30 Thoughts: The NHL’s rocky road to a women’s outdoor game

In case you need extra motivation getting ready for the Canadiens vs Bruins match-up on New Year's Day!

In a lot of ways it’s a huge victory, but in others, it’s a wasted opportunity.

The NHL and North America’s two professional women’s hockey leagues finally announced the first Winter Classic game featuring female players, to be held Thursday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

This is a grand stage, sharing a doubleheader with two of the sport’s great alumni chapters, Boston and Montreal. It’s tremendous for women’s hockey, and it’s a smart play by the NHL, which pushed for this. The biggest challenge facing the game is inclusion, and you’re telling a generation of young girls, “Hey, you too can play in a huge outdoor game some day.” Nice. More younger female athletes means more passionate fans.

This is a conversation for another blog, but a lot of women are way more sophisticated about sports than they get credit for. Leagues must nurture that.

But (there’s always a but), this was a surprisingly rocky road.

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No one will go on the record, but there was a lot of frustration with the negotiation process. The CWHL (five teams, four in Canada, one in Boston) and the NWHL (four teams, all in the USA) aren’t exactly “besties.” I’m not sure the NHL even realized what it was wading into. There was open hostility as conversations began and it delayed the process. According to a couple of sources, the league considered walking away.

Ultimately, everyone came to their senses and realized one game was better than none. Of course, that didn’t come without controversy.

There are players in the game who are great representatives: Julie Chu, Charline Labonte, Caroline Ouellette among them. But, several of the top American players — including Hilary Knight, the most well-known — can’t play because the date conflicts with a National Team camp. USA Hockey’s taken a beating for this, criticized as myopic for not allowing the best of the current generation this honour.

I wrote that, too. And I heard about it.

Last week, a friend of mine who does business with that organization reached out on its behalf. He said it was unfair to throw the sole blame at USA Hockey, pointing out that it sets the dates of those camps in conjunction with the players (true) and that promises were made about availability without asking (can’t say for sure). Whatever the case, it’s a loss for the show — which is not being aired live.

Come Thursday, we’ll all enjoy the spectacle, appreciate that it happened, and move on. But, what everyone involved needs to do is start next year’s process right away. The outdoor game will kick off the NHL’s 100th anniversary season. It will be a stunner if it’s not in Toronto. (Part of me wonders if the league considers a doubleheader with an American game, too.) The two leagues have to be a part of that, as it’s going to be a huge event.

Make sure your best players can be there. Your alumni too — the Campbells, the Granatos, the James’s, the Ruggieros, the Wickenheisers (not retired yet, I should point out).

Don’t muck up a great thing.

30 Thoughts

1. January 1 is an important day in the NHL, and not just because of the outdoor game or the calendar flip. At that time, any player on a one-year contract is eligible to sign an extension.

Among the more interesting names: Arizona’s Mikkel Boedker (unrestricted, talks to begin soon), Florida’s Jaromir Jagr (unrestricted), Washington’s Marcus Johansson (restricted), Boston’s Torey Krug (restricted) and Detroit’s Petr Mrazek (restricted).

Both of Edmonton’s goalies — Anders Nilsson and Cam Talbot — are on one-year contracts. Talbot is unrestricted. Nilsson isn’t.

2. By far, the most fascinating discussion will be Mike Hoffman’s. He’s scheduled to be unrestricted in July 2017.

Only 51 forwards have averaged more than his 0.73 points per game the last two seasons. Four (Filip Forsberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Nikita Kucherov, Sean Monahan) are on their entry-level deals, although all need new contracts. Of the remaining 47, nine are above $8M per year, 19 are above $7M, 27 above $6M and 36 above $5M.

Two of the players lower than that are Hoffman teammates: Mark Stone and Kyle Turris, although both signed at age 23, not 26. He’s got less of a pedigree than anyone on the list. I have no idea where this is going to go, but I’m fascinated to find out.

3. Chicago’s Marcus Kruger is another who can extend. He’s restricted.

There were a lot of rumours the two sides worked on the next contract as this one was finalized. It’s not unheard-of. Boston did that with Krug and Reilly Smith a year ago.

4. Edmonton and Montreal ended up doing a one-for-one with Zack Kassian and Ben Scrivens, but it would be interesting to know where discussions took them.

