NHL Wins and Sins: Willie O'Ree, Tom Wilson's return, Tuukka Rask's leave, concussion settlement
What's right and wrong in the NHL this week
It's time for our weekly installment highlighting what's right and what's wrong with the NHL during every week throughout the season. For all the things there are to love about the NHL and its product, there's also plenty to hate and plenty to criticize.
With that in mind, let's hash it out together ... right here ... every single Wednesday.
What's right: Willie O'Ree in the Hall of Fame
There's only one thing to say here: It's about damn time.
About a year ago, as the NHL was celebrating the 60th anniversary of Willie O'Ree breaking the league's color barrier,. It's insane that it took this long, but it finally happened; On Monday, O'Ree was inducted inducted into the HHOF.
He doesn't go in as a player -- he only played 45 career games at the NHL level, scoring just four goals and 14 points -- but rather as a builder. The Hall defines "builders" as members of the hockey community who have helped to build and grow the game, from coaches to general managers and executives to broadcasters and others.
O'Ree has been, and continues to be, one of hockey's most influential builders when it comes to promoting diversity in the game. And while the NHL still remains the least diverse of the four major American sports -- recent stats say over 90-percent of the league's players identify as white -- O'Ree has been one of the strongest driving forces to help the game be more inclusive.
On top of tearing down the sport's color barrier, O'Ree has also served as the NHL's Diversity Ambassador for the past two decades and has served as a mentor for countless African-American players ranging from youth hockey all the way to the NHL. A number of black players in the league -- Wayne Simmonds and Joel Ward among them -- have said they wouldn't be where they are today without Willie O'Ree.
With that in mind, it was great to see O'Ree take his rightful place in the HHOF, even if it should have happened a while ago. I'm just glad they put him in while he was still around to enjoy it.
What's wrong: Tom Wilson's reduced suspension
I just want to get this out of the way off the top: I don't hate Tom Wilson. I don't think he's a useless goon or a guy that doesn't belong in the league. In actuality, he's a pretty decent player who has an ability to be an impact player on both ends of the ice thanks to his physicality and the old-school edge with which he plays.
But Wilson's not only a guy who plays with an edge, he's a guy plays on the edge. He's proven too many times that he's willing to cross over to the wrong side of that edge with dangerous, predatory hits that jeopardize the well-being of the guys on the ice with him. Despite numerous punishments for these types of hits, he kept failing to get the message.
That's why the hefty 20-game ban that Wilson was given after a check to the head this preseason was a good thing. It was quite a strong message from the league's Department of Player Safety to a guy wearing his fourth suspension in his last 105 games (including preseason and postseason), an "unprecedented" frequency of suspensions in the league's history.
However, on Tuesday, Wilson had that 20-game suspension Capitals lineup immediately. (And he did, playing in Washington's game against Minnesota on Tuesday night. , because of course.), making him eligible to return to the
The arbitrator, Shyam Das, who was also the guy who got Austin Watson's domestic violence suspension cut from 27 games to 18 games and was fired by MLB in 2012 for overturning Ryan Braun's PED suspension, ruled that the league was too harsh on Wilson in the initial suspension.
Wilson ended up serving 16 games in total (he'll recoup two game checks totaling over $378,000), and that's still a significant chunk of time missed by the Capitals' forward. Maybe it's enough to serve as a wake-up call that he needs to reel in his game and not be so reckless with his physicality, but I wouldn't blame anyone for being skeptical. He hasn't gotten the message in the past, so I don't love backpedaling on the most serious suspension he's ever been handed.
In any case, now that he's back I genuinely hope that he figures it out and finds a way to consistently play with an appropriate level of nasty, for his own sake and for the sake of the guys on the ice with him.
What's right: Tuukka Rask's leave
Late last week, the Boston Bruins to deal with a personal matter. There was a shroud of mystery around the announcement, as the club didn't disclose any details about his departure beyond saying he would be away from the club indefinitely and that it wasn't due to a health issue.
That indefinite leave ultimately totaled three days, as Rask returned to the team and practiced on Tuesday. He addressed the media afterward and said that he needed to spend some time with his family to "make things right" at home before he could fully focus on his job. He seemed pretty genuine in his statements regarding his leave, as well as in that it wouldn't be a lingering issue.
It certainly sounds like something may have happened to trigger his brief absence, but the circumstances are still largely a mystery. There still aren't many details surrounding the personal situation -- and, frankly, it's really not my (or anyone else's) business -- but, whatever may have gone down, good on Rask for taking time to step away from the club and sort it out.
Sometimes it's easy to forget that athletes are still people away from the game, with many of them having to deal with the same issues that a lot of us schmoes go through. A lot of those issues can snowball and derail a person's personal life, which can then have ripple effects on their professional life. Most people will be able to tell you that it's easy to let things get out of hand when it comes to tough personal situations.
And, as an athlete or public figure, it's likely a bit more challenging to handle. It can't be easy to step away like this, knowing how many people are going to pry, speculate and criticize. That certainly applies to Rask, who was already a heavily scrutinized figure in the Boston sports scene prior to this ordeal.
Regardless of what the issue was, it took guts to be able to step away and address it head-on. Props to Rask for that.
What's wrong: Hockey in Southern California
Boy, things have really gone south for Southern California's hockey contingent in a hurry. It seems like only yesterday the Kings and Ducks were among the power squads of the Western Conference, and now here we are.
