“Razor” and the “Wayne Train” roll into MSG, roll out with Flyers 4-2 win

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“Razor” and the “Wayne Train” rolled into Madison Square Garden Sunday and rolled out with a 4-2 Stanley Cup Playoffs win against the New York Rangers.

Flyers goaltender Ray Emery.

Flyers goaltender Ray Emery.

Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Ray “Razor” Emery and right wing Wayne “Wayne Train” Simmonds keyed the Flyers victory that tied the best-of-seven series at a game apiece. After surrendering two first period goals to Rangers right wing Martin St. Louis and left wing  Benoit Pouliot, Emery played an exceptional game.

He quieted talk about his suspect lateral movement by stopping 31 of 33 shots, including key saves on Rangers rugged forward Rick Nash. Emery, who signed with the Flyers as a free agent during the summer after winning a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks, played in place of injured Flyers starting goaltender Steve Mason. He earned his first Stanley Cup Playoffs victory win in exactly three years – April 20, 2011 – as a member of the Anaheim Ducks.

Simmonds sealed the Flyers victory with an empty net goal scored in the closing seconds when he gathered the puck deep in the Flyers zone, muscled through two Rangers players while skating the puck out of the zone, and fired it into the vacant Rangers goal from just past the center ice red line.

The victory tied the series at one game apiece. But it also highlighted the importance of Emery and Simmonds to the Flyers. Emery was brought in to compete with Mason for the starter’s job. When the team tabbed Mason as their Number One goalie, Emery settled in as the consummate back-up, the role he had in Chicago which had Corey Crawford between the pipes.

Simmonds played 16 minutes, 27 seconds of snarly, aggressive hockey with lots of work along the boards and in front of Rangers goaltender

Henrik Lundqvist. But his best and perhaps most-difficult scoring chance came with Lundqvist pulled from the net and with the puck deep in the Philadelphia zone.

The empty night goal was another big moment in what’s been a breakout year for Simmonds, who scored 29 goals, 31 assists and collected 106

Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds.

Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds.

penalty minutes in 82 games. He led the Flyers in goals. Not bad for a player who wasn’t considered the centerpiece of the 2011 trade that brought him, forward Brayden Schenn and a second-round draft pick from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Flyers forward and former captain Mike Richards.

But these days hockey people are talking about Simmonds as one of the National Hockey League’s top power forwards. To Philadelphia fans, the hard-working wing  is pure Flyer, especially after he notched Gordie Howe hat tricks – a goal, an assist, and a fight – in February 2013 games against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Winnipeg Jets.

And he’s adding more dimensions to his game, proving he’s more than just a big body player who makes a living scoring close-in goals off rebounds and screens.

“The one area I think he’s improved and he’s starting to establish himself is the Rush game,” Flyers Head Coach Craig Berube told The Los Angeles Times last month. “He’s skating with the puck and doing more things off the rush, a few goals off the rush.”

Sunday’s empty-netter offered a perfect – and timely – example.

 

 

NY-Philly hockey hate takes a timeout to help get mega-iceplex built in the Bronx

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When the founders of the Kingsbridge National Ice Center achieve their goal and build the world’s largest ice skating facility in the Bronx section of New York City, add an assist to a seemingly unlikely line mate from Philadelphia.

While the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers duke it out of the ice in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a group comprised of New York hockey enthusiasts – including iconic former Rangers captain Mark Messier – and officials from the Philadelphia’s Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, established by the Flyers’ founder and patriarch, are working together in helping transform the massive vacant Kingsbridge Armory into a $320 million state-of-the-art ice hockey, skating, and ice sport palace that serves its surrounding community and the city by 2017.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

There’s a lot of hockey hate between New York and Philadelphia. Rangers fans haven’t forgotten the pounding and hair-pulling helpless defenseman Dale Rolfe endured courtesy of Broad Street Bully heavyweight forward Dave Schultz during the 1974 playoffs or the sick feeling from being eliminated from playoff contention on the last day of the 2010 season by the Flyers in a shootout.

Flyers faithful always remember their team being looked down on as unworthy hockey heathens by their more gentlemanly Original Six neighbor up I-95 and vividly recall the heartache of watching the 1982 team get unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by a third-string Rangers goalie named Eddie Mio, who somehow managed to channel his inner Eddie Giacomin.

But when it comes to the KNIC project, there are no cat-calls about Rangers’ Ron Duguay’s flowing curly locks and disco-era fondness for Sassoon jeans or chants that pugilistic former Flyers goalie Ron Hextall sucks! Just cooperation, and lots of it.

“They’re hockey people,” John R. Nolan, KNIC project co-founder, Boston College alum, and long-time Rangers season ticket-holder said of his new-found friends from Philly. “We’ve talked about this. Hockey is a religion and if you’re under the tent, you’re under the tent and everyone wants to help. There’s always room for good-natured ribbing and rivalry but that has never gotten in the way.”

In fact, the close working relationship has taken some of the edge off for Nolan.

“As a life-long Rangers fan who grew up hating the Flyers, in some respects I’m mad at the guys at Snider because they’ve taken that away from me,” Nolan told me recently. “I don’t have the same level of distaste for Philadelphia that I used to. I’ve had to shift that to New Jersey.”

Scott Tharp, the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation’s president, said two things are the ties that bind his program and the KNIC project: hockey and kids.

Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds gives tips to a Snider Hockey participant. The program's ice and educational activities helped sell Bronx leaders on the KNIC project.

Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds gives tips to a Snider Hockey participant. The program’s ice and educational activities helped sell Bronx leaders on the KNIC project.

“It’s not unusual for non-profits with common missions to share information and help each other. Our interest is in helping kids,” Tharp told me recently. “What the Flyers and Rangers do on the ice is kind of separate from what Snider Hockey and the Kingsbridge Armory folks do.”

What the KNIC folks plan to do is turn the 750,000-square-foot armory located just below West 195th and adjacent to the Number 4 Express subway line into the mother of all iceplexes with nine rinks – including a 5,000-seat arena that they hope will attract a minor league hockey team- locker rooms, office space, a health and wellness facility, community center and office space.

