From Trinidad to Toronto to pro goalie coach, the journey of Sudarshan Maharaj


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Once upon a time, there was a young boy from Trinidad who fell in love with hockey after his family swapped their warm Caribbean island home for Toronto’s winter cool in search of a better life.

Goalie Coach Sudarshan Maharaj.

Goalie Coach Sudarshan Maharaj.

He went to his first National Hockey League game at the old Maple Leafs Gardens and stood by the low glass, eyes wide as the Toronto Maple Leafs briskly skated through their pregame warm-up routine.

As the Leafs left the ice, a player tossed the boy a puck, a moment that proved to be an epiphany and kismet.

Today, Sudarshan Maharaj is a goaltending consultant for the Anaheim Ducks organization. He helps train, evaluate, and scout goalies for the NHL team coached by Bruce Boudreau – the Maple Leafs player who gave him the cherished puck years ago.

“I told Bruce that story,” Maharaj told me recently. “He was shocked that I remembered. I said ‘Are you crazy? That’s a life-changing moment. It was one of my greatest experiences. My very first hockey game and a Toronto Maple Leafs player dropped a puck for me.’ To this day, if I ever see a young child in the stands I’ll always throw a puck.”

Roaming the Ducks organization, Maharaj spends time with goalies Frederik Andersen and Anton Khudobin in Anaheim; John Gibson and Matt Hackett at the San Diego Gulls, the Ducks’ American Hockey League farm team; and Ryan Faragher and Chris Rawlings at the Utah Grizzlies, Anaheim’s ECHL affiliate.

In a hockey playing and coaching career spanning over three decades, Maharaj has also coached Florida Panthers backup goalie Al Montoya and former NHLers Kevin Weekes, Rick DiPietro, Joey MacDonaldSteve Valiquette, Martin Biron, and Dwayne Roloson.

Sudarshan Maharaj, left, roves the Anaheim Ducks system coaching its goaltenders and scouting for the organization, too.

Sudarshan Maharaj, left, roves the Anaheim Ducks system coaching its goaltenders and scouting for the organization, too.

Maharaj is part of a small but growing army of minorities who’ve entered hockey’s coaching ranks as goalie instructors. Frantz Jean runs the goalies for the Tampa Bay Lightning, a 2014-15 Stanley Cup finalist.

Fred Brathwaite, who tended net for four NHL teams, is a goaltending consultant for Hockey Canada.  Grant Fuhr, who helped backstop the Edmonton Oilers to five Stanley Cups, was a goalie coach for the then-Phoenix Coyotes in the early 2000s.

“I’ve been offered opportunities to be on the bench, but I don’t like it,” he told me. “I like the behind the scene position – I’m not a front-of-the-herd guy. If ever there were a position that I would aspire to, it would be assistant general manager, but I don’t. I love what I do. I’d like to win a Stanley Cup as a goaltending coach.”

Sudarshan “Sudsie” Maharaj’s hockey story is an unconventional tale of immigration, opportunity, prejudice, and perseverance. His family, who’s of Indian descent, relocated from Trinidad to Toronto in 1970 when he was six years old.

His father found work at an auto dealership and worked his way up from washing cars to selling them. Canada took some getting used to, particularly the weather.

“I distinctly still remember the first time I ever saw snow,” Maharaj told me. “We ran outside the apartment complex where we were living and stood there in the snow watching it come down.”

The family’s assimilation to their new country was aided by hockey. Like most Canadians, the Maharaj household gathered around the television on winter Saturdays and watched “Hockey Night in Canada.

Maharaj was asleep in his mother’s arms when Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr scored his iconic Stanley Cup-winning goal against St. Louis Blues goalie Glenn Hall in 1970.

Watching hockey led to Maharaj taking up the game. First, street hockey with neighborhood kids. Then he joined an in-house hockey league. Maharaj’s oldest brother was a huge fan of Leafs goaltender Bernie Parent and directed his younger brother to the pipes.

“He said ‘That’s it, you have to be a goalie.’ He stuck me in net all the time and then come tryout at the local house league he said ‘Okay, you’re going to tryout in net,'” Maharaj said. “I loved it and ended up playing there the rest of my life. Oh, that mask. The mask and the equipment, and I just loved the position.”

And he was good at it. He was a member of the University of Wisconsin’s hockey team briefly before moving on to York University in Toronto. When no NHL teams knocked on his door, Maharaj packed his pads and headed to Sweden where he played professionally from 1985 to 1991.

Racial taunts and hostility on and off the ice accompanied Maharaj along his hockey journey, and Sweden was no exception. There, some so-called “fans” didn’t like his looks and torched his car.

“One of the young lads didn’t particularly like the color of my skin, me being in the town, and who I was associating with and all that,” Maharaj told me. “So he decided to make a bonfire that night.”

Things could have been worse for him racially in Sweden and North America, Maharaj figures, but his goalie gear offered him a degree of anonymity.

“Back in those days you wore the mask that covered your whole face, so you didn’t get it as much until they knew who you were either before or after,” he told me. “As the years went on, when you’re playing the same people, they knew. You’d have (opposing players) come to the front of the net and say some things that today people would be shocked to hear.”

Maharaj retired as a player in 1991 at age 27. He returned to York University to complete his degree work in English and physical education. About the same time, the school’s goalie coach left the team, and he was asked to fill the vacancy. A career was born.

San Diego Gulls goalie John Gibson is one of Maharaj's pupils.

San Diego Gulls goalie John Gibson is one of Maharaj’s pupils.

He liked coaching so much that he began to instruct goalies on junior teams while working as a school teacher in the greater Toronto area.  His positive results with young goalies caught the attention of the New York Islanders.

