A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Hurry up and read this blog so you can watch Dave Chappelle’s special.
1. Connor Brown put his head down and dug a reputation as a Toronto Maple Leaf.
Defensive forward. Penalty killer. Checker. Hard worker. Straight lines. Blue collar.
He wasn’t supposed to be the playmaker who led the forwards in assists and rate among team leaders in points, as he was this past season in Ottawa. So, for his first three NHL seasons, Brown’s efforts went into finding a niche, not the net.
“I think that I tried to carve out a role. I saw so many guys in Toronto, and I tried to assert myself into that lineup. And, at times, looking back on it, I think I might have almost overdone it,” Brown explained this week on the Connor Carrick Podcast.
“I wish I would have found my confidence and found my skill that I found this year. And to make plays and to be more than just be that role player. I think I had more to offer.
“I was just trying my hardest to play that role that I felt like that team needed me to do.”
It’s an honest reflection from one ex-Leaf to another, and the type of candour that makes Carrick’s podcast a strong listen.
Brown, remember, was once a 128-point machine with the Erie Otters (yes, he had a decent linemate). Senators coach DJ Smith saw a guy who was capable of playing in the top six, of creating not just preventing goals.
After the “emotional shock” of getting traded away from his boyhood team wore off, Brown felt a jolt of optimism and self-belief before 2019’s training camp, just based off his support from Smith and GM Pierre Dorion.
“With the guys and the culture that we have worked towards in Ottawa, it’s definitely the best thing for me in my career and my happiness. So, it’s been a great change,” Brown said.
“Emotionally, I’ve come a long way.”
Covering Brown in his final Leafs season, one could sense he’d lost his way a bit. Bumped to the fourth line, he was hard on himself and shrunk from the spotlight. He was well aware of the trade speculation.
Brown is now a proud “dog dad.” He’s getting married next summer and will be negotiating the biggest contract of his life before that. Listening to him this year, there’s an assuredness, a sense of humour and a joy that is great to see.
“I really felt like it was a good time to make the move to Ottawa. It was good for my relationship, my happiness on the ice on and off the ice. It was really all positive,” Brown said.
“Eighty per cent of the game is between the ears once you’re playing. It’s just how you feel about yourself that night — wanting the puck. And it was just something that I definitely lost a little bit. I don’t think I was playing bad or hurting the team or anything when I was in Toronto, but I definitely wasn’t maximizing my potential. So, it’s been nice to find that in myself and find that in my game. And I think a big part of it is just the belief in me that was given.”
Some more goodies from Brown’s chat with Carrick:
On William Nylander, unprompted: “He’s the probably the most laid-back guy I’ve ever met in my entire life. But have you ever seen a guy on the ice more than him in your life? Right? I mean, he’s on the ice 25 minutes before practice, stick-handling through pucks lined up.”
On his 20-goal rookie season in 2016-17: “Bozie still lets me know that I had four empty-netters, though.”
On getting drafted in 2012: Brown says he only interviewed with three teams, Toronto, L.A. and New Jersey. All seemed interested. The number 156 had always been considered a lucky one in the Brown house. It was their street number in Etobicoke. Connor’s grandfather was a big horse gambler who’d always box 1-5-6 when he bet on the ponies. Grandpa would also holler “156!” when he drove past any address stamped with that number.
So, with the Browns watching the draft on TV, Connor’s mom notices in the fifth round that the Leafs hold the 156th pick in Round 6. Sure enough, Brown’s hometown team picks him 156th overall.
“It was an emotional, surreal day. My parents and my brother, they’re almost more emotional than I was in at all,” Brown said. “So it really just goes to show it’s a team. It’s a family effort to accomplish something like that.”
2. To have Colin Kaepernick jump on a Zoom call and share his wisdom with the brand-new Hockey Diversity Alliance meant the world to its seven-member executive committee.
“He’s been the leader of this whole movement from when he first took a knee,” Evander Kane says. “He shared some of his experiences, ups and downs that he went through. It was great to get some advice on things we could maybe avoid that he wasn’t able to because he was the first one to do it. [He] also gave us some real positive information on how to go about what we wanted to do. A real good voice and leader for our group in terms of our initial conversations.”
