Hockey purists might be grumbling about the upcoming Stanley Cup Final because it will have nothing but Sun Belt teams involved. It suits Gary Bettman just fine.
Bettman was honored by the Sports Business Journal on Wednesday with a lifetime achievement award for the NHL’s growth during his 30 years as commissioner, from a business that generated $437 million in revenue before he took over to nearly $6 billion now.
Fittingly, it comes with conference finalists in Las Vegas, Dallas, South Florida and North Carolina, given how crucial Sun Belt expansion and growing the league south of the Canadian border is to Bettman’s legacy.
“It’s more about the footprint: You do better in terms of interest at all levels of the game where you have franchises,” Bettman said. “Creating a more national footprint, both in Canada and in the U.S., is important for growing the game.”
The NHL had a presence in just 13 U.S. markets (three in the New York area) in the final full season before Bettman took over and it wasn’t televised nationally. Over the past three decades, that has ballooned to 25 American teams in 22 markets from coast to coast.
One of the challenges, Bettman said, was demonstrating to TV networks that the NHL had “a compelling national story.” This postseason features a final four in cities that did not have teams before Bettman got the job.
The Florida Panthers joined the league in 1993, months after Bettman came over from his post at the NBA, at about the same time the Stars moved from Minnesota to Dallas. Raleigh, North Carolina, got a team later in the late 1990s when the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes. And the Vegas Golden Knights are only in their sixth season of existence after becoming the 31st franchise through expansion.
In between, teams were added in Nashville and Columbus, relocated to Colorado and Arizona, and rebirthed in Minnesota and Winnipeg. Along the way, Bettman has ruffled plenty of feathers and upset fans in places that lost teams, leaning on a lesson he learned from the late NBA commissioner David Stern to make decisions, big and small, for the right reasons.
“You do your homework, you make as an informed a decision as you can and you don’t do it for political reasons because political and popular reasons can change in the moment,” he said. “You got to do what you think is right because if you’re wrong, at least you did it because you thought it was right. And that’s how you sleep at night.”
Bettman prefers the term “newer markets” over “nontraditional” to describe many of those places, including Tampa Bay, which has become a model franchise and won the Stanley Cup three times since joining the league in 1992. He points out that having teams in new markets leads to more rinks being built and the game growing beyond some of the traditional North American hockey hotbeds.
That’s partly why Bettman is basking in the quality of play, even if the ratings for this year’s final might not be as high as a year where powerhouse markets like Boston, New York, Chicago, Toronto or Los Angeles are involved.
“What’s more important to me is the game: Is it exciting? Is it entertaining? Is it compelling?” Bettman said. “Some markets will always be bigger than others, but to me it’s more about the game and how entertaining it is.”
The phrase, “The game on the ice has never been better” is a staple of Bettman’s state of the league addresses over the years, and it will likely come up again when he speaks before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final next week.
He’ll turn 71 on June 2, Bettman isn’t ready to retire but says he’s “not going to do this into my 80s.” He said he sees a time in the not-too-distant future when he’ll want to take a long trip with his wife, Shelli, to a place they haven’t been and spend more time with his seven grandchildren.
“At some point, when you have a public-facing job, you need to say, ‘It’s time to move to somebody younger,'” Bettman said. “There’s some other things I may want to spend my time doing.”
Canadian fires force MLB, WNBA postponements
Major League Baseball has announced it is postponing games in New York and Philadelphia on Wednesday night because of poor air quality caused by smoke from Canadian wildfires.
A National Women’s Soccer League game in New Jersey and an indoor WNBA game set for Brooklyn were also called off Wednesday amid hazy conditions that have raised alarms from health authorities.
The New York Yankees‘ game against the Chicago White Sox was rescheduled as part of a doubleheader starting at 4:05 p.m. on Thursday, and the Philadelphia Phillies‘ game against the Detroit Tigers was reset for 6:05 p.m. on Thursday, originally an off day for both teams.
What Yankee Stadium normally looks like vs. what it look like today pic.twitter.com/uutCu4Znqh
— Joon Lee (@joonlee) June 7, 2023
“These postponements were determined following conversations throughout the day with medical and weather experts and all of the impacted clubs regarding clearly hazardous air quality conditions in both cities,” MLB said in a statement.
The National Weather Service issued an air quality alert for New York City, saying: “the New York State Department of Health recommends that individuals consider limiting strenuous outdoor physical activity to reduce the risk of adverse health effects.” In Philadelphia, the NWS issued a Code Red.
The Yankees and White Sox played through a lesser haze on Tuesday night.
The WNBA said a game between the Minnesota Lynx and New York Liberty would not be played Wednesday, saying the decision was made to “protect the health and safety of our fans, teams and community.” A makeup date wasn’t immediately announced.
The NWSL postponed Orlando’s match at Gotham in Harrison, New Jersey, from Wednesday night to Aug. 9.
