Willie O’Ree’s hockey tree grows another branch with Ayodele Adeniye’s rise

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To understand why Willie O’Ree is entering the Hockey Hall of Fame in November as a builder of the game look no further than Ayodele “Ayo” Adeniye.

Adeniye is the latest branch – and a very big one – from the O’Ree hockey tree to bear fruit.

U of Alabama-Huntsville 2020 hockey commit Ayodele Adeniye.

The 6-foot-5 defenseman from Columbus, Ohio, committed last week to play for the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers, an NCAA Division I team in the  Western Collegiate Hockey Association, beginning in the 2020 season.

In the meantime, he’s headed to Canada this fall to skate for the Carleton Place Canadians, a Junior A team in the Central Canada Hockey League.

The 19-year-old Adeniye said he’s achieving his dreams by following the hockey gospel according to O’Ree.

Adeniye first met the National Hockey League’s first black player when he was six years old and O’Ree visited the Columbus Ice Hockey Club, a part of the league’s “Hockey is for Everyone” program.

“In terms of development, he was just a good role model because there are not a lot of (black people) in hockey,” Adeniye told me recently. “He was always the guy I asked questions and looked up to. I picked his brain a little bit.”

Six-year-old Ayodele Adeniye with Willie O’Ree at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit when the Columbus Ice Hockey Club played  in the “Hockey in the ‘Hood” tournament (Photo/Courtesy Ayodele Adeniye).

And Adeniye had ample opportunities to do it. His mother, Lisa Ramos, chauffeured O’Ree around whenever he visited Columbus.

“I probably met him over 15 times,”  Adeniye said. “For me, Willie getting into the Hall, to me, means the world.”

Ramos said her son bonded with O’Ree, in part, because of their shared history with vision issues.

O’Ree only played 45 NHL games over the 1957-58 and 1960-61 seasons with the Boston Bruins largely because he was blind in his right eye, the result of a deflected puck.

That didn’t prevent him from having a long and prolific minor league career, scoring 328 goals and 311 assists in 785 games in the old Western Hockey League.

Adeniye suffered from misaligned eyes, a condition that required several surgeries to correct, Ramos said.

“It’s not only the story of him being the first black hockey player, but everything he went through, the issue with his eye,” Ramos told me. “The other thing that Willie does, and it means so much to Ayo, is he always takes time to talk to him. You can see the stars in his eyes when Willie talks to him, even now.”

Defenseman Ayodele Adeniye was cut from the Ohio Blue Jackets AAA hockey program, but worked his way back onto the team (Photo/Courtesy Ayodele Adeniye).

Adeniye, whose father is from Nigeria, got interested in hockey around age three when he attended a skating birthday party at a local rink. He noticed a high school hockey game on an adjacent ice sheet and told his mom that’s what he wanted to do.

Ramos immediately said “no” because “I didn’t know anything about hockey at all.”

“My grandfather played in the Negro Leagues (baseball), my dad won the state in high jump in track and field, he won the state in cross country, he played basketball for the Army in Europe,” she said. “We had all these different sports, and hockey wasn’t one of them.”

Defenseman Ayodele Adeniye practicing with the Ohio Blue Jackets AAA team.

But Adeniye persisted. When his mother put him in a tyke basketball program, he moved about the court in ice skating motions instead of running like the rest of the children. Ramos got the hint.

“My mom  said ‘Whatever,’ put me in hockey, and I fell in love,” he said.

Hockey didn’t always love him back. At one point, Adeniye was cut from the Ohio AAA program. Instead of sulking, he remembered one of O’Ree’s favorite sayings: “If you can, you can. If you say you can’t, you’re right.”

He became a hockey nomad to improve his game. He joined the Cleveland Junior Lumberjacks U16 team of the Eastern Junior Elite Prospects League in 2014-15; the Florida Eels of the United States Premiere 3 Hockey League in 2015-16;  the USPHL’ s New Jersey Hitmen along with the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League’s North Jersey Avalanche U18 squad  and Iowa Wild AAA U18 team all in the 2016-17 season.

He returned to Columbus last season and played 33 games for the Ohio Blue Jackets, contributing a goal and 7 assists from the blue line. He had 30 penalty minutes.

Adeniye patterns his game after Columbus Blue Jackets All-Star defenseman Seth Jones.

Ayodele Adeniye hanging out with his favorite NHL player, Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones (Photo/Courtesy Ayodele Adeniye).

“One hundred percent. I want to consider myself a two-way defenseman, but I’m more of a defensive defenseman with offensive abilities, just like Seth,” Adeniye said. “He can join the rush every once in a while and he’s a pretty good lock-down defenseman. I try to play the same game. I look at his speed, I watch his positioning.”

He met Jones once and offered the 23-year-old NHL veteran a bit of advice: Watch your back.

“I told him, as a joke, ‘I’m taking your spot,'” he said. “‘Give me about five, six years, I’m taking your spot.'”

