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1 year out, again: Olympic hopefuls gain new appreciation for craft due to postponement –



Sitting idle in the summer at his home in Nova Scotia in the winter of his career, this is unfamiliar territory for Canada’s women’s softball head coach Mark Smith.

For more than four decades, Smith has been travelling the globe in pursuit of softball glory, first as a player and now as a coach. After these Olympics, he’s retiring.

“I’m coaching a wonderful group of women that I could not be prouder of. And if we can get to the Olympics when this pandemic subsides, I can’t think of a better way to close a career,” Smith said.

This summer was meant to be the ultimate final journey for Smith — a trip to Tokyo, leading this country’s softball team into the Games.

“Each morning that I wake up I think about where we would be if the season were actually happening,” Smith said from his backyard just outside Halifax.

“So for example, today we would be finishing up our pre-Olympic preparation and tomorrow we’d be taking the bus down to the Olympic village.”

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Andi Petrillo hosts panel to discuss uncertain Tokyo Games:

CBC Sports’ Andi Petrillo hosts a panel with guests Aaron Brown, Mandy Bujold, Catharine Pendrel, Sean McColl and Ben Titley to discuss life in quarantine, the new lead up to the Olympics, and Rule 50. 24:41

Smith had every day mapped out. And then in early March when the pandemic hit in full force, all of his planning was thrown into disarray.

“On March 2 when we did our fitness testing and we had 89 personal bests, we had to be the fittest softball team in the world, bar none. We were building toward winning a gold medal which is what we believe we’re going to do a year from now. All systems were go,” Smith said.

The system has been shut down. Not just for the 20 women who were embarking on a journey years in the making – softball hasn’t been part of the Olympics since 2008 – but for thousands of athletes around the world.

Team Canada women’s softball head coach Mark Smith, right, and wife Anne Dodge. After dedicating more than four decades to the sport, the Nova Scotia native intends on retiring after this Olympic cycle – but not before, hopefully, one last attempt at glory in Tokyo. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

It’s the universal struggle for high-performers who are wired to go faster and be stronger – now, maybe for the first time in their athletic careers, they must learn how to be still.

Smith told his softball team to take the summer off, an almost unfathomable consideration in preparation for the Olympics. He sees it as hitting the reset button.

“It took a little while for us to get our heads around it and to give ourselves permission to grieve and go through the rollercoaster of emotions you feel when you’ve worked so hard for something and then, through no fault of your own, it’s been taken from you,” Smith said.

But Smith, his team, and so many other Canadian athletes aren’t about to sit around and feel sorry for themselves for too long.

The Games, as of now, are still going ahead starting in July 2021. It’s one-year to go, again.

The softball team plans to come together in September to ramp up training.

WATCH | Canada’s chef de mission discusses logistics of Tokyo 2021:

Canada’s chef de mission for Tokyo discusses Rule 50, the importance of a COVID-19 vaccine and the logistics of a 2021 Olympics. 8:28

For those athletes who have already qualified, which according to the International Olympic Committee is about half of the participants, and those who haven’t, there are still so many unknowns.

Having a specific target is crucial to peaking at exactly the right time — medal performances on the grandest of athletic stages are surely centered around skill and preparation, but also timing.

“When you’re preparing for the Olympics, the week out of the Olympics you want to be the fittest you’ve ever been in your life,” rower Jenny Casson said from Victoria, B.C.

“And on an Olympic day you want to be the fittest you’re ever going to be in your life and that’s what we were tailoring our bodies for.”

Resilient rowers grow in confidence

If Smith is in the last chapter of his career, Casson’s story is just beginning. She’s part of a rowing pairs team alongside Jill Moffatt — a duo that just missed qualifying their spot for Tokyo last year.

Their final hope to make it to the Games hinged on one last-chance qualifier they were feeling massively confident for when everything stopped at the beginning of March.

“I started seeing the writing on the wall and it kind of felt like a weird dream. It happened so quickly,” Moffatt said.

“I don’t really want to sit around and cry about it. I want to move on as quickly as I can and get ready for the next year, but it definitely was hard at first to switch that mindset.”

Rowing teammates Jill Moffatt, left, and Jenny Casson have battled through a vast set of safety protocols in order to return to training on water. (Merijn Soeters/Rowing Canada Aviron)

The two are finally back on the water again, having to endure a rigorous set of protocols just to get their boat on the water at their training facility in Victoria — they have set times they’re allowed to train, they have to sanitize all their equipment (including their boat) and are wearing Team Canada branded masks while doing it.

“At first, when we first heard all the protocols I was like, ‘oh my gosh, how are we going to do this?'” Moffatt said.

