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Canada’s blind luck led it to Alphonso Davies – and the 2022 World Cup

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Illustration by MICHAEL BYERS

Right at this moment, as we’re about to begin soccer’s quadrennial sorting, there’s an argument to be made about the Canadian national men’s team.

Not that it is finally world class, which is true. Or that it’s the most in-form North American team, which is true as well. But that it is the best non-European, non-South American national team in the world.

In fairness, no non-European, non-South American team has won a World Cup. Or even got close. But it’s still something.

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If we assume that everyone on Earth follows and plays soccer, and that 15 per cent of the global population tends to be best at it (Europe plus South America), we’re currently top out of the other 85.

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Ten, 20 years ago, Canada was in the bottom half. At times, maybe the bottom quarter.

What changed?

We have heard and will continue to hear a bunch of process-oriented explanations from people who make their living from soccer in this country.

If a business makes a ton of money, the people who run that business are never going to say, ‘Who knew people would like yoga pants so much?’ They’re going to say they planned it all out that way and they hired the smartest people to execute their plan (though no one ever blames a business going the opposite way on employee stupidity).

As far as the Canadian soccer establishment is concerned, the men’s team got good because of scouting, coaching, grassroots development, good examples (ie. the national women’s team) and money. Money has to feature in there somewhere. That’s how you get more of it.

All those things are true, to a point.

But mostly it’s blind luck. When a thing that was really bad suddenly becomes really good, it’s always luck.

The most important stroke of luck was that moment in the mid-aughts when Victoria and Debeah Davies chose Canada.

Everything good about the current Canadian program stems from that decision. Their son, Alphonso, playing in Edmonton youth soccer, is another of those decisions. His lucky choice of the right coaches and mentors is another. Picking Major League Soccer as his launch point; Canada Soccer leveraging Davies’s proximity to convince him to commit to Canada when he had other options; the Vancouver Whitecaps agreeing to let him leave for Germany, never mind Bayern Munich’s foresight in wanting him – all of those are crucial, unobvious choices. Flip the order around a bit and things would probably have gone very differently.

Most North American team athletes get put in a pipeline at an early age. If you’re very, very good at basketball as a 12-year-old, someone who matters is going to recognize that. They are financially incentivized to do so.

That sort of pipeline doesn’t exist in Canada. There is no direct route to the best clubs (and, therefore, the best training) in Europe. The system favours people who are able to navigate it (ie. those who are already well connected). It certainly does not favour working-class refugees starting from ‘Go’ in a soccer backwater.

When someone such as Davies, talented though he may be, manages to break through all those layers and end up at a major European team when he is still a teenager, that is a sort of sporting miracle. Where Canada is concerned, it is the stroke of luck that made all others possible.

That a generation of players would spring up around Davies, about the same age and on the same development path, is another bolt out of nowhere.

Ten years ago, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan might have been Jonathan de Guzman or Owen Hargreaves. After banging their heads against the Canadian soccer establishment for a while, they might have chosen other routes to national teams in other countries. David might play for the U.S., where he was born. Buchanan might be angling to get into the Belgian setup, where he plays professionally now.

They might’ve been Dwayne De Rosario or Julian de Guzman (Jonathan’s brother). Gifted local products who spent their best years in low-level conflict with the people who run the country’s soccer setup, increasingly disgruntled and, eventually, alienated. Sometimes losing isn’t an isolated act. It can be a learned pattern. It’s hard not to look back at the raw, aggregate talent of the Canadian teams of the early 21st century and wonder how they lost so often when it would have been easier for them to win.

Davies gave David, Buchanan and all the rest permission to treat the Canadian national program with a respect it probably didn’t deserve at the time he gave it. If a player that good thinks Canada is worth it, then everyone else loses permission to scoff.

A great team is exactly as good as its greatest player thinks it is. Another huge stroke of Canadian luck is that the team’s most gifted player has a force of personality to match. Davies took a theoretical idea – ‘Given its intrinsic advantages, Canada should be competitive at men’s soccer’ – and made it practical. He did that by himself.

Long before Canada plays in the World Cup, and regardless of how it turns out, Davies is already the most valuable – emphasis on that word – player in it.

The right person arriving at the right time and making (for the purposes of our soccer program) the right choices for the right reasons. That’s how Canada did it. So, in other words, blind luck.

It’s a good news/bad news situation from here on.

The bad news is that World Cups don’t tend to reward luck. The people you think will win don’t usually do. They always do. There has never been an even mildly surprising winner of this thing.

Canada is good enough to get out of its group. After that, it’s a function of luck. But getting lucky once would still be something.

