You talk to some people involved in women’s hockey and they’ll tell you that there are huge changes coming to the National Women’s Hockey League. Really positive changes around being more organized, accountable, transparent and professional. And apparently, there are still people willing to sign cheques to try to make that happen, even after the complete debacle that was the 2020-21 NWHL’s non-bubble non-season.
And that’s great, but you have to wonder if the damage that has been done over the past couple of weeks is irreparable. You hope it isn’t, but it might be. Considering all that has transpired since the league launched in Lake Placid 11 days ago, you’d have to think there are fans (and potential sponsors) who are so turned off that they feel this league can’t fold soon enough, paving the way for the NHL to save it. That might be the only answer here.
We do know this. The 2020-21 NWHL season and playoffs in Lake Placid was an enormous opportunity for this league to make strides and capture the hearts and minds of casual sports fans. And it failed. Miserably. The two semifinals Thursday night and the final Friday night were to be televised nationally on the NBC Sports Network, which would have given the league a level of exposure never seen before. But in the space of 11 days, the league waffled on its ties to a misogynistic website, then had to send a team home (the Metropolitan Riveters) because of a COVID outbreak, then saw another team (the Connecticut Whale) leave because of fears of COVID, then had to shut the entire season down because of a further outbreak.
We also know this. These things did not happen in the WNBA, a league that successfully completed its bubble season in October. Nor did they happen in the National Women’s Soccer League, which survived having a team drop out before it became the first pro league to complete its season in July. The NWSL, in fact, got record TV ratings, attracted new sponsors and announced a Los Angeles expansion team backed by actor Natalie Portman.
And what was the difference between what the NWHL did and what their basketball and soccer counterparts did? Well, the WNBA and NWSL had a strict protocols and bubbles that were enforced. The NWHL sort of had a bubble that it talked about, then kind of followed, but not really. When the league announced its format, it clearly used the word ‘bubble’ to describe the set-up. But when commissioner Tyler Tumminia spoke about it Wednesday night, she suddenly started using the term, ‘restrictive access environment’.
Well, you’re either in a bubble or you’re not. And the NWHL was anything but a bubble. Players from some of the teams did not arrive at the same time in Lake Placid. Teams were allowed to bring players into the bubble after the tournament began. There were reports that, despite the fact players were supposed to be restricted to the rink and the team hotel, some players were seen walking around the town. The league will take some time to contact trace and determine where things went wrong, but it’s pretty clear the protocols weren’t near tight enough, nor did everyone involved follow them. And that was where everything broke down.
And because of that, the NWHL is wondering what might have been rather than taking advantage of an enormous opportunity. There were teams that followed the protocols religiously and there were others that were less vigilant. What was supposed to be a bubble was actually a ‘restrictive access environment’ and if people from the NWHL had taken time to get input from the successful leagues, they would have quickly realized there was no way they were giving themselves a chance to be successful without an air-tight bubble.
“I think hindsight is always 20-20 in anything that anyone does,” said NWHL Players’ Association director Anya Packer. Yeah, but you know what is also 20-20? Foresight, that’s what. And as one person pointed out, it’s a lot easier to get someone to comply with a strict bubble when hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars are on the line. But what leverage do you have with an athlete who makes $7,000 a year?
Until last season, the NWHL was known as a single-entity league, which basically means all the teams in the league were owned by one group, in this case, a group called Women’s Hockey Partners. The ECHL started the same way in the 1980s and it has done pretty well. That model changed when a group of investors called BTM partners purchased the Boston Pride and launched the expansion Toronto Six team. In October, the league underwent a major restructuring, replacing commissioner Dani Rylan with Tumminia and establishing a league constitution and by-laws that had not existed and installed a board of governors for the first time. With the folding of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the emergence of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, which is home to the majority of the elite international players, the game is fractured in a way it never has been before. These are major growing pains. The only problem is over the past little while, the women’s game has seen the pains without the growth.
“We’re really more of a teenager than a fully formed adult,” said John Boynton, the top investor in the league whose wife, Johanna, is owner of the Toronto Six. “But we’ve got good parents and we’re on a good path. I’m confident that we’re going to get there, but it’s going to take some time.”