Asked for specifics of what the brave quarterback told the hockey players, Kane holds back.
“Those are private conversations, so I’ll respect his privacy,” Kane says. “I will say the advice he was able to give us was invaluable. And it was awesome to be able to hear some of the trials and tribulations he went through. Obviously, they’ve been well-documented, the majority of them. But [Kaepernick] also spoke about a lot of the positive change he’s been able to make as an individual throughout these last few years and how this movement is going to just continue to grow.”
Kane is a firm believer that change starts at the top. So he was emboldened when Sharks billionaire owner Hasso Plattner and GM Doug Wilson both reached out with their support prior to Monday’s unveiling of the Alliance.
“Having Hasso feel the same way about needing this change — he’s a very powerful man outside of hockey as well — is fantastic, and it just speaks to the values of our organization as a whole. And I think that’s important. That took leadership,” Kane says. “I think he’s the only owner — definitely in hockey — that made a personal statement, and I think that speaks volumes. We need more of that.”
In that same vein, Kane stresses the fight for equality must begin at the youth level, starting with heads of minor hockey associations, managers, and coaches.
“Those are the type of people that need to educate themselves and really open up their ears and be open to listening and learning about others’ experiences,” Kane says.
Kane spoke with one young Black player who recently encountered racism or racist remarks in 20 of his 40 games played.
“To me, that’s incredible,” Kane says, incredulous. “The incredible part is, that was the first time I or anyone had heard that. Those are the type of things that we need to weed out of our game. And those are the type of policy changes that obviously need to be corrected. It starts at the top, and it trickles down to the bottom.”
Interestingly, when Akim Aliu (another HDA exec) first came out midseason with his Bill Peters story, Kane says “15 or 16 of us” began linking on calls and discussing the idea of starting their own organization. Those conversations had grown less frequent. Then Aliu’s raw Players’ Tribune column got published and George Floyd got murdered. The players’ discussions quickly ramped up again.
“We felt that we can no longer just talk,” Kane says. “We had to do something.
“We want to take the initiative. We didn’t want to wait for something to happen because, to be honest, I’ve been waiting for 11 years, since I’ve gotten to the league. The narrative has always been controlled by the upper echelon. And I think this is a great opportunity for us to create our own narrative, changing the way people think and the culture of our sport.”
That the HDA is independent from the NHL (but willing to work with it) is critical here.
“We’re empowering ourselves to have control over what we set out to do,” Kane explains. “We don’t want this to be something that just looks good, or is a box that’s ticked off. We want to truly establish new policies throughout hockey at all levels. We want to help create a more diverse game, a more diverse fan base, and have everybody feel comfortable in their own skin.”
3. Leafs captain John Tavares counts himself as someone who needs to do a better job educating, understanding, and being part of changing hockey’s culture when it comes to diversity.
“I think we all wish we could have done a better job beforehand. Starting with myself,” Tavares said Tuesday. “When you look yourself in the mirror, those are the first things you ask yourself. So certainly, that’s going to be a big focal point for myself and trying to educate yourself the best you can and develop a meaningful plan that has very good purpose to eradicate this issue.”
Tavares says he’s been communicating with former linemate Kyle Okposo and has been trying to connect with pal P.K. Subban to talk about hockey’s race problem.
“It’s just starting that conversation,” Tavares said. “Listening from their experiences and the things that they see and how best to implement certain things that can be actionable and, like I said, have a really good meaning and a deep purpose to get rid of this issue.
“One case is one case too many. That should be our goal, to get rid of it completely and never have it come back again. So I think that’s the approach I’m trying to take, and there’s a lot of work ahead.”
4. As he spoke with a handful of us Toronto reporters on Tuesday, his 28th birthday, to discuss his nomination for the Masterton, Zach Hyman made a point to deliver his thoughts on Black Lives Matter:
“It should be common sense. Any judgment based on your race, your religion, or your appearance can’t be tolerated in today’s society. And I think it’s great that people are educating themselves around the issue, and when we talk about the issue of racism in North America.
“This wave started with George Ford’s murder, but it goes way beyond that, and it’s much deeper than that. The protests and rallies aren’t just reflective of this one incident but a series of incidents that have happened throughout American history, and I’m sure Canadian history as well.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a pretty long time. I haven’t made a social-media post because I just want to make sure that I get my thoughts out correctly. It’s a very complicated issue.