They were talking for awhile, and you rarely spend that much time working on a deal without trying to make it bigger. How many names fell to the cutting-room floor?

When Kassian was told not to report to AHL St. John’s, you wondered if the Canadiens were going to go the same route they did with Scott Gomez and Georges Laraque — sending the player home. But, even though several GMs doubted Marc Bergevin could make a trade, others said he was confident of the possibility. What helped? The two organizations and two players badly wanted this to happen.

5. To me, the biggest question about Edmonton’s acquisition is who will be watching him?

AHL schedules have a lot of down time, and he is one of the older players on the roster. Even if Kassian does get to the big club, it’s a young core. Can’t help but wonder if what the Kings did with Brantt Myhres might be a good idea.

Just spitballing, but maybe someone like Louie DeBrusk is a fit. Of course, now that his son Jake is in WHL Red Deer, Louie might not want to escape winter and go to California.

6. Sportsnet’s Eric Engels reported Nashville was another team that looked at Kassian. I could see it.

The Predators thought about Chris Stewart at this time last year. Also, don’t forget the organization took great pride in helping Brian McGrattan and Jordin Tootoo restart their NHL careers. If you’re willing to help yourself, they will provide the springboard.

7. During last Saturday’s Headlines, I reported San Jose was doing intel on Kassian, as one of his OHL coaches, Bob Boughner, is on the Sharks’ bench. There was some pushback (although not from the club itself, or the Canadiens), that their interest was not high.

A couple of sources indicated, however, that San Jose is eyeing another possibility with junior ties to the club. Peter DeBoer and Steve Spott were at OHL Kitchener with Mike Richards.

No clarity in his situation yet, but there’s logic here.

8. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik met with Tampa-area reporters Monday as his impressive “Community Heroes” program reached $10M in donations. Asked about Steven Stamkos, Vinik re-iterated his confidence in getting something done.

Over the Christmas break, I remembered an ages-old conversation with former Texas Ranger Ivan Rodriguez. Paraphrasing here, but, in 1997, Rodriguez was a pending free agent. There was little progress on a new contract, so the team traded for Jim Leyritz days before the deadline. Rodriguez walked into the team president’s office and re-started the process. He said he asked what the team wished to pay, explained that he wanted to stay, moved up the number (“a little,” he said with a smile) and handed talks back to his agent. Days later, the deal was done. (He became the highest-paid catcher in baseball history at the time.)

As I’ve written/said before, I believe Stamkos’s first choice is to stay. And I wonder if this an approach to consider. One way or another, he’s going to learn what the Lightning truly think. That forces everyone into the decisions that must be made.

9. Jeff Gorton’s kept a low profile since becoming the Rangers’ GM, but whether he speaks publicly or not, we’re going to get a good idea of what he really thinks about his team.

Even when they led the Metropolitan Division, coach Alain Vigneault warned it was a mirage. He’s proven correct. I still think New York makes the playoffs, but if they don’t, the first-round pick they traded to the Arizona (Keith Yandle) slides to 2017.

This is purely me thinking, but what other picks could they get for a Dominic Moore or a Yandle? And, if they really decided to go big, they could test the market on a Rick Nash (who has no-trade protection). Be curious to see if a contender thought he might be a critical piece.

10. If the Rangers did decide to go that far, would anybody be surprised if they took a run at Stamkos, should he hit free agency? Does he know anyone who used to play in Tampa that went to Manhattan?

11. Partially tongue-in-cheek idea: If I’m Columbus, I’m offering Vancouver a bagful of money right now to put Travis Green on my bench. Pick the capacity. Whatever. That’s the guy I want to see work with Ryan Johansen before trading him.

12. Flyers captain Claude Giroux told Philadelphia reporters, “I have to be better” the day after the club lost to Anaheim at the start of a western trip.

If there is one critique of Giroux’s game, it’s his dependency on power play points. Scoring with the extra man is critical considering how hard it is to do so five-on-five, but compare Giroux to some of his compatriots. He leads the NHL with 50 such points the past two seasons, and has 101 overall. That’s 49.5 per cent of his total coming with the man-advantage.

Of the other nine players in the top 10 of power play totals, Joe Pavelski’s 43.4 is next highest (46 of 106). Tyler Seguin is lowest at 34.7 (43 of 124). Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are also below 40, while Stamkos is right at it.

