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Thursday, March 8, 2012
5 Things: You Can Play ads, 2014 Olympics

By Scott Burnside

1. NHL promotes You Can Play

Anyone who spends any time around the game understands there’s a powerful amount of good work that gets done. Each team has its own foundation helping charities in their communities to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars annually. The NHLPA’s Goals & Dreams fund does a remarkable job of helping kids who couldn’t otherwise afford to play hockey get a chance to enjoy the game. But every once in a while you run across something that gives you a special sense of pride at being connected to the game and its people. One of those moments came watching the new public service advertisements promoting the You Can Play initiative that hopes to break down the homophobia that exists in athletics.

You Can Play is the brainchild of Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke -- son of Toronto Maple Leafs president and GM Brian Burke and brother of Brendan Burke, who championed the cause of the gay community in athletics prior to his death in a car accident in early 2010. Brendan Burke told his family that he was gay in 2007 and then came out publicly to the University of Miami Ohio hockey team, for whom he worked as a manager in 2009.

The public service spots, produced by HBO, features top NHL players delivering a simple message: If you have the skills and drive and determination, you can play the game regardless of who you are or what your orientation might be.

Patrick Burke said the idea came to him after sitting in on countless scouting meetings over the years. Invariably when discussing a player someone will ask the simple question: "Can he play?"

“That’s all that matters, can he play,” Burke told ESPN.com.

In memorializing his brother, Patrick thought that simple query was apropos given the path his brother had forged in trying to break down the barriers that often confront the gay community vis-a-vis team sports.

“That line just kind of stuck with me,” he said.

Working with a couple of investors, including Glen Witman and Brian Kitts, who are members of the high-profile GForce Sports organization in Denver, Burke established the You Can Play initiative as a tool for helping to break down homophobia across the athletic landscape. Then he approached the NHL’s 30 GMs about getting some players to help out.

He admitted more than a little nervousness about the response, but all 30 teams committed to supporting the project and then the players contacted were universally supportive.

In all, 35 NHLers have committed to be involved with You Can Play.

“I had a real faith that our guys would step up and they did,” said Burke, who appeared in the first spot with his father talking about Brendan and his efforts to promote understanding and acceptance.

The first of the public service spots appeared on NBC’s national broadcast Sunday and featured New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist, Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell, Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson, former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith of Chicago and defending Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry of Anaheim. Filming of the spots with other players continues, and by next spring Burke said he and the group’s other directors hope to have produced a "playbook" for athletic directors, sports team managers, coaches and others about how to create a safe environment for athletes from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

There are also plans to expand the video PSAs into other sports and broaden the message by employing athletes outside of North America.

Young people look to players like the ones that appear in the ads for cues on how to behave, how to tape their sticks, how to celebrate a goal or a win. And to hear these players talking about treating people with respect and judging them solely on their abilities is key, Burke said.

“That’s when the message gets across,” he said.

Hartnell said he thought the campaign was a “huge step” not just for the NHL but all of athletics, and he said he’s been impressed with the response from the public to the ads.

“We live in a diverse world now,” Hartnell told ESPN.com. “It’s been very positive. I haven’t had one bad thing said to me."

The rough and tumble winger, who is having a career year with the Flyers, said he had no hesitation about doing the spots.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said. “It just shows the quality of the guys there are in the NHL and I’m happy to be one of those guys.”

2. 2014 Sochi Olympics

Lots of pre-Olympic discussion this week as Hockey Canada made the unusual decision to anoint Steve Yzerman executive director of the 2014 Canadian Olympic team two years out from the Sochi tournament -- without even knowing if the NHL will be involved, something that will have to be bargained this summer with the NHLPA.

Still, it got us thinking about what the rosters would look like and specifically how the U.S. defense -- which played extremely well in Vancouver, when the Americans lost the gold medal game in overtime to Canada -- would look dramatically different by the time the 2014 Games rolled around.

Ryan Suter is a lock for 2014 and in our estimation so, too, is Brooks Orpik, given his tough-as-nails approach and the leadership he brings to the table. Orpik’s teammate in Pittsburgh, Paul Martin, was injured for the Vancouver Games but would provide a steadying influence and some veteran leadership along the U.S. blue line.

But there are a handful of young emerging defensemen who will give Brian Burke (assuming he returns as GM) and his management team pause. For instance, hard to imagine a guy like Ryan McDonagh won’t be part of the mix for Team USA given his emergence as a key part of a New York Rangers team that is among the most difficult to play against in the league. Keith Yandle, the slick young defenseman for the Phoenix Coyotes, would appear to be an almost sure bet to be on the team, while Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues has become an integral part of the Blues’ surprising success. John Carlson made his mark on the international stage for the U.S. juniors a few years back and is a mainstay for the Washington Capitals. And how about a guy like Nick Leddy, who has shown great promise since coming over to Chicago? Where will Jake Gardiner, one of Burke’s prized young defensive assets, be in terms of his evolution in two years? Or Justin Faulk, who has matured so quickly along the Carolina blue line? Those young players are going to put a lot of pressure on incumbents like Jack Johnson and Ryan Whitney. If Burke is going to assemble a fast, skilled puck-moving blue line for the big ice in Sochi, it appears he'll have lots of options and lots of hard decisions.

3. Hemsky versus Grabovski

Some folks were wondering why we were so critical of Ales Hemsky's two-year, $10 million deal with the Edmonton Oilers and less skeptical of Mikhail Grabovski's new five-year, $27.5 million pact. Well, it’s really a case of simple math.

