Golden Homecoming for Maryland’s Haley Skarupa

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Haley Skarupa/ Photo by Jen Conway (@NHLHistorygirl)

The US Women’s National Team has been on a non-stop media tour since winning the country’s first gold medal in 20 years. For defender Haley Skarupa, she says that it started to hit her of this accomplishment on the flight back to the US.

“I was thinking about it from our flight back from Korea,” Skarupa remembered during media availability Saturday night in Annapolis. “It was the first time it started to sink in that, ‘Wow, we’re going back to the United States bringing our country a gold medal.’ You can’t put words to that experience. You’re kinda going non-stop, but it’s good.”

The Rockville, Maryland native played in all five games for the US, though she did not register a point during the tournament, helped the defense for the US keep a co-tournament low of five goals against during the Olympics. Saturday night at the NHL Stadium Series game in Annapolis was a sort of homecoming for Skarupa, who was a Capitals fan when she was growing up.

“It’s awesome to come back here,” said Skarupa. “I was going to come back and watch this game regardless with my family and friends, but it’s awesome to come back here with my teammates and bring home a gold medal and show it to my family and friends.”

One of the last moments of the celebration of the gold medal was the fact that two flags were on the ice were the USA flag and the flag of Maryland. It was brought on the ice by Skarupa’s former teammates from the Washington Pride.

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Kelly Sherman, Haley Skarupa, and Kat Mackey/ Photo by Kush Sidhu

“Two of my best friends (Kelly Sherman and Kat Mackey) literally flew in the day before the game,” Skarupa said. “I didn’t know they brought the flag– it was so dang cool to see that. I brought it down, took a picture with it and it was so crazy to bring a piece of home out there with me. I love the flag it’s great. It’s so much cooler than all the other ones.”

While Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic is without a professional women’s team, the game has been growing in the girls’ ranks. Ranging from U12 to U19, the DC, Maryland, and Virginia (AKA the DMV) area has been starting to grow with the influx of girls picking up the sport– something that may rise from the USA winning gold.

“The sport has come a long way in this area,” explained Skarupa. “It used to be you play boys’ hockey until you’re in high school. Nowadays, there’s so many girls’ teams in the area. At the clinic, there was over 200 girls register from the DMV area. It’s awesome and really exciting. To see how far it’s come since I’ve been playing has been really incredible.”

Despite not playing on a girls’ team until she was in her teens, Skarupa relished the challenge of playing on the boys’ roster. It’s something she said that was fairly invaluable to her development to where she is today.

“I loved playing against the boys,” remember Skarupa. “They challenge you, they’re aggressive, and they’re ruthless. I played until I was 12 against the boys and then my brother and his friends out in the driveway. Getting beat up by the boys really helps you in the long run. Getting to prove the boys wrong is a good feelings.”

The Rockville native doesn’t forget her roots. She said she had numerous people coming up to here this week from people who went to pre-school with her to old teachers from Wooten High School. She also credits former Capital Jeff Halpern (and to an extent his Astro Donuts store) for helping her on her way to development.

“Jeff Halpern helped me throughout my career,” mentioned Skarupa. “We both skated through the same power-skating coach, Wendy Marco and Cold Rush and he became a coach there. Skating with him helped push me, too. He’s a great role model for this area with his success and how he gives back to the community.”

While she is riding high now, Skarupa is also taking the future into account with a clearer head. She said that she’s taking it one day at a time and while there’s not a team there and Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis hasn’t talked to her about one coming through– she believes the area should be rewarded with a professional team sooner rather than later.

“In the future, women’s pro hockey should expand to this area,” according to Skarupa. “With all the girls that play here and all the interest, there’s a huge opportunity for women’s hockey in this area.”

On the Topic Of the NHL/Olympics Squabble

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First– I agree with everything Gary Bettman says about the Olympics and despite the possible money that could come from any kind of marketing of the NHL in China– it may not be worth it.

….thanks for reading….

Okay, there’s more to it, but needed to get that opinion out there.

Bettman, who said that he’s not sure that the NHL will go to the 2022 Games because it’s disrupting to the league, was at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference when he took this stand/had this take. And in all honesty– why would the NHL want to go back if the cost is wholly on the shoulders of the league for things they can’t market after the fact– like the Golden Goal by Sidney Crosby in Vancouver.