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Former Florida Panthers enforcer Peter Worrell joins pro hockey’s coaching ranks

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 Peter Worrell punched his way into professional hockey. Now he’s looking to coach his way back to the pros.

Worrell, who accumulated more than 1,500 penalty minutes as a left wing and enforcer for the Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche from 1997-98 to 2003-04, was named assistant coach of the Fayetteville Marksmen of the single-A Southern Professional Hockey League last week.

Former Florida Panthers forward Peter Worrell in 2002.

A Panthers 1995 seventh-round draft pick, Worrell quickly turned to coaching after playing his last professional game with the ECHL’s Charlotte Checkers in 2005-06.

He returned to Florida the following season to become head coach of North Broward Preparatory School. He assumed additional responsibility in 2010-11 when he became bench boss of Florida Atlantic University’s American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Division III team.

“When I ended my seasons last year, I made the decision I wanted to explore new challenges,” Worrell said. “I contacted a lot of teams, in many leagues. When I first contacted the Marksmen and I talked to (Head Coach Jesse) Kallechy, it just felt right. It was a big decision for me, as I was comfortable in my previous positions, but everyone in Fayetteville has been so welcoming and first class, I know I couldn’t have found a better position.”

And Kallechy believes that he couldn’t have found a better bench sidekick for the Fayetteville, North Carolina, team than Worrell.

“He blew me away in the interview process,” Kallechy said. “He was an excellent communicator, our views on player personnel aligned, and he is eager to learn and bring fresh viewpoints to the team.”

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Worrell will become the SPHL’s second black coach when the puck drops for the 2018-19 season. In May, the Macon Mayhem tapped Leo Thomas as its head coach, making him the only black professional hockey head coach in North America.

While the SPHL’s minority coaching numbers grow, the ranks of coaches of color in the National Hockey League declined following 2017-18 season.

The Calgary Flames let go veteran Assistant Coach Paul Jerrard, who was the league’s only minority coach to work behind the bench during games.

He wasn’t unemployed very long. The University of Nebraska Omaha Mavericks hired Jerrard in May to be an assistant coach for the National Collegiate Hockey Conference team.

“He has a very good track record of developing players,” UNO Head Coach Mike Gabinet said. “I knew, first off, how good of a person he was having played for him. He was my (defense) coach. And when you’re a player, people always ask you afterward who’s influenced you as a coach.”

Jerrard, who played hockey for Lake Superior State University from 1983-84 to 1986-87, said he’s stoked about returning to the college game. He tallied 40 goals and 73 assists in 156 games as a defenseman for the Lakers.

“I’ve always loved college hockey, and I’m looking forward to working with and developing our players, not just in their careers but academically as well to help them prepare for success in the future,” he said.

The NHL’s remaining coaches of color are goalie coaches Sudarshan Maharaj of the Anaheim Ducks, Frantz Jean, of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Fred Brathwaite of the New York Islanders.

Scott Gomez is on the Isles’ coaching staff and Nigel Kirwan serves as a video coach for the Lightning.

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Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player, to be inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame

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Willie finally got the call from the Hall.

Willie O’Ree, the National Hockey League’s first black player, received a call from the Hockey Hall of Fame Tuesday afternoon informing him that he’s a member of the Hall’s 2018 class.

“I was in tears,” O’Ree told me. “I’m walking on air, I can’t believe it. Unbelievable what this day has been, my God. It’s one of the greatest days I’ve experienced.”

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O’Ree, 82, will be formally inducted into the Hall in the Builder category on Nov. 12. The other 2018 inductees are former New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur,Tampa Bay Lightning forward Martin St. Louis, Russian hockey star Alexander Yakushev, Canadian women’s hockey star Jayna Hefford, and NHLCommissioner Gary Bettman.

O’Ree will become the Hall’s third black member. Edmonton Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr, who won five Stanley Cup championships, was inducted in 2003. Angela James, a Canadian forward who is regarded as the “Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey,” followed in 2010, the first year the Toronto-based Hall began inducting women.

Whenever people asked O’Ree about his chances of someday getting into the Hall of Fame, he would calmly say “that would be nice” and add “whatever will be will be.”

However, the O’Ree household in San Diego was anything but calm Tuesday. O’Ree, Bryant McBride, a former NHL executive vice president, family members, and others nervously gathered in the kitchen at 7:30 a.m. Pacific Time to wait for the phone to ring.

“There were four or five of us in the kitchen, just looking at each other,” McBride said.

“We were just pacing back and forth,” O’Ree added. “We knew if there was a call, it was going to come in around noon. We had about four hours of pacing back and forth.”

O’Ree made history on Jan. 18, 1958, when he skated for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens in the old Montreal Forum.

The right wing from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, only played 45 NHL games over two seasons with the Bruins, tallying 4 goals and 10 assists.