The project’s brain trust says that the mega facility will help solve a severe rink shortage in New York, a city of 8.2 million people and only seven indoor year-round ice sheets.

The New York City Council approved the KNIC project last December, enticed by the prospect of the facility becoming a lynchpin for the Bronx’s revitalization efforts and lured by the prospect of it creating at least 260 permanent jobs, 890 construction jobs and boosting the fortunes of nearby businesses.

When completed, Kingsbridge will eclipse the eight-sheet, 300,000-square-foot Schwan Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota, as the largest ice arena complex in the world.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

Winning New York City Council approval was one thing. Winning over skeptical Bronx political and community leaders who questioned the wisdom of putting a giant ice facility in a borough that’s 53.5 percent Hispanic and 30.8 percent non-Hispanic black was another. Several critics dismissively asked “If you build it, who will come?”

“I have to be quite honest with you, that was my initial reaction as well,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., told me recently. “And then I started to notice that those individuals who would make those comments – which, by the way I believe are borderline racist, I’m going to use that word – are blacks and Latinos. I think what happens is you get people who are, for so long, put in this mental box that they start to accept as if it were reality that this is something that their kids don’t want to do or cannot do.”

Messier, Kingsbridge’s CEO and the hockey face of the project, told NHL.com that the project had to stress the benefits of a partnership between the mega rink and the community.

“We had to sell them on that fact,” Messier told NHL.com. “The only way to do that is to get to know each other and gain the trust. We know it’s not our armory. It’s theirs. We have to be respectful of that.”

That’s where Snider Hockey came in. By coincidence, Kevin Parker - hockey dad, founder of KNIC Partners LLC, die-hard Rangers fan, and former Deutsche Bank asset management director - met and dined with T. Quinn Spitzer, Jr. - partner and chairman of McHugh Consulting, die-hard Flyers fan, and a Snider Hockey board member – during a European business trip in 2011.

“These two Americans sit down at a table in somewhere Europe and quickly discover they both have a passion for hockey: one’s a Flyers fan, one’s a Rangers fan,” Nolan recalled. “As the conversation progresses, Kevin shares what he wants to do in New York City and the concerns he has in how he can get a rink or rinks into areas where you would need community acceptance. I think we knew early on that the community angle was not just something we were interested in, but something we needed in order to succeed.”

“Kevin kind of shared ‘These are our challenges,’” Nolan continued. “Quinn said ‘Let me tell you about Snider Hockey.’”

Created in 2005, the Snider Hockey program exposes 3,000 Philadelphia-area children to the game of hockey by providing them with free equipment, ice time, and instruction at five skating rinks. The hockey serves as a hook for participating children to stay in school and improve both academically and as people.

The program works closely with the School District of Philadelphia and Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation to offer a cutting edge program that blends hockey with a rigorous off-ice life skills curriculum and additional educational services.

“We’re trying to impart skills that help the children grow up to be productive citizens,” Tharp told me in 2011. “Communication skills, the simple things that are taken for granted: the ability to introduce yourself; to look a person in the eye; give a firm handshake; the ability to carry on an open-ended conversation rather than a closed conversation.”

When Snider Hockey began, about 70 percent of its personnel were dedicated to hockey, Tharp told NHL.com. Today, academic aides and tutors outnumber hockey personnel 4-to-1, Tharp said. Over the last three years, 100 percent of the program’s participants have graduated. About 83 percent of the kids moved on to post-secondary education, with a handful of them playing hockey in college.

The program grew so large in size and stature that it struggled to find enough ice time for its kids. In 2010, Snider’s foundation kicked in $6.5 million, which was matched by state funds, to renovate four run-down public ice rinks. Today, those rinks are all enclosed and have National Hockey League-caliber boards, lighting, glass, and community space.

The conversation between Parker and Spitzer in Europe swiftly led to meetings between the KNIC founders and Snider Hockey officials back in the United States. Nolan said he and Stephan Butler, another founding Kingsbridge partner, hopped an Amtrak train to Philadelphia to check out the Snider program and returned to New York  “blown away” by what they saw.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

Kingsbridge National Ice Center rendering.

“Everything about Snider in terms of how their organization was put together, what their values were, in terms of how they practiced, the kind of kids they were turning out, literally every aspect of their program was impressive,” Nolan told me. “We kind of took that message back and started selling it in the Bronx in answer to the question ‘Why are our kids going to play hockey?’ There was a huge jump, leap of faith, necessary from the community that minority kids, be they black or Hispanic, would really take to hockey. When confronted with the question our answer was ‘Snider. Take a look at Snider, Snider’s got thousands of kids.’ Snider became an answer to the question.”

So much so that Bronx elected officials and community leaders wanted to see the program themselves. So about 65 of them climbed aboard a chartered bus outside the armory and took it the Scanlon ice rink, one of the renovated facilities, in Philadelphia’s Kensington section.

“What I saw was amazing,” Diaz told me. “To see 75 black and Latino kids in one of the centers enthusiastic about coming in right after school; to see them with their big duffel bags full of equipment that, by the way, was donated and readily-available to them free of charge; to see them getting academic instruction in math and reading; and to see these kids get on the ice as if it were second nature. You look at all of the numbers from the program and we see that school attendance has gone up, we see that bad behavior has gone down. That’s exactly what I want for my Bronx kids.”

The Scanlon tour has been followed up by several telephone conversations between Diaz and Snider.

“I think Ed told him of his vision, told him that we would be willing to support their efforts as consultants, and basically convinced Ruben that hockey was a great vehicle, to help children, to help kids stay the course,” Tharp said.

Diaz said the Philadelphia visit and talks with Snider have set a high bar for the KNIC group in their Bronx community outreach efforts.

“I have a joke with Kevin Parker and Mark Messier. I say ‘You guys messed up’ and they ask me ‘Why?’ And I say ‘Because you allowed me to come to Philly and see the Ed Snider program,’” Diaz said. “And so that’s the standard I’m going to hold for them right here in the Bronx.”