After what transpired over the past 11 days, the NWHL can only hope it’s not too late for this troubled teenager to get it’s life back on the right track.
Blue Jays squander another good start from Gausman as offence held in check again – Sportsnet.ca
TORONTO – This is a time for the Toronto Blue Jays to get greedy and to do that, first they’re going to have to continue the process of getting themselves right.
Settling for two of three against the similarly wayward Seattle Mariners after Wednesday night’s 5-1 loss isn’t ideal, but the dreadful Cincinnati Reds are due for a visit beginning Friday, so the opportunity to bank some wins on the current homestand is still at hand.
Capitalizing on that, of course, is easier said than done and the Blue Jays offence is still scattershot enough that nothing can be taken for granted. No one is doing consistent damage and while general manager Ross Atkins before the game went to great lengths to cap-tip the calibre of pitching his team has faced, this lineup was supposed to give even elite arm fits.
Find-a-way nights like Tuesday’s 3-0 win against the BB-throwing Logan Gilbert need to be a more regular occurrence, and against crafty left-hander Marco Gonzales on Wednesday, all they eked out was a measly Vladimir Guerrero Jr. bases-loaded walk.
Now, that walk was good process, part of Guerrero not expanding the zone, taking what’s on offer and being willing to pass the baton to cleanup man Teoscar Hernandez, who is still working to regain his timing at the plate and grounded out. But when runs are hard to come by, every little missed opportunity becomes more glaring and that’s what happened in the sixth when Gonzales alertly picked off Hernandez at second base after a one-out double.
The score was still 2-1 at the time, the Mariners opened the game up from there and the Blue Jays didn’t threaten again before a crowd of 20,472.
“This is an offence that usually we swing the bats and everybody’s fine and you can come back in a 4-1, 5-1 game. But it seems like now somebody scores four runs and it seems like 10 and that happens when your offence is struggling,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “When (plays like Hernandez getting picked off) happen, it’s magnified. Just like when a reliever comes in and gives up a run or something, it’s like oh my God. But the guys have been pitching good, it’s a close game every game.”
Gonzales largely leaned on a sinker-changeup mix, mixing in his cutter and curveball just enough to plant the options in the minds of Blue Jays hitters, en route to six innings of one-run ball. But he was also helped by 12 chase swings along with several rips at borderline pitches.
That fits a pattern Atkins acknowledged when he conceded that, “yes, we’ve chased more than we like.”
“But it’s been really good pitching and don’t want to lose sight of that,” he quickly added. “At the same time, when we are good, we’re executing our game-plan exceptionally well.”
Clearly, that’s not happening right now and it’s continuing to cause the Blue Jays to squander good starts, this time another from Kevin Gausman. While not nearly as dominant as he’s been to this point – he got only seven swinging strikes in his five innings of work – he cleverly limited damage while often getting BABIP’d.
“To be honest, a lot of those first inning hits are just good hitting on their part,” said Gausman. “I made my pitch and none of them were hit that hard, but just kind of found their holes. I just knew if I stayed there that I wasn’t going to have another inning like that. I just felt confident.”
The first inning might have been pivotal, as he escaped a bases-loaded, none-out jam by allowing only a Jesse Winker sacrifice fly and he remained unscathed until Cal Raleigh took him deep to open the fifth inning and put the Mariners up 2-1.
Hernandez’s pick off was the Blue Jays’ sixth of the season, pushing them to second most in the majors, and then Trevor Richards, extended into a second inning of work, gave up a two-out single to Adam Frazier and then a two-run homer to Ty France that effectively pushed the game out of reach.
The bullpen, still down Jordan Romano who’s day-to-day with gastrointestinal infection and Tim Mayza, on the injured list getting a second opinion to confirm that his left forearm inflammation is indeed just that, continues to face relentless pressure every night.
According to one of Baseball Reference’s leverage indexes, the Blue Jays began the day tied with Arizona for the most high-leverage relief appearances at 55. Expecting them to be perfect is unfair and too often the offence has forced them into precisely that spot.