He enjoyed a long and productive minor league career, finishing as the 16th all-time leading scorer in the old Western Hockey League with 328 goals and 311 assists in 785 games, despite being blind in his right eye.

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But O’Ree became Hall-worthy for his accomplishments off the ice. He has worked tirelessly as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador since 1996, traveling across the United States and Canada to visit youth hockey programs affiliated with the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative.

He’s also a revered figure to many of the NHL’s players, who seek him out for guidance and advice.

So instead of seeking his Hall entry as a player, O’Ree’s supporters launched a drive for his induction in the hockey shrine’s Builder category, focusing on his contributions as a mentor, role model, and advocate in growing hockey in communities previously overlooked by the sport.

A Builder must exhibit “Coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general,” according to Hall rules.

O’Ree fits the criteria because he’s been an inspiration to a generation of young hockey players and hockey fans of color.

Willie O’Ree has the respect and awe of players across the NHL. From left to right: forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, now with the Vegas Golden Knights, Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, O’Ree, and former Flyers goalie Ray Emery (Photo/Philadelphia Flyers).

“This honor is long overdue as Willie has been a tremendous figure in our game both on and off the ice for over 60 years,” said Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs. “We are lucky to have been able to call Willie a Bruin when he made his debut in 1958 and we could not be happier for him to finally receive the recognition he so greatly deserves.”

O’Ree’s Hall admission is a testament to a grassroots movement of NHL players, past and present, elected officials across North America, and thousands of hockey fans who thought it an injustice that he wasn’t inducted years ago.

Brenda and David Sansom, longtime friends of Willie O’Ree, helped launch a public submission drive urging the Hockey Hall of Fame to induct that NHL’s first black player.

David and Brenda Sansom, friends of O’Ree from Fredericton, helped put together a 76-page public submission to the Hall’s Selection Committee. They also collected more than 300 letters, notes, and expressions of support on O’Ree’s behalf.

The Sansoms received letters from Karl Subban, father of Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban,Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Malcolm Subbanand LosAngeles Kings defensive prospect Jordan Subban; San Jose Sharks forwardJoel Ward; former NHLersDanny Grant and Mike EaglesBoston Mayor Marty Walsh; NewBrunswick Premier Brian Gallant; and Fredericton Mayor Mike O’Brien.

Willie O’Ree made history when he entered the NHL with the Boston Bruins in January 1958.

“Willie O’Ree’s story must not be forgotten,” Karl Subban wrote. “He made it possible to have the NHL dream and to believe they could achieve it. He changed hockey, which is now for everyone. Hockey needed him and so does the Hockey Hall of Fame. The time is right!

NHL players like Ward and Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds publicly pressed for O’Ree’s admission almost every chance they got. Simmonds penned an article in The Players’ Tribune in April, declaring that “Mr. O’Ree should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame…Mr. O’Ree should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame yesterday.”

The call to put O’Ree in the Hall also reached Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Hockey Caucus, took to the floor of the House of Representatives in March and called O’Ree “a trusted champion for diversity, a proponent of inclusion, and an inspiration for so many young players both on and off the ice.”

Fredericton Member of Parliament Matt DeCourcey told the chamber in February that “hockey fans around the world share the view that it is past due time that Willie O’Ree be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.”

O’Ree will get his time, and his due, in November.

“Unbelievable,” O’Ree said.

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Jermaine Loewen becomes first Jamaican-born player drafted by NHL team

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Jermaine Loewen became a first on Saturday. Now he’s looking for seconds.

Loewen, a towering left wing for the Kamloops Blazers, became the first Jamaican-born player chosen in a National Hockey League Draft when the Dallas Stars selected him in the seventh round with the 199th overall pick Saturday.

Jermaine Loewen, drafted by Dallas Stars (Photo/Kamloops Blazers).

“I cried when I got the call,” Loewen told Jon Keen, the play-by-play voice for the Western Hockey League Blazers.

If the 20-year-old from Mandeville, Jamaica, defies the odds and cracks the Stars’ roster, he’d become the NHL’s second Jamaican-born player. Graeme Townshend – a forward who played for the Boston BruinsNew York Islanders, and Ottawa Senators – was the first.

Townshend’s island heritage and hockey have merged as he’s the head coach of the Jamaican Olympic ice hockey team effort.

“I think about that a lot , it’s like, ‘aw, man, I want to be the second guy,’” Loewen told Canada’s Sportsnet of joining Townshend in hockey history books “I just really want to make that happen.”

Loewen was ranked as the 160th-best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting.  At 6-foot-4, 221-pounds, he was the Blazers’ leading scorer last season with 36 goals and 28 assists in 66 regular season games.

He notched 50 goals and 46 assists in 236 regular season games over four seasons with Kamloops.

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Loewen was one of the more remarkable stories of the two-day draft at Dallas’ American Airlines Center. 

