31 Thoughts: Players make unified anti-racism statement from bubble

lightning-bruins-pre-game-video

A video message about anti-Black racism plays ahead of first period NHL Stanley Cup Eastern Conference playoff hockey action between the Boston Bruins against the Tampa Bay Lightning, in Toronto, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Cole Burston/CP)

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Friday afternoon, one day before the Vancouver Canucks and Vegas Golden Knights resumed their fierce playoff encounter, Scott Oake ended an excellent interview with Ryan Reaves by asking, “How hard is it going to be to flip the switch and go back to hating their guts in the rest of this series?”

“(It’s) not going to be hard at all,” Reaves answered with a wry smile. “I left my family a month ago for a reason. I came to this bubble to win a Stanley Cup. I haven’t lost sight of that.

“For three hours (Saturday night) … they are my enemies again, but I will say, again, that as much as I hate them on the ice, I am very proud and I have nothing but respect for every single player that stood behind this.”

He wasn’t lying. The Golden Knights controlled the 3-0 victory, grabbing a 2-1 series lead. For the third-straight game, Antoine Roussel and Robin Lehner set the tone, chirping each other in warmup. The Canucks forward was a regular target, goaded into his second misconduct of the series. It was an edgy, intense night — not for the faint of heart. Reaves was Reaves.

When the puck drops, commit to your job. Around that, be human.

It makes perfect sense that Vancouver and Vegas were the drivers behind the players’ two-day stoppage of game action. They were the only teams not playing Wednesday as the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks refused to step on-court for their game against the Orlando Magic, igniting action across all sports. (Did anyone else find it extremely strange to watch half of MLB vote to play, including the Toronto Blue Jays, while everyone else didn’t?)

Undistracted by game preparation, the Canucks and Golden Knights could pay more attention to significant life events unfolding in real-time. Before players on the two teams met face-to-face at their morning skates on Thursday, Vancouver knew how its players felt, and informed the NHL.

Reaves said he was at dinner with a few teammates on Wednesday night when Brayden McNabb asked, “Do you think we’re going to play tomorrow?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t we?” Reaves answered. “And then I got to my room and said, ‘Are we really going to play tomorrow?’”

At 12 a.m. Thursday, he texted Marc-Andre Fleury to see if the goalie was still awake. They talked for an hour. “(He) let me vent a little bit, heard me out and gave me his thoughts … But as much as he helped, I still didn’t know how it was going to (go) over.”

As we now know, Reaves awoke to texts from Canucks captain Bo Horvat and former St. Louis teammate Kevin Shattenkirk, now in Tampa Bay. At the morning skate for their scheduled game, Reaves met with several Vancouver players, including (but not limited to): Horvat, Alex Edler, Jacob Markstrom, Tanner Pearson, Brandon Sutter, Chris Tanev and Tyler Toffoli.

New York and Philadelphia were getting ready for the second half of a back-to-back. As Islanders coach Barry Trotz indicated Thursday morning, those players were discussing what was happening, but expected to play. When they talked with Reaves, they changed their minds.

One Eastern Conference player chuckled a little as he explained how a serious conversation was connected through three smartphones. One looped in Minnesota’s Matt Dumba and San Jose’s Evander Kane, members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance; the others featured two separate teams. Among non-Black players who spoke passionately about a temporary halt were Shattenkirk and Philadelphia’s James van Riemsdyk.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the players in this league,” he said. “(This is) not an issue that necessarily touches them or that they know a lot about. But the fact that they see it through the media and social media obviously proves the point that it’s a big problem, for them to take a stand like that … I didn’t know how my teammates were going to take it, how I was going to go about it, how the league was going to take it.”

“It wasn’t just me leading a charge by myself … It was, ‘Reavo, tell us what you think.’ They listened. If you think this is the right thing to do, we’re going to step away.”

The HDA did a presentation with players in both bubbles on Friday, and indicated they were particularly struck when showed vicious, racist notes sent to the organization’s general email account and to Akim Aliu on social media.

Late Saturday night, the HDA released its “Ask of the NHL.” There were eight requests: including specific hiring targets for Black hockey and non-hockey personnel in the sport; an immediate commitment to zero tolerance with respect to racial discrimination and abuse; a refusal to “support, partner with or accept support from any organization that has engaged in, promoted or failed to appropriately respond to racist conduct in their organization of any kind;” and funding. It has been reported that the HDA has asked for $100 million over 10 years.

