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Anya Battaglino in action. Image by: Courtesy of NWHL.
Meet Anya Battaglino, Connecticut Whales forward and new head of the NWHL Players’ Association. She’s on a mission not just to earn more respect for her fellow athletes, but for women in general.
Anya Battaglino had the job locked up. She was ready for an exciting new role as a tech sales rep in Stamford, Conn.,, but something didn’t quite sit right. Her new employer told her what her salary would be and, in her heart, she knew she had to take a risk and speak up. She asked him if he felt the number offered to her was appropriate and whether a male employee with the same qualifications would earn the same figure. Her frankness may not have landed her the number she truly deserved in the end, but it helped. Her employer listened.
“It did change where I was as the start of the conversation vs. the end of the conversation,” she said.
“That’s what sports gives women.”
It’s a strong-willed, inspirational perspective, befitting a leader of people, and that’s precisely what Battaglino has become. By day, Battaglino holds down that tech sales job, but she moonlights as a forward for the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale, and she was named director of the NWHL Players’ Association earlier this month.
She feels competing as a professional athlete, in North America’s first paying women’s hockey league, has rubbed off on other aspects of her life, made her more confident and willing to stand up for what she knows is right. She sees the value in athletics for all women. She’s realistic in her expectations for women’s salaries in pro sports – she knows they won’t become millionaires overnight, even if they deserve to – but she believes female athletes must respect themselves more. That means, she says, an equipment sponsorship deal should earn NWHL players some money. Speaking engagements should be paid gigs if they aren’t for charitable causes. Women provide just as much value as men in these arenas and deserve to be treated like the role models they are.
“We’re professional athletes, too, and we have that poise to say ‘No, I’m not just going to take your stick for free and give you free marketing,’ “ she said. “Why don’t you give me something or appreciate what I do?’
“It’s the principle. It’s saying, ‘If you pay Zdeno Chara $7,000 to come speak at your engagement, that’s wrong.’ Women have a very different story to tell, and it’s important.”
As you might guess, being named NWHLPA director wasn’t a case of the league and commissioner Dani Rylan searching endlessly for appropriate union heads and prompting teams to nudge candidates forward. No, Battaglino was first in line, volunteering herself. The decision was extremely easy for Rylan to make.
“It was obvious Anya wanted to take over the director role and that it was a perfect position for her,” Rylan said. “She believes in this league, and she understands the business as well as the player side and has always been such a great ambassador for the sport and the players.”
“Always” is right. Battaglino had been gradually growing into the role for years. The seeds were sown during her days attending Boston University and playing for the Terriers. She had no major leadership aspirations at the time but was forced to join a student athlete support group as a freshman walk-on. The happy accident lit a spark.
“I really fell in love with that,” she said. “I like viewing athletes in a position of power, saying, ‘Your kids should meet these people. They are doing something amazing in their own right, and they should be treated that way.’ You start looking at athletes in a different way, as a benefit to the community as opposed to just a part of it.”
Battaglino understood the privilege of playing at the highest level of women’s hockey and how she could stand out as a role model to inspire other young athletes. Before taking over as NWHLPA director, she was already prominent on social media, known for wearing GoPro cameras to document her practices and even providing some color commentary for games. She was a natural fit as player union champion. She also oozes leadership. She speaks loudly, passionately, words dripping with conviction. She has big ideas and a magnetic personality.
"I’m going to be trying to monetize my players’ time and help them to feel they’re valuable. I don't think women’s professional athletes think they are valuable, and that breaks my heart.”
“She is incredibly charismatic, outgoing, and really one of the more kind-hearted people that I’ve encountered over the last couple years on this venture,” Rylan said. “I’m incredibly honored to be working alongside her as we continue to grow as a business and make something special for the players.”