And that’s just fine with Nolan.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he told me. “Our intent is to build a program just like theirs. I don’t know if there’s much to improve on, but we’re going to try. They’ve given us the playbook and we’re going to execute.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nashville Predators’ Seth Jones named to 2014 U.S. World Championship team

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Nashville Predators defenseman Seth Jones’ rookie National Hockey League season is over, with the Preds failing to make the playoffs, but his hockey year is far from being done.

No NHL playoffs for Nashville's Seth Jones but more international hockey as a Team USA member.

No NHL playoffs for Nashville’s Seth Jones but more international hockey as a Team USA member.

Jones was among the first 15 players named Tuesday to the U.S. Men’s National Team that will play in the 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship May 9-25 in Minsk, Belarus. Jones, the fourth player selected in the 2013 NHL Draft, played in 77 games for the Predators and tallied six goals and 19 assists. He averaged 19:37 minutes on ice per game.

Jones adds a wealth of international experience to the U.S. squad, having played for U.S. national development teams since 2010-11.  He was a member of U.S. junior teams that won Gold Medals in 2013, 2012, and 2011. The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones was invited to the 2014 U.S. men’s hockey team’s pre-Olympic orientation camp last summer, the only invitee who hadn’t played in an NHL game.

He didn’t make the U.S. Olympic team but USA Hockey officials made it clear that Jones is definitely on their radar for the 2016 Winter Olympics, if the NHL sends its players to the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. In the meantime, playing in the 2014 Worlds will mean that Jones will postpone rest for what already has been a long hockey period for him.  He started the 2012-13 season with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, then played in the Junior World Championship, then returned to the Winterhawks for hockey’s Memorial Cup championship. He took about two-three weeks off between the time the Winterawks lost to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads in the Memorial Cup final and the 2013 NHL Draft. “It definitely felt like a 12-year – er, 12 month season,” Jones said at the pre-Olympic orientation camp.

Jones could be a vital cog in USA Hockey rebuilding its national team after an American squad filled with NHL players failed to medal at

the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  That team was led by Pittsburgh Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma. USA Hockey

Former Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette seeks to improve U.S. hockey team's performance.

Former Flyers Coach Peter Laviolette seeks to improve U.S. hockey team’s performance.

Tuesday named former Philadelphia Flyers Head Coach Peter Laviolette the bench boss of the 2014 men’s national team.

Laviolette served as an assistant coach in Sochi. Laviolette and his players will look to avenge the poor U.S. performance in Sochi and

improve upon the Bronze Medal the Americans won at the 2013 Worlds played in Helsinki and Stockholm last May.

The other players named to the team Tuesday were New York Islanders defenseman Matt Donovan; Torontoa Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner; Florida Panthers forward Jimmy Hayes; Boston College forward Kevin Hayes; goaltender Connor Hellebuyck of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell; Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe; forward Peter Mueller of Switzerland’s Kloten Flyers; New York Islanders forward Brock Nelson; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Jeff Petry; Florida Panthers forward Drew Shore; Nashville Predators forward Craig Smith; forward Tim Stapleton of the AK Bars Kazan of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League; Florida Panthers forward Vince Trocheck; and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba.

The rest of the U.S. roster could be filled later with NHL players whose teams didn’t make the Stanley Cup Playoffs or are eliminated in the early rounds.

From Larry Kwong to Brad Kwong, celebrating hockey’s rich Asian legacy

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Brad Kwong has gone from the Ivy League to corn country for the love of hockey, adding to the game’s rich Asian history along the way.

Kwong, a defenseman who captained Harvard University’s hockey team in 1984-85, is part of the group that owns the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the country. When Northern Lights, LLC purchased the team in 2009, Kwong became part of a growing number of people of color – many of them Asian – in hockey’s ownership ranks, from the junior leagues to the National Hockey League.

“I have the benefit of having some really good partners that helped me get along in this profession,” Kwong told me recently. “I don’t ever recall an encounter where I was compromised or biased because of my ethnicity. And that might be me just having the blinders on or being naïve to it. But I think this sport in particular, because I lived through it, and in business in general, if you prove that you have a certain acumen, drive, and initiative you can succeed in anything.”

Brad Kwong, center, congratulates on of his team's players (Photo/Dubuque Fighting Saints).

Brad Kwong, center, congratulates on of his team’s players (Photo/Dubuque Fighting Saints).

Harvard crimson and business ties run deep through the Fighting Saints ownership: Kwong,  Phillip Falcone, Northern Lights’s principal owner and part owner of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, and Peter Chiarelli, general manager of the Boston Bruins, played hockey together at Harvard in the 1980s. Mark Falcone, another Northern Lights managing partner and a Minnesota Wild board member, played hockey for the University of Denver hockey player. Phillip Falcone is chief investment officer of Harbinger Capital Partners, a Wall Street private hedge fund, and Kwong is a managing partner in the firm.

“Our experience at Harvard actually changed the courses of our lives,” Kwong said. “We all believed that hockey, most notably college hockey, changed the trajectory  of our lives. So we wanted to give back to the sport and college hockey and obviously the USHL being the primary feeder of players to NCCA Division I hockey was a great platform to do that.”

The 50-year-old Kwong may have good partners assisting him in the hockey business, but he also learned a lesson or two from his dad. Norman “Normie” Kwong was a star running back Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders and the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. But he was also part of the ownership group that bought the NHL’s Atlanta Flames and moved the team to Calgary in 1980.

When the Flames won the Stanley Cup in 1989, the elder Kwong became one of the few people whose names are etched on both the CFL’s Grey Cup and the Stanley Cup.

“He, of course, back in the 40s and 50s, experienced the racial stuff,” the younger Kwong said of his father, who also served as lieutenant governor of Alberta from 2005 to 2010. “He always just fought through it, never saw himself as different, and just kind of worked hard and achieved a lot, regardless of his race. He always instilled in my brothers and I to just do your best, work hard, and you’ll achieve the goals you set out for yourself.”

 Kwong, front row, center, was captain of Harvard's 1984-85 hockey team (Photo/Harvard University).