He was a goalie coach or goaltending consultant for the Isles from the 2003-04 season to the 2011-12 NHL campaign. In 2013-14, He became goaltending consultant for the Norfolk Admirals, then the Ducks’ AHL team.

The Admirals moved to San Diego this season as part of the AHL’s ambitious west coast expansion and are now called the Gulls.

Maharaj’s pupils past and present sing his praises.  When Faragher was called up by the Ducks from AHL Norfolk for a stint last season he said “being able to get more games down the stretch and working with Sudarshan Maharaj allowed me to feel more comfortable at the AHL level.”

Nurse nets first NHL goal


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Defenseman Darnell Nurse came straight outta Bakersfield to score the first goal of his National Hockey League career Tuesday night.

Edmonton's Darnell Nurse.

Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse.

Nurse, the Edmonton Oilers’ 2013 first-round draft pick, was called up from the Bakersfield Condors – the Oil’s American Hockey League farm team in California – and inserted into the lineup in a 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.

He responded to the promotion by scoring on a slap shot at 3:38 of the third period that gave the Oilers a brief 3-2 lead. Defenseman Oscar Klefbom and left wing Benoit Pouliot assisted on the tally.

In 19:20 of ice time, Nurse fired two shots, had three hits and two blocked shots.

The Oilers assigned Nurse to start the 2015-16 hockey season in Bakersfield. There, he had no goals, one assist, and seven penalty minutes in six games for the Condors.

The former captain for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Nurse helped power Team Canada to the Gold Medal at the 2015 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship in Toronto and Montreal.

He had one goal, no assists, and a plus-minus rating of +8 in seven tournament games and opponents didn’t score while he was on the ice. He was named one of Canada’s three best players in the tourney.

Nurse hails from an athletic family. His younger sister, Kia Nurse, is a point guard for the 2015 NCAA Division I champion University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team and a member of the Canadian women’s national team. Older sister Tamika played basketball for the University of Oregon and Bowling Green State University.

Their father Richard Nurse, was a wide receiver for the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats; their mother Cathy was a basketball standout at Canada’s McMaster University.

When he was younger, Darnell Nurse spent time with his uncle, former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. A cousin, Sarah Nurse, plays hockey for the University of Wisconsin.

Behind the camera, on the mic, Mason and Fitzhugh achieve their hockey dreams


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They did it!

When last we checked in with Damon Kwame Mason and Everett Fitzhugh they were busy chasing separate hockey dreams. Mason was attempting to make a documentary chronicling the history and growth of blacks in hockey and Fitzhugh was trying to land a gig as a professional hockey play-by-play announcer.

These days, Fitzhugh is proudly calling goals and hockey’s rough-and-tumble action at home and road games for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, his latest stop on a journey that he hopes will lead to a National Hockey League broadcasting career.

And after nearly four years, spending about $200,000 of mostly his own money, and shooting more than 50 hours of footage, Mason can finally call himself a filmmaker – and a pretty good one. His “Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future” won a People’s Choice Award at the Edmonton International Film Festival earlier this month.

“I knew I was going to finish. Did I know when? No.” Mason told me recently. “There were times I was frustrated – the lack of money, sometimes the lack of support – but I knew, eventually, I’d get it done only because I started out on that mission and I don’t like giving up.”

Damon Kwame Mason (right) interviews Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Trevor Daley for black hockey history documentary.

Damon Kwame Mason (right) interviews Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Trevor Daley for black hockey history documentary.

Making the doc was business and personal for Mason, who hopes the movie will help him make the transition from working in radio to a career in film. As a Canadian, he felt a duty to tell the stories of black players from back in the day and today who sometimes faced racial cruelty and even death threats just for trying to pursue their passion.

“Especially the guys in the 70s and the 80s who were the only ones in the dressing room or the ones that would go to an arena and everyone is yelling ‘nigger’ or ‘spook’ at them,” said Mason, a Toronto native. “They had a choice: Do you want to give up or do you want to continue to do something that you love. And that’s what they did, they continued doing something that they loved. And that’s what I did in making this film.”

The film features chilling footage of a CBS News profile of Val James, the NHL’s first U.S.-born black player, enduring chants of “Spook! Spook! Spook!” as he’s playing a minor league game south of the Mason-Dixon line in Salem, Va., in 1981. One proud “fan” carried a watermelon to the game in James’ honor.

Mason covers the waterfront of black hockey history in his documentary, from the all-black league that played in the Canadian Maritimes from the 1890s to the 1920s, to the great Herb Carnegie’s heartbreak from being unable reach the NHL because of his race, to Willie O’Ree finally cracking that color barrier, to the Subban family having three boys drafted by NHL teams.

He crisscrossed North America to interview a bevy of current and former NHL players of color and their families including James, who played for the Buffalo Sabres, O’Ree, who broke into the NHL with the Boston Bruins in 1958, Mike Marson, who became the league’s second black player when he joined the Washington Capitals in 1974-75, and Grant Fuhr, the all-world goaltender who won five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers.

Joel Ward of the San Jose SharksWayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia FlyersP.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks’ Trevor Daley are among the current black NHLers who appear in the film.

James says he’s no film critic but he gave Mason’s effort five stars are seeing it at a private screening in Toronto earlier this month.

Vancouver Canucks defensive prospect Jordan Subban prepares parents Karl and Maria for their close-ups in

Vancouver Canucks defensive prospect Jordan Subban prepares parents Karl and Maria for their close-ups in “Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future.”

“Kwame has put together a piece of history,” he said. “It was very enlightening and filled in that gap that most people ask: why, when, and where did (these players) come from. Anyone who’s interested in this type of thing, it’s like candy.”

