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Former Shark Tommy Wingels thanked by Brian Burke for LGBTQ+ activism

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USATSI

Former Shark Tommy Wingels thanked by Brian Burke for LGBTQ+ activism

Tommy Wingels was a Sharks fan favorite, but his largest contributions to the sports world came in a different kind of arena. As one of the first advisory board members for the You Can Play Project, Wingels spent much of his professional career working to create an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ athletes.

Wingels' participation in the You Can Play Project was prompted by his friendship with Brendan Burke, for whose memory the organization was founded on. Burke was the student-manager of the Miami University hockey team while Wingels played there. Sadly, he died in a February 2010 car accident fewer than three months after he came out as gay to Wingels and his teammates.

The You Can Play Project was established in 2012 and has partnered with the NHL and the NHL Players Association since 2013. Wingels was the Sharks' nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 2012 and the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2013 for his involvement with the organization.

Wingels announced his retirement from hockey after 10 professional seasons on Thursday. On Saturday, Burke's father -- longtime NHL general manager Brian Burke -- congratulated Wingels on his career, and spoke to his great contributions off the ice.

"On the ice, Tommy Wingels will be remembered as an honest, hard-working player who would do anything to help his team win," the elder Burke wrote. "More importantly to the Burke family, we hope the hockey community recognizes Tommy for what he is -- a special person off the ice. 

"... After Brendan's accident in 2010, Tommy remained committed to his friend. Tommy and teammate Andy Miele became the founding donors and first advisory board members of You Can Play, the organization our family co-founded to fight for LGBTQ inclusion in sports. Tommy took his role seriously, speaking out for LGBTQ inclusion both publicly and privately, correcting homophobic language and pushing to make locker rooms everywhere more inclusive.

"... The hockey world is unquestionably a better place today because of Tommy Wingels. We hope other players are inspired by his leadership to use their platforms to be advocates for social justice."

[RELATED: Sharks' Kane named co-head of Hockey Diversity Alliance]

Wingels won't be spending as much time on the ice anymore, but his tremendous impact off of it will be felt for years to come.

Sharks 'very happy' with Ryan Merkley's progress before first pro year

Sharks 'very happy' with Ryan Merkley's progress before first pro year

The Sharks seem somewhat set at the top of the right side of their defensive depth chart, at least for now.

Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are established veterans, with three Norris Trophies and nearly 1,300 NHL points combined. They're also 35 and 30, respectively, in a league that is becoming increasingly youth-driven. The future quickly becomes the present in the salary cap-driven NHL, and contributors on rookie contracts are among the most valuable commodities in the sport.

San Jose arguably had an eye towards that future even before general manager Doug Wilson traded for Karlsson. Nearly three months prior, the Sharks drafted right-handed defenseman Ryan Merkeley with the No. 21 overall pick. Now, just over two years later, Merkley is the team's top prospect entering his first professional season, and the Sharks are "very happy" with his progress.

"He's just a hockey rat who wants to be at the rink, and those are the types of guys we want to work with," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. 

Wilson Jr. said Merkeley's love of the sport stood out before and after the Sharks drafted him in 2018. The Sharks executive noticed Merkeley lingering on the bench at the NHL scouting combine that year, catching up with his peers well after his workout session was completed. Merkley also stuck around in Dallas after he became the first first-round defenseman taken by San Jose in five years, sitting in the team's suite at the American Airlines Center on the draft's second day and chatting with former development coach (and current Sharks assistant) Mike Ricci.

That, combined with Merkley's high-end skill, made the defenseman an easy choice for the Sharks despite concerns about his attitude and defensive game. San Jose drafted Merkley as a 17-year-old, and he would be traded twice in his last two seasons in the OHL. Merkley settled in with the London Knights this past season, scoring a career-high 76 points (15 goals, 61 assists) and leading the Knights to first place in the Western Conference when the season was suspended -- and eventually canceled -- due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wilson Jr. has previously said he felt Merkley made strides on defense, and the Sharks will continue to work with him up close. Whether Merkley starts next season in the NHL or the AHL with the Barracuda, he'll develop under the front office's close watch in San Jose.

"At the draft (in 2018), I think what I was saying was you can't teach Merkley's skill, so that's when you have to really dig in and learn about the kid more to see if he has what it takes to learn, and be coachable, and progress the rest of his game and build that foundation," Wilson Jr. said. "And in our opinion he did, so we're excited to have him part of our future and have him turn pro this year."

[RELATED: What Sharks fans should know about Stanley Cup playoffs]

Merkley will be one to watch whenever the Sharks convene for training camp. San Jose has no right-shooting defenseman signed beyond this season other than Burns and Karlsson, yet it's fair to wonder if the 20-year-old would be better served logging big minutes in all situations for the Barracuda to start his pro career.

No matter which level Merkley begins at next season, the Sharks' future beyond Burns and Karlsson will be here sooner than you think.

2020 NHL playoffs: Everything Sharks fans need to know when tuning in

2020 NHL playoffs: Everything Sharks fans need to know when tuning in

Watching the Stanley Cup playoffs this summer must be a strange experience for Sharks fans.

Sure, it's weird for every hockey fan watching games played in front of empty arenas in the middle of August during a global pandemic. But Sharks fans haven't spent much of the last few years as passive postseason observers, advancing to at least the Western Conference final in two of the four years preceding 2020.

There are plenty of intriguing storylines now that the playoff field has been whittled down to 16 teams. Which should Sharks fans pay attention to? Here's a guide to the postseason for San Jose supporters.

The Villains

Sharks fans' rooting interests in the playoffs can be best described as "Anyone but the Vegas Golden Knights." Not only did San Jose and Vegas square off in the last two postseasons, but the Golden Knights now are coached by former Sharks bench boss Peter DeBoer.

You'd have a difficult time convincing teal diehards to root for Chicago in the first round, considering how many times "Chelsea Dagger" played in the Original Six franchise's Western Conference final sweep of the Sharks a decade ago. But when the alternative is seeing the DeBoer-led Golden Knights march toward a Stanley Cup, Sharks fans have an easy choice.

The Familiar Faces

My colleague in content Brian Witt highlighted some of the biggest former Sharks still playing for a Stanley Cup. Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski -- that's still odd to type -- leads the list, but there are quite a few players who once donned teal who are playing for hockey's ultimate prize.

The Eastern Conference could lead to some difficult rooting choices for Sharks fans, though. It's likely that two of the Philadelphia Flyers (Justin Braun), Tampa Bay Lightning (Barclay Goodrow) and Washington Capitals (Brenden Dillon) will square off, and each player still is looking for their first ring.

[RELATED: How Sharks benefit from Rangers winning NHL draft lottery]

The Jokes

Somewhat surprisingly, the NHL really has leaned into the weirdness of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs being played in two buildings -- Edmonton's Rogers Place and Toronto's Scotiabank Arena -- for audiences watching from their couches. There has been a tribute to the "fans" in attendance, a ban on the wave and even multiple appearances from designated hat throwers when a player scores a hat trick.

The NHL had to postpone a playoff game because Game 1 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets at Scotiabank Arena went to five overtimes. Columbus' official account then tweeted this.

The Sharks had some fun with it, too. Collectively commiserating over the playoffs' fundamental strangeness is going to lead to a lot more over the next couple months, even if San Jose isn't a part of the postseason.