Battaglino never seems to waste a breath when she speaks, every thought she shares seemingly a meaningful quip, and maybe that’s because she actually doesn’t have time for small talk. Her average day is jaw-droppingly busy. It starts at about 5:00 a.m. She catches up on work emails she may have received overnight, as she deals with people from the west coast in her job. She gulps down a quick breakfast and hits the train by 7:00. During that two-hour commute, she dons her NWHLPA hat. She studies where the league’s dollars are allocated. She searches for causes the players can associate themselves with, such as the epically impactful 2017 Women’s March. She hunts for potential sponsorship in companies expressing love for women’s sports. She looks for speaking engagements and other ways in which the league can give back to the community. She explores publicity opportunities through the media. She works tirelessly with Rylan to get the players and league office in more of a dialogue, as Battaglino lists lack of communication within the young organization as a major early hurdle.
Then she arrives at work for her day job at 9:00. At lunch: back on the NWHL beat, where she’ll often hop on a phone call with Rylan. Then it’s work until 5:30, and more NWHL on that train home. Then she has an hour to get ready for her Whale practice at 8:40. She’s home by 10:30 and somehow expected to turn off her brain and sleep. She estimates she gets five hours of shuteye per night. And that might be too optimistic considering Rylan says she’ll sometimes get a text from Battaglino at 4:30 a.m.
So Battaglino clearly puts a lot of sweat into everything she does, and that’s what it will take to get the NWHL to new levels of popularity and the players to earn the living they deserve. Rylan said the league is a full go for Season 3, but sponsorship has remained relatively sparse, and player salaries got slashed by 38 percent this season in the interest of prolonging the league’s life. That’s a devastating number for a circuit in which the minimum pay was $10,000 and top earners Kelli Stack and Amanda Kessel got $25,000 and $26,000.
Battaglino didn’t take the news as a defeat. The day of the salary announcement, she tweeted: “It’s time to roll up our sleeves and prove ourselves now, @NWHL. Hearing ‘No’ never stopped me before…you taught me that.” And she sees a few different ways she can effect change as NWHLPA director. One is to make the sport more appealing to new fans by being more inclusive and inspiring people through sharing personal stories – something that has traditionally been stigmatized on the men’s side of hockey, at least until recently.
“I am very open about mental health awareness, trying to tell people my life hasn’t always been easy, but I have gotten to this great place in my life,” she said. “Making a kid do something like that who doesn't have hope or doesn’t think they can achieve great things, being open and honest about the problems and questions and the hardships, it makes it more relatable. Maybe a little girl read my story and was feeling down on herself, and maybe she brushed it off and went to practice that day, because I know there were times when I couldn’t.”
The natural issue for a PA director to target, likely the first one most of us think of, is player salaries. Battaglino considers herself a realist on the topic. She believes it would take at least a decade for female pro players to earn a full-time living. She doesn’t think she or the other players have reached a juncture where they can give up the separate, often highly fulfilling non-hockey lives they’ve built for themselves. She does, however, see piecemeal ways to earn better pay for NWHLPA players. It starts with proper compensation for equipment sponsorships and public appearances. Rylan says she’s discussed the topic with Battaglino and that they’re working on a platform through which players can book themselves for appearances, youth practices or to be ambassadors for certain brands – and be paid accordingly. Doing so would give the NWHLers some supplementary income while the league continues to grow and hopefully work its way back to the salary benchmarks set in year 1.
“I’m going to be trying to monetize my players’ time and help them to feel they’re valuable,” Battaglino said. “I don't think women’s professional athletes think they are valuable, and that breaks my heart.”
Her words evoke real emotion. The NWHL hasn’t yet achieved solid financial footing, and its existence remains year to year, but it’s now armed with a potent weapon, a player rep bursting with passion and ideas, and that can only help the league’s chances of surviving and thriving. What Battaglino really wants us to understand is that the NWHL and women’s sports in general can’t be treated merely as fun startup projects. They really matter. They have a role to play in the world, and it transcends sports entertainment.
“One of the things I always say is get your girls to play hockey, because it doesn’t change the world you live in, but it changes the amount of confidence you have,” Battaglino said. “Even though you’re getting paid less than the guy who didn't do half as well, it gives you the poise, dignity and confidence to go advocate for yourself, your work, your life.”
One of the Wild’s greatest strengths heading into the final stretch of the season is their depth, and going out and landing Martin Hanzal at the deadline made an already deep Wild team that much deeper.
Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said the acquisition of Martin Hanzal was one that put his teams’ “chips in the middle of the table,” per NHL.com. There really isn’t any other way to look at it after Minnesota anted up and shipped three draft picks — a first in 2017, second in 2018 and conditional selection in 2019 — and Grayson Downing to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for the 30-year-old unrestricted free agent to be. It’s a steep price to pay for what will very likely be a rental player, but the Wild aren’t messing around when it comes to their shot at hoisting the Stanley Cup this season. The willingness to do what was necessary to land Hanzal is proof of that.
Acquiring Hanzal has some clear cut positives for the Wild, of course. At 6-foot-6, 226 pounds, he’s a massive pivot who can play up and down the lineup and provide some offensive punch. He has 16 goals and 26 points across 51 games this season, putting him on pace for the best goal scoring campaign of his career. Minnesota’s scoring depth throughout their lineup was already one of the team’s strong suits, and adding Hanzal only serves to improve that. Being able to match lines and roll all four units can make or break a playoff series, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another team who can match the Wild line for line with the post-season coming.
It’s also a move that’s somewhat reminiscent of a deal made in recent years by arguably the Wild’s top adversary for the Western Conference crown, the Chicago Blackhawks. During the 2014-15 campaign, with Patrick Kane on the shelf, the Blackhawks went out and made waves with a deal that sent a first-round pick to the Coyotes, along with prospect Klas Dahlbeck, for center Antoine Vermette.
The two trades, the Wild’s Hanzal acquisition and Blackhawks’ trade for Vermette, have their differences, to be sure. The biggest is that acquiring Vermette was only possible because Kane was on the shelf with a broken clavicle whereas the Wild are at full strength at the time of their acquisition of Hanzal. That said, the two deals are nearly identical in that acquiring the piece from the Coyotes serves only to add to the depth, and the only real way for either deal to pay off is for the season to end with a Stanley Cup victory. Chicago made that a reality, and now the Wild will seek to do the same.
What the Wild need out of Hanzal is also similar to what the Blackhawks needed out of Vermette. While Hanzal’s aforementioned scoring ability makes him a valuable piece, the fact of the matter is Minnesota needs him primarily for his two-way ability. When Chicago acquired Vermette back in February 2015, they were ninth in the league in goals for and among the best defensive teams, allowing the fourth-fewest goals against. Getting one of the coveted pieces wasn’t something that was supposed to help the offense, but rather one that provided additional depth at a time when it’s at a premium. That’s almost exactly the situation the Wild find themselves in, except Minnesota happens to be slightly better at both ends of the ice.
As of Monday, Minnesota ranks fifth in goals for, potting 195 this season, and the only team that has allowed fewer goals is the league-leading Washington Capitals. A massive part of that has been the play of goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who has to be the frontrunner to win the Vezina Trophy this season. But going hand-in-hand with Dubnyk’s play is that there’s never a time when a unit on the Wild is all that overpowered. Now imagine that same lineup with Hanzal, a veteran two-way pivot who can take heavy defensive zone starts and kill penalties.
This is a team that has gotten so much firepower out of its lineup and one that has seen its offense spread almost equally across all four lines. The Wild boast 10 players with 10 or more goals, and Hanzal is the 11th 10-plus goal guy in the lineup. So while he might add a few goals here or there, he won’t be required to come in and be something he isn’t. He can play tough defensive minutes, skate against top opponents and chip in here or there. If he happens to score, that’s a bonus, but the fact he can also make plays with his body and his stick in the defensive zone will be just as important.
The other underrated element of the deal, one that Fletcher copped to, is that acquiring Hanzal ensures that no other team who could have used him to bolster their middle-six is going to be able to get him now. Per NHL.com, Fletcher said that the Wild’s goal was “to have him play for us and also to keep him away from other teams in the West.”
It’s not easy to work your way to the Stanley Cup final, and in a wide-open Western Conference, this might have been the best year in recent memory where going all-in could carve a team a path through the playoffs. Blocking other Western teams from potentially landing a piece that could have strengthened their roster in time for the post-season is a clever move. Some will call it an overpay, some will call it foolish, but with the position the Wild are in right now, leading the Central Division and tops in the Western Conference, not making a move on Hanzal now may have looked equally foolish down the line if one of the other Western contenders scooped up the pivot and he paid off in the post-season.