Mason’s finished work on the film but the work of getting “Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future” to a theater or television network near you has only just begun. He’s searching Canada and the U.S. for a buyer that will show his product. If one doesn’t materialize, Mason says he’ll still be at peace.

“There were a lot of sacrifices,” he told me. “I’m in the hole – all my money is going out. I hope that some money will come back in. If it doesn’t, I can rest my head and say I accomplished something for my nation and for black Canadians as a celebration.”

Former Washington Capitals forward Mike Marson shares his experience as the NHL's second black hockey player in the documentary.

Former Washington Capitals forward Mike Marson shares his experience as the NHL’s second black hockey player in the documentary.

It seems fitting that Fitzhugh is living his hockey broadcast dream in the city associated with the television classic “WKRP in Cincinnati.” 

“It’s awesome, I still can’t believe it,” Fitzhugh told me. “Everything has happened so fast. I’ve been fortunate to move up the ladder so quickly.”

When we visited with Fitzhugh in March 2014 he was working public relations in the Chicago headquarters of the United States Hockey League, a Tier I junior league that sends many of its players on to NCAA Division I college hockey careers.

He was thrilled to be working in organized hockey but yearned to be behind the microphone calling games like his heroes, Detroit Red Wings broadcaster Ken Kal and NBC’s Mike “Doc” Emrick.

A Detroit native, Fitzhugh called 120 hockey games while he was a student at Bowling Green State University and thirsted to do more. He got his chance last season broadcasting for the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms.

At 26, Everett Ftizhugh rocks the mic as play-by-play announcer for the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones.

At 26, Everett Ftizhugh rocks the mic as play-by-play announcer for the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones.

“If I had to name one person who I may take some tips from or take a little bit from is Jim Hughson who does the “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcast and did the NHL video game series for quite a while,” Fitzhugh said. “Very, very deep voice, very technical, which I love. He’s fun to listen to.”

When the Cyclones came calling with an offer to work the team’s home and away games online, he jumped at the chance to move one rung closer to an NHL broadcasting career.

“I thought I was going to be in Youngstown for three, four, five years, have to struggle, scrap and all that other stuff,” he said. “To be able to make it to the ECHL at 26 and get back on the path I thought I would be on when I left college – the two previous radio guys at Bowling Green before me, they all went straight to the ECHL from Bowling Green. I couldn’t even get a radio job out of college. So to be on this path is a really good feeling.”

But there are still dues to be paid. Fitzhugh’s official title with the Cyclones is Director of Public Relations and Broadcasting, a lofty handle that means he does everything. He writes the press release, tweets the tweets, works with Cincinnati sportscasters in arranging interviews with players, handles web content, and maybe even helps load and unload the team bus – all before and after putting on the headset and calling the game.

And, like Cyclone players whose action he describes on air, Fitzhugh travels to road games minor league-style on the team bus.

“I think this year our longest bus ride in terms of mileage is going to be down to Allen, Texas, that’s got to be about 17-18 hours from here,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be taking planes until I get to the NHL.”


Alphonso and Sharrers share bond in NHL’s zebra fraternity


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When people ask Shandor Alphonso what number he wears on the back and sleeves of his black-and-white-striped National Hockey League linesman sweater, he smiles and assures them that “you won’t have any trouble finding me” on the ice.

Alphonso and Jay Sharrers are easily recognizable because they are the only black on-ice officials among the NHL’s small army of linesmen and referees.

Linesman Shandor Alphonso (Photo/Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Linesman Shandor Alphonso (Photo/Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

The 31-year-old Orangeville, Ontario, native is a relative newbie to the league. He’ll begin his second season as an NHL linesman when he takes to the ice in Buffalo Saturday in a game between the Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Last season, Alphonso worked 50 NHL games along with 37 American Hockey League contests and that league’s Calder Cup Final.

“I’m a big hockey fan, so I love that I have the best seat in the house,” Alphonso told me recently. “I enjoy the fact that I’m there. As an on-ice official I feel like I’m part of the game, I’m in the game.”

Sharrers, 48, is the veteran, starting his 26th year as an NHL official. He became the league’s first black linesman when he worked a match between the Boston Bruins and Quebec Nordiques in October 1990.

A native of New Westminster, British Columbia, Sharrers made history again when he became the league’s first black referee, officiating a contest between the Philadelphia Flyers and Lightning in April 2001.

Since joining the NHL, Sharrers has officiated in more than 1,190 NHL regular season

Linesman Jay Sharrers (Photo/ Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Linesman Jay Sharrers (Photo/ Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

games and 163 playoff games. He’s worked seven Stanley Cup Finals, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and the 2006 NHL All-Star Game in Dallas.

“Having done this job going on 26 years, I can say without a doubt that on a daily, game-in, game-out basis, you’re challenged every time you step on the ice,” Sharrers told me. “It’s very demanding. Physically, for one. And, of course, there’s the mental side of it because with the speed of the game now, and how it’s evolved into such a quick, fast-paced game, it’s a constant mental challenge game-in and game-out to be prepared, to be focused for 60 minutes of a game.”

Sharrers and Alphonso are co-workers but they haven’t worked an NHL game together yet. But that hasn’t stopped them from forming a mutual admiration society.

“He’s a tremendous young man, he’s got a great character, he’s got a good hockey IQ,” Sharrers said of Alphonso. “My goal when I got hired was to work the Stanley Cup, and I was fortunate enough to do that seven times. At this point in my career, it’s probably more of a responsibility to try to help the young people in the business, working with a guy like Shandor and give them the opportunity, the experience that was given to me when I first started by the veteran officials when I first started.”

“I looked up to him even before I started officiating,” Alphonso said of Sharrers. “Any time you see a player of color in the NHL, you notice him. And to see an on-ice official, it was pretty amazing to me. My very first training camp, he said ‘If you ever have any questions, no matter what it is, no matter what time, call.’ That was huge.”

