Quick Shifts: NHL community taking critical steps in fighting racism

David Amber is joined by NHL insiders Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston to break down what the NHL's playoff picture plus, the latest on the league's search for hub cities.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.

1. There’s a bit of crazy in writing this in a week of clenched fists and tear gas, of rubber bullets and upside-down Bibles, of pandemic and protesting: I feel more optimistic than ever.

“People are hurting. People are dying. The world is in turmoil,” Hayley Wickenheiser wrote late after midnight midweek, no doubt consuming the same stream of infuriating, encouraging news and video clips as the rest of us.

“We are on the cusp. Change is a coming. We have to be the change we want to see in the world.”

It’s only a start, absolutely, but it’s a forceful one. And, God, this time it might have legs. Racism and police brutality are as old as sin. Cellphone cameras just got better.

Since ever, my entertainment bubble has been co-headlined by rappers and athletes. I learned more about social issues and injustice and black history from KRS-One and Ice Cube and Chuck D and Brand Nubian and Pharoahe Monch than all my teachers and professors combined.

As an impressionable kid, what my heroes endorsed mattered. (I didn’t eat Pro Stars because it was a superior breakfast cereal; I ate it because of the box.)

As a reporter, I’ve also accepted that active hockey players, for the most part, stick to sports — and charity work.

So the people’s response to the murder of George Floyd, hopefully a systemic breaking point in soul-crushing series of vile abuses of power, is an uplifting one.

Hip-hop artists I’ve admired for their art have been particularly active.

Jay-Z called Minnesota governor Tim Walz and demanded justice, then bought full-page ads in newspapers across the U.S. to honour Mr. Floyd. Kanye West ditched his horrid MAGA cap, attended a Chicago protest and donated $2 million to the families of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Killer Mike delivered an incredibly emotional and inspiring speech in his hometown Atlanta (and then, with El-P, dropped a soundtrack to revolt by).

I’m not sure the hockey community’s response would be as thoughtful or as voluminous were the conference finals being waged right now, with controversial offside calls and borderline hits to distract us.

But in some mysterious way, maybe North America needed a literal virus to focus on a vaccine for its rhetorical one.

I am sure the dominoes wouldn’t have tumbled were it not for Evander Kane giving the first one a nudge. The San Jose Sharks star went before the cameras on May 29 and boldly challenged his white peers, naming Sidney Crosby and Tom Brady specifically, to use their voice:

A critical and swift second step was Sharks captain Logan Couture adding to a conversation J.T. Brown and Akim Aliu and Kane started (“I think most of us have been at fault for turning a blind eye when it comes to racism. It cannot continue”) and Sharks owner Hasso Plattner putting his name to a supportive statement. (How many other major sports team owners have done so?)

The floodgates opened. Jonathan Toews, Alex Ovechkin, Erik Karlsson, Steven Stamkos, Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Anze Kopitar, Braden Holtby and, yes, Crosby were but a few of the 100-plus NHL players who penned and posted statements on social media.

MLSE, owner of the Maple Leafs and Raptors, posted a job opening for a director of inclusion and diversity.

“I think it’s changing. I think it’s getting better,” Braden Holtby said Friday, regarding NHLers’ reluctance to speak out. “You look at what Johnny Toews did. People will follow guys like that.”

Minnesota native Blake Wheeler and Holtby gave lengthy Zoom calls with reporters in which they thoughtfully spoke thoughtfully at length on racial injustice.

“I don’t think this time is a time to sugarcoat anything,” Holtby said. “It’s a time to look at ourselves in the mirror and really find how we can be better, and how we can take responsibility for the past and learn from that to move forward.

“I’m really hoping — I really believe that this is going to change the world in a lot of ways.”

Patrice Bergeron, P.K. Subban, Patrick Kane and Tom Wilson were among those who put their wallets behind the cause. Mark Fraser wrote a tearful Players’ Tribune column, “Silence is Violence.”

On Thursday, Tyler Seguin attended his first peace protest at Dallas City Hall. Behind him, a woman held aloft a sign: WHITE SILENCE COSTS LIVES.

“In a weird way, hockey and sports kinda pushed me into it,” Seguin said on Hockey Central @ Noon. “You talk about accountability in the dressing room.