According to the Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo, Fletcher said this is a deal that sends a message to both the players and the fans. This is the Wild “taking a swing” and seeing if this can be their year. And with an already stellar roster and a team that’s performing as well as they ever have, adding Hanzal to bolster the depth gives Minnesota a better shot as of Monday than they had on Sunday before the trade. And even if Hanzal isn’t an offensive stud for the Wild, what he does up and down the ice could make all the difference.
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Matthew Tkachuk. Image by: Getty Images
The Calder Trophy race will likely come down to Patrik Laine vs. Auston Matthews, which means in this Year of the Rookie, a lot of really good freshmen will not even be finalists.
There will be one winner and three finalists for the Calder Trophy this season and based on how impressive the rookie crop has been, it all seems inadequate. But hey, these kids are elite athletes and they don’t want your participation ribbons anyway. But for the sake of putting into perspective just how good this year’s Calder race is, I’d like to present you with the top five players who will not win rookie of the year this season.
In order to set this field, let’s first deal with the actual contenders: Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews are your favorites. Zach Werenski, Matt Murray and Mitch Marner are your dark horses, yet all have very nice cases to be made. When us writers fill out our awards ballots, we get five slots to fill out and I would presume this cohort would be on the majority of them (so as you will note, two of these players will be “snubbed” from the announced list of three finalists, even though they probably got a ton of lower-ranking votes).
But who will be the true snubs? My top five:
Matthew Tkachuk, Flames: He’s the heavy on Calgary’s most effective possession line and one of the Flames’ top scorers. Tkachuk’s chemistry with Mikael Backlund and Mikael Frolik has been a great boon for the team and the rookie’s combination of skill, aggression and ability to agitate is unparalleled among his rookie peers. Most other years, he’d be a finalist for sure. Ranks fifth in rookie scoring right now.
Ivan Provorov, Flyers: Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev is the only rookie to average more ice than Provorov and has slightly better stats, but I’m not a psycho: no voter outside of the 416 area code is going to put four Leafs on a ballot. Provorov plays against top lines and averages nearly a minute more of penalty-kill time than Zaitsev, so it’s not exactly tokenism to put him ahead of his Russian countryman. Offensively, he’s only slightly behind Shayne Gostisbehere among Flyers blueliners and offense is Ghost Bear’s thing.
William Nylander, Maple Leafs: As I just mentioned, you can only have so many Leafs on the ballot, but Nylander has compelling arguments for inclusion. He is now Toronto’s best possession forward and has more points than all rookies outside the Big Three forwards Laine, Matthews and Marner. Nylander leads the NHL in power play points among freshmen (which you can take as a positive or a negative – I call it the Dave Andreychuk Gauntlet) and is now playing alongside Matthews, which could increase his numbers. One weakness? He has been shuttled around the lineup by coach Mike Babcock – which is normal for a rookie, but doesn’t help his Calder efforts.
Brandon Carlo, Bruins: As the Bruins ponder life without Zdeno Chara, another tall drink of water with great reach and shutdown ability comes to town. Carlo is playing with ‘Z’ and more than holding his own, playing against top lines and logging lots of minutes. Only Zaitsev and Provorov skate more among rookies. Carlo is also chipping in offensively, with all of his 14 points coming 5-on-5 except for one shorthanded, and he ranks second on the Bruins in penalty-kill time. Boston has the best PK unit in the NHL, to top it off.
Sebastian Aho, Hurricanes: A solid possession player and one of the top scorers on a bad team, Aho is definitely off the radar in terms of Calder buzz, but again; in a regular year he’d at least be in the conversation. Already has his first NHL hat trick and is playing on Carolina’s top line, while logging some penalty-kill time on the league’s second-best unit.
Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene
Avalanche GM Joe Sakic has been chatting with Bruins GM Don Sweeney, but is also following his team on an Eastern road trip as he looks to rebuild his roster.