So what possesses a person to put on minimal protective gear, carry a whistle, get on the ice and to try to police aggressive, well-armored players wielding sticks and possessing the power to launch pucks over 100 miles an hour in front of thousands of screaming, beer-fueled fans?

Sharrers and Alphonso both started out as hockey players. But Sharrers came to the realization at 15 that “my chances of making it as a player weren’t that good” so he sought a different path to the NHL.

“I turned my attention to officiating, thinking that could be a vehicle I could take to the NHL,” he told me. “I started working my way up through the junior hockey ranks in Canada, went to some officiating schools in the summer, got noticed, got scouted. I worked in the Western Hockey League, probably my first taste of elite hockey, in 1985. Then I got hired (by the NHL) in 1990. Officiating was a way of staying involved in a game I love.”

Alphonso played hockey through major juniors and college. He was a rugged left wing who played 183 games for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves from 2001-02 to 2003-04, notching 25 goals, 48 assists and collecting 143 penalty minutes.

Before he became an NHL linesman, Shandor Alphonso was a rugged winger for Canada's Lakehead University (Photo/Lakehead University)

Before he became an NHL linesman, Shandor Alphonso was a rugged winger for Canada’s Lakehead University (Photo/Lakehead University)

He went on to skate for Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, from 2005-06 to 2009-10. He tallied 18 goals, 22 assists, and accumulated 121 penalty minutes in 111 games for the Thunderwolves.

“I was on the other end yelling at the referee,” he said.

During his fourth year at Lakehead, Alphonso received an invitation from the NHL to participate in the NHL Amateur Exposure Combine, an officiating camp designed to entice major junior, U.S., and Canadian college hockey players to consider becoming linesmen or referees.

After his final season at Lakehead, Alphonso was prepared to sign a professional contract to play in the Central Hockey League when he had a sudden change of heart.

“The NHL kind of told us, ‘If you’re good, you can get to the NHL in five years,'” He recalled. “I thought why not give it try, I never officiated before, and I really enjoyed it once I tried it out.”

Alphonso chose becoming an NHL linesman over chasing a pro hockey career (Photo/Courtesy Shandor Alphonso).

Alphonso chose becoming an NHL linesman over chasing a pro hockey career (Photo/Courtesy Shandor Alphonso).

He attended an annual clinic for on-ice officials in Guelph, Ontario, hosted by the Ontario Minor Hockey Association where NHL referee Kevin Pollock was as a guest instructor.

“Learned a lot from him and the instructors at that camp,” Alphonso said. “In three days, they showed me everything, the basics and the fundamentals for officiating.”

He then embarked on an experience-gathering, dues-paying journey through the alphabet soup of hockey leagues.

“I went from minor hockey to the OHL,” he said. “Second-year officiating in the OHL and in the OHA as well, doing major junior and Tier II junior – did both those leagues for three years. Also worked minor hockey at the same time. I felt I had a lot to learn so I wanted to be on the ice as much as I could.”

Alphonso, left, worked the AHL's 2015 Calder Cup Final between the Utica Comets and Manchester Monarchs (Photo/Courtesy Lindsay A. Mogle/Utica Comets)

Alphonso, left, worked the AHL’s 2015 Calder Cup Final between the Utica Comets and Manchester Monarchs (Photo/Courtesy Lindsay A. Mogle/Utica Comets)

The NHL invited Alphonso back to its exposure combine in summer 2014 and hired him two weeks after the camp ended. Now he sometimes finds himself officiating games with former hockey teammates, opponents, or players he trained with before he donned the zebra stripes.

“I had a situation in the AHL, an individual I used to train with quite a bit. I had to kick him out of the face-off because of a violation he committed,” Alphonso recalled. “He comes over to me in a TV time-out, he’s like ‘Are you serious? You’re kicking me out of a face-off? We used to run hills and puke together after hot days working out so hard and you’re kicking me out?'”

Alphonso replied “Yeah, we used to spend a lot of time training and working hard and running hills together, but I have to do this job now.”

Globetrotting Yushiro Hirano hopes long hockey road trip leads to NHL career


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Yushiro Hirano has taken the term “road trip” to a new level.

The 20-year-old right wing left Hokkaido, Japan, last year to play hockey in Tingsryds, Sweden, some 4,683 miles away from his island home.

This year, Hirano’s pursuit of a National Hockey League career has taken him nearly 5,960 miles from home to Ohio, where he made history over the weekend as a member of the Youngstown Phantoms. Skating in the Phantoms’ season-opening 6-4 loss to Team USA Saturday, Hirano became the United States Hockey League’s first player born in Japan.

Ohio is Japan's Yushiro Hirano's new hockey home (Photo/Bill Paterson).

Ohio is Japan’s Yushiro Hirano’s new hockey home (Photo/Bill Paterson).

“I’m happy because I feel there is a responsibility for me to represent Japan well,”  Hirano said when asked in an e-mail exchange about making the Phantoms roster. “I hope to grow the game in Japan and make everybody proud. I also want to play well enough to get to the professional ranks here in the United States.”

Joining the Phantoms capped an excellent hockey summer for Hirano. Before he tried out for the USHL team, he attended the Chicago Blackhawks development camp in July as a free agent invitee.

Hirano attended the Chicago Blackhawks development camp before joining the Phantoms (Photo/Bill Paterson).

Hirano attended the Chicago Blackhawks development camp before joining the Phantoms (Photo/Bill Paterson).

The Hawks learned about Hirano through Andrew Allen, who was a developmental goaltending coach in the Chicago organization before becoming the Buffalo Sabres’ goalie coach this season. Allen knew of Hirano because he served as goaltending coach and developmental coach for Japan’s national team.