Kwong, front row, center, was captain of Harvard’s 1984-85 hockey team (Photo/Harvard University).

Brad and Norman Kwong aren’t the only family members with hockey ties. Graham Lee, Brad Kwong’s cousin, is owner and governor of the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League. Lee’s company, RG Properties, built and operates the 7,000-seat Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, the arena where the Royals play.

Lee and the Kwongs are part of a history of Asian ownership in hockey. The Tampa Bay Lightning began its NHL life under a Japanese ownership group. Shanghai-born and New York-raised Charles Wang, owns the New York Islanders, an NHL franchise that’s currently up for sale. Chicago-based businessman Horn Chen is a minority owner of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets.

The media-shy Chen once told The Chicago Sun-Times that he became interested in hockey when his son played in a youth tournament in Indianapolis. That interest launched Chen on a team-buying binge: He founded the Central Hockey League and owned the CHL’s Wichita Thunder, Topeka Tarantulas, Oklahoma City Blazers and Mississippi RiverKings. He also owned the International Hockey League’s Indianapolis Ice, the East Coast Hockey League’s Columbus Chill, the CFL’s Ottawa Rough Riders (briefly) and several minor league football, baseball, and basketball teams.

Winnipeg Jets forward Devin Setoguchi.

Winnipeg Jets forward Devin Setoguchi.

Asian-American and Asian-Canadians have had an impact on the ice as well. Forward Paul Kayria, who’s of Japanese descent, was the first hockey player of Asian descent to captain an NHL team when he was awarded the “C’ by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.  Defenseman Jim Paek, who’s of Korean heritage,won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1990s. Seoul-born right wing Richard Park enjoyed a long NHL career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota Wild, Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks and the Islanders.

Asian players currently in the NHL include Winnipeg Jets forward Devin Setoguchi, who’s Japanese-Canadian, and Carolina Hurricanes forward Manny Malhotra, who’s Indo-Canadian.

Hockey has come a long way since Larry Kwong became the first Chinese-Canadian – and some historians argue the first person of color - to play in the NHL when he skated a single one-minute shift for the New York Rangers  in a game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum during the 1947-48 season. A decade later, in 1958, Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player when he skated for the Bruins, ironically, against the Canadiens.

Hockey has come a long way from the days when Larry Kwong, center,  played (Photo/Chad Soon).

Hockey has come a long way from the days when Larry Kwong, center, played (Photo/Chad Soon).

Larry Kwong, who was inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame last September at age 90, isn’t related to Brad Kwong, the two men share a sort of six degrees of separation that causes Brad to chuckle when recalling an episode that happened while he was playing professional hockey in Europe post-Harvard undergrad.

“There was a time in San Moritz, a group of fans came down, said hello, and said they knew my father,” he said. “My father had a reasonable amount of fame in Canada, but I didn’t think it extended to Switzerland. Obviously, it didn’t. They meant Larry, who played hockey in Switzerland at one point in his career. When I was 8-9 years old, he had moved back to Calgary and given that my parents knew him, he offered to teach my older brother and I tennis.”

Brad Kwong believes he’ll have company in the owner’s club in the not-too-distant future as minority players currently in professional hockey get older and transition into the next phase of their careers.

“As the numbers increase you’re going to have more people like me who played the game, who want to stay part of the game, which is my primary motivation, and I would imagine they’d stay involve in some way whether it be coach, general manager, owner, business president, whatever,” he said. “The sport is a fascinating sport. And I think once you’ve been exposed to it, you’re going to get more and more people, regardless of their color, wanting to be a part of it.”

 

 

 

Powerade commercial’s black hockey player powers through tough times

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Jonathon Robinson has been religiously tuning into the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament on television looking for ice hockey.

No, the 20-year-old San Diego native isn’t confusing this month’s basketball fest with next month’s NCAA Frozen Four hockey tournament.

He’s been checking out the basketball games to see if a television commercial that debuted during last year’s March Madness and featured him playing hockey is airing again during this year’s tournament.

Jonathon Robinson calls TV commercial one of the best moments in hockey career.

Jonathon Robinson calls TV commercial one of the best moments in hockey career.

Robinson was the black hockey player in an ad for Powerade, a Coca-Cola brand sport drink, that generated a lot of buzz last year for challenging athletic and societal stereotypes. The 31-second spot featured quick cuts of athletes seemingly against type: a smallish basketball player going strong to the hoop; a slow defensive football player attacking a quarterback; and a female wrestler preparing to do battle against a male opponent.

Then there was Robinson, who skated towards the camera with his white teammates and asked whether he was “Not in the right sport?”

A year after the commercial premiered, Robinson remains thrilled that he had the opportunity to be in it and proud of the message – beyond selling a product - that the ad tried to convey.

“By saying those few lines and just the whole message of the commercial, it really  meant a lot more special to me than the normal guy would actually understand,” Robinson told me recently. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me mainly because of all of the things I’ve been through with hockey.”

Robinson’s pursuit of a hockey career has taken him from California to Washington, Saskatoon, Swift Current, Atlanta, Coquitlam, British Columbia, Des Moines and back. He’s been through an alphabet of leagues - the British Columbia Hockey League, the North American Prospects Hockey League, the Western States Hockey League, the Tier 1 Elite Minor Midget Hockey League and tryouts with Western Hockey League and United States Hockey League teams.

At 14, Robinson was an 11th-round draft pick of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades in 2008. Doug Molleken, head scout for the Blades, told Canwest that he liked how Robinson skated and marveled how strong he was in with the puck in the corners of the rink.

“The had a hard time taking the puck away from him,” Molleken told the Canadian news service. “He’s gotta learn the game a little bit, but I think he’s going to be OK.”

But an injury kept him from competing in training camp, which helped launch his search for a hockey home. He had a 2011 tryout with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos.  At 20, he finished the 2013-14 season playing for the WSHL’s Lake Tahoe Blue and now finds himself at the crossroad of his hockey career.

Robinson, skating for Lake Tahoe Blue, has been on a multi-city, multi-league hockey journey.