Since early-December, the Colorado Avalanche have been a fixture in the NHL trade-rumor mill. Mired at the bottom of the overall standings, they need a roster shake-up. GM Joe Sakic could attempt to trade a core player, such as center Matt Duchene or left winger Gabriel Landeskog, in hopes of landing a young, skilled defenseman.
Trade chatter over the past month linked the 24-year-old Landeskog to the Boston Bruins, who need scoring depth at left wing. One rumor had Bruins GM Don Sweeney rejecting Sakic's asking price of a package with promising defenseman Brandon Carlo as the centerpiece.
On Sunday, the Landeskog-to-Boston chatter flared back to life. Fluto Shinzawa of The Boston Globe reports Sakic was spotted chatting with Sweeney in the TD Garden press box during the Bruins 4-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
If the Bruins want Landeskog, Shinzawa believes the price tag is a player, a draft pick and a prospect. Shinzawa thinks Sakic could still insist on Carlo as part of the return.
Terry Frei of The Denver Post reports Sakic was also expected to watch Monday's Beanpot final between Boston University and Harvard. Four Bruins prospects, including promising defenseman Charlie McAvoy, took part in that game.
The Bruins aren't the only team Sakic will follow this week. Frei reports the Avs GM will remain with his club as they swing through Buffalo to meet the Sabres and Carolina to play the Hurricanes. He notes the Hurricanes have considerable depth in young defensemen, including Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Ryan Murphy.
While the Anaheim Ducks aren't on Sakic's current scouting list, they could be another trade possibility for the Avalanche. Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register suggests Landeskog could be a good fit for the Ducks, who lack scoring punch at left wing. Like the Hurricanes, the Ducks are loaded with young blueliners.
While Cam Fowler was the subject of trade rumors earlier this season, Stephens considers him too valuable to the Ducks playoff hopes. Other options include Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour or Josh Manson.
Duchene, meanwhile, might interest the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. On Saturday, Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reported there's talk Penguins GM Jim Rutherford could take a run at acquiring the 26-year-old center, who can also skate on the wing. Kypreos' colleague Elliotte Friedman said Rutherford told him he's willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Rutherford's made blockbuster moves before, including his acquisition of winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015. That deal, however, took place in the offseason, when he had more salary cap space to work with. With Duchene carrying a $6-million annual cap hit through 2018-19, the Penguins pressed for cap space and the Avs' high asking price, that deal could be almost impossible to pull off by the trade deadline.
Kypreos said the Hurricanes could also be in play for Duchene. Sitting 20th in goals-for per game (2.60) and power-play percentage (17.2), they would benefit from adding a proven 30-goal scorer. Along with their depth in good young defensemen, they also have plenty of cap room to take on Duchene's cap hit.
The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch also speculates the Hurricanes could pursue Duchene. He also thinks the Nashville Predators could make a push. Like the Hurricanes and Ducks, they have depth in young defensemen to tempt Sakic.
Garrioch reported Senators GM Pierre Dorion admitted having trade discussions with Sakic. While Dorion didn't say if they talked about Duchene or Landeskog, he said a deal wasn't realistic between the two clubs because the Avs sought too much in return.
St. Louis Blue defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk also remains a hot topic of discussion as the March 1 trade deadline approaches.
Earlier rumors about the 28-year-old rearguard claimed he preferred to be dealt to an Eastern Conference team, preferably in the American Northeast. However, Kypreos said Shattenkirk is open to being dealt to an Eastern Canadian team such the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
Garrioch reports the Leafs, Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning have all made pitches for Shattenkirk. He believes the Bruins are the only club with the ability to sign the blueliner to a long-term deal.
Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star, however, doubts the Leafs will get into the Shattenkirk sweepstakes. He cites the cost of re-signing him (at least $6-million annually), the Leafs unwillingness to part with one of their prized young players, and the eventual cost of re-signing young stars such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Shinzawa notes the Bruins had interest in Shattenkirk at the 2016 NHL draft. Given their depth in promising young defenders, however, they might not be as keen on him as they once were. The cost of re-signing Shattenkirk could also be a sticking point.
Teams with interest in Shattenkirk apparently prefer a “sign-and-trade” scenario, rather than acquire him as a postseason rental. They don't want to part with assets at the trade deadline for a player who could depart in July for free agency.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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