It was the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, a few hours away from a sit-down with Alexander Ovechkin. I asked a few co-workers if there was anything they wanted to hear from him, and David Amber brought up the possibility of The Great Eight catching Wayne Gretzky’s record 894 NHL goals.
Ovechkin had just turned 31. At the time, he’d scored 525 of his own.
Watch the video. He thought the idea was ludicrous, adding, “I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to skate in six seasons.”
He’s still skating. He’s still scoring. You can see how confident he is that he’s going to do it, and how much he wants to do it.
Tuesday morning in Chicago, longtime washingtoncaps.com reporter Mike Vogel asked Ovechkin how many goals he’d score that night.
“Three, I think,” he said.
Bang-on. The hat trick goal was No. 800, making him the third NHLer to reach that incredible milestone — behind Gretzky and Gordie Howe. Howe’s 801 is in immediate peril with Dallas in Washington on Thursday, and Toronto following on Saturday.
There certainly are mixed emotions.
You can divide the world into two groups: those who believe sports should not mix with politics and those who believe sports is politics. Last week, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said he wants Russian and Belarusian athletes participating at the Paris Games — supported by the US Olympic Committee, as long as their flags and colours aren’t present.
That event is scheduled five months after the now-cancelled February 2024 World Cup of Hockey. I was struck by the NHL’s revelation in October that several European countries didn’t want to compete against Russian players — at all — a stance primarily directed at Ovechkin’s support for leadership once the invasion of Ukraine occurred. Removing the flag, colours and anthem wasn’t enough.
But it’s clear the Capitals, their fans and his teammates are united behind him. Celebrating in the postgame with Ovechkin Tuesday night were Canadians, Americans, Swedes (including close friend Nicklas Backstrom, who is injured), a Belarusian and a Dane. Chicago’s fans cheered the accomplishment and threw hats on the ice, while Ovechkin was congratulated by fellow future Hall of Famers Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
Since the above conversation, Ovechkin’s averaged about 41 goals per 82 games — but he’s accelerated toward 53 this season. He’s going to beat Gretzky.
We can all see that now.
1. I don’t believe in absolutes. Feelings change over time. What you think today might not be what you think tomorrow, and everyone should avoid emotional decisions. That said, we’re 11 weeks from the trade deadline, and it’s getting extremely hard to see Bo Horvat wearing a Johnny Canuck reverse retro past March 3.
I don’t profess to know Horvat well, but here’s my amateur psychology: he’s very proud to be Vancouver’s captain, definitely capable of handling the Canadian microscope. But he prefers to keep the spotlight at arm’s length and does not like his business splashed over the internet like a Kardashian. Horvat won’t do the hockey equivalent of smashing 62 home runs like Aaron Judge in the all-time contract season, but he sure doesn’t seem distracted — on-pace for 59 goals heading into Wednesday’s game in Calgary. In his mind: summers are for talking, seasons are for playing.
2. How did we get here? At the draft, there was league-wide consensus Horvat would be extended, with J.T. Miller’s negotiation more of a challenging escape-room puzzle. The Canucks initially indicated they saw Horvat in similar mold to Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, although that was more of a conceptual thing as opposed to offering him a similar contract ($5.125 million AAV, lower than what Horvat is earning now).
Whatever the case, there was never a time an extension appeared close. As Labour Day approached, Vancouver pivoted to Miller — reigniting talks and completing a contract out of nowhere. Because of what happened with Miller, I’m loathe to declare this over. It sounds like they’ve offered Horvat both seven- and eight-year deals, but multiple sources indicate the chasm is wide and bridging it “will be difficult.”
They’ve definitely put him on the market, with teams indicating the Canucks are asking what you’d want for a premium rental. Tight cap situations mean there’s time to sort it out, and Vancouver could try to sign him again. The challenge as I see it is they’re not keen on going over Miller’s $56 million figure, and Horvat’s monster season puts him in position to go above that.
3. Some other stuff about the Canucks: They’re determined to create cap room. That will take some creativity, but aren’t interested in moving first-rounders and would like to replace the second-rounder sent to Chicago in the Jason Dickinson-Riley Stillman deal. Elias Pettersson can be extended this summer, and even though he isn’t a UFA until July 2025, it’s already on their radar.
4. In Bruce Boudreau’s first 82 games as coach of the Canucks, the team had 97 points. Last year, that ties them with Nashville for the second wild card. This year, it’s slightly above the cutline. With all the craziness, you’d think Vancouver had 30 points in that span.
5. Was talking trades with one GM this week. “What kind of calculator are you using?” he asked. “None of this stuff is mathematically possible.”
6. I do think this will be Jesse Puljujarvi’s last season in Edmonton — with everyone recognizing it is time for a fresh start — the question is when it happens. At times, I’ve heard Anaheim, Carolina and Detroit have at least looked at it, but I don’t think anything’s ever been close to what the Oilers would consider. Right now, battling with injuries and for the playoffs, they don’t want to be shorthanded. But, when they get healthy, they’ll look at trade options or possibly even waivers. If it goes to the summer, I’d imagine Edmonton doesn’t qualify him and he signs elsewhere. Hope he finds inner peace well before then.