Robinson, skating for Lake Tahoe Blue, has been on a multi-city, multi-league hockey journey.

Robinson put his hockey dreams on hold in 2012 after he father, Rick, suffered a series of stokes. He moved from California to Arlington, Va., to help provide for his family while his father recovered.

“I had two jobs, I was a lifeguard and I was also cleaning grocery stores,” he said. “The stores were in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. I would leave the house around 5 a.m., start working around 6 a.m. and get home around 7:30 at night.”

Whenever he had time, Robinson tried to stay in hockey shape by attending stick and puck sessions at Virginia’s Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the practice facility of the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals.

Robinson temporarily halted his hockey career when dad suffered series of strokes.

Robinson temporarily halted his hockey career when dad suffered series of strokes.

And it was a good thing that he did. In January 2013, Robinson received a phone call from a friend in California who told him about auditions for the Powerade commercial.

“The timing could not have been better,” he said. “The year before, I was playing in the BCHL, that was my draft year, and I had separated my shoulder and my dad had three strokes and five brain surgeries.”

When he arrived at the casting call, Robinson said he found about 25 other black hockey players and actors vying for the role.

“The audition was throughout the day,” he recalled.  “I got there first, I was the first person to audition, and I stayed a good hour after that just watching the other guys.”

But Robinson had a leg-up on the competition because of his family background in show business. His dad was a cinematographer and his mother, Dawn, was an assistant on the set of the 1989 Eddie Murphy movie “Harlem Nights.”

The early exposure to the film business helped Jonathon land a cameo role in an episode of the old NBC hit series “Friends” in which he kicked Ross – played by actor David Schwimmer – in the face.

About a week-and-a half after the Powerade audition, Robinson headed to Iowa for a

Robinson in Powerade ad.

Robinson in Powerade ad.

tryout with the USHL Des Moines Buccaneers. He received a callback for the commercial during the tryout with instructions to scurry back to Hollywood ASAP.

Elated, Robinson caught the next flight to California - leaving his hockey equipment behind in Des Moines.

“I left all my gear in the locker room of the USHL team,” he said. “I had to  borrow some gear from some owners of teams I knew.”

Robinson recalls spending 12 hours on the ice shooting the commercial at the Pickwick Ice Center in Burbank and doing about 40 takes on just one scene that required him to check an opposing player hard into the boards.

“I remember at the end of it the kid was dead, he was begging not to be hit anymore,” Robinson said. “We had a couple of takes where I was laughing because of something the director yelled out while we were filming.”

These days, Robinson is working on the Phase Two of his young life. He plans to enroll in college this summer to study cinematography. But hockey still isn’t out of his system. He hopes to coach or teach at hockey camps.

“I want to coach kids, youth hockey players, be able to bring them up, and help them chase their dreams,” he said.

Terry Trafford, missing player for OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, found dead in parked vechicle

Saginaw Spirit center Terry Trafford had been missing since March 3 (Photo/Saginaw Spirit)

Saginaw Spirit center Terry Trafford had been missing since March 3 (Photo/Saginaw Spirit)

Terry Trafford, a center for the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit who had been missing for more than a week, was found dead on Tuesday, team officials announced.

“It is with very heavy hearts that we announce that late this afternoon we were informed by the Michigan State Police that the body of Terry Trafford has been found,” the Spirit said in a statement on the team’s website. “Our deepest condolences are with Terry’s family and his friends both in Ontario and Michigan. Terry played on our team and was a member of the Spirit family for the last four years and he will be missed.”

Trafford’s body was found inside his vehicle at a Wal-Mart parking lot in Saginaw Township around 5 p.m. Tuesday, according to police. The cause of death wasn’t announced on Wednesday.

Trafford, a 20-year-old from Toronto, was last seen alive on March 3 at the Dow Event Center where the Spirit practice and play games. His girlfriend, Skye Cieszlak, told Michigan’s MLive.com that Trafford was distraught about being sent home by the Spirit because of team rule violations. She  told The Toronto Sun that the disciplinary action stemmed from Trafford allegedly smoking marijuana while on the road in Owen Sound on Feb. 22.

Cieszlak told MLive.com that she received a March 2 message from Trafford saying that “his life was over and that he didn’t want to do it anymore.”

Craig Goslin, the Spirit’s president and managing partner, confirmed to MLive that Trafford was sent home for breaking team rules. But prior to the team’s action, Trafford was living with Goslin and his wife, Karolyn.

Trafford played four seasons with the Spirit (Photo/Saginaw Spirit).

Trafford played four seasons with the Spirit (Photo/Saginaw Spirit).

“The reason that he was with us was that he needed some mentoring,” Craig Goslin told MLive. “We made sure we mentored the young man.”

Goslin added: “He’s a good kid that seems to make some bad decisions at times.”

Trafford played 54 games for the Spirit this season and tallied 8 goals, 24 assists and 70 penalty minutes. In four seasons at Saginaw, he registered 29 goals, 49 assists and 182 penalty minutes in 221 games.

OHL Commissioner David Branch said Trafford’s death “is a tragic situation for all involved.”

“On behalf of the Ontario Hockey League, our teams, players and staff, I want to express our sincerest condolences to the family and friends of Terry Trafford,” Branch said in a statement released by the OHL. “We will work closely with the Saginaw Spirit to provide any support required to the players and staff during this very difficult time. In addition, all of our teams will be offering support to their players.”

Eddie Joseph, spreading the gospel of ice hockey in soccer-mad Great Britain

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Being a black ice hockey player in Great Britain in the 1980s wasn’t exactly a walk in Hyde Park. Eddie Joseph can attest to that.

“I went to a place called Sunderland, near New Castle, I remember walking into the ice rink in Sunderland and a 10-11 year old little kid came up to me, rubbed my hand and said ‘Oh, it doesn’t come off,’  recalled Joseph, who played semi-pro hockey for the London Rangers and Lee Valley Lions. “That’s what the country was like. There were parts of this country where there were no black people at all.”