More over, why would the IIHF want the NHL to be there when you see these Games, see who’s had a shocking run at it, and see the potential growth across the world from non-NHL players who are taking part of this and giving hope to their nations?? We know why the IIHF wants the NHL to be there, the same as the IOC– money. All the money. But honestly, while this hockey hasn’t been up to snuff like the last 20 years has been since the NHL took over the Olympics– it’s the way that it should be for the time being.

If we’re not going to play these as the World Juniors every four years, why not make the Olympics as NHL-free as possible?? You can debate that the best players in the world should be at the biggest tournament in the world– but there’s many people who skip out on the yearly World Championships after the season because they’re worn out or because they’re still playing in the NHL. They don’t seem to be too concerned with the WORLD HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIPS when they’re still in the playoffs…but whatever.

Not only that, but you don’t think more teams will stress the idea of a National team playing the entire season leading up to the Olympics like they did in the old days?? Canada was big on that, same with Russia, the US had their team going around– it was a good thing for these guys to play in exhibitions around their countries and partake in pre-Olympic tournaments to tune up. Hell, take the lead from the Women’s teams who take off a year from the pros to train with their teammates in preparation.

Hockey fans have been pampered with the best players in the world playing in the Olympics and God love them for actually being this passionate over it. But you know what, maybe it’s time for a change to see how the people adapt to life without the NHLers there. If you not want to watch the NHL in protest and watch only Olympic hockey– you’re right to do so, but why not both?? Why does hockey have to be exclusive to one platform and not all the platforms?? It makes no sense to me, but not a lot makes sense to me anymore.

Good on the NHL for not going, good for the Nations to do without the NHLers and create more stories and narratives, and good on fans for watching this hockey that is out of the ordinary of the caliber they’re used to at the Olympics for the past two decades.

Maybe it’s time to get used to that, as well.

Blame Development, Not NHL, for Team USA Shortcomings

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Photo via USA Hockey’s Website

The Olympics are going on and there’s hockey in those Olympics, but the NHL isn’t there, so people are split. There’s some who are going to watch the hockey because it’s hockey, there’s some who will watch out of spite to the NHL, there’s some who won’t watch at all because of the time difference.

However, with the 4-0 loss by the USA to the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR), some people seem to quickly blame the NHL for the shortcomings of what USA Hockey is doing. One of those people is Alex Kirshner of SB Nation who suggested that NHL should be at fault for pretty much screwing over the USA and Canadian Olympic teams. Kirshner said while the NHL was right to not attend the games because of the CBA, it’s a short-term decision to worry about the league rather than worldwide appeal…though it still hasn’t gotten that from the past couple games and the IOC is hellbent on keeping the property to themselves rather than let the NHL have highlights to show and promote the game, but that’s another story entirely.

Kirshner suggests that because USA Hockey has all their talent in the NHL, the team didn’t have a chance because other countries have players are playing high level overseas and the USA has someone like Chris Bourque (undersized), Brian Gionta (undersized and old), Matt Gilroy (good in college, meh elsewhere) and college players, who in the past wouldn’t have made the team if the NHL was around (Troy Terry, Jordan Greenway).

But how is any of this on the NHL?? USA Hockey seems to have an underlying mantra of “NHL or Bust” when their players are in their system. The USA Hockey side of things preach development through the youth leagues, into college or juniors, then into the NHL. Doesn’t seem like much is made about the professional leagues in Europe being just as good indicators of talent for players– but something that seems to be often overlooked by the players and the heads of USA Hockey. When you only focus on the NHL as the end goal rather than elsewhere, the players are going to take that to heart.

Other nations don’t seem to have that issues. As pointed out by Kirshner, Russia had nine players in the last Olympics from the KHL and other nations need to fill the roster with other leagues when they don’t have enough NHL talent. (If you want to have NHL talent in international competition, then you need to support the farce of a tournament that is the World Cup of Hockey.)

My point is that when you only focus on the NHL while not giving any acknowledgement about how much an experience the leagues overseas could be for some players, then you are selling your players and your organization short when it comes to something like this. There’s a reason why a lot of European teams were ranked highly to win Gold, because they have a focus outside of the NHL that not many countries have. Canada has a little bit of that in going to tournaments like the Spengler Cup, but Hockey Canada is just as much to blame if they falter for not showing off the European leagues as a destination and focusing mainly on the NHL for their talent as the pinnacle of sport.