7. It’s been such a hard season in Anaheim that one exec wondered if it would hurt players’ trade value — especially the UFAs. Really hard to ramp up to playoff/contender mode if deals don’t happen for a couple more months.
8. The name we’re always discussing in Arizona is Jakob Chychrun, but more and more I’m wondering about Karel Vejmelka. Whether you believe in Moneypuck’s Goals Saved Above Expected metric (he’s first) or Clear Sight’s (third), he’s having a fantastic season and is signed for two more years at a $2.725 million AAV.
Back in the 1993 MLB expansion draft, the Florida Marlins shocked everyone by taking highly paid closer Bryan Harvey — with the rationale being they wanted to give their young players (and fans) a few extra opportunities to win. Vejmelka’s got the same effect here, but if I needed a goalie and had the assets? (Purely made up by me: Would Los Angeles go after both Chychrun and Vejmelka?)
9. OK, Board of Governors. I admit I left West Palm Beach shaking my head at the salary-cap situation. In the days leading up to the meeting, every conversation with a player, agent or team exec included a discussion about the cap — specifically how to boost it by more than $1 million this summer. One governor indicated the message was league revenues are up about nine per cent, but still could be short of what will be needed to raise the ceiling by $4 million instead of $1 million. More high-revenue teams in the playoffs could help for sure (Seattle is already a top-five revenue NHL team, so its rise is a bonus), but an added layer of pessimism it can happen.
“The sense I get from the questions I’m getting asked,” said commissioner Gary Bettman, “Is somehow there’s an expectation that the cap should be going up more. That’s not what the agreement provides for based on the current circumstances.” The wildest thing about this is Bettman himself was the one who brought up a rise in October — basically out of nowhere.
10. After thinking about it, I’m convinced the answer is in the words “not what the agreement provides for based on the current circumstances.” He’s right. If the escrow debt to the owners is not paid off, the CBA states nothing more than $1 million. Last summer, the league informed teams to expect that this summer, followed by about $4 million in 2024-25 and $5 million more for 2025-26. Ever since, there’s been rumours of the possibility of boosting it a little this year at the expense of future years. But the NHLPA has to go to the league with that, and it is still searching for a new executive director.
Bettman is preparing for the eventuality: “What is the NHLPA prepared to do for this to happen?” (Ironically, in 2015-16, the NBA went to its players’ association and asked to “smooth” a record $25 million cap jump due to TV revenues, only to have the players reject the idea. That allowed Golden State to sign Kevin Durant.) No decision needs to be made until June. Let’s see where this goes, but it’s not the last we’ve heard of it.
11. Other Board of Governors stuff: I know there are fans who hate the patches and the new ad boards. I get it, and maybe they’re not here if not for COVID revenue losses. (Bettman was never crazy about jersey ads beforehand.) Where I really disagree with him is on the expanded playoffs. The worst thing that happened was last year when Columbus and the Islanders missed the playoffs by 20 points as the first two teams out in the East, because it emboldened his stance — even if it is the exception, not the norm.
This is one where there is disagreement from the teams, however. They’re careful about what they say, because they want their cookies — All-Star, draft, etc. — but they do think there’s a legit argument to be made. I was told there’s legit excitement (deservedly) about the quality of play, but concerns about no-shows early in the season. Sometimes that happens when football is on the calendar, but more teams in the race means increased interest. To me, anyway.
12. Sportsnet, TNT and ESPN all presented. One governor said that even though the three were different, all were consistent in discussing digital futures. As cord-cutting grows, what is the best way to reach your fans? This is bigger than just hockey — it’s a question everyone in the television/digital business is trying to answer. If you’ve been following the Bally’s/Sinclair situation in the United States, you know there’s worry about the future of regional networks.
13. Seattle and Vegas are already top-five in revenues. More expansion?
14. Count me as one of those surprised that 21 clubs passed on Eeli Tolvanen. I thought for sure one of the low-end teams that need scoring would take a shot. I had a few analytically inclined fans disagree with the idea he’s one-dimensional, that he’s better in that area than given credit for. We’ll find out, and I’m not surprised the Kraken would take a shot. They’ve found a nice role for Daniel Sprong, who has 15 points playing 10:32 per night.
15. Seattle is 32nd in faceoff percentage. While it’s not the be-all-and-end-all, you don’t want to be chasing all night. If GM Ron Francis (career 54.8 faceoff percentage) isn’t going to go down there and win them himself, expect the Kraken to find someone. Colorado, also looking for a centre, is 31st.
16. As Tage Thompson exploded for five goals in last Wednesday’s 9-4 win over Columbus, father Brent was “just enjoying being a parent, being a fan. But when the fourth one went in, I was like, ‘Holy smokes!’” Brent, in his 10th season as coach of the AHL Bridgeport Islanders, played 121 NHL games for Los Angeles, Winnipeg and Phoenix. Another son, Tyce, plays for AHL Utica.