The NHL remains quiet, for now. That doesn’t mean nothing’s happening with its own work (particularly the Inclusion Steering Committee), but that it can’t afford a mistake in implementation. The league has to get this right.

This does not come without challenges. The Las Vegas Police Union denounced the Golden Knights’ statement. Dallas President & CEO Brad Alberts told The Dallas Morning News’ Matthew DeFranks that some season-ticket holders cancelled their accounts over the Stars’ support for the players’ actions, including kneeling during the national anthem earlier in August.

“But we/I stand by our organization’s commitment and support our players 100 per cent to express their views,” Alberts said.

The players made it clear: they won’t have it any other way.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

31 THOUGHTS

1. With 20/20 hindsight, I hope everyone involved looks back and sees what was missing on Wednesday: a big-picture thinker to step up and say, “We need to take a 30-minute timeout. Really look at what’s going on, and what that means for us.”

The Flyers and Islanders were playing. Boston and Tampa Bay were approaching a huge Game 3 in a 1-1 series. Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon maturely accepted blame, saying, “I guess we were a day late … but we’re doing our best to make up for it.” The Avalanche and Stars were the late game that night, but I can see many of those players being in preparation mode, not focused on the outside world.

Someone with clout from the NHL, the NHLPA or the organizations themselves needed to be that voice. It didn’t happen and there was fierce blowback. God forbid anything else happens that forces a similar situation in the future, but there has to be a contingency plan — allowing everyone to understand the moment.

2. Florida Hockey Now’s George Richards broke the story of an NHL investigation into “racially-charged” comments made in the bubble by former Panther GM Dale Tallon.

“I have never said anything of the sort,” Tallon told Richards in response.

The league declined to comment on the scope of the investigation until it is concluded, but there’s a lot at stake here. There will be plenty of scrutiny because Tallon hired Bill Peters to coach AHL Rockford, and we now know what happened between Peters and Akim Aliu there. (It is believed the HDA knew about the bubble allegation before it became public.) It is also believed at least one other team was considering Tallon in an advisory role, which obviously can’t happen until there is clarity.

3. The Panthers’ introductory interviews for their GM vacancy were done mainly by President & CEO Matt Caldwell, along with Michael Viola — one of owner Vinny Viola’s sons.

As The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reported, Rangers assistant GM Chris Drury withdrew from consideration. He was a serious contender, if not the front-runner, and there are sources who believe he was going to be offered the job, if he hadn’t been offered it already.

The Panthers have talked to a ton of people, including: St. Louis assistant GM Bill Armstrong, Montreal scout Sean Burke, former Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli, Boston executive director of player personnel John Ferguson, former Los Angeles assistant GM Michael Futa, Toronto assistant GM Laurence Gilman, former Philadelphia GM Ron Hextall, former Vancouver GM Mike Gillis, OHL London’s Mark Hunter, Montreal assistant GM Scott Mellanby, NBC’s Ed Olczyk and NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes.

4. Head coach Joel Quenneville is expected to become more involved as the finalists are selected. That might seem counter-intuitive, but when your head coach has as much juice as Quenneville does, it makes sense. The Panthers’ timeline for a new hire was early September, and the calendar flips on Tuesday.

5. Arizona’s search will take longer, partially because it just started. They obviously know interim GM Steve Sullivan, who, according to other clubs, is making sure the Coyotes are connected with what other teams are considering. (The Pittsburgh-Toronto trade effectively ended the off-season.) As Chris Johnston reported Saturday, the candidate list will be similar to Florida’s. Owner Alex Meruelo and President/CEO Xavier Gutierrez are relatively new to the league. They’re going to take their time and collect information. I’d assume they’ll want someone in place by the draft.

6. Let’s talk some more about Arizona. This is not an easy job right now, but there will still be interest. There are only 32 of these positions, and they are coveted. The Meruelo family is in the casino business, which has been hammered by COVID-19. There’s been significant layoffs on the business side, and, last week, assistant coach John MacLean and video coach Steve Peters were let go. Several bonuses are due in September, including Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s. During their post-season appearance, players were upset about late payment of per diems. The goal will be to cut payroll and rebuild. The Coyotes have a tight cap situation for 2020-21, but then it eases. There’s also the matter of the NHL’s stiff punishment for prospect workout violations.