Given they all came together a short time again (unlike years where they had traveling National teams for a year-plus before the games), they have played alright given the situation they’ve been thrown into. It’s almost a reason for nations to not want to have the NHL there anymore because then they can actually gauge how successful their amateur development has been. If you just heavily rely on the Golden Goose to produce for you, you get complacent and then panic when it’s not longer shooting out gold bars.

UND Sophomore Hoff Named to Team Norway

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When his phone rang at 6:30am Wednesday morning, Ludvig Hoff was still asleep, trying to get ready for a day of classes ahead. Little did he know that on the other line would be news that would make him the “Man of the Hour” today at University of North Dakota’s athletics weekly press conference after his announcement as part of Norway’s Olympic hockey team.  With this, Hoff becomes the first European-born player from UND’s men’s program to play in the Olympics (Bob DePiero played for Italy in 1984, but was born in Thunder Bay, ON).

“It was actually my mom who called me and told me,” said Hoff during the press conference. “She was watching the sports channel back home and told me I made the team. She was crying a little bit. It was good news to wake up to.”

With two goals and six assists in 19 games, his stats haven’t been overwhelming, but Hoff’s intangibles have made him noticeable for the Fighting Hawks. There were some rumblings that as the time drew near, he’d have a good shot of making the team even though he wasn’t aiming for it.

“I was a little surprised,” confessed Hoff. “Obviously, I’m very honored and it’s a dream come true. I don’t think I’ve really processed the whole thing yet. It’s obviously been a goal my whole life, but it wasn’t even on my mind for this season. I was more focused on hockey here (at UND).”

There is a lineage to this, as Ludvig’s father Geir Hoff played in two Olympics for Norway in 1992 in Albertville and 1994 in Lillehammer. Geir also took a different route than most Norwegians by coming to North America to play college hockey, as Geir played two seasons at Michigan State before returning to Norway and being a part of five Norwegian Championship teams.

“I grew up watching and my dad was in it, so he’s told me stories about it,” mentioned Hoff. “It’s something that means a lot to me. It’s nice to see how many people care and getting congratulations from everyone.”

This isn’t the first time Hoff is part of the National team, as he captained two U-20 Division 1 squads for Norway in 2015 and 2016, while also taking part in the U-18 tournaments as an alternate captain. Yet, when he went to a tryout camp last month, he did have some nerves in going.

“When I was at the tryout camps over Christmas break, the guys took me in with open arms,” Hoff mentioned. “They understood I was nervous, but they made it easy to be there.”

“Very excited for him,” said head coach Brad Berry. “It’s one of those things growing up as a boy in your home country, it’s one of those things you strive to play for your National team. To play on the Olympic stage is the ultimate goal, I guess. You always have hesitation with a player leaving who could be at risk of injury, but we’ve seen from players going to the World Juniors that you always get a better player back. It’s the hope he’ll get experience and confidence and we’ll get a better player back.”

Coach Berry did say there’s ironing out of details with academics and all of that, but Berry is confident those will be hammered down and he’ll be back sooner rather than later. The thought is that Hoff will leave after the bye-weekend on February 4th to get ready for Norway’s first game on February 15th against Sweden.

TEPID TAKE: Olympic Rosters What They Should Be

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You can bitch and moan about the Olympic rosters not giving you what you want out of a hockey tournament– but to be honest, it’s exactly what it should be, if not a little too pro for the “amateur” Games. In fact, the stories of redemption in these rosters are exactly what the Olympics and Olympic hockey needs.

This is coming from the whole host of “Who’s this guy??” and “There’s where he went??” sentiments when Canada unveiled their Olympic roster on Thursday. There was a bit of that coming from the US roster reveal earlier in the month, but Canada has a better ratio of those questions per hockey capita.

But people became spoiled with the NHL. It came at a very formidable time for fans in the late ’90s when the NHL was becoming a hotter property than it had been in the past. People had grown accustomed to having their favorite team go on hiatus and cheering for a rival player because they played for the same country you lived in. Those people are also the ones who loved “Miracle” and don’t realize that they’re kind of seeing that some thing play out here in a more “Bull Durham” aspect.