Adopted from an orphanage in Mandeville, Jamaica, by a white family and relocated to rural Arborg, Manitoba, when he was five, Loewen didn’t lace on a pair of skates until he was six – late by Canadian standards.

He didn’t play his first organized hockey game until he was 10. But that didn’t stop him from getting drafted by the Blazers, a Canadian major junior team, six years later.

“Obviously when you start playing organize hockey at 10 when other kids start at six or seven, you’re way behind,” Townshend told me in 2016. “He’s made up a lot of ground in a very short period of time. That says a lot about his character.”

ISS Hockey, in its 2018 NHL draft scouting report, called Loewen “a raw player” with pro potential.

“Plays a very impressive game with good on ice smarts, He can be heavy on his feet, but there is no denying his ability to get the job done,” ISS Hockey wrote. “Loewen could turn into a Wayne Simmonds-type player.”

Loewen should be among the players attending the Stars development camp June 25-29 at StarCenter Frisco, the team’s practice facility.

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Jett Woo jets to Vancouver in 2nd round of 2018 NHL Draft

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DALLAS – The player with the movie star name heard it called in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft.

Defenseman Jett Woo of the Moose Jaw Warriors was taken with the 34th overall pick of the draft Saturday at Dallas’ American Airlines Center.

Named after action movie star Jett Li, Woo became the second player of Chinese descent to be drafted by an NHL team. Defenseman Andong Song became the first Chinese-born player drafted when the New York Islanders took him in the sixth round in 2015.

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“It’s cool,” Woo said. “To have my heritage with me in this process is something that’s really cool to me. And to grow up so involved in my heritage my family is something really special.”

Woo, a 17-year-old from Winnipeg, was ranked the 28th-best North American skater, down from 20th at mid-term. He tallied 9 goals and 16 assists and 2 goals and 1 assist in 14 WHL playoff games. He also contributed a goal and an assist for Team Canada at the 2018 International Ice Hockey Federation U18 World Junior Championship.

“Yeah, it was difficult, and I’m not afraid to say that,” Woo said of the abdominal and shoulder injuries that plagued him last season “To go into playoffs and play my best there was something I was pretty proud of. It was such a great team and organization and city behind me. It wasn’t such a tough transition to go back on the ice with them behind me.”

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Woo also said he had a strong family behind him. His father, Larry Woo, played for Victoria Cougars and Swift Current Broncos in the WHL and then for the University of Manitoba.

“The whole family, they dedicated so much and sacrificed so much for me and my brother and my sisters as well,” Woo said. “So, to have him and my mom always on my side and take those long road trips. You drive me to the rink or back. To go through the process and, you know, make me come here.”

In Woo, the Canucks are getting a hard-hitting right-hand defenseman.

“I like to make sure that the defensive side of the puck is taken care of,” he said, “Whether that be…winning puck battles, playing hard for the puck, you know, being physically in the right moments, or being able to have a different angle on the puck. All of those things…I put first and then my offense will come after that.”

Erica L. Ayala contributed to this report. Follow her @elindsay08.

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L.A. Kings draft Akil Thomas who plans to repay teams who snubbed him in first round

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Niagara IceDogs forward Akil Thomas wants to thank all the National Hockey League teams that bypassed him in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft. He looks forward to repaying them for the snub.

“Yeah, yeah, definitely,” Thomas said. “You know, (I) was just sitting in my bed last night…thinking of things I want to do and accomplish to kind of say thank you for maybe not believing in me. And you made me kind of get hungry, and you made me want to do more things.”

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Thomas hopes to do those things for the Los Angeles Kings, the team that finally selected him in the second round Saturday with the 51st overall pick in the draft.

Ranked  the 15th-best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting, the 5-foot-11, 171-pound Thomas was projected as a first-round pick by many hockey experts.

He notched 22 goals and 59 assists in 68 games and served as an assistant captain for the Ontario Hockey League IceDogs.

Niagara IceDogs forward Akil Thomas was ranked the 15th-best North American skater eligible for the 2018 NHL Draft (Photo/Terry Wilson/OHL Images).

He contributed 5 goals and 6 assists in 10 OHL playoff games last season.  Thomas also played for Canada in the 2018 International Ice Hockey Federation U18 World Junior Championship, tallying a goal and an assist in four games.

“I was hoping to go yesterday, so towards the end of the round I was getting kind of nervous and it’s something I’ll always remember,” Thomas said. “And (I) definitely was a little bit upset after. But, you know, I thought about it (and) at the end of the day, I have a job to do. I’m going to get an opportunity. And I get to prove a lot of people wrong. And I love doing that.”

Thomas has a strong hockey pedigree. His father, Khalil Thomas, was a career minor league player. His uncle, Leo Thomas,  was recently named head coach of the Macon Mayhem of the Southern Professional Hockey League. He’s currently North America’s only black professional hockey head coach.