Times have changed in Great Britain, along with population demographics and

From player to coach, Eddie Joseph pays it forward with Lee Valley club.

From player to coach, Eddie Joseph pays it forward with Lee Valley club.

attitudes. When Joseph takes the racially and ethnically diverse East London youth hockey teams that he coaches on road games today people barely bat an eye.

“When I was playing, this country was very different – I was racially abused,” Joseph told me recently. “Today, it just doesn’t happen. People are so much more enlightened.”

Joseph didn’t envision it when he retired from semi-pro hockey at the age of 32, but he’s a hockey lifer. When he’s not carrying a night stick as a London Metropolitan police sergeant, Joseph is holding a hockey stick and coaching kids ages 10 to 18 and teaching them to love a sport that he says he owes everything to.

“It’s my passion,” said Joseph, 52. “Hockey has been the most constant thing in my life. I don’t know why the game bit me as it did, but it did.”

Joseph just wishes more folks on his side of the pond felt the same way. In the land of Big Ben, fish & chips, and One Direction, ice hockey is obscured by the large shadows cast by soccer, cricket, rugby, field hockey and tennis.

“To say it’s a minority sport is overplaying the word minority,” Joseph told me recently. “It’s such a small game in this country.”

Eddie Joseph, left, hopes his players grow up to teach their kids ice hockey.

Eddie Joseph, left, hopes his players grow up to teach their kids ice hockey.

With a population of nearly 64 million people, Great Britain has only 6,798 ice hockey players, according to International Ice Hockey Federation statistics. Of that group, 2,289 are men, 3,815 are junior players, and only 694 are female.

The IIHF ranks the country 22nd in the world in men’s hockey and 18th in women’s hockey. An IIHF founding member in 1908, Great Britain used to be a beast in ice hockey. Team Great Britain captured a Bronze Medal at the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix, France, a Gold at the 1936 games in Germany, and experienced international success with teams comprised mostly of Canadian-born players

But as Canada gained independence from the monarchy, Great Britain’s hockey prowess faded. It hasn’t had an ice hockey team in the Winter Games since 1952.

When Brits do think ice, most of them think figure skating, Joseph said. Robin Cousins, Tim Curry and the pairs team of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean brought Olympic Gold and notoriety to the country in recent decades.

“Ice rinks aren’t necessarily ice hockey-friendly,” Joseph said. “Figure skating is more popular here than ice hockey because over the years we’ve had success at that sport. Whereas with ice hockey it’s ‘What is it, who is it?’”

But that hasn’t stopped Joseph from preaching the gospel of hockey in his East London community and around the country.

Joseph returned to hockey when his son, then 10, said he wanted to play the game. Joseph went to the Lee Valley where his hockey odyssey began only to discover that the game was no longer played there.

“Hockey had pretty much died at the ice rink,” Joseph recalled. “I was fortunate that when I went back to the rink I met a lady there who was one of the rink directors. She said ‘Hockey would be a great idea.’ The rink manager wasn’t very keen, but she was one of the directors of the company that runs the facility.”

After receiving coaching training, Joseph started a hockey program with about 15 children once a week. Today, Lee Valley has about 125 hockey players spread over five youth teams and an adult squad.

About 25 percent of the players are minority – black, Asian, Arab and Jewish, Joseph said.

Eddie Joseph, standing center, instructs some of Lee Valley's young players.

Eddie Joseph, standing center, instructs some of Lee Valley’s young players.

The hockey program draws many of its patrons from the East London/Hackney area, historically one of London’s poorest communities. Spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on hockey equipment and ice time isn’t the first priority for most families in the neighborhood.

So the Lee Valley rink does what U.S. programs like New York’s Ice Hockey in Harlem, Washington’s Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, Philadelphia’s Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and other non-profit NHL-affiliated “Hockey is For Everyone” organizations do and minimize the cost of the game for those interested in playing it.

“The people that walk through our door and want to give hockey a go can’t afford to buy the kit, can’t afford to buy skates,” Joseph said. “So what we, people with a like mind to myself, do is we’ve done fund-raisers, we’ve bought equipment so we can just say to kids ‘Here you go, you can borrow this from us.’ I think it doesn’t necessarily go down well with our hockey establishment here, but we are more akin to a charity than we are to an ice hockey club.”

Lee Valley youngsters against a team from Slough.

Lee Valley youngsters against a team from Slough.

Joseph can identify with the needy patrons. He was a 14 year-old boy in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood when he and some mates walked into the Lee Valley rink, saw hockey, and were instantly captivated by a sport they never knew existed.

“I grew up in one of the worst parts of London, if not the country. I had friends who were killed, friends who were in prison – it was that kind of area,” he told me. “And for some reason, they put an ice rink up in this place. It gave me something other than hanging around the streets. In my circles, I got to see our country playing hockey. It gave me a sense of pride, gave me some value, some worth.”

No one confused Joseph for the next Wayne Gretzky. Between 1984 and 1993, Joseph tallied 54 goals, 68 assists and racked up 271 penalty minutes.

“I was never a great hockey player, but I served a purpose on the team and they signed me up every year,” he said. “Yeah, I got a bit of a reputation for being a scrapper, nonetheless I wanted to play hockey.”

He hopes the rest of Great Britain will, too, someday soon.

Skillz Hockey’s Cyril Bollers named to 2015 Canada Winter Games hockey staff

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Cyril Bollers, president and coach of Skillz Hockey, has been named an assistant coach for Ontario’s Under-16 hockey team that will compete in the 2015 Canada Winter Games.

Cyril Bollers will help map X's and O's for Team Ontario at 2015 Canada Winter Games.

Cyril Bollers will help map X’s and O’s for Team Ontario at 2015 Canada Winter Games.

Bollers will help Team Ontario Head Coach Drew Bannister,an assistant coach for the Ontario Hockey League’s Owen Sound Attack, guide a squad of some the province’s best hockey players under 16 years of age at the Winter Games, which are held every four years.  David Schlitt, head coach of the Huron-Perth Lakers Minor Midget team, rounds out the Ontario hockey coaching staff.

