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LAS VEGAS — For the Florida PanthersBrandon Montour and the Vegas Golden KnightsZach 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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Sources: Yankees add Hill to banged-up bullpen

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Sources: Yankees add Hill to banged-up bullpen

Reliever Tim Hill and the New York Yankees are in agreement on a one-year major league contract, sources told ESPN, in a deal that adds the veteran left-hander to the team with the best record in baseball.

Hill, 34, was designated for assignment by the Chicago White Sox last week after a rough patch in which his ERA ballooned to 5.87. Hill still has not allowed a home run, and his 65.6% groundball rate is the third best among relievers in major league baseball — behind Yankees closer Clay Holmes and Baltimore Orioles setup man Yennier Cano.

Hitters have tagged Hill’s fastball this season, dropping 41 hits in 23 innings, but he’s been an effective bullpen option since his debut with the Kansas City Royals in 2018, posting a 3.88 ERA over the next five years. The San Diego Padres non-tendered Hill after the 2023 season, and he signed a one-year, $1.8 million contract with Chicago in December.

The Yankees, who lost reliever Jonathan Loaisiga to Tommy John surgery earlier this season and placed reliever Ian Hamilton on the injured list earlier this week, have the third-best bullpen ERA in the American League at 3.41, with pitching coach Matt Blake helping extract career-best seasons from right-handers Luke Weaver, Michael Tonkin and Ron Marinaccio.

Right-handed reliever Scott Effross and right-handed starter JT Brubaker, both of whom haven’t pitched since 2022 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, are currently on rehabilitation assignments for New York as well.

Hill is the latest reclamation project for the 51-25 Yankees, who added ace Gerrit Cole back to their rotation Wednesday and already have lefties Caleb Ferguson and Victor Gonzalez in their bullpen.

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Cole solid in season debut, eyes higher pitch limit

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Cole solid in season debut, eyes higher pitch limit

NEW YORK — New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole‘s assignment for his season debut Wednesday wasn’t cushy: a mid-June clash against the loaded Baltimore Orioles, his club’s primary competition for American League East supremacy, after just three rehab starts fresh off an alarming elbow injury.

But Cole isn’t your typical pitcher, and the Yankees deemed him ready knowing he would have to build up his stamina at the highest level. Working with a short leash Wednesday, the reigning Cy Young Award winner proved he was up for the challenge. He was sharp, with a touch of rust, over four-plus innings in front of a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium, though New York would go on to lose 7-6 in 10 innings.

The right-hander was charged with two runs on three hits. He compiled five strikeouts to one walk. He threw 62 pitches and induced six swing-and-misses. His average fastball velocity was down 1.6 mph from last season, but he still touched 97 mph.

“I felt pretty good,” Cole said. “Good command for the most part. And made some good pitches when we needed to make some good pitches.”

Cole took the mound for his long-awaited return at 7:07 p.m. to cheers after a video montage was played on the big screen highlighting his debut. It began with a couple of bumps.

The Orioles inflicted most of their damage against Cole in the first inning. Gunnar Henderson led off the game with a one-hopper that bounced off second baseman Gleyber Torres‘ glove into right field and was ruled a double. Two batters later, Ryan O’Hearn, facing an 0-2, slashed a slider for a two-out, RBI ground-rule double.

Cole quickly regrouped. He needed just seven pitches to retire the side in the second inning. He issued a one-out walk to Henderson in the third. Henderson stole second base on the next pitch but was stranded there as Cole recorded his first three strikeouts of the season in the inning.

Cole retired the side in order with two strikeouts in the fourth frame on 16 pitches. He took the mound for the fifth inning but was pulled for reliever Ron Marinaccio after surrendering a first-pitch single to Cedric Mullins. The crowd showered Cole with a standing ovation. Cole, visibly annoyed with the end of his performance, acknowledged the supporters with his glove twice.

Then he watched Marinaccio yield a two-run home run to Ramon Urias for the second of the two runs on his pitching line.

“I thought he got better as he went,” said Boone, who noted he sensed Cole was fatigued after the fourth inning.

Before the game, Boone declined to share Cole’s pitch limit, not wanting to give the Orioles a competitive edge. But Cole was obviously going to be limited after he was built up to 68 pitches over 4⅓ innings in his third and final rehab start Friday.