“The first thing I said in my head — and I’ll never forget this — was: ‘I’m white. I’m from Canada. And I’m an NHL hockey player, a predominantly white sport. And this isn’t really my business.’ That kinda haunted me a bit. Understanding more, researching more, and seeing people, the pain really, and seeing George Floyd and how angry it made me, I realized this kinda is my business.

“We’re not immune in Canada to racism. We can all be better. And I have a small platform.

“Now it’s about taking the next step.”

The optimist in me wants to believe we are on the cusp, that athletes kids look up to are better realizing how they can influence change.

In a matter of days, Kane’s tone has been inching from frustrated to encouraged.

Upon seeing the snowballing response from his fellow hockey players, Kane tweeted: “STRENGTH in NUMBERS.”

2. The Presidents’ Trophy–winning Boston Bruins finished the season with 100 points. That’s eight more than Tampa (92), 10 more than Washington (90) and 11 more than Philadelphia (89). They’re not getting rewarded enough for their superior season.

Suddenly, all four Eastern Conference playoff teams are on equal footing heading into a three-game round-robin; a points percentage tiebreaker, should it come into play, will be their only advantage as that foursome battles each other for the top four seeds.

“With what the team was able to accomplish in the first 70 games and then the point spread we had — not only with the teams in the league, but also with the teams in our division and conference — to kind of have three games dictate where we fall in the conference standings is somewhat disappointing,” president Cam Neely said. “I understood why they landed on 24 [teams]. I just would have liked it without the round-robin for the top four seeds.”

In the West, St. Louis (94 points) and Colorado (92, with one less game played) have instantly been dropped to the level of Vegas (86) and Dallas (93) in the round robin.

Essentially, the players on the top eight teams have chosen competitiveness over fairness as they await the survivors of the qualification round.

“I think they’re going to be just as intense as those play-in games. If you’re fighting for seeding, you want to play the lowest-seed team. That’s why you fight for position during the regular season,” Vegas’s Ryan Reaves said on Good Show Wednesday. “You’re also getting ready for a team that’s playing heavy playoff-match-like games.”

As much as casual fans and broadcasters may prefer the expediency of the bracket system, I’m all for reseeding after each round. This rightly makes the climb for super long shots Montreal and Chicago even steeper.

3. During Wednesday’s In Conversation with Ron MacLean, GM Kyle Dubas said 13 Maple Leafs had stayed put in the Toronto area and another four or five had crossed the border and commenced their 14-day quarantine in Canada while the club readies for voluntary small-group workouts.

Ensuring the Leafs’ training facility, the Ford Performance Centre, meets all of the health and safety guidelines of Ontario, MLSE and the NHL has been “very time-consuming,” Dubas explained, especially with no playbook to work from.

Particularly interesting is that the Leafs are lobbying the government to find out if their returning players can quarantine both at home and their sanitized workplace.

Remember, the NHL would prefer one of its two hubs to be in Canada, but if the country is still imposing a 14-day quarantine period when it’s time to start the tournament, both locales will be in the U.S.

4. The league can’t still be considering Minneapolis/St. Paul as a hub city, can it?

5. Actions speak louder.

Fans will get a gauge of how their favourite hockey team views its bubble players and prospects by whom is invited to black-ace this summer… and who is not.

Mark Spector breaks down the expected list of Oilers nicely here. Kenny Agostino is champing at the bit to start skating in Toronto, and half of Leafs Nation is already polishing up the Conn Smythe for Nick Robertson.

Meanwhile, in Washington, GM Brian MacLellan titillated his fan base by saying he’s looking at calling up 19-year-old Capitals prospect Connor McMichael.

McMichael tore up the OHL this season, racking up 47 goals, 102 points and a plus-32 in 52 games for the London Knights.

“It would be a great learning experience for Connor,” MacLellan said of 2019’s 25th-overall pick. “He seems to be a guy that can pick up things from good players, from watching them, being around them. The feedback from him last training camp was he was engaged, he learned a lot from [Nicklas Backstrom]. He learned a lot from our veteran players.

“It takes a big leap for his development, just to be in that environment, to see how guys work, to see how guys practice, off-ice workouts, nutrition stuff, see our main guys doing it on a daily basis in a competitive environment. I think it would be invaluable for him.”