7. We’ll get to the machinations of that decision shortly, but the penalty means no current selections in the first three rounds of the 2020 draft and no first- or third-rounder in 2021. Expect the Coyotes to try and re-stock that. Even with an active goalie market, Darcy Kuemper is a very attractive piece thanks to his impressive playoff performance. He’s signed for two more years at $4.5 million per. Ekman-Larsson has seven years remaining at $8.25 million per season, and the team would like to test his marketplace. A no-move clause gives him control, but word is he’s not opposed to the idea pending the landing spot. It’s not an easy contract to handle at this time, but there are teams out there who believe Ekman-Larsson would be revitalized by a fresh start. Arizona has four other defenders — Jason Demers, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jordan Oesterle — with one year remaining on their contracts. All of them could help another team. Hjalmarsson, in particular, is much-loved around the league.

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8. Okay, the punishment. When John Chayka terminated his contract as President of Hockey Operations and General Manager, one of the reactions was that he’d given commissioner Gary Bettman an “out.” Bettman’s fought harder for the Coyotes than any other franchise, consistently powering through challenges no matter the obstacle. They were excited about Meruelo’s ownership, and, in 2014, erased a penalty to the New Jersey Devils (the loss of a first-round draft pick for the Ilya Kovalchuk signing) to support its new leadership.

There appeared to be a simple path: allowing Chayka out of his contract while suspending him for what happened under his watch. Take the medicine, then potentially join New Jersey. Bettman still needs to rule on that situation, but the severity of the penalty certainly accomplished the main goal: ensuring that no one in the future will break prospect testing rules. “It would have been better to fine them $5M than do that,” one agent said. Other teams, however, were adamant the Coyotes needed to suffer, especially in a year where there’s no combine. (Some have asked the NHL if they could meet in-person with players now that they know their draft order, but that’s been denied, too.)

The ruling shocked team staff, since Gutierrez indicated when he was hired in June that he wasn’t expecting serious punishment.

9. In the aftermath of Bettman’s ruling, a clearer picture into what happened has emerged. After a complaint from the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, the NHL informed the Coyotes on Jan. 22 of accusations about illegal testing. Two weeks later, the franchise retained the law firm Snell & Wilmer to conduct an internal investigation. The league pointed to regular memos, the most recent from April 2019, detailing policies that prohibit medical examinations or physical testing of prospects prior to the combine.

One of Arizona’s arguments was that there was a breakdown in disseminating these rules through its staff. (Chayka accepted responsibility for this.) Tommy Powers, hired as the Coyotes’ strength and condition advisor in September, said he’d never seen them. According to the Snell & Witmer report, the Coyotes believed Powers was mandated solely to conducting verbal interviews. The firm found him in violation of that, subjecting “at least” 20 prospects to testing.

Powers said he deleted the data before sharing it, and the team said it did not benefit because they were notified in January, with team scouting meetings not held until February. The Coyotes said Powers was kept in a minor role at those meetings, knowing he was under investigation. (He was let go by the team this week.)

10. There was a Zoom hearing with the commissioner on Aug. 6, featuring three witnesses: NHL Executive Vice-President and Senior Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell, Chayka and Powers. At the beginning, Arizona acknowledged a violation, but argued it did not deserve a stiff penalty. The Coyotes brought up minutes from a June 2003 league meeting, where it was discussed that teams had violated policy but not been punished. Campbell replied by saying the NHL has worked since then to make sure everyone is aware of the rules, and that was 17 years ago.

Interestingly, Arizona also argued some NHL teams have an advantage because their owners also own major junior teams. As mentioned, Chayka accepted blame for not making sure everyone on his staff understood the rules, but maintained he did not direct Powers to illegally test anyone. He said there was no intent to violate the rules, no instruction to violate the rules, and no benefit gained.

Powers testified he never distributed his videos or notes to any club personnel and that no Coyotes scout had any knowledge or reason to believe that he performed physical testing on prospects. The commissioner attacked that testimony in particular, because it was alleged a scout was present for the incident the Giants complained about.

11. In their closing argument, the Coyotes restated they felt they should not be sanctioned, but if any sanction is imposed, it should be lenient. Three reasons: they did not gain because the testing was not shared; Powers conducted physical testing without the knowledge of an ownership that has committed to ensuring future compliance with all league rules; that other clubs were not disciplined for older violations, and that NHL ownership of junior teams could be more advantageous than anything Arizona gained.

12. Finally on this issue: I’m not sure where this goes, if anywhere, but a lawyer buddy is wondering if the Coyotes have an appeal case because the change in combine testing rules was never brought to the Board of Governors for approval and/or ratification.

13. I don’t believe Calgary wants to take a long time to decide on Geoff Ward’s future. Maybe a week or two. Not fair to him to wait too long, but it sure sounds like the Flames wanted to avoid the emotion of the moment being a factor in their decision. Ward stabilized them in a very difficult situation.