Estimable soccer countries – South Korea, Cameroon, Ireland – are still dining out on one glorious run in a World Cup that didn’t result in a title. Sometimes, the quarters are enough.

The good news is that success tends to beget more of the same. Every incremental step Canada takes up the ladder makes it more likely it will take another.

Others have to win in order to justify their place in the soccer world. Just this once, Canada wins merely through attendance. We’ve arrived on the world stage. Just hearing our anthem played before the first game with Belgium will be a signpost in Canadian sports history.

And after that, who knows? It’s possible – not at all likely, but possible – we are lucky in the timing of our luck. It would be a first, but firsts are a function of luck, too.

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Leafs may have lucked out with timing of Auston Matthews and Matt Murray injuries

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews and goaltender Matt Murray celebrate after defeating the Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena in Denver on Dec. 31, 2022.Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Not that it is ever good to have key players injured, but the Maple Leafs may have caught a break with Auston Matthews and Matt Murray.

With the NHL’s all-star weekend just ahead, both will have more time to nurse what ails them while also possibly missing less action.

Matthews suffered a knee sprain in an overtime victory against the New York Rangers on Jan. 25 and the team’s star centre is expected to be sidelined at least three weeks. It will cause him to miss Saturday’s all-star spectacle in Sunrise, Fla.

Murray, who had already surrendered the starting job in Toronto’s net to Ilya Samsonov, is now plagued by an ankle affliction and it is anybody’s guess when he will return.

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The 28-year-old, whose acquisition was seen as risky owing to his history of injuries, has already missed more than a month with an adductor strain. He has not played 40 games in a season since 2018-19.

“There’s something there that’s going to require time for sure,” Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs’ head coach, said. “We won’t quite know, really, until we come back from the break.”

Toronto has a contest against Boston at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday before its eight-day recess begins. Its next game after that will be at Columbus on Feb. 10.

Despite a lengthy list of injuries, the Maple Leafs have done well over the first two-thirds of the season. They are 31-12-8, second in the NHL’s Atlantic Division and a shoe-in to reach the playoffs even if 11 points behind the Bruins.

Boston is an almost incomprehensible 38-7-5 but arrives in town with three consecutive losses. A win will boost the Maple Leafs’ faint hopes of catching up.

“You want to go into the break feeling good,” Keefe said Monday after a team meeting and an optional workout for players at the Ford Performance Centre. “We expect a tough game for sure.

“Our job is to keep pace and apply pressure a little more, just like the teams behind us are trying to do to us. It is a great way to go into the all-star break. There is a lot of excitement.”

After an uninspired effort in a loss to Ottawa on Friday, Toronto rebounded to dismantle the Washington Capitals 5-1 on Sunday.

John Tavares recorded two assists in the 1,000th game of his NHL career, Morgan Rielly scored for the first time this campaign and Samsonov recorded 23 saves as he ran his record on home ice to 15-1-1.

“We played today more for John,” Samsonov said after improving his record to 17-5-2 overall. He did not realize Tavares was about to reach a milestone until a pre-game ceremony.

“One thousand games,” Samonov said, pausing, “That’s amazing.”

Rielly, who is respected as an offensively skilled defenceman, had gone without a goal in 35 previous games this season. In the best year of his career, he had 20 goals.

“Mostly, I just feel relief,” Rielly said. “We wanted to respond after a bad game against Ottawa. We weren’t very proud of ourselves when we went home from here on Friday.”

Joseph Woll, who is 12-1 with a .928 save percentage for the Toronto Marlies, has been called up from the American Hockey League as Samsonov’s backup.

With any luck at all, Woll will not be pressed to play thanks to the upcoming prolonged break.

But first the Bruins come to town.

“Every game against Boston is special,” Alexander Kerfoot, the Maple Leafs’ forward, said.

William Nylander had an assist on Sunday and on Monday was named the league’s second star of the week. He leads Toronto with 28 goals and is tied with Mitch Marner for the team lead with 59 points.

“We are just trying to carve our way back to Boston,” Nylander said. “We have to keeping winning games and see what happens.

“The Bruins are on an incredible pace and will be hard to catch but we are going to try our best to do that.”

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Cult figure Bobby Hull was a hockey wild man in a bygone NHL era – The Globe and Mail

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Chicago Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull is introduced to fans during a convention in Chicago on July 26, 2019.Amr Alfiky/The Associated Press

Before Bobby Hull showed up, the NHL was long on workmanlike effort and short on rock ’n’ roll erraticism. Now that he’s gone, it’s returned to its former state.

But for a while there, Hull played hockey the way Led Zeppelin played arenas – the most interesting stories didn’t happen in public view, and few of them were the sort you’d want to hear in decent company.