Akil Thomas’ father and mother, Akilah Thomas, are owners of the Oshawa RiverKings of Canada’s Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League.

Thomas’ path to the NHL Draft and the Los Angeles was marked by a series of key decisions.

He began playing organized hockey in the United States and caught the attention of scouts when he helped a Florida AAA youth hockey team win a championship in Philadelphia in 2008 when he was eight years old.

As his game improved, Thomas’ parents faced a dilemma – whether to stay in the Sunshine State or relocate to where there’s a larger pool of competitive players to push their son to be the best.

Forward Akil Thomas joined Team Canada for the IIHF U18 World Championship after his strong rookie season with the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs (Photo/Matthew Murnaghan/Hockey Canada Images).

In 2011, the family packed their bags for Toronto – where Kahlil  grew up – so Akil could play prep school hockey at Upper Canada CollegeThis season, he skated for St. Michael’s College School and the minor midget hockey Toronto Marlboros Marlies.

After minor midget hockey, Thomas had to decide whether to play major junior hockey or opt to skate for NCAA Division I colleges that were recruiting him like Arizona State University, University of New Hampshire, Penn State University or Boston University.

He decided on that major junior route and signed with the IceDogs, which selected him with the 12th overall pick of the 2016 OHL Priority Selection Draft.

Then Thomas had to decide which country he would play for in international competition. Born in Florida, he could play for Team USA or Team Canada. He settled on wearing the maple leaf on his jersey.

Erica L. Ayala contributed to this report. Follow her @elindsay08.

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The waiting over, Serron Noel can’t wait to play for Florida Panthers after being drafted

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DALLAS – Oshawa Generals forward Serron Noel could relate to the old  Tom Petty & TheHeartbreakers hit “The Waiting.” 

The waiting was the hardest part as Noel, projected to be a first-round pick at the 2018 NHL Draft, sat and sat and sat through the opening round and left Dallas’ AmericanAirlines Center Friday. He left the arena without hearing his name called.

He didn’t have to wait long Saturday as the Florida Panthers – a team in the late Petty’s beloved home state – chose Noel in the second round with the 34th overall pick.

Oshawa Generals forward Serron Noel was projected as a first-round draft pick but slipped into the second round (Photo/Aaron Bell/OHL Images).

“Definitely a little frustrating just waiting through the whole process, thinking you’re going to go,” a relieved-looking Noel said. “But you come in today hoping you go pretty early. I’m just so excited to be picked by the Florida Panthers.”

He said he’s looking forward to “being an ambassador or role model” to the Miami-area’s diverse community.

“Someone who can reach out to the young children and just kind of inspire,” Noel added. “Because it is a new age, and hockey’s becoming more diverse, and I want to be someone like P.K. Subban, someone who can kind of be a role model in the game.”

NHL Central Scouting ranked Noel as the 10th-best North American skater available in the draft.

The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder from Guelph, Ontario, was the Generals’ second-leading goal scorer with 28. He was fifth overall on the team in scoring with 28 goals and 25 assists for 53 points in 62 regular season games.

He had an assist in five OHL playoff games and chipped in 2 goals and 4 assists in five games for Canada at the 2018 U18 world juniors.

Dennis MacInnis, director of scouting for ISS Hockey called Noel an “intriguing package of size and skill.”

“Skating has improved slightly (but) still needs to improve speed,” MacInnis wrote in his assessment of Noel. “Hard on the forecheck. Load to handle in front of the net and down below the goal lines for defenders.”

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Karl Stewart, who evaluates OHL talent for NHL Central Scouting, told NHL.com that “it’s scary to think about the player he’ll be when he’s fully developed.”

“His skating is as close to NHL ready when he wants to skate,” Stewart said. “He can drive you wide and get around you, and he’s got quick acceleration to separate himself from anyone.”

Noel said he’s been working to  get even better on his blades and hopes to showcase his skating skills at the Panthers’ development camp next week.

Noel, 17, is the son of Dean Noel, a former Canadian Football League wide receiver. He steered Serron toward hockey because of concerns about the rate of  concussions in football.

“Growing up, I was never really exposed to football,” Serron said. “A bunch of kids on my street were out playing road hockey all the time. I joined them and had a lot of fun, so I think hockey has just always been the right sport for me.”

Erica L. Ayala contributed to this report. Follow her @elindsay08.

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K’Andre Miller Broadway-bound as N.Y. Rangers take him in 2018 NHL Draft

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DALLAS – K’Andre Miller enjoys being a myth-breaker. Now he’ll get a chance to do it on Broadway.

Miller, a smooth-skating defenseman with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, was selected by the New York Rangers with the 22nd overall pick of the 2018 National Hockey League Draft in Dallas Friday night.

The Rangers traded up in the draft with the Ottawa Senators for a chance to grab Miller.

“It means the world to have a team to want you that bad to trade for you,” Miller told reporters. “For them to have that opportunity for me, it’s pretty cool, I’m excited.”