With clubs concerned about the long layoff leading to a spike in soft-tissue injuries, we could see some of these black aces jump into the spotlight as the tournament grinds on.

In addition to an expanded roster of 28 skaters, each team is allowed to bring an unlimited number of goalies to their hub. “Oh. So, no Zamboni drivers will get to play, then?” my wife said. Good point.

6. Much was made of the Maple Leafs’ midseason coaching change, and for good reason. But Sheldon Keefe’s promotion triggered a change at the AHL level, as rookie Marlies coach Greg Moore made the challenging jump from instructing teenagers to adults.

By Moore’s own admission, taking on a mixed room with wide-eyed prospects in their early 20s and seasoned vets in their 30s threw him for a bit of a loop. Even simple things like how players of different ages expect a drill to be run can vary.

“Some of the older players, when you ask them to do something a little bit outside the box in practice, they’re a bit hesitant. The challenge in getting them to buy into something different, was definitely something that I didn’t expect as much to happen as it did,” Moore said.

“The younger players are still a little different in the sense that they’re either first- or second-year pro. They don’t have as many expectations as to what this level is and what’s been done the past and what practices should or could look like. So it wasn’t as hard with them to get them to buy into something a little bit new or different.”

I asked a couple of Marlies, a rookie and a vet, to discuss that transition from Keefe to Moore.

Kenny Agostino, 28: “For one thing, Keefer was in his fifth year with the Marlies. He’s a veteran professional coach. He knows a lot of the guys, played with a lot of guys, he’s won a championship with a number of those guys in that room, so there was definitely a level of comfort and ease that you can feel. Which, as a player, it’s encouraging knowing a guy who’s comfortable in his routine. You know what kind of coach he is early on. You know what he’s expecting out of you.

“[Moore] is a first-year coach coming into a team midway through the season, coaching men, not kids. There’s a lot of factors. There’s a lot of adjustments from both his side and our side. He brings in new terminology, which also is an adjustment for both us and the coaching staff. I think you can’t just flip a switch and expect all that to just mesh smoothly midway through a professional hockey season. It’s just unrealistic.

“He probably learned a lot, and I know we learned a lot about him as a coach. And I think it’ll be much different and much smoother now that he’s familiar with a lot of returning players next year.

“A jump from coaching kids in high school to men is not an easy adjustment for anyone. So I think for both sides there was an adjustment period.”

Joseph Woll, 21: “Brilliant hockey minds. But at the same time, [both coaches] try to take an approach to where they form relationships with the players. That was something Sheldon did perfectly. He was the guy that knew the game well and was an unbelievable coach from a technical standpoint, but at the same time he was someone the guys really looked up to and wanted to play for. He holds you accountable if you did something wrong. That was similar to Greg this year. It’s probably difficult for him to come into the year to a brand-new team and come from the USHL. It’s got to be a jump. So, I think that was probably difficult for him, but I thought he played it perfectly with us, and I think the Leafs helped make that transition as seamless as possible.”

7. It will be nearly impossible to compensate for the lost electricity and atmosphere in those fan-free playoff buildings. Kudos to Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen for finding a silver lining in the silence: Bench coaches won’t have to holler their instructions through a Thunderdome.

“It’ll be easier to communicate with the players when they can actually hear you. From the regular playoff crowd we had last year in Nationwide, I don’t know if they could hear what the coaches were saying. The crowd — our fifth line — was so loud,” Kekalainen humble-bragged.

8. In the absence of fans, and with the host team expected to be quarantined in a hotel, is there any advantage to competing in your home hub arena? How long does it really take to figure out how the puck bounces off the boards?

“Familiarity, I think, is the only thing,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno says. “I don’t really see the advantages of us playing in Columbus if we get to be the hub city.”

“When it comes to playoffs, our fans are on top of you. It can be intimidating. But when you have it the way it’s set up right now, it reminds me of the world championships. I mean, you go over there and a lot of times… it’s kind of neutral. Everyone just loves hockey. So, it’s going to be whoever can play to their system the best. It’s going to be the team that can get to their identity to click.”

9. Among the union, Anton Stralman has voiced the strongest concerns we’ve heard so far regarding the dangers of a return to play.