For me, these rosters and the stories that can be made from them are what will actually make me keep track of Olympic hockey. Not the NHLers, these guys who had tasted from the NHL fountain only to be told their not good enough and had to make their own path elsewhere. A good redemption story is one not to be overlooked. For guys who haven’t had things go their way– this is the perfect situation for them to actually go their way. These guys will take even more pride in wearing their countries colors because of the fact they won’t get to wear them otherwise due to the NHL players taking those spots most likely in the World Championships. Why are people worried about other guys not having a moment when they want to selfishly give it to an NHL who will have plenty of moments domestically and internationally.

Listen– the NHL will be back to the Olympics in 2022. The IIHF wants it, the NHL wants it, begrudgingly– the IOC wants it. It’ll happen because that’s how sports work now– it’s a business rather than a game. To have NHL players play in an untapped market of China would do gangbusters for everyone….should everyone want to play nicely and give-and-take as needed.

That said– let these guys have the moment. Watch, either live or on tape-delay, go in with an open mind, and appreciate the stories these guys are creating and what they’ll be able to tell their friends and family of the experience. While they are still pros, this is the true Olympic story of underdogs, redemption, pure love of the sport– which means playing wherever you get the chance to play.

Olympic Hope Adds to Already Amazing Tournament at Spengler Cup

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One of my favorite tournaments of the holiday season is the Spengler Cup. I’ve stumped for this tournament many times, not just because Vaillant Arena is a stunning site for the eyes, but also due to it being a land of, “Oh, that’s where that guy went.” The 2017 event has even more appeal to it, as there will be another national team aside from Canada to be featured right before the Olympics this year.

First, a bit of a history. The tournament itself is an invitation-only tournament hosted by HC Davos and created by Dr. Carl Spengler to help promote German-speaking European hockey clubs back in 1923. It was a way for those who felt ostracized after World War I to have place to play and have a communal feeling. Two teams who are constant are obviously HC Davos, but also Team Canada– which is a group of Canadian players who play over in Europe and are released by their minor league or college clubs to play in this event. Canada has been given an invite since 1984; while the other teams are filled out by other national teams and European club teams.

With this installment of the Spengler Cup, Canada’s team will have a last rehearsal for players want to represent the nation in the 2018 Games in South Korea. While there are plenty of former NHL players who play in Europe on the roster, it also has three players from the AHL (Jeff Schultz, Cody Goloubef, and Christian Thomas), as well as four players from the NCAA (Brandon Hickey, Jake Evans, Jeremy Davies, and Dylan Sikura). With five players back from last years championship team (Mason Raymond, Nick Spaling, Maxim Noreau, Andrew Ebbett, and David MacIntrye); the Canadians should continue to be a favorite in this event.

However, Canada isn’t the only team who’s scouting their Olympic roster as Switzerland will be fielding a team ahead of the Olympics. Some names that NHL fans may know include Damian Brunner, Tobias Stephan, and Raphael Diaz; but start to learn about goalie Leonardo Genoni. Genoni has had a history with the Spengler Cup with HC Davos, but it’s been one of hot and cold spells in this week long tournament. With the Swiss paired against Canada, South Korea, and the Czech Republic; taking on Canada and the other participants in the Spengler could give them a gauge on what they would need in order to have success in Olympics. A notable omission is goalie Jonas Hiller, who played in the Karjala Cup in November, but is not on this roster.

HC Davos, Canada, and Switzerland will be joined by Dinamo Riga of Latvia and the KHL, Mountfield HK of Czech Republic, and finally HPK Hameenlinna of Finland. There are times where teams will loan out players for this event– which HC Davos is taking advantage of with getting Jeremy Morin from SC Bern, Tomi Sallinin from Kloten, and Samuel Lofquist from EHC Biel. For Dinamo Riga, the likes of Danny Kristo, Karl Stollery, and Nikolai Zherdev are on their KHL squad and will most likely be at this tournament. Former King and Panther Jaroslav Bednar captains the Mountfield team, while Hameenlinna boost a young squad of players including former Bruins prospect Mikko Lehtonen.

It’s a quick and fun tournament that doesn’t get enough play in the US, even if there’s a US team in it like was the case with the Rochester Americans a few years back. If you’re in Canada, you can catch the action on the TSN family of networks; but in the US– good luck finding a totally legal stream of the event.