Boone said the goal was to build up Cole “conservatively.” On Wednesday, that meant a 65-pitch limit, Boone said after the game. Asked what his pitch limit would be in his next outing, Cole echoed his manager’s competitive disadvantage line. But he did offer a hint: “More.”

“I’m tired now,” Cole said. “Certainly a different level. It just demands a higher level of focus and execution. I definitely felt I could keep making pitches, but it was strategic in the pitch count. And, certainly, in that regard we executed that perfectly.”

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College Football Playoff: Five questions for the committee

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College Football Playoff: Five questions for the committee

When the College Football Playoff was introduced more than a decade ago, and the sport’s championship evolved from two to four teams, even the system’s creators couldn’t answer some of the questions that arose — or they had a heckuva time trying.

What was the value of winning a conference title when two SEC teams could be in and two Power 5 conference champions were out? When do head-to-head results matter? And at what point are they dismissed? How do you measure a team’s schedule strength? And how much was a schedule’s strength derived from the perceived strength of a contender’s own conference?

When the 12-team CFP is unveiled this fall, it will again be a learning curve for everyone — fans, coaches, players, media and the selection committee. The committee’s task — and its protocol — remains mostly unchanged, but an unprecedented 12-team field naturally raises new questions for the group charged with ranking the best teams in the country.

In the spirit of the new CFP format, which will guarantee playoff spots for the five highest-ranked conference champions, here are five questions for the committee.

1. Will strength-of-schedule evaluations change with conference realignment?

Losing isn’t something the top national title contenders are used to — but even some coaches expect that to change, and it could make things tricky in the committee meeting room.

The committee has historically rewarded teams that play tougher opponents, holding wins against CFP top 25 teams in high regard. With the Big Ten expanding to 18 teams and the SEC to 16, though, some CFP contenders now have a more difficult path to their own conference championship game. The rigorous SEC and Big Ten schedules are going to make it even more difficult for those respective leagues to produce undefeated or even one-loss conference champions.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, since 2014, 14 of the 20 teams that participated in the SEC championship game had one or no losses. During that same time frame, 11 of 20 Big Ten teams playing in the league championship game had one or no losses.

Now?

According to ESPN’s preseason FPI, only three teams have at least a 10% chance to finish the regular season undefeated (Oregon, Notre Dame and Georgia), and none have more than a 20% chance to go 12-0. The only other time during the CFP era that no teams had more than a 20% chance to finish undefeated was 2016, and Alabama was the only Power 5 team to finish 12-0 that year.

What will that mean at Selection Central when teams from those leagues have multiple losses and are being compared with contenders from the ACC and Big 12 — teams with better records but against fewer ranked opponents?

“Do I think there’s going to be teams with multiple losses in the playoff? Yes, most certainly there is,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart. “How do you differentiate? I’ll leave that to the committee. That’s why we have the system we have. … There’s going to be debate about what football teams get left out. Ultimately, everybody has a chance to go out on the grass and perform and play and earn the right to get in. Somebody’s going to get left out that probably shouldn’t. … We had that with the four-team playoff. There was probably three times I thought we were one of the best four teams but we didn’t earn it on the field.”


2. How many teams from the SEC and Big Ten will fill the bracket?

Using last year’s final CFP ranking with conference realignment for 2024, the Big Ten and SEC would have combined for 10 of the 12 spots.

SEC champion Alabama would have been in along with Texas, Georgia, Mizzou and Ole Miss. Big Ten champion Michigan would have been joined by Washington (the Pac-12 champion in 2023), Ohio State, Oregon, and Penn State.

There is no limit to how many teams from one conference can qualify for the playoff, but there are guaranteed spots for the five highest-ranked conference champions. Most likely those will usually feature the champions from the ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and a Group of 5 winner. In 2023 those winners were Florida State (ACC), Michigan (Big Ten), Alabama (SEC), Texas (Big 12, now in the SEC) and Liberty (out of Conference USA, the highest ranked G5 winner).

How often will the conference champs from the ACC and Big 12 be their lone representatives?