“The match could not be safely conducted based on the projected air quality index,” the NWSL said.
At nearby Belmont Park, The New York Racing Association said training went on as planned ahead of Saturday’s Triple Crown horse race.
“NYRA utilizes external weather services and advanced on-site equipment to monitor weather conditions and air quality in and around Belmont Park,” spokesman Patrick McKenna said Wednesday. “Training was conducted normally today, and NYRA will continue to assess the overall environment to ensure the safety of training and racing throughout the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.”
New York’s NFL teams, the Giants and Jets, both had Wednesday off from offseason workouts. The Giants had been planning to practice inside Thursday, and the Jets say they are also likely to work out indoors Thursday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Yankees place Judge on 10-day IL with toe injury
NEW YORK — For the second time this season, the New York Yankees will need to play without Aaron Judge.
New York placed its superstar slugger on the injured list with a contusion and a ligament sprain in his right big toe, it was announced Wednesday.
Judge does not have a fracture or break in his toe, according to team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad.
“The biggest thing now is trying to get the swelling out of there,” manager Aaron Boone said Tuesday. “He had some improvements today, but now we’ll see where he is in the coming days and then week. But the biggest thing is getting the swelling out of there.”
“I think it definitely could have been worse. Hopefully it’s on the shorter side of things.”
Judge was hurt while making a running catch and crashing into the outfield fence Saturday against the Dodgers and hadn’t played since.
He also spent time on the injured list earlier this season because of a right hamstring strain. When he’s been healthy, Judge has put up MVP-type numbers again, hitting .291/.404/.674 with 19 homers and 2.2 bWAR in 49 games.
New York’s pitching depth also is getting tested.
Nestor Cortes will be placed on the injured list due to a left shoulder injury. Boone mentioned Cortes has struggled to bounce back between starts. He’s expected to miss at least two starts.
Cortes has a 5.16 ERA in 11 starts, striking out 59 batters in 59⅓ innings.
To replace Cortes, New York called up Randy Vasquez from Triple-A. The righty made his major league debut on May 26 against the San Diego Padres, allowing two runs in 4⅔ innings pitched.
Also, pitcher Ryan Weber was diagnosed with a UCL strain and has been placed on the 60-day injured list. The 32-year-old righty has pitched in eight games this season, posting a 3.14 ERA in 14⅓ innings.
In a related roster move, the Yankees recalled outfielder Billy McKinney.
Why this Stanley Cup is so important to Indigenous players Brandon Montour and Zach Whitecloud
LAS VEGAS — For the Florida Panthers‘ Brandon Montour and the Vegas Golden Knights‘ Zach Whitecloud, this year’s Stanley Cup Final carries a significance that goes well beyond both of them trying to help their teams win what would be each franchise’s first championship.
They are also part of the conversation about representation in hockey.
While records have not been meticulously kept, Montour and Whitecloud appear to be the first pair of players who identify as Indigenous to play against each other in a Stanley Cup Final in more than 30 years, based on data compiled by Hockey Indigenous, a Canadian nonprofit organization that promotes the sport among Indigenous people.
“I think it’s obviously pretty crazy. I don’t know the exact number of Indigenous players on the Stanley Cup, but just the league in general, to have that is huge,” said Montour, who is in his third season with the Panthers. “To support not just my reserve and his reserve, but the whole countries of Canada and the [United States] will be watching. The support will be huge for both of us.”
Both Montour and Whitecloud, who did not know each other before the Cup Final, are among 10 players on current NHL rosters who identify as Indigenous. The list also features Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie, Ottawa Senators defenseman Travis Hamonic and Vancouver Canucks defenseman Ethan Bear.
A New York Times story from 2018 suggests that Tony Gingras along with brothers, Magnus and Rod Flett, might have been the first Indigenous players to win a Stanley Cup in 1901 and 1902, when they played for the Winnipeg Victorias. Gingras along with both Flett brothers were Métis, according to The Times.
Since then, there have been numerous Indigenous players who have won a Stanley Cup. They include four members of the Hockey Hall of Fame: George Armstrong, Theo Fleury, Grant Fuhr and Bryan Trottier. Other Indigenous players to win a Cup include Dwight King, Jamie Leach, Reggie Leach, Jordan Nolan and Chris Simon.
Oshie is the most recent Indigenous player to win a Stanley Cup when he helped the Capitals beat the Golden Knights to win the first title in franchise history during the 2017-18 season.
The meeting between Montour and Whitecloud appears to be at least the fourth time two Indigenous players have faced each other in a Cup Final since 1980.
That year, Trottier and the New York Islanders defeated Leach and the Philadelphia Flyers in six games. In 1983, Trottier and the Islanders faced Fuhr and the Edmonton Oilers, but Fuhr did not play in the Final, which the Isles won. A year later, Fuhr did play as he and the Oilers beat Trottier and the Islanders for the title.