“Is it worth it?” the Panthers defenceman asked The Athletic‘s Joe Smith.

“I know everybody wants hockey back, but safety has to come first. And it’s a little bit worrisome, I can’t deny that. Even though most players are young and healthy, I’m sure there are players like me that have underlying health issues. I don’t know how my body will react if I get this virus.”

Stralman’s perspective is a unique one. For years he has battled bronchiectasis. The respiratory disease makes it difficult for sufferers to clear mucus from their lungs. It comes with a chronic cough and chest pain. Stralman only recently stopped taking medication for the condition.

“It’s not just the 50 guys on the team; there’s a lot of people that need to be there to make this work. If some of those people get sick and potentially die from that, who is responsible? And is this something I want to be part of? It’s about safety, not just for me but everyone involved. That raises a lot of questions on if we should do this thing. And if we do, would there be a price to pay for it?

“I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do.”

Stralman’s stance, at least publicly, is an outlier. Much more common are comments like this, from Zdeno Chara.

“There definitely is risk involved. You have to accept risk in your lives,” Chara said. “Every time you step on the ice, there’s a risk of getting injured.”

10. The highest level Kodie Curran had reached on this side of the pond was the AHL, for 20 games.

In a triumph for old guys everywhere, however, the 30-year-old defenceman and late-blooming Calgary native has spun his MVP season in the Swedish Elite League into a two-year contract with the Anaheim Ducks.

GM Bob Murray chuckled at the weekly reports he’d receive from his European scouts on Curran, an option they’d been eyeing for years.

“The notes were always the same,” Murray relayed to reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “Bob, we’ve got to sign this guy. Bob, we’ve got to sign this guy. Bob, we’ve got to sign this guy.”

To us, the signing of Curran, a veteran left shot, also signals that Anaheim won’t be bringing back UFA Michael Del Zotto.

“We felt another one of our issues was that our defence was too young. And with young forwards, it really hurt us,” Murray said. “I expect some really good competition on defence this year, and we should be deep enough.”

11. Murray is the third-longest-tenured GM in the league. This marks the first time in 18 years that Anaheim (29-33-9) failed to qualify for the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

During his postmortem with the media, Murray gave Dallas Eakins a mixed review, praising his new coach’s preparation and organizational skills but criticizing his special teams and consistency in holding the room accountable.

“Up and down the lineup, some of the kids were allowed to get away with murder this year. That’s over. Accountability in this group is going to change. I’ve said that a couple of times. I’m hellbent on that happening going forward. The coaches are going to hear that loud and clear. They already have,” Murray said.

“[Eakins] had to get rid of some of the things that came from Edmonton. I think those are gone now. He was very hard on some young people in Edmonton, and it kind of backfired on him. I’m not saying it’s all his fault, by the way.

“He took the foot off the gas a bit with them. He’s going to be much more consistent and on point with everybody next year.”

Those are some pointed public comments. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when Murray and Eakins meet face-to-face before the summer, which is the plan.

Speaking to TSN radio in Toronto Thursday morning, Del Zotto stuck up for Eakins. The defeceman believes his coach was “thrown under the bus,” arguing that accountability issues should fall on the GM and a balance of veterans in NHL dressing rooms is critical in grooming the rookies.

“Every team wants to get younger, but there is no accountability. It’s not on the coaches. If the GM or the owner decides they want to rebuild, then they’re going with young guys,” Del Zotto said. “That seems to be the NHL now. Teams want to get younger and younger, for whatever reason, as opposed to just playing players who deserve to play.”

One more from Murray, summing up his exit meeting with star Rickard Rakell, whose 15 goals and 42 points marked his lowest totals in five years: “It was very insightful. I think he’s a very determined young man right now. I’ll just leave it at that.”

12. Something to look forward to: The Arizona Coyotes will wear their beautiful throwback Kachina sweaters for “home” games when hockey resumes.

“They’re awesome jerseys. It’s one thing for the fans to get excited about something. When our players get excited to wear something, that’s when you know it’s pretty good,” GM John Chayka told Hockey Central @ Noon. “I got texts from our players even when we announced it that they were pumped up, excited to get back wearing the jersey.”

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