The 19-event sport festival will be held Feb. 13-March 1, 2015 in Prince George, British Columbia. The games have been a showcase for some of Canada’s best athletes including Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos, and Canadian women’s hockey Olympic Gold Medalist Haley Wickenheiser.

“This is wonderful. It’s an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to have been selected,” Bollers said. “I’m just going to go out, try my best and make Ontario proud.”

Bollers is president and head coach of Skillz Hockey and associate coach of the Markham Majors Minor Midget AAA team in the Toronto area. He is one of the few coaches of color in organized hockey.

There currently are only two minority head coaches in the NHL – Philadelphia Flyers’ Craig Berube and Buffalo Sabres Ted Nolan, who are both First Nations. Paul Jerrard, who is black, served as an assistant coach for the NHL Dallas Stars last season. He’s an assistant coach this season for the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets, a Vancouver Canucks farm team. Darren Lowe, who is black, coaches the University of Toronto Varsity Blues men’s hockey team.

Bollers hopes to join their ranks in the not-to-distant future.

 Bollers hopes that he and the kids he's coached rise in pro hockey.

Bollers hopes that he and the kids he’s coached rise in pro hockey.

“After all the years of all the hard work, this is the opportunity that I was looking for,” Bollers said of the Canadian Winter Games appointment. “Once you get this opportunity you have to make the best of it and it could lead to other things.”

Between Markham and his Skillz Black Aces and Black Mafia teams, Bollers has coached a stable of players – minority and white – who’ve gone on to successful major junior hockey careers and positioned themselves to become NHL players.

Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds defenseman Darnell Nurse, the Edmonton Oilers first-round draft pick last summer, Kitchener Rangers forward Justin Bailey, a Buffalo Sabres 2013 second-round pick, and Bellville Bulls defenseman Jordan Subban, the Vancouver Canucks’ 2013 fourth-round pick and brother of Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, all played under Bollers.

And more of Bollers’ former players are expected to chosen in the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia this summer. Josh Ho-Sang, a forward for the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires was listed as the 18th best North American skater in the NHL’s mid-term draft rankings last January; Brendan Lemieux, a forward for the OHL’s Barrie Colts and son of retired NHL player Claude Lemieux, was ranked 38th; Keegan Iverson, a forward for the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, was ranked 64th; Owen Sound Attack forward Jaden Lindo was ranked 96th; and Colts forward Cordell James placed 126th on the NHL list.

USHL’s Everett Fitzhugh wants to rock the mic as an NHL a play-by-play radio voice

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Everett Fitzhugh wants to be The Voice – the guy who shouts “goal!” when the home team puts the biscuit in the basket, the person who vocally paints a Picasso of what’s happening on the ice during a hockey game for those who can’t catch it at the arena or watch it on TV.

Fitzhugh aspires to be a National Hockey League radio play-by-play announcer, a career path not normally associated with 25-year-old African-American men. But Fitzhugh, a Detroit native who grew up spending cold winter nights listening to Ken Kal broadcast Detroit Red Wings games and lazy summer evenings hearing Ernie Harwell do Detroit Tigers baseball, is on a mission to join the small but growing club of NHL broadcasters of color.

Calling Bowling Green hockey games while a student stoked USHL's Everett Fitzhugh's interest in being an NHL radio announcer.

Calling Bowling Green hockey games while a student stoked USHL’s Everett Fitzhugh’s interest in being an NHL radio announcer.

He watches David Amber and Kevin Weekes on CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada,” and former NHLers Anson Carter and Jamal Mayers on NBC Sports Network and NHL Network’s nightly “NHL on The Fly” highlights show and thinks to himself “See you soon, dudes.”

“I think that’s going to be me in 15, 20-plus years, however long it takes,” Fitzhugh told me recently.  “This has been a dream of mine to work in sports, to work in media, since I was seven years old. I didn’t know I wanted to strictly work in hockey until I was in college. But I see those guys on TV and it gives me hope that what I’m doing will eventually pay off. It gives me hope that I can be on ESPN one day and I can become an NHL radio play-by-play man, which is my ultimate goal.”

In the meantime, Fitzhugh is busy paying his dues. He attended Bowling Green State University – alma mater of Pittsburgh Penguins and U.S. Olympics men’s hockey team Head Coach Dan Bylsma – and did radio play-by-play for 120 games for the NCAA Division I Falcons men’s hockey team.

He joined the United States Hockey League in 2012 and is manger of communications for the nation’s top junior hockey league that serves as a stepping-stone to college hockey or the NHL for many players.

Working out of Chicago, Fitzhugh handles the USHL’s social media entries, press releases, YouTube posts and video highlights. The job often gets him out of the office and into the lock rooms of USHL teams. But more than anything, Fitzhugh wants to get back behind the microphone and call hockey games on the radio.

“People call me weird. We used to joke when I was in school that TV guys do half the work but get twice the money,” he said. “But I love radio. I just love painting the picture. I love being able to describe what’s going on and the art of being on the radio. It’s a difficult job, but when you’re able to master hockey radio play-by-play, for me, that’s the ultimate position in sports.”

Amber knows how Fitzhugh feels. He grew up in Toronto listening Toronto Maple Leafs broadcasts and thought that he, too, might be a play-by-play guy some day.

"Hockey Night's" David Amber sees diversity gains on the ice and in the media.

“Hockey Night’s” David Amber sees diversity gains on the ice and in the media.

But he gravitated to sports reporting instead. Now, he’s the pre-game, between-periods, and post-game presence on Canada’s equivalent of “Monday Night Football.” He’s pleased to see more minorities are on the air talking hockey and more people like Fitzhugh in the pipeline waiting for their break.

“The exposure from ‘Hockey Night,’ I’ve certainly had a significant amount of minority faces – mostly black, but even Indian and Asian – say they’re happy to see it’s (hockey) not so homogeneous the way it was maybe 10 years ago; that there are people of color coming in and being able to lend a voice and face to the sport,” Amber told me recently. “It has been a slow transition, absolutely, but there are going to be a lot of new young guys coming up now.”