The son of a former Team Japan player, Hirano compiled an impressive numbers in Japan and Sweden. He tallied 12 goals and 14 assists in 26 games for Tingsryds’ junior team last season.

He collected 6 goals and 2 assists in 5 games as captain for Japan’s Under-20 team playing in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior Championship in the D1B Division in 2014-15. He also notched 3 goals in 5 games for Team Japan’s men’s squad in the IIHF world championship D1A Division last season.

But Hirano – whose first name is sometimes spelled Yushiroh –  wasn’t widely known in North America because Japan isn’t a hockey power. Its men’s team is 21st in IIHF rankings. The women’s team is ranked eighth internationally and competed at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The squad played hard in Russia, but didn’t win a game.

With a baseball and soccer-obsessed population of 127,103,388, Japan has 19,260 hockey players – 9,641 men, 6,996 juniors, and 2,623 women – playing on 120 outdoor rinks and 110 indoor ice sheets.

“It is still a minor sport in Japan, but more people have been watching and following hockey in the United States, which will only help the game,” Hirano told me.

So how did Hirano wind up in Youngstown?  Tingsryds team management emailed Phantoms CEO and Co-Owner Troy Loney that Hirano might be worth a look.

“He received an email this summer and passed it along to our general manager about a young Japanese player who was looking to pay his own way to come over and try out,” Phantoms Head Coach John Wroblewski told me recently. “I guess there was a little bit of intrigue because he attended Chicago Blackhawks rookie camp as well this summer, but we knew nothing about him when the emails started coming around.”

It didn’t take long for the 6-foot, 200-pound Hirano to impress Wroblewski.

“He’s a big kid, very strong and sturdy,” he said. “He looks a lot like some of the pro players I dealt with the last few years. This leads into him being able to shoot the puck extremely hard. Tremendous accurate shot, very, very heavy shot. Those are the things that stuck out right away.”

Hirano is one of the Phantoms' top forwards and skates on the power play (Photo/Bill Paterson).

Hirano is one of the Phantoms’ top forwards and skates on the power play (Photo/Bill Paterson).

But Wroblewski saw something more in Hirano than a big body and a shot. “His work ethic was the next thing, and the ability to make plays,” he said. “He has quite a bit of vision and the ability to make deft, subtle plays. He works extremely hard away from the puck. If he’s the last guy on a back-check he’s working as hard as if he has it (the puck) going forward.”

Hirano says he’s adjusting to life in North America on and off the ice just fine, though he cites “the language barrier” as the biggest challenge. His coach isn’t so sure about that.

“He’s sneaky, I think he might know a little more than he’s letting on,” Wroblewski said with a laugh. “He understands it very well, he does have to concentrate a little more than the next guy on it, but he does understand it quite nicely. I say that because he picks up on subtlties within drills that really aren’t explained very well. Either he’s really smart, knows a little bit more English than we think, or a combination of both. I think it’s the third scenario.”

The United States Hockey League is the nation’s only Tier 1 junior league and prides itself on being a pathway to college hockey for its players. More than 95 percent of USHL players receive an opportunity to play NCAA Division I hockey.

Hirano, however, is viewing his USHL stint in Youngstown as a stepping stone to the NHL. He hopes to someday play alongside or against his favorite players – Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos, or Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin.

“I’m nowhere close to the (NHL) level yet,” he told The Chicago Tribune in July. “I’d like to keep improving, but if I do get there, it’d be a huge impact for kids in Japan. They’d have a legitimate dream they could look up to and strive for.”

Wroblewski believes that Hirano’s dream isn’t an impossible one.

“In this short time, if his learning curve continues on this pace, on the degree it has thus far, there’s no telling how much he can get done here,” he said. “His straight ahead speed has to improve, there’s definitely a skating factor that the NHL desires, but his ability to play with others and put the puck in the net is pretty special.”

Josh Ho-Sang embarrassed that Islanders cut him for oversleeping


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Josh Ho-Sang blames himself for oversleeping on Day 1 of Isles training camp.

Josh Ho-Sang blames himself for oversleeping on Day 1 of Isles training camp.

Forward Josh Ho-Sang, a New York Islanders 2014 first-round draft pick, said he’s embarrassed by being cut by the team for oversleeping on the first day of training camp.

Ho-Sang, 19, was sent packing from the Isles to the Niagara IceDogs, his Ontario Hockey League major juniors team and told bluntly by Islanders General Manager Garth Snow to get his act together.

“Obviously a lot more people found out about my mistake than other people’s daily one, but I definitely take ownership,” Ho-Sang told the Long Island newspaper Newsday following an IceDogs 2-1 preseason loss to the Kitchener Rangers in which Ho-Sang scored the lone Niagara Falls goal. “I don’t think there’s anyone to blame…it’s embarrassing.”

Give the full Newsday story a read. Also check out this excellent story by Sportsnet about the vexing conundrum that is Josh Ho-Sang.

Hockey season’s coming! Wait, it’s already here news-wise!


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The puck hasn’t dropped for the 2015-16 hockey season yet and there’s already tons of news – most of it good, some of it worrisome.

First, three cheers for Willie O’Ree. The American Hockey League’s new San Diego Gulls franchise is hosting “Willie O’Ree Night” on Oct. 16 and will honor the National Hockey League’s first black player before the Gulls take on the Bakersfield Condors.

O’Ree skated into the NHL and history on Jan. 18, 1958 as a Boston Bruins forward playing against the Montreal Canadiens at the old Montreal Forum. He appeared in 45 games over two seasons for the Bruins – 1957-58 and 1960-61 – and tallied 4 goals, 10 assists and 26 penalty minutes.