Nonetheless, they’ll still go into the off-day at 20-18 after winning a series for the first time this month. Gausman’s performance Wednesday extended what’s been the club’s one steady strength this season, starting pitching, and that’s really been the pillar for the Blue Jays to this point.
“I feel like we have a beast-calibre guy going any given day,” said Gausman. “More than that, we have a lot of different looks that are coming at teams. From the left side (Yuseii) Kikuchi throws 97 with a split and then you got (Hyun Jin) Ryu from the left side, too, and it’s a completely different pitcher. Then there’s Jose (Berrios) and obviously (Alek) Manoah, all those guys are completely different. So I think we match up really well against a lot of lineups because of it.”
That’s an excellent starting point and it has them sixth in the American League as they approach the quarter-mark of the season. The Blue Jays will need their offence to come around to be better than that.
Undaunted by history, Flames and Oilers will craft their own Battle of Alberta legacy – Sportsnet.ca
CALGARY — A throng of media-types three times the size as normal welcomed Matthew Tkachuk and the rest of the players to the podium yesterday with questions about a rivalry they know very little about.
What they do know is they’re in the middle of something special, which Tkachuk got a hint of his very first NHL game.
“My first memory was the first game in the new rink in Edmonton,” he said. “Everybody was in their seats for warmups. I thought that was pretty crazy. As I was skating out on the ice, I don’t remember perfectly, but Gretzky and Messier were out there doing a few laps or something. I’m 18 years old, thinking, ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this.’”
A large majority of the players in this series weren’t born when the last BOA series was 31 years ago, sparking shrugs from most of them when asked about what they knew of the hockey played back then.
“Not much,” said Elias Lindholm, 28.
“It wasn’t on in Sweden, so nothing,” added Jacob Markstrom with a grin, as he was a one-year-old then.
“Just big moments in NHL history,” said Tkachuk. “I’m serious when I say I didn’t know about it until I got drafted. It’s gotten bigger the last few years with both teams playing a lot better and maybe meeting each other in playoffs, and here we are.”
Tkachuk’s brother, Brady, has been busy riling up fans in the Dome and throwing out t-shirts in support of his brother’s club. The Senators captain was also seen hoisting a child on his shoulders as part of his celebrations.
“I’m surprised his parents let him go on Brady’s shoulders,” laughed Tkachuk. “I think that was kind of a spur of the moment thing.”
Call Your Shot?
The beauty of The Battle has always been that just when you think they’re going to have a Pier 6 brawl all night long, the Flames and Oilers give us an incredible night of high-skill hockey. And just when you settle in for some buckled down, defensive hockey, you get a goalie fight or — like on a whacky Saturday night earlier this season — a 9-5 shootout.
This season, Edmonton beat Calgary 5-3 and 5-2, and the Flames won 3-1 and 9-5. Neither team won on the road.
“I think you’ve seen both sides when we played each other in the regular season,” said Connor McDavid. “You’ve seen low-scoring, tight-checking games. Obviously the last time we were in here it was a 9-5 gong show, pretty much. We want to be a checking team and that’s the brand that they want to play as well.
“I think you’ll see low-scoring nights and nights where there are a couple more goals, but I would expect it to be a pretty tight-checking series.”
Asked if he still had friends on the Oilers, Milan Lucic smiled.
“For the next however many days? No.”
Asked how he thought Edmontonians feel about Wayne Gretzky’s prediction the Flames would win, Lucic chuckled.
“I’m sure they don’t like it, but he’s just giving his expert opinion,” he said, putting an emphasis on the word expert.
Battle Goes Net Front
The Calgary Flames are the bigger team — there’s no dispute there. And if it comes down to fisticuffs, Calgary is in a better spot, with their toughness centred nearer the bottom of their lineup in Milan Lucic, Brett Ritchie, Erik Gudbranson and Nikita Zadorov, while two of Edmonton’s toughest guys are 25-miniute man Darnell Nurse and top six left winger Evander Kane.
As such, the Oilers want to make this series about speed.