13. Sounds like the Kings, who tormented Vancouver Monday night, are really doing their research into defencemen who could fill Matt Greene’s role. Nothing imminent, but a lot of legwork.

14. Canucks GM Jim Benning said earlier this season he would wait to the New Year before making some long-term decisions about his team. That included any potential extension talks for potential free agents.

He declined last weekend to chat about his plans, but the current seven-game homestand, followed by a six-game road trip, probably tells the tale — even though his team is far from healthy.

The biggest question is, what does owner Francesco Aquilini think? A run for playoff dates is tough to turn down. No one in the Pacific is out of it yet.

15. Dan Hamhuis’s injury doesn’t make it easier.

Having your jaw wired shut destroys conditioning, since you can’t eat properly. Won’t be an easy timeline for Hamhuis or the Canucks to figure, because once he’s okay to workout, how long will it take to regain that strength? And, if a trade is end result, how much time will other clubs get to look at him?

Radim Vrbata can help anyone, but the Canucks must ask for a list of where he’d go to. Hard to pin down, but no evidence that’s happened.

16. Vancouver changed overtime tactics after an 0-7 start in three-on-three. The Canucks let Florida come at them, losing in a shootout, before beating Edmonton.

I’m not sure sitting back, bracing for the onslaught is the actual strategy, but it looks like they’ve switched from a man-to-man style defence to more of a zone.

17. The Canucks’ pre-season goals were loftier than New Jersey’s, but there’s a similarity now.

The Devils are three points out, closer than many of us expected. Did GM Ray Shero expect his Devils to be in the race as we hit 2016?

“I really didn’t know. You hope to be. It certainly beats being 12 points out,” he said Monday.

What does that mean for decisions later this season?

“There’s still a long way to go, but if we are still competitive you do want to help out. It’s not like Pittsburgh…more like when I was in Ottawa and Nashville. We’re building something and you have to think bigger picture.”

Then, he used the same quote Patrick Roy did in this space last week: “No one wants to suck. And, if we are losing games by one goal, you think to yourself, ‘Where can I find that one goal?’”

18. The GM did point out, though, his team hasn’t won back-to-back games since Nov. 12-14.

“We need to be better. A little more speed, a little more emotion, more time in other team’s zone. We’ve slipped in that area.” Shero added that “thinking bigger picture” isn’t just about hoarding draft picks and young players.

“What kind of team are we going to be tomorrow night, Wednesday night, in January, in March, even in June? Our veteran guys lead us, play hard. We’ve got cap space, a good staff, we’ve trying to create something to sell…to show (other players) that you want to be here. That’s what you build for.”

19. A few years ago, I was talking to Detroit GM Ken Holland about what he looks for in a player, and expected him to say skill. The first thing he mentioned was how competitive they are.

Here’s Shero, asked what he’s learned: “I’ve found out Cory Schneider, how competitive he is. Mike Cammalleri, I’ve watched him since Michigan. I didn’t know him, but you see on paper that he’s had a good career. Now, you realize how he thinks about the game and how competitive he is. Andy Greene. People think they know Andy, but they don’t know Andy and why he’s on the radar for the World Cup.”

Shero also mentioned Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique and credited John Moore for taking advantage of his opportunity. But it’s not enough yet.

“We’re trying to create that internal competition, guys forcing themselves into the lineup.” He’s talking Eric Gelinas, Jacob Josefson, Stefan Matteau and Jon Merrill. Sounds like Matteau will get some extra opportunity soon. As for Josefson, “He’s reliable, still young. But don’t be satisfied.”

20. A couple of years ago, I asked a couple execs about John Hynes’ chances of being an NHL head coach. The only concern was Hynes is too short and, therefore, wouldn’t be able to command a room. Shero laughed at that one.

“Have you seen Barry Trotz lately? He’s one of the best people in the whole game. It’s all about presence and confidence in yourself.” Can you give an example? “When you’re coaching Mike Cammalleri, you’re going to say, ‘We need you to do this.’ He’s going to answer, ‘Why?’ You have to be able to say, ‘Here’s why, and here’s why you’re going to have success.’ Coaching is not telling anyone why anymore, it’s explaining why. I’ve talked with Mike Babcock that your meetings now are about four minutes, and you better get your point across. Coaching is public speaking. Remember in high school, you could take public speaking or (physical education) and 95 per cent took phys ed? No one wants to do public speaking. But players see when you’re rambling or when you know your stuff. They bought in with John very quickly.”