“Personally, I don’t know what it feels like to be judged based on your colour. I’m a white male. But I do know what it feels like to be judged based on your religion. I am Jewish. I’ve experienced antisemitism, so I can empathize on that wavelength.
“For me, it’s very clear that racism then any type of judgment based on your race, religion or your gender, or anything like that, is not tolerated. I’m one of the ambassadors for Hockey is for Everyone. I think that in hockey, especially in today’s world, we’re making strides to try and make that more of a possibility. As you get older — I’m married and plan to have kids — you want your kids to grow up in a better world than you grew up.”
5. In the middle of filling out my NHL Awards ballot — hands down, one of the greatest privileges of this job — I received two “for your consideration” press releases from franchises pushing a candidate.
This is not common practice, but I like the enthusiasm.
Despite popular belief, the PHWA does not get wooed to the same degree of Academy voters.
That the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals are openly pushing for Roman Josi and John Carlson’s Norris candidacy is indicative of just how close that race will be. The feeling is this might be the tightest individual trophy race since Taylor Hall edged Nathan MacKinnon for the Hart in 2018. (Although the 2020 Calder race might be just as close.)
Interesting to see the Preds dig beyond the boxscore stats to make Josi’s case, noting how he led all blueliners, per game, in zone exits (8.4), zone entries (5.4) and offensive zone possession time (0:55).
Washington’s charts-and-graphs argument hammered home Carlson’s incredible offensive output (1.09 points per game) and made a direct comparison to Josi regarding hits, blocked shots and takeaways per 60 minutes. Carlson rates ahead of Josi in all those categories.
I have them one-two but won’t be angry either way. (Fun fact: Boston’s Torey Krug “liked” Hal Gill’s tweet championing Josi for the win.)
6. Tony DeAngelo unveiled his unofficial NHL Awards ballot on the premiere of Watch Your Tone, another new podcast launched by an active NHL defenceman.
Norris: Roman Josi. “Dominant force. Carried Nashville.”
Vezina: Connor Hellebuyck. “Started almost 60 games for the Winnipeg Jets, lost the entire right side of his defence, and continued to be one of the top goalies in the league.”
Selke: Sean Couturier. “He’s been in the running for a long time. Another great year. I think he deserves it.”
Calder: Cale Makar. “Sorry, Foxy, but I gotta go with Makar there.”
Jack Adams: John Tortorella. “The only Italian coach in the league. Columbus had a lot of injuries this year and found a way to get right back in the playoff hunt.”
Hart: Artemi Panarin. “In my opinion, it’s not even close. And I’m not being biased. Best player I’ve ever seen live.”
The topic of the Carolina Hurricanes’ voting against the play-in format that will see them face DeAngelo’s New York Rangers in a best-of-five came up on the podcast. A great opportunity for some billboard material.
Instead, DeAngelo offered a sly “no comment.” He did, however, note that the Blueshirts did defeat the Canes in all four meetings this season.
7. In the wake of another brutal season of Sabres hockey, I was invited on Buffalo’s WGR 550 AM last week to discuss the club’s troubles. You build good teams from the net out, so I kinda harped on goaltending.
Point blank, Carter Hutton’s .898 save percentage and 12-14-4 record simply weren’t good enough for the top-paid goaltender on the roster.
The first step in constructing a more supportive group around Jack Eichel would be stopping the puck. Making an upgrade between the pipes. In the past three seasons, Buffalo has rated 22nd (.900), 22nd (.901) and 29th (.896) in team save percentage. No wonder making the playoffs has been a struggle.
Well, maybe I should cut Hutton, 34, a little slack instead of measuring his ceiling as a strong No. 2 netminder.
Turns out, Hutton was diagnosed in November with a vision problem. (Again, he is a goalie.)
“[Therapy] became part of my daily routine,” Hutton revealed to the Buffalo News Monday. “I would do a ton of different eye training and things to get better at that. In the moment it was obviously tough. Now, moving forward, I learned a lot of skills to help improve that area and make my eye strength better and work on stuff. We weren’t sure what it was. It was something I managed throughout the season.”