One of the great pure goal scorers in the game’s history and its most notable off-season farmer, Hull bridged the gap between the NHL’s working-class roots and its jet-set aspirations. His career was full of ‘what ifs’ – what if he’d stayed in the NHL past his early 30s?; what if he’d been allowed to play in the Summit Series? The best testament to Hull’s athletic greatness was that despite often working against his own best interests, he still managed to be remembered as great.

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Hull, 84, died on Monday.

Like many of his contemporaries, Hull was the sort they grew big on the farm. Born in rural Ontario, he came up through the provincial ranks and joined the Chicago Black Hawks in 1957. He was only 18, but already fully formed as a player.

In a league full of big, tough men, Hull was bigger and tougher, but also remarkably skilled. His slap shot is still remembered as a weapon of NHL mass destruction.

Teammate Glenn Hall once said of it: “The idea was not to stop that thing, but to avoid getting killed.”

Defending Hull was a special challenge because he didn’t have to find a way around you. He could just go through you.

He remains the only hockey player who is more recognizable with a pitchfork in his hands, bailing hay, than he was in uniform on the ice. Up until the chemists got involved, Hull may have had the most imposing physique in sports history. He put it to brutal use on the ice.

He was the first player to score more than 50 goals in a campaign. He scored more points than anyone ever had in a season. He won a single Stanley Cup, giving him access to the best-ever conversation.

In a two-fisted league, Hull and his Chicago teammates played a particularly exuberant brand of hockey. It made them famous outside the game’s usual strongholds.

Like a lot of other famous people in the sixties, Hull took full advantage of the social perks.

I spent an hour with him in a hotel room a decade ago. He was releasing a book and in high spirits, clearly enjoying the attention. But there was a hook of resentment in every story he told.

“We had guys who liked to have fun. But when they dropped the puck at 7:30, we played guilty,” Hull said. I remember him titled forward, waving his hands around. They were enormous.

Guilty?

“We used to say to each other, ‘C’mon, guys. We were pissed up last night. So now we gotta play guilty.’ And there are a lot of guys who don’t understand that – these coaches, I mean. Don’t bother us, cause we’re the guys who know how to play. I never listened to a coach in my life.”

This sort of approach worked for Hull, until it didn’t.

When he publicly mused that he would consider leaving the NHL to join the upstart World Hockey Association for a million dollars – a ridiculous amount at the time – guess what? They gave him a million dollars. That was 1972.

Having got what he wanted, Hull found out it wasn’t what he needed. Once the biggest deal in the biggest league, Hull became the richest guy in an outfit no one cared about.

He continued to score goals in the WHA through the seventies, but his star dimmed. His turncoat status meant he wasn’t invited to join Team Canada for the Summit Series. Just like that, Hull was cut out of Canadian history.

Eventually, he’d find his way back to the national team and the NHL, but the damage had been done. Hull became a cautionary tale about valuing the wrong things.

Post-career, shorn of the protection that teams and the journalists who cover them offer to active stars, Hull went from colourful to objectionable. In the late nineties, it was reported that Hull had given an interview to an English-language Russian newspaper in which he praised Hitler and denigrated Black people.

Once back home, Hull denied it all. The paper stuck to its version of the story and the issue was left unresolved. Whatever the truth of it, Hull was pushed down to the second tier of NHL legends. He still worked the autograph circuit, but no one was anxious to have him make appearances on behalf of the game.

Hull leaned into his reputation as a hockey wild man rather than a legend of the sport. By that point, he was most familiar to contemporary fans as the father of Brett Hull. That seemed to bother him as well.

Where does Hull figure in the pantheon? As a cult figure.

The NHL’s golden age is chock-a-block with team-first guys who played the game the right way – Howe, Beliveau, Richard, Orr, et al. The hard thing is finding a guy in there that anyone had a bad word to say about.

Hull was the wild card in that pack. He played like a virtuoso and lived like a roadie. He made terrible decisions, but kept emerging from them, diminished but intact. He was hockey’s fallen star, and one who kept falling.

It doesn’t make him heroic, but it does make him interesting.

That time I met him he was going through his own book, looking at pictures of himself and pointing out the other people in them.

“He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead,” Hull said, quiet and contemplative for the first time that afternoon. “I hate it when I’m the only one alive in these things.”

Now he’s gone, and an era with him. If it can be said that the NHL had a wild, uncontrollable period in its adolescence, Hull embodied it. Then, like a lot of precocious teens, he never quite get over it.

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Canucks left searching for off-ice leadership in wake of Horvat trade – Sportsnet.ca

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