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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.”

It’s time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated

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Shortly after Blake Wheeler exploded for a career-high five-point night on Friday, the labels began to flow from the mouths of those affiliated with the Winnipeg Jets.

In a paraphrased sentence of several combined players and a coach, it looked like this:

“Blake Wheeler is an elite player, the heartbeat of Jets and the guy who drives the bus.”

If we are to extrapolate on this joint statement of sorts, we can glean that Wheeler enjoys high regard among his closest peers, is the most vital organ to his NHL team and the man who leads its charge.

Of course, a five-point night from anyone in the NHL will often lead to superlatives by the truckload. And Wheeler undoubtedly deserved the due recognition he received from his teammates after a special night at the rink.

The thing is, his teammates and coaches have always known. They see his work ethic and what the 32-year-old puts in so that he’s able to produce at the level he does. It’s normal to hear those closest to a team heap praise on their comrades.

But pilling on plaudits outside of Winnipeg’s sphere? It hasn’t always been the case for the Jets captain.

Wheeler’s underrated status has tagged alongside him for much of his career. The argument can be made that, up until last year, Wheeler was known as a good player — a productive power forward — but not one that came with the same clout as, say, a Nikita Kucherov.

Then Wheeler hit 91 points, tied for the NHL lead in assists with 63 and finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting last season. Many started to wake up to Wheeler’s worth, even if he was a near-point-per-game player for several seasons prior.

The highlights from Friday night’s game were a clinic on what an elite passer looks like. Wheeler’s nine-game point streak is nothing to scoff at.

Yet, the underrated label endures. Last week, Wheeler was voted the third-most underrated player in the NHL by 61 of his peers, behind Aleksander Barkov and Nicklas Backstrom. Given that Wheeler has always seemed to operate in the shadows of the league’s top righties, it wasn’t all that surprising.

What might surprise you to know that since 2011, Wheeler has the third most assists among right-handed shots in the NHL, behind only Claude Giroux and Patrick Kane, neither of whom would be categorized as underrated.

There’s more, too. In all situations, here’s where Wheeler sits in a variety of categories during that time frame.

  • Primary points/60: 3rd
  • Primary assists/60: 1st
  • Primary assists: 1st (226)
  • Points/60: 5th
  • Expected goals-for: 3rd

I suspect if you polled players for each position around the league as to who they think of first when they hear ‘Winnipeg Jets’, it might go something like this:

Furthermore, I’d venture a guess that many fans outside of Winnipeg might levy similar answers, too.

Perhaps Wheeler falls victim to a little of the ‘East Coast Bias’ we often hear about.

Taylor Hall, for instance, admitted on the Spitting Chicklets podcast last week that he probably benefited from some of that bias when it came pipping Nathan MacKinnon to the Hart Trophy last year.

It’s possible Wheeler, a fellow Central Division player like MacKinnon, gets overshadowed in that regard as well.

Why?

“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Saturday.

Maurice has opened the taps of praise for Wheeler many times during his Jets tenure. Maurice says Wheeler’s dominance isn’t lost in coaching circles.

“I know that other coaches do [notice Wheeler],” Maurice said. “So when you’re at the coaches meetings in the summer or you have colleagues you talk to, especially guys after you play, it’s like, ‘My god, Blake Wheeler is a dominant man out there.’ And they really see it, probably because he didn’t have a 50-goal season at 21 or 22 that brought the spotlight to him.

“He really built his game over the years, maybe in kind of the way Mark Scheifele did it early on in the first two or three [years]. He didn’t explode in his first few years. They are always very exciting young players that come in and put up numbers that are designated superstars from a young age. I think Blake has built this. He’s built his body to a machine that can drive as hard as anybody I’ve ever coached. And all of that has led to the skills I think he always possessed coming out.”


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

No hearing for Malkin for hit to head in Pens’ loss at Caps

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Evgeni Malkin will not have a disciplinary hearing for his shoulder to the head of T.J. Oshie during the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2-1 loss at the Washington Capitals.

Two people with direct knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press that Malkin would not face a hearing with the NHL department of player safety and therefore won’t be suspended. The people spoke on condition of anonymity Thursday because the league does not announce the lack of a hearing.

With Pittsburgh on the power play early in the third period, Malkin passed the puck and lifted his right shoulder into Oshie’s head and kept skating. The officials conferred before deciding to give Malkin a five-minute major penalty for an illegal check to the head and eject him from Wednesday night’s game.

Oshie, who returned and scored the game-winner with 1:14 left, was not mad at Malkin for what he perceived to be an accident.

”He maybe thought I was coming to hit him and so he threw the reverse shoulder out there, which I try to do that all the time,” Oshie said. ”I just wasn’t expecting it being on the PK.”

League officials agreed with Oshie’s assumption that Malkin was bracing for contact, not trying to deliver a vicious headshot. Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said after the game he was not concerned about the star Russian center facing further discipline, though Washington’s Todd Reirden left open the possibility.