Brent Thompson refuses to take credit for any of Tage’s recent success. “He’s proving a lot of people wrong, but everyone matures at a different pace. I demanded that he learn to work hard when he was younger … whether you’re in hockey or a different business, always be the hardest worker. But he always had that self-motivation since he first put a stick in his hand. He loves the game.”
17. Tage’s first full professional season at AHL San Antonio was a split affiliation between Colorado and St. Louis, a tough situation for him. Things didn’t start well in Buffalo after being included in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, and he was sent to Rochester for the end of the 2018-19 season. Brent told him to embrace it, which Tage did. That year and the start of the next, he had 21 points in 24 games, earning a call-up, where he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during his first game.
“It made him a better player,” Brent said. “I’m happy about his character.” He really took off after Don Granato became head coach. Granato had familiarity with Thompson, who had two points in 13 games before the change in March 2021. He had 12 in 25 afterward, before last year’s breakout. He signed a seven-year $50 million extension last summer and didn’t like the way he began the year.
“He enjoys and loves Buffalo very much,” Brent said. “In the first couple of games when he wasn’t lighting it up, he thought he was letting down the Sabres. My only comment was, ‘Just relax.’ You got the contract, don’t stress, enjoy it, the money’s in your back pocket. Just play.” He also agrees with one of Tage’s previous comments, that the centre will be even better once he gets to 228 pounds without costing any mobility. “Yes, another five-to-eight pounds, he’s going to be even more of a force. He’s always been a late bloomer, a skinnier kid. He’s coming.” Coming? Yikes.
18. It was clear from the conversation Brent Thompson loves working with Tage and Tyce. Any particularly funny moment that stands out? “There was one summer I was going over some shooting details with them. Tage got a little snippy with me, and I said, ‘When you score 20, you can tell me how to do things.’” He laughed. “Now I have to be quiet.”
19. Minnesota and Edmonton just played three times in 11 days. The Oilers won 5-2 in Alberta, with 38 shots. The Wild won the two games at home, 21 shots allowed in each victory. Something to remember if they meet in the playoffs.
20. Was great to see David Perron reach the 1,000-game milestone last week. In January 2015, he was traded from Edmonton to Pittsburgh, and in January 2016, from the Penguins to Anaheim. Both times there were whispers he wasn’t fast enough to play with the NHL’s best players. Seven years later, he’s won a Stanley Cup (St. Louis), went to another final (Vegas) and is making an impact with 21 points in 29 games for Detroit. Edgy, talented, smart player, with good insight into the game. The Blues miss him.
21. New Jersey’s AHL affiliate, Utica, made cut sleeves mandatory. Forward Graeme Clarke was cut a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully not serious, and he’s played well. There will be continued momentum on this issue.
22. I love Florida’s reverse retro — many of them are great — but one broadcaster disagreed, saying you can’t read them from the booth. He said he heard that Lou Lamoriello, back in his New Jersey days, conducted an experiment when the Devils switched uniforms. Legend has it Lamoriello went up to the last row of the old Meadowlands Arena. He had someone put on the jersey and go to the farthest end of the ice. The test was: could a fan read the name? If not, it wasn’t good enough. At the Board of Governors, Lamoriello said that did happen, except he didn’t do the actual test. He asked Peter McMullen, the owner’s son, to do it.
23. When the Kings were in Toronto, I asked Alex Edler if he had any ammo for me to stop Kevin Bieksa from going to a chirp level I just can’t get to. “Sorry, there’s nothing you can do,” he replied.
24. Per Michael Leboff of The Action Network, it’s a big season for underdogs. Those that closed plus-200 or higher are 23-41 (35.9 per cent). If you bet $100 on every one, you’d be up $1,229. Last year, those same underdogs went 66-183 (26.5 per cent) and you’d have lost $2,184. 2020-21 and 2021-22 were the worst in his database for big underdogs. 2022-23, so far, is second best, behind 2007-08.
25. Last week’s blog had information about Women’s Para Hockey of Canada and its attempt to raise $1 million and fully fund the national program for the first time since its inception in 2007. In the column, I said the reason it’s not funded by Hockey Canada is another article, and I’d like to explain more.
It’s similar to how, in universities or colleges, some sports are official school teams and some are relegated to club level. While the men’s teams have enough international competition for an official World Championship and Paralympic event, the women, unfortunately, do not. That limits funding options since Hockey Canada’s National Sports Organization mandate is to operate national teams competing at those events.
Since 2019, Hockey Canada and the Hockey Canada Foundation have provided $230,000 in grants. The organization said it is committed to growing women’s para hockey, and, as part of that, previously invited three players — Alanna Mah, Christina Picton and Raphaelle Tousignant — to the men’s camp to compete for spots on that team. Please check the link, would love to see these players reach their goal.
Looking for more 32 Thoughts? Check Sportsnet.ca for more later in the week, when Elliotte Friedman shares the latest.