Willie O'Ree, the NHL's first black player, will be honored by the AHL's San Diego Gulls next month.

Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player, will be honored by the AHL’s San Diego Gulls next month.

The bulk of his professional hockey career was spent with the San Diego Gulls and the Los Angeles Blades of the old Western Hockey League. In 13 WHL seasons, O’Ree played 785 games, scored 328 goals and 311 assists and amassed 669 penalty minutes. Not bad for a guy who’s blind in his right eye.

“Willie’s a trailblazer and international sports icon,” said Ari Segal,  president of

Willie O'Ree, back in the day.

Willie O’Ree, back in the day.

business operations for the Gulls, the Anaheim Ducks farm team. “He’s worked tirelessly throughout his life to promote diversity in our sport, and increase access to hockey for people of all races, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. We feel fortunate to have the opportunity to honor him and celebrate his life and historic career on the day after his 80th birthday.”

O’Ree, the NHL’s director for Youth Development and ambassador for NHL Diversity, said he’s thrilled to be honored by his hometown team.

“I’m proud and thankful that the club has chosen to honor me during its inaugural AHL season,” he said. “This organization has proven time and again its commitment to becoming deeply ingrained in this community, including and beyond the 34 home game dates.”

Shameless plug: I profile O’Ree  along with Larry Kwong and Fred Sasakamoose – the NHL’s first Asian and Indian players – in the upcoming issue of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Legends program guide. It should be available after the 2015 Hall of Fame induction festivities in November.

P.K. Subban is paying it forward, donating $10 million to the Montreal Children's Hospital.

P.K. Subban is paying it forward, donating $10 million to the Montreal Children’s Hospital.

Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban hasn’t played a game yet this season but he already scored a huge goal when pledged $10 million to the  Montreal Children’s Hospital.

Subban’s gesture is the largest philanthropic commitment ever by a professional athlete in Canada. For his generous donation, the hospital renamed its atrium “Atrium P.K. Subban.”

The flamboyant and sometimes controversial defenseman, a Toronto native, sent a message with his contribution: Hockey-insane Montreal is his town.

“The P.K. Subban Atrium is not only my footprint to the city but, more importantly, it is my sole promise to give back to those who have given me so much.”

Subban’s been on a roll in recent years. The 26-year-old won an Olympic Gold Medal at the 2014 Winter Games with Team Canada, he’s a two-time All-Star, and a 2013 Norris Trophy recipient as the NHL’s best defenseman. And he’s rich. He signed an eight-year contract with the Canadiens reportedly worth $72 million in 2014.

“P.K. is a person of character, who strives for success, always working at new ways to stay on top of his game and he understands the value of teamwork,” said Martine Alfonso, the Montreal Children’s Hospital’s associate executive director. “He is an outstanding role model for our patients and personifies the excellence for which the Children’s is world-renowned.”

Ray Emery isn’t trying to catch lightning in a bottle. He’s trying catch on with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The unemployed goaltender signed a professional tryout offer with the Lightning after the team saw most of its goaltending depth get wheeled into the emergency room.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, starting goalie Ben Bishop’s primary backup, is out for 2-3 months following surgery earlier this month to remove a blood clot from under his left collar bone. Kristers Gudlevskis suffered an injury while playing in a prospects tournament recently.

That leaves an open lane for Emery. The 32-year-old, 11-season NHL vet had a 10-11-7 record with the Philadelphia Flyers last season. He had a 3.06 goals-against average and an .894 save percentage for a team that failed to make the playoffs.

Emery appeared to struggle with explosive lateral movements last season, raising

Ray Emery wants to prove he's still got game at the Lightning's training camp.

Ray Emery wants to prove he’s still got game at the Lightning’s training camp.

questions about whether his right hip, surgically-repaired in 2010, was giving him trouble. The injury was devastating enough back then that many hockey people thought his career was over.

The Flyers opted not to re-sign Emery as Steve Mason’s backup. Philly signed former Washington Capitals-Buffalo Sabres-New York Islanders netminder Michal Neuvirth to a two-year deal reportedly worth $3.25 million.

Emery told the Tampa Bay Times that he’s “not done,” his hip his fine, and it wasn’t the problem last season. He chalked his 2014-15 pedestrian numbers to playing on a bad Flyers team.

“It was a frustrating year on that team,” Emery told The Times. “My season definitely reflected that as well. When you don’t make the playoffs, that’s normally how your season is. You’ve got some good parts, but they don’t outweigh the bad parts.”

Emery is auditioning for the Lightning under the watchful eye of goalie coach Frantz Jean, one of the few coaches of color in the NHL.

It was over before it began for Josh Ho-Sang. The Islanders 2014 first-round draft pick, the 28th overall selection, arrived late for the first day of the team’s training camp. Quicker than a New York minute, the Isles cut the controversial but talented forward and shipped him back to the Niagara IceDogs, his Ontario Hockey League major junior team.

Not even one, but done. Ho-Sang was reportedly late for Day 1 of Islanders camp and sent back to his junior team.

Not even one, but done. Ho-Sang was reportedly late for Day 1 of Islanders camp and sent back to his junior team.

Arthur Staple, the Islanders beat  writer for Long Island’s Newsday, wrote that Head Coach Jack Capuano had planned to have Ho-Sang working on a training camp line with team captain John Tavares and Anders Lee.

“Enough with the bull,” Snow told Newsday Saturday. “It’s time to grow up.”

Snow told the newspaper that Ho-Sang is “obviously talented, but talent isn’t the issue.”

“It’s about becoming a professional and acting like one,” he told the newspaper. “Hopefully he takes this lesson and learns from it. It’s really up to him now – we can’t do anything else for him in this area.”