Based on information on HockeyIndigenous.com, the most recent meeting between Indigenous players on opposite teams in the Cup Final came in 1989, when the Calgary Flames beat the Montreal Canadiens. Fleury, who is Métis, played against Shayne Corson, who is also reported to be Métis. ESPN contacted an event management firm that represents Corson to seek clarification but did not receive a response.
“It’s a cool experience for a lot of our youth in our communities. … It’s about sending a message to a lot of those kids that this is possible,” said Whitecloud, who is in his third full season with the Golden Knights. “Dreaming and going after your dreams are attainable. That’s the most important part for me. It’s being able to get to this point but also, being a role model in terms of saying this is possible with hard work, dedication and that doesn’t stem from just hockey. … Whatever your passion is in life, go get it.”
Montour, who is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River, has been one of the Panthers’ best players this season. He finished the regular season with 16 goals and 73 points, shattering his previous career highs of 11 goals and 37 points in 2021-22.
In the postseason, Montour is leading the Panthers and third in the NHL in average ice time at 27:29 per game. His six goals are tied for third on the Panthers, while his nine points are the most for a Panthers defenseman.
“You see players like myself come from the same town as you or little towns where all of us came from, it just gives that sense of hope,” said Montour, who grew up in Oshweken, Ontario. “When I was a kid, I was in the same situation trying to watch and follow the footsteps of my heroes and guys I looked up to. To be in that spot, obviously, is huge and you take that in a full serious note and enjoy playing for all of them.”
Whitecloud, who grew up in the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, about 30 miles west of Brandon, Manitoba, expressed a similar sentiment. Growing up close to Brandon, he saw players who reached the NHL, both those who were from there or who played for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
Keegan Kolesar, Whitecloud’s Vegas teammate, is from Brandon, and Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon played for the Wheat Kings before becoming their coach, GM and owner prior to reaching the NHL.
But Whitecloud said there were no hockey players who came from the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation who went further than juniors. He said his dad was among them, but the numbers were few from the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, which has a population of 2,500.
Whitecloud said his dad has always been his hockey role model and continues to have a passion for the game. It’s what led to Whitecloud working his way to the Golden Knights, signing as an undrafted free agent after two seasons at Bemidji State University. He spent two seasons playing for Vegas’ AHL affiliate before he became a full-time NHL player during the 2020-21 season.
Jennifer Bone, who is chief of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, told ESPN there is an immense sense of pride in that community watching Whitecloud. She said there is a sign that welcomes people when they enter the community that reads, “Home of NHL player Zach Whitecloud of the Vegas Golden Knights.”
“When we had a watch party last week, we gave away T-shirts at the school and there are cars driving around with flags on their window and people have flags outside their homes,” Bone said. “They are really supportive and people are being fans of Zach. … It’s like, ‘Wow, he is in the Stanley Cup playoffs’ and the success he has had over the past few seasons and the limited number of First Nation who have achieved that in hockey makes it more inspiring for our community members.
“Just having that and having him and Brandon Montour in the Stanley Cup Final just shows the representation of Indigenous people and showcases the talent that they have.”
Like Montour, Whitecloud has made significant contributions to the Golden Knights’ playoff run. The biggest came in Game 1 of the Cup Final, when he had the winning goal in a 5-2 Vegas victory. Whitecloud is averaging just under 19 minutes per game but has paired with Nicolas Hague to create a defensive partnership that has logged the most 5-on-5 ice time of any Golden Knights pairing in the playoffs.
Bone said the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation will continue to have watch parties. The nation’s website features a graphic that includes a picture of Whitecloud and words such as “Ambassador,” “Role Model,” “Trail Blazer” and “Warrior.”
The Six Nations of the Grand River also will host watch parties for every game of the Stanley Cup Final, according to the community’s official website, with Chief Mark B. Hill issuing a news release that said Montour “represents Six Nations of the Grand River with pride.”
Bone said she received a phone call from Hill days before the Cup Final in which they talked about the significance of seeing two members of their communities represent what it means to be Indigenous on hockey’s biggest stage.
“Jordin Tootoo was one of the role models for me, and Micheal Ferland and some of those guys,” Whitecloud said. “People that look like me that got to those levels. That was always cool, but I was never the player that was first picked for teams or was always praised for being that person. I was fine with that. I think that’s a big part of why I am where I am today. I genuinely played the game because I love it.”
Bone was not able to attend the Game 1 watch party but said more than 100 people did, which she said is a strong number for their community events.
While she was talking about the watch parties, Bone said she had thought about what would happen if the Golden Knights won the Stanley Cup and what it would mean for Whitecloud to have his day with the Cup in their community.
“It would be a huge event for us and a huge celebration,” Bone said. “Zach returns to the community during the summer months, and he was here for an annual power celebration. Him visiting and spending a few hours with people is a big deal. There was a line of people wanting photographs, autographs or have him sign whatever memorabilia and meet with him and have a chat with him. It’s definitely going to be a huge event if that happens.”
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