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He’s also excited about the prospect of playing in a diverse market like New York to further help shatter stereotypes about blacks and ice hockey and spread the message that hockey is indeed for everyone.

“Being African-American, the opportunity doesn’t come that often. I worked very hard to be in this position,” he said. “And for all the young kids out there, anything’s possible. I was a kid just a little while ago and to be here really means a lot.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound native of Minnetonka, Minnesota, said people sometimes ask if he was a basketball player because of his size and frame.

“It’s always been my motivation to prove to people that no matter what your skin color is, what you look like in general, you can do whatever you want if you put your mind to it,” Miller told me last year. “When I see people of color in my community in Minnetonka and Hopkins trying to play hockey, I always go up to them whenever I can and straight-up tell them ‘Don’t listen to what anybody says. Play whatever you want to play, if it’s hockey, soccer, lacrosse, tennis, whatever you want to do. Just do it.’”

Miller, 18, a mobile defenseman, moved up NHL Central Scouting’s draft rankings over the season, jumping to 23rd-best North American skater from 31st at mid-season.

Miller looks forward to playing in the NHL someday. But first he’ll play for the University of Wisconsin, starting next season.

Miller had 7 goals and 17 assists in 50 games. Not bad for a player who switched to defense from forward two seasons ago. He skated for the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF U18 world juniors, scoring a goal and 2 assists in seven games.

K’Andre Miller was exposed to the NHL at an early age, taking part in a commercial for the league when he was 10. With him, left to right, are retired forwards Pat LaFontaine and Neal Broten and former goaltender Mike Richter (Photo/Courtesy USA Hockey).

“I’m a defenseman that’s real hard to play against, offensive-defensive zone,” Miller said.

The Rangers will have to wait a while for Miller’s Broadway debut. He’ll play for the University of Wisconsin Badgers and former Rangers forward Tony Granato this fall.

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Miller traces his interest in becoming a professional hockey player to Minnesota Wild team captain Mikko Koivu.

“For my ninth birthday, I went down to Dallas to watch the Stars play the Wild,” Miller told me last year. “We went down to the locker room after the game and Mikko came up to me, shook my hand, said happy birthday, and asked when the next time I would be at a home game in Minnesota because he was going to try to get me a stick.

“I went back to the rink in Minnesota about two months later and he picked me out in the stands, he had the trainer come up with a stick and hand it right to me,” Miller added. “That was probably the coolest experience I think I’ve ever had with an NHL player.”

Erica L. Ayala contributed to this report.

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Viva Las Vegas! Fun times at NHL Awards

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Had a great time at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas Wednesday and ran into some fun folks, who took time to pose for this class photo.

Front row seated, Kim Davis, NHL Executive VP, Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs; Blake Bolden, former National Women’s Hockey League and Canadian Women’s Hockey League star; Anson Carter, NBC and MSG hockey analyst. Second row left to right, hockey agent Eustace King; Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player; Damon Kwame Mason, director of the black hockey history documentary “Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future”; Dr. Joel Boyd, Minnesota Wild team physician; William Douglas, The Color of Hockey; Kevin Weekes, NHL Network analyst (Photo/Corinne McIntosh-Douglas)

Front row seated, Kim Davis, NHL Executive VP, Social Impact, Growth Initiatives & Legislative Affairs; Blake Bolden, former National Women’s Hockey League and Canadian Women’s Hockey League star; Anson Carter, NBC and MSG hockey analyst. Second row left to right, hockey agent Eustace King; Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player; Damon Kwame Mason, director of the black hockey history documentary “Soul on Ice: Past, Present and Future”; William Douglas, The Color of Hockey; Dr. Joel Boyd, Minnesota Wild team physician; Kevin Weekes, NHL Network analyst (Photo/Corinne McIntosh-Douglas).

Follow the Color of Hockey on Facebook and Twitter @ColorOfHockey. And download the Color of Hockey podcast from iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud and Google Play.

 

Players of color anxiously await the call at 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas

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Niagara IceDogs right wing Akil Thomas is traveling from hometown Toronto to Dallas, Texas, in a rented RV with his family just so he can sit, wait, and wonder when he arrives.

Thomas hopes the wait to be picked by a team in the 2018 NHL Draft won’t be as long as the drive to Texas – a journey that exceeds 1,400 miles and 21 hours.

The waiting is the hardest part for Akil Thomas and other players at 2018 NHL Draft (Photo/Niagara IceDogs).

“I’m pretty nervous now,” Thomas told me recently. “I’m going to be sitting in a chair waiting for my name to be called. It’s going to change my life, obviously. I don’t know who’s going to pick me, I really don’t know what to expect. For everyone, it’s kind of nerve-racking. It’s kind of your first experience of the NHL.”