Team management was so miffed by Ho-Sang’s tardiness that they made the 19-year-old run the stairs of the Nassau Coliseum for three hours, Newsday reported.

Ho-Sang is one of the most talented hockey players to come out of Canada in years. He has scary scoring hands and speed to burn on the ice. But he also scares hockey establishment people because of his outspokenness and what they perceive as his immaturity.

He’s spoken bluntly about race and hockey and he’s blasted Hockey Canada for not inviting him to its summer camp for the world juniors team two years ago after he notched 85 points in 67 games.

Marty Williamson, the IceDogs’ general manager, told the Bullet News of Niagara that the Islanders told him that Ho-Sang was late for training camp because he overslept. He said Ho-Sang is “very upset and humbled by the whole thing.”

The IceDogs GM called Ho-Sang “a good kid” who’s “made a lot of strides in the right direction.” But he also called Ho-Sang out, saying he still has much to do before becoming the elite player that some in the hockey world believe he can be.

“He has some habits he needs to work on,” Williamson told the Bullet News. “He stays up too late playing video games and stuff like that. He sleeps through things and gets himself exhausted.”

Here’s hoping that Ho-Sang takes this oversleeping episode, and the Islanders tough-love approach to it, as a wake-up call.

Miami ice: Randy Hernandez joins U.S. National Team Development Program


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Most kids who grow up in Miami, Florida, and dream of becoming professional athletes usually think football – the unofficial religion of the U.S. South – basketball, baseball, or even soccer.

Randy Hernandez thinks ice hockey. And his dream has taken him from a novice skater who first laced up a pair of skates at a cousin’s birthday party at age six to a member of the prestigious U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-17 squad.

Randy Hernandez will play for the NTDP in the USHL (Photo/Rena Laverty).

Randy Hernandez will play for the NTDP in the USHL (Photo/Rena Laverty).

Hernandez was named to the team after finishing one full season of AAA hockey with the Florida Alliance in which he tallied 53 goals, 40 assists in 54 games at center. In addition to USA Hockey, Hernandez’s play caught the attention of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, an Ontario Hockey League major junior team. The Greyhounds drafted him in the 13th-round in April with the 261st overall pick.

“I don’t think I’m ready to play for major juniors right now,” Hernandez told me recently. “NTDP will help me grow as a player, and then I’ll make a decision between the OHL and college when I’m done.”

In the meantime, he is slated to play 35 games in the 2015-16 season for the U.S. National Under 17 team that competes in the United States Hockey League, a feeder league for several NCAA Division I hockey programs. The team is located in Plymouth. Mich., a long way from sunny Miami.

“My mom’s definitely a little bit nervous that I’m staying here with a new family, of course,” said Hernandez, 16. “But my family is happy for me because they know that this is what I want to do. I’m going to leave my parents and it’s going to be a little tough on me, but this is obviously the sport that I want to play and I want to get as far as I can in it. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”

In many ways, Hernandez’s ascension in hockey is the typical All-American story of a kid who falls in love with the game and chases the dream of playing in the National Hockey League.

But Randy Hernandez’s story is far from typical. He is the son of Cuban immigrants who arrived in Florida 20 years ago. His father, Roberto, is a trucker and his mother, Marlen, a stay-at-home parent.

His grandfather, Dr. Fernando Gonzalez, is a psychiatrist who came to Miami from Cuba via Spain in 1972. He was the one who took Hernandez to the birthday party at Miami’s Kendall Ice Arena, where he immediately fell in love with skating.

“My grandfather, he actually pushed me to play hockey – he wanted me to try a new sport,” Hernandez recalled. “He’s the one who helps me out with hockey. He’s gone to all my games, he’s really supportive of me. He’s also paid for my hockey, and I’m really grateful for that.”

After a big season of AAA hockey in Florida, Randy Hernandez will play two seasons for the NTDP team in Plymouth, Michigan (Photo/Rena Laverty).

After a big season of AAA hockey in Florida, Randy Hernandez will play two seasons for the NTDP team in Plymouth, Michigan (Photo/Rena Laverty).

After the birthday party, Gonzalez enrolled his grandson in skating lessons. Hernandez’s progress on the ice was noticed by coaches of the AA Miami Toros and they approached Gonzalez about his grandson give hockey a try.

“I didn’t even know hockey existed,” Gonzalez recalled. “I was a fan of baseball.”

Hernandez said he quickly took to hockey and started to notice that by age 8 he was a little faster than the other players.

“When I was 12 or 13 and when I started going up North with my Florida team to play against AAA teams, that’s when I thought I might have a shot” at a pro career, he said.

In March, Hernandez was invited to the NTDP’s evaluation camp, where he skated with players from hockey powerhouses like Massachusetts’ Cushing Academy, Minnesota’s Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, Michigan’s Compuware minor midget program, and Philadelphia’s Team Comcast minor midget team.

John Arceo, a Miami Toros coach, said he wasn’t surprised that Hernandez was able to compete with players from New England and Minnesota, despite coming from the land of palm trees, South Beach and KC & the Sunshine Band.

“He has a professional hockey player’s work ethic,”  Arceo told me. “He’s the first kid on the ice, the first kid in drills, the first kid in off-ice training. Even as a 10-year-old, he had that ethic.”

And these days, his rise has parts of Miami talking. Octavio Sequera, a reporter for ESPN Deportes Miami who does color analysis in Spanish for Florida Panthers broadcasts, calls Hernandez’s move to the national development team “huge.”

“For Florida, especially the city of Miami, it means a lot because he’s the first one, the first one from the Kendall Ice Arena, the South Florida area, to be selected for USA Hockey,” Sequera told me. “He will be like a pioneer, in that sense. Randy will be the first Cuban – I say Cuban because of his parents – to be selected from Miami.”