“It was a lot easier than anyone thought, and everyone said if we have to do this to get in the water it’s well worth it. And our boats are cleaner than they’ve ever been,” Casson added.

The two are upbeat and saying all the right things, for now. They’re leaning on each other more than ever to stay motivated and focused. Their tolerance for flexibility and adaptability is being tested like never before.

Jill Moffatt, left, and Jenny Casson are working toward a final Tokyo Olympic qualifier in May 2021. (Merijn Soeters/Rowing Canada Aviron)

“Jill is the uplifting positive force, I think. She has this really good saying when we get down, ‘what would your competition want you to be doing?’ That’s the biggest wake up call you can get, because I know my competition would be thrilled if we were moping around,” Casson said.

As it stands right now, the two will get their final chance to qualify for the Olympics next May.

If there’s fear for athletes about how their bodies will respond having been away from the track, off the pitch, or out of the pool for months, at least one Canadian athlete has done this all before and isn’t too worried about it.

Hayden’s experienced long layoffs before

At 36 years old, swimmer Brent Hayden has come out of retirement to make one last push for Olympic glory. He won bronze in the 100-metre Freestyle at the London Games in 2012, stepped away from his sport for seven years, only to decide to return for Tokyo last fall.

He never imagined having an extra year to prepare when he made the decision.

“I don’t think anybody saw this coming. I was giving myself a year to get ready for Tokyo, which I already knew wasn’t going to be a lot of time,” Hayden said from Vancouver.

Hayden had to first earn his spot on the Canadian squad at the trials that were set for April. He was pleasantly surprised at how well his body was performing, having been away from swimming for so long. Age and experience are perhaps allowing him to train smarter and make him faster.

“I was on pace to not only make the team but I think I was on pace to do really well at the Games,” Hayden said. “I was working out a lot in the gym and I’d put on a lot of muscle mass. I had gotten a lot stronger. I think I could actually break my 50-metre Freestyle Canadian record.”

WATCH | Brent Hayden is staging a comeback, and training in his parents’ backyard:

CBC Sports’ Scott Russell spoke with swimmer Brent Hayden, who is training for next year’s Olympics after retiring from the sport in 2012. 3:03

Perhaps that’s what Hayden most wants to share with his fellow Canadian athletes right now: not to panic over lost time. He’s done this all before. Instead of months away from training at the highest level, Hayden was away from it all for years.

He says the body is more resilient than anyone could imagine.

“The fact that my body was able to respond to my training not just from the time off but also at this age, a lot of positives out of that,” he said.

When Hayden left swimming in 2012, he fell out of love with the sport. He was spiraling, depressed and never thought he’d find a way back.

Now he’s here, with an entirely different outlook — one that could lead to a podium performance nine years after stepping off of one in London.

“There’s a pandemic going on and that just makes you realize that there’s more important things in life than sports,” he said. “Deep in my heart this was something that I really wanted to do and I believe anything is possible.”

One year out, athletes once again are eyeing Tokyo. This time with a new appreciation for what they do and what it all means — and in the midst of their journeys, learning about the redemptive power of sport.

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Coach Jon Cooper, Lightning have 'to circle wagons' after losing defenseman Victor Hedman to injury in round-robin finale – ESPN



TORONTO — Tampa Bay Lightning star defenseman Victor Hedman left the team’s round-robin finale Saturday night, after it appeared he twisted his right ankle midway through the first period against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Following the 4-1 loss that secured the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference for the Lightning, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper didn’t have an update on Hedman’s status or how much time he might miss, though he acknowledged his potential loss would create a notable hole in the Lightning’s lineup.

“It’s a little frustrating because we feel like we’re going in the right direction and to lose some of the star power we have,” said Cooper, noting the Lightning are also without captain Steven Stamkos and played Saturday minus Hedman’s defensive partner Jan Rutta. “We’ve got to circle the wagons.”

Hedman went down untouched as he spun around to skate backward at the Tampa Bay blue line with the Flyers’ Tyler Pitlick driving up the right wing. The NHL’s 2017 Norris Trophy winner got up slowly and broke his stick while heading down the tunnel to the locker room.

Stamkos has yet to play after sustaining a lower body injury before the start of training camp last month.

The Lightning, last season’s No. 1 seed in the East, will play either Columbus or Toronto in the first round. The Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs will play a deciding Game 5 on Sunday to conclude the qualifying round.