Thomas is one of a least eight players of color who could be selected by one of the league’s 31 teams during the two-day draft that begins Friday inside Dallas’ American Airlines Center.

Cable’s NBCSN airs the first round in the United States at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time. NHL Network picks up Rounds 2-7 on Saturday starting at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time. In Canada, Sportsnet and TVA Sports broadcasts the draft both days.

Here’s a look at some of the potential picks:

AKIL THOMAS, right wing, Niagara IceDogs, Ontario Hockey League: NHL Central Scouting ranks Thomas as the 15th-best North American skater in the draft. The 5-foot-11, 171-pound forward notched 22 goals and 59 assists in 68 games and served as an assistant captain for the IceDogs.

He had 5 goals and 6 assists in 10 OHL playoff games last season.  Thomas also played for Canada in the 2018 International Ice Hockey Federation U18 World Junior Championship, tallying a goal and an assist in four games.

Niagara IceDogs right wing Akil Thomas was his team’s  second-leading scorer last season with 22 goals and 59 assists in 68 OHL games (Photo/Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Thomas comes from a hockey family. His father, Khalil Thomas, was a career minor league player. Ditto his uncle, Leo Thomas, who was recently named head coach of the Macon Mayhem of the Southern Professional Hockey League. He’s currently North America’s only black professional hockey head coach.

Akil Thomas’ father and mother, Akilah Thomas, are owners of the Oshawa RiverKings of Canada’s Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League.

“I love hockey so much because I’ve been around it because of my uncle and dad,” Akil Thomas told me. “I don’t get tired of working on my shot in my back yard, I don’t get tired of going to the gym because I don’t see it as hard work. I see it as fun.”

Thomas is all business off the ice as well. Though still a teenager, he has his own clothing line.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “Can play center or wing and plays with a balance of skill, will and a very strong sense of what needs to be done at any time” – TSN hockey analyst Craig Button, who ranks Thomas as a top-six play-making forward. TNS rank him 28th on its Top 93 draft list.

SERRON NOEL, right wing, Oshawa Generals:  Central Scouting ranks Noel as the 10th-best North American skater.

The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder from Guelph, Ontario, had 28 goals and 25 assists in 62 regular season games for the Generals. He had an assist in five OHL playoff games and chipped in 2 goals and 4 assists in five games for Canada at the 2018 U18 world juniors.

Oshawa Generals right wing Serron Noel finished second in goals on his team last season with 28 (Photo/Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Noel, 17, is the son of Dean Noel, a former Canadian Football League wide receiver. He steered Serron toward hockey because of concerns about the rate of  concussions in football.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “He’s 6-foot-5 and one of the youngest players in the draft. He has the upside to become one of the premier power forwards in this league” – The Hockey Writers.

K’ANDRE MILLER, defenseUSA Hockey’s National Team Development Program:  Miller,18, is a smooth-skating defender who has moved up Central Scouting’s chart. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder from Minnetonka, Minnesota, jumped to 23rd-best North American skater from 31st at mid-term.

K’Andre Miller helped anchor the defense for the United States at the IIHF U18 World Championship (Photo/USA Hockey)

Miller had 7 goals and 17 assists in 50 games. Not bad for a player who switched to defense from forward two seasons ago. He skated for the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF U18 world juniors, scoring a goal and 2 assists in seven games.

Any NHL team that takes Miller could have to wait a few years for him. He begins playing for the University of Wisconsin Badgers and Head Coach Tony Granato this fall.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “Strong skating, puck carrying defenseman who can quickly get the play moving forward. Athletic with excellent potential” – TSN’s Button, who projects Miller to become a Top 4 defenseman. Miller is ranked 24th on TSN’s Top 93.

Jett Woo, Moose Jaw Warriors (Photo/Marc Smith/DiscoverMooseJaw).

JETT WOO, defense, Moose Jaw Warriors, Western Hockey League. Woo is hoping to make history and become the first player of Chinese descent to be chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft.

Defenseman Andong Song became the first Chinese-born player drafted when the New York Islanders chose him in the sixth round in 2015.

Woo may achieve his goal, even though his stock dipped with Central Scouting. The 17-year-old from Winnipeg is ranked the 28th-best North American skater, down from 20th at mid-term.

Rugged Moose Jaw Warriors defenseman Jett Woo wants to be the first player of Chinese descent to be selected in the NHL Draft’s first round (Photo/Marc Smith/DiscoverMooseJaw).

Named after Chinese action film star Jet Li, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound Woo had 9 goals and 16 assists in 44 games last season for Moose Jaw. He scored 2 goals and 1 assist in 14 WHL playoff games last season. He also contributed a goal and an assist for Team Canada at the IIHF U18 world juniors.

“I’m not exactly sure if my dad is a big fan of Jet Li…he might be,” Woo told NHL.com. “I know that’s where my name came from. I know my grandparents liked the name.”