3. How difficult will it be to rank the No. 8 and No. 9 teams with the No. 1 team looming?

The four highest-ranked conference champions will earn a first-round bye. Everyone else will play a first-round game on the home campus of the higher seed. The winner of the game between No. 8 and No. 9 will face the best team in the country in the quarterfinal. The loser goes home. Is this something the committee will think about — either consciously or unconsciously — as it compiles its final ranking on Selection Day?

Remember, these games will be played on Dec. 20 and Dec. 21 this year, which could be very cold on some campuses — particularly in the Big Ten. (According to Accuweather.com, Ann Arbor, Michigan, had a high of 38 degrees last Dec. 20 and a low of 21 degrees.)

How much of an advantage might that be if they are hosting a team from the South?

Last year, in a 12-team field, Oregon would have hosted Mizzou. Autzen Stadium has a distinct home-field advantage because of its smaller size and location. The winner of that game would have played No. 1 seed and Big Ten champion Michigan.


4. What will the criteria be for ranking the top Group of 5 champion?

Last year, the selection committee’s most controversial ranking outside of the top four was its decision to slot undefeated Liberty at No. 23, which guaranteed the Flames a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. Liberty earned the Group of 5’s coveted bid to a New Year’s Six bowl without beating a single Power 5 opponent. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Flames had the easiest schedule in the country last year (No. 133) entering the postseason. Eight of Liberty’s 12 regular-season opponents finished with losing records. It was a decision that blatantly defied the committee’s typical reverence for strength of schedule and was inconsistent with its justification throughout the rest of its Top 25.

Had the 12-team playoff existed in 2023, Liberty would have earned a spot in the field as the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion, and the Flames would have bumped out No. 12 Oklahoma for the spot. Was Liberty’s selection an anomaly last year? Or is going undefeated the committee’s new standard for the Group of 5, regardless of schedule strength? If so, does that translate to the rest of their Top 25?

In the four-team playoff, even the best Group of 5 champions faced a nearly impossible standard to reach the CFP — an undefeated record that included wins against Power 5 opponents and CFP Top 25-ranked teams. In 2021, Cincinnati, which was then a member of the American Athletic Conference, was the only team to reach a CFP semifinal in the decade of the four-team playoff.

The criteria for reaching the 12-team field will be highly scrutinized because of the likelihood that the highest-ranked Group of 5 conference champion will bump out a strong contender at No. 12. Remember, It’s not the committee’s top 12 teams. It’s the five highest-ranked conference champions plus the next seven highest-ranked teams. So if that fifth champion is ranked outside of the top 12, the unlucky 12th team will be snubbed to make room for it.

If the fifth champion is not ranked at all, then the selection committee will separately rank the Group of 5 champions and then announce the top school as the highest-ranked Group of 5 champion along with the Top 25.

Liberty again doesn’t face any Power 4 opponents. Will it matter?


5. How will the playoff path change for independents?

It’s not just Notre Dame that will be impacted by the new format. Oregon State and Washington State will also be treated as independents this fall, as they no longer have a Pac-12 conference championship game to play in.

If any of those schools qualify for the 12-team field, they can’t earn a first-round bye because they can’t finish as one of the four highest-ranked conference champions. They would play a first-round game and need to win four straight games to win the national title.

In the past, not having a conference title game was a pro-con situation for the Irish. If they were already in the top four heading into Selection Day, the Irish didn’t have to risk losing and falling out. If they were on the bubble, though, there wasn’t another opportunity to impress the committee against a ranked opponent. Notre Dame had to sit and wait and hope for help while everyone else was competing.

Now?

The Irish should be in more often than not if they finish with no more than one — maybe two — losses, depending on their schedule, results and how everyone else fares. There is far less pressure to go undefeated, even without a conference title. They still need to beat the marquee opponents, though, like Texas A&M, Florida State and USC, and avoid upsets to Marshall.

Oregon State’s best opportunity will be Sept. 14 against rival Oregon, as most of the Beavers’ opponents are Mountain West Conference teams through a scheduling alliance. Washington State faces rival Washington, Texas Tech and Oregon State. Both the former Pac-12 teams need to leave no doubt they’re playoff material against unranked opponents because they may have limited opportunities for CFP top 25 wins.

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