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Blue Jackets in tough spot after epic collapse: ‘We can’t live in the past’ –



With five minutes left in Friday night’s Game 4 it was all falling into place for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Leading the high-powered Maple Leafs 3-0 in an elimination game, the Blue Jackets had the hub hosts on the ropes and seemed on the way to another huge playoff upset. The hardest part seemed to be in the rear view mirror. Columbus had survived a second period push when the Leafs held an edge in shots (16-13), 5-on-5 scoring chances (7-6) and high danger opportunities (2-0). Toronto’s expected goals percentage at 5-on-5 in the second frame was 65.63, and yet Columbus scored the only goal and were up 2-0 after 40 minutes.

With just under six minutes to go in the third, Boone Jenner scored to increase the lead to three and that should have been what buried the Leafs.

And then history happened.

Watch Sunday’s series-deciding Game 5 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets on Sportsnet and SN NOW. Coverage gets underway at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.

“I just think we obviously sat back,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said the morning after. “It wasn’t what went wrong, we just allowed a team to get some energy off of one goal and just didn’t have that push back we needed. A couple of unfortunate bounces with empty nets and that’s the difference in the game. It’s unfortunate because we played a really good hockey game up until that point.”

Columbus was doing everything they’d hoped. They were frustrating Toronto’s lineup of elite shooters, making it hard for them to get the puck to the middle for the best opportunities. Rookie goalie Elvis Merzlikins, starting his first post-season game after coming on in relief in Game 3, had made 57 consecutive saves without allowing a goal across the two games and had settled right in. Toronto had only five shots in the first 15 minutes of the third period.

At 16:03 of the third and with the goalie pulled for a Hail Mary attempt, William Nylander scored to give the Leafs a glimmer of hope, although that felt like a parcipitation ribbon goal — just happy to not get shutout. Fifty-one seconds later John Tavares scored a beauty under the bar. Now, suddenly, it was a one-goal difference and a comeback could be completed with one lucky bounce, which Toronto got when Pierre-Luc Dubois’ empty net shot was caught in the outside of the net instead of going in. What were the odds of Columbus’ best player in the series missing in that moment?

And of course, Toronto tied it in the final minute, then won it in overtime, becoming the first team in playoff history to blow a three-goal lead and lose one night, then rally from a three-goal deficit to win the next.

Columbus was that close to winning this series and having a few days off until starting their next. Now, they have to regroup in a day and try to fend off the Leafs’ potent — and now re-energized — attack all over again for 60 minutes on Sunday. How does a team recover from being so close to a series win, and blowing it in such shocking fashion?

“Every day is a new opportunity to learn something,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “It’s a tight series. We’ve seen two pretty good comebacks in the last two games. It’s a great series in my opinion. It’s a battle and just have to get ready for Sunday because it’s another one there.

“Nobody expected this to be easy.”

Yes, Toronto was able to rebound from its own blown three-goal lead in Game 3, but it took nothing short of a miracle to pull off. Columbus’ situation is similar, but different in that they had this thing closed out. They had the upset in their hand. They may even have started thinking about the next round a little. And now, very quickly after such a huge letdown, they have to regain a confidence and mindset that brought them so close to an impressive series win.

Unlike Toronto, the Blue Jackets probably don’t have the runway to be second-best for much of Game 5, nor the spread of offensive weapons to pull off the four-minute flurry Toronto just did. Columbus must start Game 5 with the same intensity and team-wide commitment they’ve had throughout. These are pros of course, but that will be the mental challenge on Sunday.

“There’s things you always want back, even in wins,” Foligno said. “You can’t dwell on things. It’s how you respond to adversity that’s going to allow you to have success. Especially in the playoffs. If there’s anything we’ve learned, that’s what makes good teams great in the playoffs — they respond the right way. I have full confidence our team will respond the right way.

“Our group’s resilient…this isn’t going to faze us. There was an upbeat group at breakfast today.”

That resilience will be put to the test, especially if defenceman Zach Werenski is either unable to go, or slowed by injury. Werenski, a huge part of Columbus’ success to this point, did not take a shift in the final half of the third period or at all in OT. Kekalainen had no update on Werenski’s status for Game 5.

With the series on the line for both teams in Sunday’s do-or-die, Toronto would seem to have all the momentum. They were buzzing down the stretch and in overtime, where they held a 14-7 shot advantage, and their best players had an extra jump that wasn’t always there earlier. There’s no excuse for the Leafs to come out flat.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

But Columbus? How do you recover from such a collapse, in an elimination game no less? Comebacks are the theme of this series so it’d be foolhardy to rule them out if they fell behind early, but we’ll get an idea of where this team is at mentally shortly after puck drop when we see what kind of push back they can bring, or if the Leafs are in total control.

It’s hard to think this loss isn’t weighing on the Blue Jackets players today. They’re human after all. There’s got to be a sour taste on Saturday, and somehow they’ve got to put it back together again by tomorrow night.