Despite his frustrations with tracking the puck, Hutton vowed to perform better in 2020-21 — a contract year.
“I’ve played in the league for a long time. I didn’t just forget how to play,” he said. “I had a rough go with some stuff, and we’ll get back to it.”
8. For the fourth consecutive season, David Pastrnak claimed the Golden Hockey Stick, awarded to the best Czech hockey player of the year. The Bruins sniper took top spot on 51 of 52 ballots cast by native journalists and coaches. (Rookie goal-scoring leader Dominik Kubalik was the runner-up.)
Pastrnak has now tied Jaromir Jagr for the most consecutive victories, which is an impressive feat. (Just as impressive: The size of the actual trophy, which stands about half as tall as Pasta himself.)
“This is a pure individual trophy. I am very honored to have it. It is an inspiration for me. But I don’t play golf or tennis, so I won’t favour myself before my team,” said Pastrnak, taking a jab at all those selfish golfers and tennis players.
One more Golden Hockey Stick victory and will tie the legendary Dominik Hasek (five) for the second-most career wins. Jagr hoisted the thing a ridiculous 12 times over his career.
9. One of the messages to spring out of the racism conversation this month is that people — privileged white people, especially — need to make an effort to educate themselves.
As the issue pertains to hockey, I suggest watching Damon Kwame Mason’s superb 2015 documentary Black Ice (preview and link below) for starters.
I interviewed Mason here about his film and the whitewashed history of Black hockey players.
Did you know the all-Black Coloured Hockey League, founded in Nova Scotia, gave us the first slapshot and butterfly goaltenders?
10. Kudos to Braden and Brandi Holtby, who launched an auction titled Get Off the Bench for Racial Equality to benefit Black Lives Matter DC and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
In addition to donating $5,000 to each organization, the couple will match the funds raised by the auction. A collection of autographed Capitals sweaters, pucks, helmets and art pieces (featuring items from Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, Tom Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom and Holtby) brought the grand total to $39,400.
The Holtbys have been glued to the protests and felt compelled to take action beyond well-written tweets.
“A lot of the reason that I don’t go on social media too often is that I think it’s flooded with people saying things before thinking, before truly believing in the words they’ve said,” Holtby said. “I’ve been thinking about what to say for over a week and trying for it to resonate with the Black community for what I believe the white community should take responsibility for.
“Something that I’ve been passionate about for a while is trying to educate myself and learn as much as I can to not be so naive. Especially growing up as a kid in a small town in Canada, where the situations that are showing themselves today I never dealt with. Every day, I was getting more and more depressed, and upset and angry. I felt that I needed to say something.”
Holtby acknowledges hockey players’ tendency to stay silent on issues that don’t involve pucks in deep.
“I don’t know why it’s been taboo to speak your mind or stand up for what you believe in. I think there’s always this divide from sports to social issues,” Holtby said. “You want to make sure that you know what you’re talking about. You’re not just using your platform to try and be popular. I don’t know why it’s like that in hockey. I think it’s changing. I think it’s getting better.
“We’re obviously behind as a sport, and everyone’s realizing that. The true personalities are going to show through as long as we keep pushing it.”
11. When I covered Team USA’s 2016 World Cup training camp in Columbus, during the heat of the Kaepernick protest, no story drew more attention than coach John Tortorella’s threat to bench any player who dared protest on his team.
So, it was refreshing to read in The Athletic that Torts has graduated from banging the podium to opening his ears.
“I have learned over the years, listening and watching, that men and women who choose to kneel during this time mean no disrespect toward the flag,” Tortorella told the outlet this week.
“I would hope that if one of my players wanted to protest during the anthem, he would bring it to me and we would talk about it, tell me his thoughts and what he wanted to do. From there, we would bring it to the team to discuss it, much like it’s being discussed in our country right now.
“How can we rectify some of these problems?”
Tortorella suggests adding a moment before the anthem for fans to reflect on the country’s history of racial injustice.
Flashing back four summers ago, Tortorella could not have been more stubborn in his stance. (Here’s a refresher.)
Minds can be changed.
12. “What happened to all the Black angels when they took the pictures?” —a young Muhammad Ali