“We want to be the first mover. We want to put an emphasis on speed,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft. “For us, speed trumps perfection.”
Calgary is not L.A., when it comes to size and the ability to control net fronts at either end of the ice. The Zadorov-Gudbranson pairing is vastly bigger and tougher than anything the Kings had, and up front the Flames have players like Lucic and Ritchie (if he dresses), tough players who go to the net hard.
How do the Oilers go about winning the net front battle at both ends of the ice?
“There are things that we can do defensively, and things that we can do offensively,” Woodcroft said. “Something that we talked about (Tuesday) was that the team that’s going to come out on top is the one that’s willing to pay the price. The one that’s willing to do it harder, and for longer.”
In the end, as one would expect, the challenge gets steeper as a team moves from Round 1 to 2. The Kings took Edmonton to seven games, but Calgary presents a must greater impediment.
“Yes, it’s a new challenge, a new task,” the coach said. “A complete different animal, a team that’s at the top of the Pacific Division for a reason. They do a lot of things really well. We’re gonna have our hands full.”
The phones of Flames alumni have been blowing up the last few days, sparking Joel Otto to say, “Us old guys are relevant again.”
“I think it’s important for the province. I’m a Calgarian now — lived here since the late 90’s — and understanding the passion between the two cities and how important it is to ‘one-up’ one another,” said Otto.
“They used the word hate but it’s a grudge match.”
Incidentally, the last Flames player to score an OT winner in Game 7 at home was Otto 33 years ago, which was a somewhat controversial deflection off his skate.
“I’ll tell all my grandchildren it was similar to what Johnny did,” he laughed.
“There aren’t a lot of comparisons other than it was Game 7.”
Player strike brings CFL to tipping point – CBC Sports
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For a third straight year, the CFL schedule has been interrupted. Players on seven of nine teams launched a strike on Sunday, when the collective bargaining agreement signed just ahead of the 2019 season expired. Elks and Stampeders players are set to join tomorrow when Alberta’s labour laws allow.
At this point, the 2022 interruption remains minor, with the only damage being delayed training camps. The first pre-season game will likely be cancelled if there’s no agreement today. The regular season, slated to begin June 9, remains salvageable — if also a little too close for comfort.
But the latest league tension only underlines the rough recent past of Canadian football. The 2020 season was cancelled when the CFL, under the guidance of commissioner Randy Ambrosie, failed to get its ducks in a row in the wake of COVID-19. Ultimately, players weren’t paid and the league is said to have lost between $60 and $80 million.
Even the 2021 campaign was postponed and shortened as a result of the virus, leading to a Grey Cup in December. Many said the level of play dropped off in 2021, as reflected in lacklustre offences and attendance concerns throughout the league. Meanwhile, the fate of the Atlantic Schooners, introduced as an expansion team ahead of the 2018 Grey Cup, remains unclear nearly four years later.
Contrast that to the Canadian Elite Basketball League. The fledgling organization, which began play in 2019, could likewise have crumbled under the pressure of the pandemic. Instead, led by former CFL player Mike Morreale, it organized a two-week Summer Series in 2020 and returned with a full slate of games in 2021. For the upcoming 2022 season, three expansion clubs will bring the team total to 10 — one more than the CFL.
For now, the CFL’s work stoppage does not appear overly contentious. The sides broke off talks over the weekend, but there’s already a mediator in place who can facilitate negotiations as soon as they’re ready to return to the table. After Ambrosie revealed the league’s latest offer on the weekend, officials from both sides have been unavailable — though Tiger-Cats players picketed outside of Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton yesterday.
While the union has mostly kept its demands quiet, earlier league proposals that included no increases to the salary cap and the complete eradication of the Canadian ratio (which requires 21 players, including seven starters, per team to be Canadian) offer a hint at their platform issues.
The only other player strike in CFL history occurred during training camp in 1974, but was settled in time for the regular season. Maybe by the time the 2022 Grey Cup rolls around in November, the current strike will be viewed as nothing more than a speed bump in a successful return-to-normal season.
But if games are missed for the third straight year, the viability of the CFL itself could be up for debate.
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