In last week's column I discussed(they're old, slow and bad). As it turns out, they're currently on a three-game losing streak in which they've scored two total goals. They still have the league's worst goal differential (-21) and the league's lowest point total (11) by a good margin. It would appear they still suck. Shocking.
On top of their scoring woes, the Kings are also currently being forced to start their third-string goaltender, and they might have to for a while. With Jonathan Quick already sidelined as he recovers a torn meniscus, the Kings also lost backup Jack Campbell to the same injury this week. The required surgery will keep him out four to six weeks, leaving 36-year-old Peter Budaj and 24-year-old Cal Petersen as the team's goaltending options.
The Kings' lone win in the post-Stevens era so far came against the Ducks, who have also been quite bad this year. While the Ducks aren't nearly as pitiful as the Kings (at least in the standings), there's plenty of reason to be concerned for them. Anaheim has the league's lowest shots-per-game output (25.5, a full two shots lower than the next-lowest average) and the second-highest shots against-per-game average (a shade under 37).
The Ducks have been able to put together some wins (including taking two of three this week) but don't let that fool you. They've looked pretty rough and have been heavily out-chanced by opponents. John Gibson came out of the gate strong and has managed to limit the damage and keep them in respectable position, but there's reason to believe things may get significantly worse for Anaheim if this keeps up.
Right now, the Kings and Ducks are the worst two offensive teams in the league and they both look like they could use some major help. If they're not going to go all-in and tank, they should probably consider a race to sign Joel Quenneville.
What's right and also wrong: The concussion settlement
On Monday,(and over 300 players in total) in a non-class action lawsuit that claimed the NHL failed to protect them from head injuries or adequately warn them of the risks involved with playing.
As part of the settlement, the league will pay out nearly $19 million, with a little under $7 million going to the 318 plaintiffs (averaging out to $22,000 per person). The settlement also states that the NHL will pay for medical testing and treatment (up to $75,000) for the individuals involved in the case, and the league will establish a "Common Good Fund" as an emergency outlet for ex-players in need, giving $2.5 million to that fund over the course of five years.
It feels pretty fair to approach this news as a double-edged sword. It's good that a settlement has been reached and that the league is taking some steps to assist in the health of ex-players, many of whom suffer from neurodegenerative conditions -- including headaches, irritability, sensitivity to light, mood and personality swings, sleeping issues, and depression -- as a result of concussions sustained during their playing days. This agreement should lead to monitoring, testing and financial assistance for guys in need, which is tremendously important.
But $22,000 isn't a whole lot of money, and this settlement pales in comparison to the billion-dollar one that was cast upon the NFL a few years ago, albeit to a larger group of players. The covering of medical testing is probably the biggest factor, but players will need to go through the same doctors approved by the NHL and NHLPA, who will ultimately be the ones determining if they're eligible to receive coverage (again, only up to $75,000). Each player needs to pass two neurodegenerative tests to qualify.
The "Common Good Fund" is important, and it's sort of crazy that such a thing wasn't established before this.
Players involved in the settlement have the option of opting in to receive the immediate aid, but doing so prevents them from being able to challenge the league again. Anyone involved has to either take what's being offered now or opt out and risk waiting years for additional litigation.
It's also uncomfortable to note that, as part of this settlement, the league admits exactly zero fault in these players' issues. Immediately after the agreement was announced, the league released a statement that read: "The NHL does not acknowledge any liability for the Plaintiffs' claims in these cases. However, the parties agree that the settlement is a fair and reasonable resolution and that it is in the parties' respective best interests to receive the benefits of the settlement and to avoid the burden, risk and expense of further litigation."
This falls in line with the denials the league and commissioner Gary Bettman have been issuing all along. While discussing the purported link between concussions and CTE/brain trauma back in 2015, Bettman said this: "From a medical and scientific standpoint, there is no evidence yet that one leads to the other."
The NHL's refusal to admit any connection or accept any responsibility, even with this settlement, is pretty ugly. Essentially, they're openly trying to pay off these players with a minimal cash sum in order to get them to shut up and leave the league alone. It's hard to feel great about that.
Goal of the week
Congratulations to Tom Kuhnhackl for getting insanely lucky on this preposterous display.
Still no deal, still no trade. We're quickly approaching the December 1 deadline, and if Nylander doesn't ink a new deal by then, he'll have to sit out the remainder of this season. We'll have to see if desperation pushes either Nylander or the Maple Leafs to budge and, if so, which one flinches first.
"First and foremost, [Nylander's] got to listen to his mom and dad. That's who you lean on...They have one thought in mind, and that's to take care of their son," Gretzky told TSN 1050's Leaf Lunch on Monday. "So, lean on your parents (and obviously the advice from your advisers, your agent.)
"But listen, ultimately, at the end of the day, when I was that age I just wanted to play hockey. Ultimately, I think he has to sit down and say 'Look, I'm playing in a great city, I'm playing with a great organization, I'm playing with an Original Six team. Do I really want to not be there?'
And they've got a chance. They have a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup. When they have players like Auston Matthews and John Tavares, and the goaltender playing as well as he is, and they got a good coach. I mean, listen, it's a pretty nice place to play.
I can't speak for him because he's made his decision, but if I was that young man, I would have been there September 15."
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