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “Poised defender with above-average speed and a strong understanding of the game” – The Sporting News, which had Woo 56th in its April rankings.

JERMAINE LOEWEN, left wing, Kamloops Blazers, WHL: Loewen, 20, aspires to be the NHL’s second Jamaican-born player. Graeme Townshend – a forward who played for the Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, and Ottawa Senators – was the first.

Kamloops Blazers forward is what most NHL teams covet in a player: size and hands soft enough to score 36 goals last season (Photo/Kamloops Blazers).

Loewen is ranked as the 160th-best North American skater and is projected as a potential late-round pick.  At 6-foot-four, 221-pounds, Loewen was the Blazers’ leading scorer last season with 36 goals and 28 assists in 66 regular season games.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:A raw player player with a huge frame. Plays a very impressive game with good on ice smarts, He can be heavy on his feet, but there is no denying his ability to get the job done. Loewen could turn into a Wayne Simmonds-type player” – ISS Hockey.

Forward Austin Wong hopes to follow his brother, Tyler, into pro hockey.

AUSTIN WONG, center/right wing, Okotoks Oilers, Alberta Junior Hockey League:  Ranked 174th among North American skaters by Central Scouting, Wong was the Oilers fourth-leading scorer last season with 25 goals and 29 assists in 55 AJHL games.

The 5-foot-10, 189-pound 17-year-old from Cochrane, Alberta, Canada, is committed to play Ivy League hockey for Harvard University starting in the 2019-20 season.

Wong’s older brother, right wing Tyler Wong,  played last season for the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League and the Quad City Mallards of the ECHL.

He was an NHL preseason and training camp sensation for the Vegas Golden Knights last September. Tyler Wong scored the first goal in Golden Knights history in an exhibition game against the Vancouver Canucks. He finished the game with a hat trick – three goals.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “A pitbull of a power forward who combines skill and truculence…He gets in on the forecheck and is able to make quick reaction plays that lead to scoring chances around the net,” Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst.

ISAAC NURSE, right wing, Hamilton Bulldogs, OHL:  Yep, another Nurse looking to make it big in hockey. Ranked the 180th-best North American skater, Nurse notched 17 goals and 13 assists in 68 games for Hamilton last season. He added 7 goals and 4 assists in 21 OHL post-season contests.

Unlike cousin Darnell Nurse, a defenseman drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft, Issac Nurse is taking the long road to the NHL. The 19-year-old Hamilton native was initially cut by the Bulldogs and played Canadian Junior B hockey in 2015-16 before rejoining the hometown Bulldogs the next season.

Hamilton Bulldogs forward Isaac Nurse has taken the long path in hockey, a route that he hopes will lead to the NHL (Photo/Aaron Bell/OHL Images).

At 5-foot-10, 174-pounds, Nurse comes from one of Canada’s most competitive athletic families. Sister Sarah Nurse starred at the University of Wisconsin and played for Canada’s women’s hockey team at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Cousin Kia Nurse, Darnell’s sister, is a point guard for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team and played for Canada at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janerio.

Isaac’s father, Roger Nurse, was a star lacrosse player. His uncle, Richard Nurse, was a wide receiver for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. An aunt, Cathy Nurse, was a hoops star at Canada’s McMaster University. And former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb is a relative by marriage.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “He’s hard to play against and he fits into how we want to play…He’s a big part of why this team is where it’s at right now” – Hamilton Bulldogs Head Coach John Gruden.

Kamloops Blazers defenseman Montana Onyebuchi.

MONTANA ONYEBUCHI, defense, Kamloops Blazers, WHL: A physical 6-foot-3, 209-pound blue-liner, Onyebuchi  dropped off Central Scouting’s list after being ranked the 216th-best North American skater at mid-term.

About the name: Onyebuchi’s father hails from Nigeria and moved to Canada following high school.

Onyebuchi, 18, had 4 goals and 13 assists in 62 games for the Blazers and the WHL’s  Everett Silvertips. The Dugald, Manitoba, Canada, native also accumulated a whopping 109 penalty minutes between the two teams. Think 2015 sixth-round draftee Bokondji Imama.

Defenseman Montana Onyebuchi, left, split his last season between the Kamloops Blazers and Everett Silvertips (Photo/Kamloops Blazers).

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: “Onyebuchi is a bit of a wild man who is fearless, yet feared by others. He can definitely fight and be a physical presence, but Onyebuchi is also a powerful skater with a raw skill-set that suggests he has a pro upside” – The Hockey Writers.

Some lower-ranked players may not get their names called in Dallas on Friday or Saturday, but that doesn’t mean NHL teams won’t come calling.

They could be invited to NHL rookie and prospect camps teams hold shortly after the draft. The camps, tryouts of sorts, can lead to NHL or minor league opportunities down the road.

Follow the Color of Hockey on Facebook and Twitter @ColorOfHockey. And download the Color of Hockey podcast from iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud and Google Play.