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Saturday Sports: Stanley Cup, remembering Willie Mays

DON GONYEA, HOST:

It's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GONYEA: The Stanley Cup finals - an epic Oilers comeback. Major League Baseball pays tribute to the Negro Leagues, and Katie Ledecky dominates ahead of the Paris Olympics. Michele Steele of ESPN joins us now. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE STEELE: Howdy, Don.

GONYEA: So let's start with hockey. The Edmonton Oilers beat the Florida Panthers last night 5-1, to force the Stanley Cup finals into a winner-take-all Game 7. So, Michele, just nine days ago, the Oilers were just up against it. They were down three games to none in the series. What changed?

STEELE: Yeah, well, I'm going to sum this up from the Panthers' point of view first, Don, and to state it succinctly, it's uh-oh.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: OK.

STEELE: The Panthers have gone from being up three games to none in this series, just one win away - just one win away - from the first Stanley Cup in team history to now one loss away from one of the biggest choke jobs in sports, and here's some expert analysis from me on hockey. Goaltending - really important. Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who's widely considered one of the best goalies in the league - he's given up 12 goals in the last three games, and as we know, all of those games were losses to Edmonton. Now, on the other side, let's talk about Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner. You know, even Edmonton fans were worried about him a little bit in this series. You know, he's a hometown kid, born and raised in Edmonton - no pressure, guy - but boy, has he stepped up his play at just the right time. And Don, here's a stat for Game 7 to watch Monday night. Stuart Skinner is 5-0 in elimination games in the NHL playoffs this year. He is looking to make that 6-0 come Monday night. I think the Oilers have the Panthers exactly where they want them.

GONYEA: OK, there's another angle on this I want to look at, though. The Panthers and the Oilers play their home games more than 2,500 miles apart, so - and how - everybody's got to travel. How's the travel affecting the players? And look, you and I both know a lot of reporters who cover this kind of stuff. I'm sure none of them are complaining about this.

STEELE: Oh, yeah. When you cover elections and campaigns, you know what it's like to get on those flights early in the morning and have one or two layovers before you reach your destination. Well, the players - they get to fly direct, but guess what? They don't like it, either. Connor McDavid, with the Oilers, of course - he's their best player - he characterized it as a not very enjoyable flight, even with the video games, even with the napping. They've had to do that a number of times so far in this series, but Oilers flights of late have been much more enjoyable, I think, than Panthers flights.

I mean, think about it - you know, if you played sports, you had that long bus ride home after a team loss, and those aren't easy. The Panthers have had to do that seven-hour flight no fewer than three times over the last nine, 10 days or so. I know some people who are covering this series. They have to fly commercial. They're not flying direct, and I'm so happy that my colleagues get to fly home after Monday night, because it is not easy.

GONYEA: OK, let's go to baseball. Thursday, the San Francisco Giants played the St. Louis Cardinals at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala. That's the oldest existing professional stadium in the country. It's also where the Black Barons of the Negro Leagues used to play. What struck you about that event?

STEELE: Yeah, well, you know, the only reason the Negro Leagues existed in the first place - let's set the table here - is because of racism and discrimination. They were not allowed to play in the bigs, and that point was hammered home, I thought, in a very strong way, in a very impactful way, by the great Reggie Jackson, Mr. October, who was on the pregame show. He played in the minor leagues in the late 1960s. He played at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, and Alex Rodriguez asked him, you know, what were his emotions like coming back to Rickwood, and Jackson said what he had experienced back then as a player - not being able to eat in certain restaurants, not being able to stay in hotels with the rest of the team or even stay with teammates without being physically threatened - the trauma has stayed with him to this day. It was an important moment, a compelling one - shameful, but a truthful part of our history, Don.

GONYEA: Willie Mays passed away this week, used to be a Black Baron player. Just quickly, he was honored - had to be honored, right?

STEELE: Yeah, and Michael Mays, Willie's son, had said at the game his father had found another way to be here, and he told the crowd, let him hear you. He's listening. And boy, was that an emotional moment because the crowd erupted in cheers at that point.

GONYEA: Just a couple seconds. Katie Ledecky - no surprise, right? - dominant again.

STEELE: Dominant at the preliminaries, the qualifiers, for the U.S. Olympic trials. She won her 1,500-meter freestyle, Don, by a full 20 seconds to kill, so by the time she got to the end of the pool, she took off her swim cap, took off her goggles, hung out, checked the jumbotron - did everything but check her Instagram, I think...

GONYEA: All right.

STEELE: ...While waiting for the runner-up, so expect more golds.

GONYEA: We got to run, Michele. Michele Steele of ESPN, thank you, thank you, thank you.

STEELE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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