21. Finally, did try to pin down Shero on when he’ll try to finish an extension with 15-goal man Kyle Palmieri, a restricted free agent who looks like a cornerstone.

“We’ll get to it. Whether it’s January, or at the end of the season, I don’t know. But it’s on our radar for sure.”

22. Got to think Colorado has to start serious negotiations with Nathan MacKinnon at some point, too. No one is talking, but rumours were the decision at the start of the year was to wait a little.

He’s not unrestricted, and it sure sounds like the Avalanche have decided to set the salary bar around him, so you don’t expect this to be a huge problem. But the final number probably determines some of their other business.

23. Last weekend, Boston GM Don Sweeney said David Pastrnak was going to the World Juniors barring an injury to the Bruins. Pastrnak went, then David Krejci got hurt. No change of mind, though. Pastrnak will stay in Finland, giving Ryan Spooner the opportunity.

24. When the Oilers recalled Brad Hunt to aid their ailing blue-line, fans wondered, “Why not Griffin Reinhart?’ on Twitter.

You get the sense Edmonton believes very strongly Reinhart needs AHL time. He’ll be 22 next month and has fewer than 80 games of AHL experience. The Hunt call-up indicates this is something the organization wants to commit to.

People have to get out of the mindset that it’s a failure if a young player has to go to the AHL. Same goes for Adam Lowry, just recalled when Mark Scheifele was injured. “We have no doubt where he will get to,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said of Lowry last week.

25. Cheveldayoff definitely had the quote of the week. Asked if the story about contract demands affected his team, he replied: “What story?’

26. When Edmonton beat Winnipeg 3-1 last Monday, the first two Oilers goals were on clean entries at the left side of the Jets’ defence. The first was against Mark Stuart, the second on Jacob Trouba — playing his off-wing.

Now, we know Winnipeg’s strength is on its right side, where Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Trouba normally play. But, how much do other teams gameplan for it? Quite a bit, actually.

Our guys at Sportlogiq marked it. That night, the Oilers carried it over the blue-line 22 times. Fourteen were against the left d-man. The other eight were split between the right side and middle.

27. A couple of qualifiers: One coach thought it may have had to do as much with Edmonton’s breakouts as anything else. Doug MacLean, hearing the above numbers, immediately asked where Taylor Hall was. (The answer: on the opposite side for the first goal; on his weak side, directly against Trouba, to set up the second one.)

Who the wingers are definitely affects the data. So, Sportlogiq went back 10 games. The numbers: 45 per cent of clean entries against the left side, 28 per cent down the middle, rest on the right. Cheveldayoff didn’t sound surprised when asked about it.

“You’d love to have things equal in a perfect world. Usually, it’s different, you have a multitude of left shots, not rights. The key has to be adaptability.”

He also pointed out Trouba played his weak side with Seth Jones in the World Juniors. It also freed up the third-year defender to play 25 minutes that night.

28. Had a good conversation with Dainius Zubrus when the Sharks came through Toronto.

He’s approaching 1,300 games and it’s been 20 years since he left Ukraine to play in Caledon, ON. His whole family is here now — parents, brother, sister. It’s been quite the journey from Lithuania to Ukraine to Caledon to Pembroke, ON, to Philadelphia to Montreal to Washington to Buffalo to New Jersey to San Jose.

He spoke to former Devil Colin White about playing in California while your wife and children remain on the east coast, but added, “When you think your career is over, you always want one more game. I’ve loved all of it. I’ll never be able to give back what hockey’s given to me.”

29. A player to root for: Swedish World Junior goalie Linus Soderstrom.

In an interview with TV4 in Sweden, Soderstrom revealed he has Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD. (Thanks to Lighthouse Hockey, SBNation’s Islanders’ fan blog, for the translation.)

In North America, one in 68 children is on the Autism Spectrum. Parents of these boys and girls need role models to believe in. Just by getting this far, he gives so many families hope. All the best, Linus.

30. Hope 2016 is a fantastic year for all of you. Aim high. Take that one chance you never thought you’d take.

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