And the interest of people like Fitzhugh to work in hockey reflects the increasing number hockey players of color and the growing impact they’re are having on the game from the USHL all the way up to the NHL, Amber said.

“There are more black faces in the NHL than there’s ever been,” he told me. “When you look at the guys who’ve made it now, these are impact players whether it’s (Philadelphia Flyers’ Wayne) Simmonds, we know what (Boston Bruins’ Jarome) Iginla’s been able to do over his career, (Winnipeg Jets’) Evander Kane, (Dallas Stars’) Trevor Daley. But because the position of the players have increased and the position of some of the media members has increased from a minority standpoint, I think success breeds success and visibility breeds more visibility and I think that’s a good thing.”

But old stereotypes still die hard. Fitzhugh says people - both minorities and whites – occasionally do double-takes when he tells them what he does for a living and what his dream job is.

“I’ve gotten snide comments, off the cuff comments “Oh, you’re black, you can’t be in hockey, you can’t do this, that and the other,’” he said. “And I’m like ‘No, you look on TV, we’re growing.’ You look at some of the best players in the NHL – up and coming Evander Kane, if he can ever stay healthy; Jarome Iginla fed (Pittsburgh Penguins’)Sidney Crosby to lead Canada to the Gold Medal four years ago; (Winnipeg Jets’) Dustin Byfuglien was barely left off our U.S. Olympic team this year.”

“Black people, we’re not barely surviving in hockey,” he added. “I think we are staples. We’re contributing  day in, day out to the hockey world on the ice, off the ice, in the media.”

Amber said he rarely gets negative comments about his presence on hockey telecasts. But he recalls getting the odd tweet during his NHL Network days from viewers filled with keyboard courage who’d urge him “to stick with basketball.”

“Nothing crazy, certainly nothing like what (Washington Capitals forward) Joel Ward received after he scored the Game 7 OT winner against Boston (in April 2012),” he said. “But a couple of snide remarks, inappropriate remarks. By and large it hasn’t been a big issue. Living in Canada, it hasn’t been a prevalent issue. In the States, I think it’s still by and large viewed as a white guy’s sport.”

Even among minorities. Fitzhugh says striking up a hockey conversation at his local barbershop can be a challenge.

“They look at me a little weird,” he said with a laugh. “My barbers knows that I work in hockey. When I first told them, they kind of looked at me like I was a science experiment like ‘Oh, you work in hockey?’ I enlighten them a little bit, but hockey’s not a regular topic of conversation when I go to the barbershop.”

But Fitzhugh believes that will change in time because “more and more minorities and people of color are becoming aware of the game.”

“Think if anyone goes to a hockey game, they will be hooked,” he said. “If could have a mission, it would be to take everybody, everyone in this country to a hockey game.”

Or to have folks listen to his play-by-play account on the radio.

Special thanks: to Color of Hockey follower and ChicagoSide Senior Writer Evan F. Moore who first reported on Fitzhugh.

Hockey’s Julie Chu carries flag for U.S. at Winter Olympics’ closing ceremony

SOCHI, Russia _The woozy hockey hangover the United States women’s and men’s hockey teams suffered at the 2014 Winter Olympics produced at least one bit of good news: U.S. women’s player Julie Chu will carry the American flag at the Winter Games’ closing ceremony Sunday.

U.S. hockey player Julie Chu ends Winter Olympics on high note.

U.S. hockey player Julie Chu ends Winter Olympics on high note.

The Sochi Games are Chu’s fourth, and probably last, Olympics. If so, she leaves with three silver medals from 2002, 2010 and 2014 and a bronze medal from 2006. She’s tied as the second-most decorated U.S. female athlete in Olympic Winter Games history.

“When I found out I was the flag bearer for the closing ceremony I was trying to process what a humbling honor it was,” Chu said. “With the way that we select the flag bearer, being able to be elected by my peers is unreal, especially with the success that so many of our athletes have had.”

Chu, 31, is the second hockey player to carry the U.S. flag. Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato did it in 1998, the first year women’s hockey was played at the Winter Games. She’s the first person of color to be the U.S. flag bearer at a Winter Games closing ceremony.

“Today, Julie joins a distinguished group of athletes who have been selected to serve as flag bearer for Team USA,” United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said. “She has been a tremendous ambassador for her sport and our athletes, and will continue to be a world-class representative of our nation at the closing ceremony and beyond.”

Unfortunately, the women’s and men’s hockey team didn’t achieve the success that many had anticipated in Sochi.

The U.S. women were within a minute of capturing the Gold Medal and defeating archrival Canada. But the U.S. squandered a 2-0 lead and gave up the tying goal with less than a minute to play in the third period. They lost the game 3-2 in overtime.

The U.S. men, a collection of National Hockey League stars, played themselves out of any kind of medal with a dismal 5-0 loss to an inspired Finland team. After the U.S.’s dramatic 3-2 shootout victory over Russia and feasting on lesser teams like Slovakia, the men’s team went into a scoring drought, losing 2-1 to Canada before ageless Anaheim Ducks forward Teemu Selanne and his Finnish teammates kept the American squad off the medal podium altogether.

Chu said the women’s loss to Canada, and the way they lost, was “an emotional rollercoaster for us.”

“We believed we could win it,” she added. “I’m proud of how we came out flying, we didn’t lose our belief. When the final puck was in, we felt that we’re down.”

But Chu said she won’t let the defeat define her career or her Olympic experience. She finished her collegiate in 20087 as Harvard University’s all-time assist leader with 196 and the NCAA leader with 284 points in 129 games.

“It’s been a dream,” she said. “When I was young, it was 1995 when it was announced that women’s hockey would be in the 1998 Olympic Games. I was a freshman in high school when our U.S. women’s team won in 1998 and I was hooked for life.”

Chu said her time in Sochi “has been absolutely incredible.”

“The competition is obviously our focus and the venues have been spectacular,” she said. “One of the best things is that every time we enter a venue or go in and out of the (Olympic) village, we pass these smiling, excited volunteers. They truly made this a spectacular experience.”

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