Sequera said that Hernandez’s selection to the NTDP shows that hockey is gaining traction in South Florida’s Hispanic community, fueled by the Panthers. Last season, the broadcast seven games in Spanish. It will carry all 41 home games in Spanish for the 2015-16 season. The Panthers have one Hispanic player, Cuban-American goaltender Al Montoya.

“Here at ESPN Deportes we’re working on a campaign where we can actually bring more kids to the games, more Randy Hernandezes,” Sequera said. “There are a lot of other kids that see Randy as an example. Not only that, a lot of Hispanic parents are taking Randy’s story as an example.”

Sequera included. He enrolled his five-year-old son in a learn to play hockey program at the Kendall arena and he marvels at what he sees and hears on the ice and in the stands.

“The kids know the game, love the game, so now their parents are getting involved,” he told me. “You go to the bleachers, you go to the stands, you see a lot of people speaking in Spanish trying to learn about the game, and the kids are the ones teaching the parents what the game is all about. It’s very nice to see.”



Johnny Oduya and the Stanley Cup – together again in Stockholm


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It was a relatively low-key affair in 2013 with then-Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya and a handful of buddies dressed to the nines for a formal sit-down gathering with the Stanley Cup in an ornate wood-paneled room in Stockholm.

Oduya, now a member of the Dallas Stars, and Blackhawks center Marcus Kruger brought the Cup back to their native Sweden earlier this week, but this time Stanley was out and about for almost all to see.

Johnny Oduya, right, and former Chicago Blackhawks teammate Marcus Kruger with the Cup at Friends Arena (Photo/Phil Pritchard, Hockey Hall of Fame).

Johnny Oduya, right, and former Chicago Blackhawks teammate Marcus Kruger with the Cup at Friends Arena (Photo/Phil Pritchard, Hockey Hall of Fame).

“I felt last time the privacy was more important,” Oduya told’s Scott Powers in an excellent piece on the Cup’s day and night in Stockholm. “You want to do your things, kind of. Whereas this time, I think we both feel that we can combine some things and make it a bigger thing for friends and family.”

Phil Pritchard, the globe-trotting white-gloved keeper of the Stanley Cup, took some photos of the Stockholm visit. Oduya’s moments with the Cup close his Blackhawks career. In June, Oduya signed a two-year contract with the Stars that will reportedly pay him $3.75 million annually.

Oduya, left, and Marcus Kruger visit Stockholm's Children's Hospital with the Stanley Cup (Photo/Phil Pritchard, Hockey Hall of Fame).

Oduya, left, and Marcus Kruger visit Stockholm’s Children’s Hospital with the Stanley Cup (Photo/Phil Pritchard, Hockey Hall of Fame).

“I see this as kind of an ending to what’s before,” Oduya told Powers. “From this day, I can kind of move forward. Of course, you get mixed emotions at some point. I could have had this day in June and it wouldn’t have been a problem. I see it as the final or whatever you say of what was, and this day forward you can move on.”

Washington Capitals’ old boards get new home at D.C.’s Fort Dupont rink



When kids get smacked into the boards at Washington, D.C.’s, Fort Dupont Ice Arena in the not-too-distant future, they might smile and say “cool” instead of cry and wince in pain.

That’s because their bodies will have collided with a piece of the National Hockey League, courtesy of the Washington Capitals. The Caps Wednesday donated the dasherboards and glass from the team’s Verizon Center home to Fort Dupont, the only indoor ice skating rink within the District of Columbia.

The Washington Capitals' old dasherboards get loaded onto a trailer at Verizon Center. Final destination: The Fort Dupont Ice Arena.

The Washington Capitals’ old dasherboards get loaded onto a trailer at Verizon Center. Final destination: The Fort Dupont Ice Arena.

“It’s going to be cool for kids to be able to say they were checked into the boards that the Capitals played with or maybe sit in the penalty box where so many great Capitals players or NHL players in general had to spend time,” Fort Dupont General Manager Ty Newberry told me.

The Verizon Center installed new dasherboards and glass this summer ahead of the 2015-16 NHL season and stored the old set in the bowels of the stadium. Those boards were loaded Wednesday into a semi supplied by Bridgestone Americas (an NHL sponsor) and hauled to a warehouse in Pennsylvania.

Newberry said the boards will be installed as part of a $20.4 million makeover of the Southeast Washington skating facility. Construction is expected to begin in Spring 2016.

Fort Dupont General Manager Ty Newberry, left, says the boards will be used for second ice sheet being built at the rink.

Fort Dupont General Manager Ty Newberry, left, says the boards will be used for second ice sheet being built at the rink.

The donated boards will help cut some of the expansion’s cost. New boards and glass run between $150,000 and $200,000. NHL-caliber boards and glass run about $250,000, Newberry said.

“It’s a big savings for us,” he added.

The Fort Dupont Ice Arena was built in 1976 and is one of the few indoor rinks in the United States located in a largely African-American community. It’s a stone’s throw from the historic home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and, ironically, not too far from where Philadelphia Flyers founder Ed Snider was born.

The rink is home to the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, the nation’s oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program. And the rink offers a Kids on Ice  program that provides youngsters with free skating lessons.  The rink, through its programs, serves 7,000 children annually.

The Capitals are actively involved with the Fort Dupont rink, donating $113,000 to its hockey program since 2004.

“We thank the Capitals for donating the boards to the rink and Bridgestone for their assistance,” said Neal Henderson, the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club’s founder and head coach. “It’s a great gesture and the kids are going to be happy to know they’ll be playing with the boards with which the Washington Capitals played.”


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