoff spots in the west. Their meeting in Minnesota on Thursday could start to provide some clarity.

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