“The difference is going to be the team that wants it more,” Foligno said about Game 5. “I think you’ve seen both teams at their best of what they bring. For us, I think it’s going to be to try to get to that game faster than them and really that’s the difference in this series.

“We can’t live in the past.”

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Maple Leafs, Blue Jackets must ‘reset’ selves in Game 5 of Cup Qualifiers



With memories of one of the most crushing losses of his NHL career still fresh in his mind, Nick Foligno came down from his hotel room Saturday morning and was greeted with smiles from his Columbus Blue Jackets teammates.

The captain would not have expected anything different.

Less than 12 hours earlier, Columbus had blown a late three-goal lead in historic fashion and lost 4-3 in overtime to the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4 of the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Instead of wallowing in the frustration of missing a chance to eliminate Toronto, the Blue Jackets, the No. 9 seed in the Eastern Conference, have set their sights on taking advantage of their second chance to finish off the Maple Leafs, the No. 8 seed in the East, in Game 5 on Sunday in Toronto, the conference hub city (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS, FS-O).

“This isn’t going to faze us,” Foligno said. “You know, there was an upbeat group at breakfast today, and we know we have a great opportunity in front of us. So we’re not going to let that go to waste just because it’s something that went wrong in one game.

“I mean, this is going to be how it’s going to probably go all playoff long. There’s things that are going to go wrong, and it’s how you respond and how you get ready for the next shift or the next game.”

To the forward’s point, the key to winning this series could be handling the emotions of Friday and approaching the series finale as a win-or-go-home game.

For the Blue Jackets, that means not getting too low after becoming the first team to lose a potential series-ending NHL postseason game after leading by three goals with less than four minutes remaining in the third period.

For the Maple Leafs, it means not getting overconfident and thinking the series has shifted in their favor.

It’s a message Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe has been drilling into his players.

Keefe understands the euphoria of such a rousing win can’t simply be siphoned out of the Toronto dressing room. The raw joy he witnessed from his players after the game was at a level he’d never experienced since replacing Mike Babcock on Nov. 20.

Those emotions are real, they’re tangible, and they can be used as motivation in Game 5. But only if they are tempered, Keefe said.

“[The win] was a huge boost for us,” Keefe said Saturday. “It gives us great positive momentum. The enjoyment that I saw from our team is beyond anything I’ve seen from us. The moment reflected that.

“But while we have to bring that momentum forward with us, we have to realize that this is a new game and we have to have a better start than we did yesterday. And we have to recognize the opposition is going to reset themselves. Both teams are going to leave it all out there tomorrow.”

Video: TOR@CBJ, Gm4: Maple Leafs stage comeback, win in OT

It looked as if Toronto’s season was over when defenseman Morgan Rielly was stripped of the puck at his own blue line, leading to Boone Jenner‘s goal at 14:18 of the third period that gave Columbus a 3-0 lead. The image of a devastated Rielly, hunched over with a pained look on his face after the goal, appeared to be the symbol of a team that had once again seemingly underachieved in the eyes of their fans.

But a goal by Maple Leafs forward William Nylander at 16:03 ignited the stirring comeback. John Tavares followed with a goal at 16:54, and Zach Hyman forced overtime with 23 seconds left.

Auston Matthews scored on the power play at 13:10 of overtime to complete the comeback.

Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner, who had three assists, said the excitement made it difficult to sleep Friday night. “The adrenaline does keep you up a little bit,” he said.

Marner said he and his teammates are taking a pragmatic approach to Game 5 and that the lessons they learned from the experience will go a long way.

“We have to play smart with the puck,” he said. “We know their chances are coming off the turnovers we’re giving them on the odd-man rushes the other way. For our team I think doing well in our D-zone, staying tight, staying five-man …

“We can’t beat ourselves. We have to play the way we want to, forecheck fast, being physical on that first touch and getting to the net.”

For the most part, the Blue Jackets’ top defense pair of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski has done an admirable job of slowing down the Marner-Matthews-Hyman line, which has 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in the series. But Werenski left Game 4 at 9:08 of the third third period, and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen had no update Saturday.

As part of the NHL Return to Play Plan, a team is not permitted to disclose player injury or illness information.

The winner will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the No. 7 seed from the East and face the Tampa Bay Lightning, the No. 2 seed, in the first round.

The loser of Game 5 will home dreaming of what might have been and have a 12.5 percent chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery on Monday.

With or without Werenski, Kekalainen was asked how the Blue Jackets will regroup.

“Just getting ready for Game 5,” he said. “I mean, nobody expected this to be easy.”

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