First, let’s start by saying it’s a moot point to debate whether anyone who has never scored 30 goals in an NHL season or topped the 60-point plateau is "worth" more than $5 million a year, as is the case with Grabovski.

What is more illuminating is to examine the two teams’ options when it came to these players and what were their relative needs.

The Oilers have a plethora of young talent up front. They are woefully thin on defense. Hemsky, while skilled, has shown nothing to suggest he can play more than 60 or so games per season given his lack of durability, so his two-year deal seems more than a little bloated and a misguided use of resources for a team that appears stuck in a perpetual rebuild. The fact he wanted to stay in Edmonton is a bonus for a team that struggles to attract top players, and he does not have a no-trade or no-movement clause, although one GM told ESPN.com that the $5 million annual cap hit is in effect a no-trade clause, so all in all, his deal remains a curiosity.

As for Grabovski, he is a moderately skilled center on a team with virtually no depth down the middle. Furthermore, what were Toronto’s options if it didn’t sign Grabovski, who could have become an unrestricted free agent on July 1? Even if you thought you could convert Zach Parise to a full-time center, think the Devils’ captain is packing his bags for a team that is on a collision course with missing the playoffs for a seventh straight year? Uh, no. Olli Jokinen? The Flames would like to re-sign the veteran pivot and he’s older than the 28-year-old Grabovski by five years and has shown no signs throughout his career of being a significant difference-maker (he has played in a grand total of six playoff games in his career). Further, Jokinen is likely looking at similar dollars and term given the dearth of quality centers that look to be available July 1.

In short, the Leafs were boxed in. Hard to imagine that Grabovski will ever live up to the expectations created by the contract, but that’s life in this NHL, and all in all, his deal still makes more sense than the Hemsky deal.

4. West Coast math

All five Pacific Division teams, all with a bead on the playoffs with fewer than 20 games to go in the regular season, are in action Thursday night, including the top four teams in the division that are separated by just three points.

With teams like Colorado and Calgary in the mix, it’s possible that in spite of the closeness just the division winner will qualify for the postseason dance. So, how do you handicap the often weak-kneed but nonetheless wooly Pacific?

The problem is that there appears to be few patterns on which to hang your hat.

The Dallas Stars are the current division leader and have shown remarkable resolve in going 7-0-1 in their past eight heading into an interesting showdown with the slumping San Jose Sharks on Thursday. In their seven victories over that period, the Stars have not given up more than two goals in any one game, a testament to rookie head coach Glen Gulutzan’s defensive game plan and the play of netminder Kari Lehtonen. But the Stars have a road-heavy schedule down the stretch with five of their last seven away from the American Airlines Center. Will that prove a tipping point when it comes to deciding the top post in the division and a possible playoff berth?

The Los Angeles Kings likewise appear to be peaking at just the right time, having won four in a row including a big 5-4 win over Nashville on Tuesday. They are in Columbus on Thursday for Jeff Carter's homecoming, but counting Thursday’s game, the Kings face nine of their final 16 games on the road. They close the season on April 7 in San Jose as part of a home-and-home to close things out and one wonders just how important that tilt will be. The Kings have won two in a row on the road but are just 4-4-2 in their past 10 road games and that record won’t get them into the playoffs.

Phoenix, currently second in the division and seventh overall in the conference, remains a mystery. After roaring through February without a single regulation loss, the Coyotes have gone sideways, losing four straight, including two to woeful Columbus. They have been outscored 14-7 in those four games but face another soft touch, in theory, Thursday night with the Wild in town. The Yotes play four of their last six at home and finish with Minnesota on the road, which could be enough to push them into the playoffs for the third straight year.

The most perplexing team of the lot is the San Jose Sharks, who have managed to win just twice in their past 11 outings but still miraculously hold onto the last playoff spot in the conference -- they are tied with L.A. and Colorado in points -- heading into Thursday’s showdown with the Stars in Dallas.

It seems no one in San Jose has a handle on how to arrest this skid, but they could also control their own destiny, which is a meaningful statement only if you’ve got the wherewithal to actually win some games -- something the Sharks seem to have misplaced. The Sharks close out the season with a home-and-home against the Kings, so stay tuned.

Anaheim, meanwhile, remains the ultimate playoff dark horse, sitting six points back of eighth in 12th place heading into Thursday’s tough test in St. Louis. The Ducks have just five more games against division opponents and it’s not a stretch to suggest they will need to run the table in those five games plus keep winning in order to have a shot at the postseason.

Here’s how we figure things to shake down: Dallas on top with Phoenix the only other Pacific Division team to crack the top eight.

5. Avs' moves paying off

There is a pretty small sample to look at with the trade deadline less than two weeks ago, but you have to hand it to Colorado GM Greg Sherman for making moves that have paid immediate dividends, while also looking to bolster his club long-term. Sherman is a bit of an unknown quantity in the hockey world, even though he’s a longtime Avs employee. He was roundly ridiculed for spending a first- and a second-round draft pick on erstwhile Washington netminder Semyon Varlamov. Then he traded an everyday defenseman in Kyle Quincey for agitating forward Steve Downie, and then traded two everyday forwards in Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi to San Jose for Jamie McGinn. From the outside, all of the pre-deadline maneuvering looked a little like shuffling the deck chairs, but Sherman’s plan may just get his squad into the postseason as it has won six of eight with both Downie and McGinn playing significant roles.

Downie has two goals and eight assists and is plus-10 in seven games since joining the Avs. McGinn, buried in the Sharks' offensive depth chart, has three goals and an assist in his first four games in Denver and has scored the game winner in the past two games.