”That’s definitely a blow to the head,” Reirden said. ”Those are things we’re trying to remove from the game. … We’re just really fortunate that it wasn’t something that was more serious and he was able to come back.”

Malkin, the Penguins’ leading scorer, will be eligible to play Saturday against the Arizona Coyotes. Pittsburgh has lost five in a row and has just one point during that stretch.

Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby stopped 41 of the 42 shots he faced for his first win since Oct. 22. He got some help from the post on almost a half-dozen occasions, but Holtby also turned in his best performance of the season.

”I felt comfortable as the game moved on,” Holtby said. ”I got some breaks, too, early on. The posts obviously was a break we weren’t getting in the past.”

Holtby kept the Capitals in the game, and Oshie provided the heroics. He left the game early in the first period after taking a stick to the face from Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta and needed two stitches to close a cut next to his left eye.

Oshie returned for the second period but had to leave again after the hit from Malkin. He returned for the second time with about five minutes remaining.

”My face is a little messed up, but I’m feeling pretty good now,” Oshie said. ”He caught me there, and it is what it is. I passed my concussion test, went out and won the game.”

Pittsburgh outshot Washington 42-22 and got 20 saves from Casey DeSmith in his first career start against the Capitals. He was powerless to stop Oshie’s goal after a pass from John Carlson gave him a wide-open net.

Late in a sloppy game full of turnovers and whiffs on the puck, Oshie just wanted to make sure he didn’t shoot so high he missed the net. After missing most of the first and third periods, Oshie made the most of his only shot in 13:51 of ice time.

”I barely saw him on the bench there,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. ”He came back right in time. That’s what big players do. They come back, they score the game-winner.”

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

The Buzzer: Holtby shines, Getzlaf plays hero for Ducks

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Three Stars

1. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie provided the offense for the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night, but if not for Braden Holtby they would not have been able to get the win. Holtby was the best player on the ice in the Capitals’ 2-1 victory, stopping 41 of the 42 Pittsburgh Penguins shots he faced. It was by far Holtby’s best game of the season since his season-opening shutout. He has struggled a bit over the first month and entering play on Wednesday had allowed at least three goals in seven of his previous nine appearances. That includes 12 total goals in his previous three appearances. On Wednesday night he once again looked like the top-tier goalie that he is.

2. Colton Sissons, Nashville Predators. After scoring a goal and recording an assist in the Predators’ season-opener, Colton Sissons managed just one point (an assist) in the 13 games that followed entering play in Colorado on Wednesday night. All he did there was record a hat trick in the Predators’ 4-1 win over the Avalanche. Even though Sissons is not really known for offense (entering play on Wednesday he had scored just 23 goals in 204 career games) this is the second hat trick of his career. He set a career-high in goals a season ago with nine, and he is now up to four this season thanks to his performance on Wednesday.

3. Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks. Injuries have really limited Ryan Getzlaf the past two seasons, but when he has been on the ice he has shown that he can still be a difference-maker for the Ducks. He scored the game-winning goal for them on Wednesday night in a 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames and is now up to 11 points in 11 games this season. Since the start of the 2017-18 season that brings his point total to 72 in 66 games. That 1.09 point per game average is 14th among all NHL players (minimum 40 games played) during that stretch.

Highlights of the Night

Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie had a couple of scares on Wednesday night due to hits to the head, but he was able to return to the game both times and eventually scored the game-winning goal to lift his team to a 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have now lost five games in a row.

Factoids of the Night

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin both scored goals for their teams on Wednesday night. This is the ninth time that has happened in their matchups.

Nashville Predators forward Colton Sissons seems to love playing against the Colorado Avalanche.

The Nashville Predators have been great on the road this season.

Scores

Washington Capitals 2, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

Nashville Predators 4, Colorado Avalanche 1

Anaheim Ducks 3, Calgary Flames 2

 

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.

Oshie’s revenge extends Penguins’ losing streak

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What a crazy night for Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie.

After leaving the game on two separate occasions due to hits to the head (a high-stick that produced a cut in the first period; a shoulder to the head from Evgeni Malkin in the third period resulting in an ejection), he was able to return with just enough time left to score the game-winning goal in the Capitals’ 2-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Alex Ovechkin, doing what he does best and blasting yet another one-timer from his office on the power play, scored the other goal for the Capitals.

Sidney Crosby scored the lone goal for the Penguins, who are now stuck riding a five-game losing streak.

[Related: Obviously unhappy GM rips Penguins’ slow start]

This latest loss for the Penguins came on the same day their general manager, Jim Rutherford, absolutely ripped the team for its early season inconsistencies. The thing that had to be especially frustrating for them on Wednesday is it was probably the best game they have played over the past two weeks. The biggest reason they did not get a better result was a touch of bad luck (at least three shots of the post), and what was a pretty great performance from Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.

At one point the Capitals went nearly 20 minutes without registering a shot on goal, while the Penguins continued to pepper Holtby with chances. In the end Holtby stopped 41 out of the 42 shots he faced.

With the win the Capitals are now just one point behind the New York Islanders for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division while the Penguins go from second place to — for now — out a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

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.