14. Jacques Martin, let go in Pittsburgh, could replace Lindy Ruff with the Rangers.

15. Washington has permission to talk to Peter Laviolette, and he is very much a contender.

16. Former Capitals coach Todd Reirden could be on the radar in both Florida and Pittsburgh as an assistant. The Penguins’ connection is obvious (he used to work there), while the Panthers may replace Mike Kitchen, who did not join them in the bubble. (This, of course, is pending any head coaching jobs he pursues.)

17. I’m not sure about his status in Arizona/Florida scenarios, but Washington assistant GM Ross Mahoney had three interviews with New Jersey before the Devils stayed with Tom Fitzgerald.

18. St. Louis and Alex Pietrangelo met this week as the grind begins on extension attempts in St. Louis. As I’ve said many times, I believe the captain wants to stay a Blue. But a couple of sources warned that it hasn’t been easy for Pietrangelo to see extensions elsewhere along the lineup (Justin Faulk, Marco Scandella, Brayden Schenn) while his talks completely stalled. A lot of emotion here, and that makes talks more difficult.

19. The Carolina Hurricanes have interest in Frederik Andersen, but Toronto’s made it clear it has no desire to make a move just for the sake of change. If it happens, it’s for an upgrade, which means the Maple Leafs could wait to see how a loaded group of goaltending free agents shakes out.

20. The Pittsburgh/Toronto trade surprised teams because they thought the Maple Leafs’ ask of a first-round pick and a prospect for Kasperi Kapanen was more of a “draft time” move than anything. I think some would have considered a first for him, but not yet. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford doesn’t wait when he knows what he wants, so he pounced. With tighter budgets and a tight cap, both teams showed they didn’t want to risk being dateless at the prom. Find your partners before there’s no flexibility. The draft might not be until October, the playoffs are still going on. Normally, that’s nap time, but this deal sent a message: time to do business.

21. Most annoyed by the trade: the teams still playing, not really able to bid on a) Kapanen or b) the Penguins’ pick.

22. Unwilling to the pay the price for Kapanen, teams were asking Toronto what other forwards are available. Based on what I’m hearing, I don’t think William Nylander is going anywhere without a legit top-four right-handed defender coming in return. Filip Hallander was high on Toronto’s list when the Maple Leafs picked 52nd overall in 2018, although Toronto went with Sean Durzi — who went to Los Angeles in the Jake Muzzin deal. So it wasn’t a shocker that he’s the prospect they wanted from Pittsburgh.

23. Phillip Danault’s post-elimination comments did not go unnoticed. The Montreal centre, who finished behind surging Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki on the depth chart, said, “It made my role a bit unclear moving forward.” The Canadiens are being asked about their plans for him. Good player. Very confident. Unrestricted in a year. Also hearing Max Domi will consider an agent switch, possibly as soon as this week.

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24. Pittsburgh is testing the market on Jared McCann, a surprising healthy scratch in the Montreal series.

25. Adding to the goalie glut, Columbus — with a very deep prospect pool at the position — would consider moving one of its top two for some scoring. Elvis Merzlikins is expansion exempt, but Joonas Korpisalo and Matiss Kivlenieks aren’t.

26. One of Minnesota’s major priorities is to figure out what it will cost to extend Jonas Brodin, unrestricted after next season.

27. So, Miro Heiskanen or Seth Jones for the 2021 Norris?

28. It took the New York Islanders until Game 2 of their second-round series against Philadelphia to move out of first place in five-on-five goals allowed. They’d given up six in their first 10 games. That tied them with Winnipeg, who gave up six in four games.

29. Kevin Bieksa doesn’t think I know anything about goalies (sadly, he’s right) but spies have noticed adjustments in Semyon Varlamov’s style from March to now. In particular, the way he held his glove was slowing his movements left-to-right and opening his five-hole. Smarter people than me say the difference is apparent. Results speak: 1.69 GAA, best among starters.

30. I don’t believe there will a bubble (or bubbles) next season. The players won’t want it, and, quite frankly, neither will the owners. They’ll want a path towards attendance and will wait as long as possible to try and see one. I do think one season of regionalized travel is possible, with teams playing back-to-backs in one city. Yes, that could mean a Canadian Division, for one year only.

31. This tweet about Wayne Gretzky and lacrosse was fun and interesting. It’s also led to a rumour Gretzky will consider minority ownership in the National Lacrosse League. He’s clearly got a passion for it.

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