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Canada's golden world junior squad voted CP team of the year –



Akil Thomas felt like he was living in a movie. The script seemed predetermined and, as it would turn out, he had an unlikely starring role.

Canada trailed Russia 3-1 with 11 minutes left in the gold-medal game of the 2020 world junior hockey championship last January when a shot pinballed in off Connor McMichael to cut the deficit. Canadian captain Barrett Hayton, who suffered a separated shoulder in the semis and was a huge question mark for the final, then tied things moments later with a bullet shot on a power play.

That set the stage for Thomas — a forward used sparingly throughout the tournament in the Czech Republic, but handed one final shift by head coach Dale Hunter — to play hero on a breakaway that materialized out of almost nothing with 3:57 left in regulation.

The Russians, however, weren’t done. They got a man advantage of their own, and with the goalie pulled, Aidan Dudas accidentally cleared the puck over the glass from the defensive zone, only to see it strike a remote television camera to avoid another penalty — some miraculous luck that spared Canada having to weather a 6-on-3 attack in the dying moments.

Russia imploded from there with two late penalties before Canada killed the clock and spilled onto the ice to celebrate its 18th gold medal at the under-20 tournament in front of a throng of travelling, rabid fans.

“It felt like everything that was happening was orchestrated beforehand,” Thomas recalled nearly 12 months later. “How could you create a better story? It seemed like someone wrote a movie, and we just did it. It was nuts. I feel so in that moment to this day.”

WATCH |  Thomas goal cements world junior gold for Canada:

Akil Thomas scored with less than 4 minutes left in regulation, as Canada beat Russia 4-3 to win the world junior championship gold medal. 1:04

That group of peach-fuzzed teenagers, who overcame an early blowout loss, injuries, suspensions, controversy and illness, were rewarded a second time for their perseverance throughout a roller-coaster, edge-of-your-seat world juniors Wednesday by winning the team of the year award from The Canadian Press for 2020.

The squad secured 26 of 68 votes — 38.2 per cent — in a poll of writers, broadcasters and editors across the country. Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic teams garnered 14 votes for their stance on postponing the Tokyo Games amid the widening COVID-19 pandemic, while the Toronto Raptors, who won the award in 2019 after securing the franchise’s first NBA title, were third with 13 after finishing with the league’s second-best record in the regular season.

It’s the sixth time Canada’s world junior outfit has earned team of the year honours, and the first since receiving back-to-back nods in 2008 and 2009.

“I think about it all the time,” defenceman Bowen Byram said of the gold-medal game. “I wish I could go back to that moment. It’s something you can’t really explain to people that weren’t part of the team.

“I get goosebumps thinking about it.”

WATCH | Canada completes comeback to claim gold against Russia:

Akil Thomas scored late in the 3rd to cap a three-goal, third period comeback as Canada edged Russia 4-3 to win the 2020 World Junior Championship. 2:29

But thoughts of gold, or any other accolade, seemed unlikely to most outsiders after Canada’s second game in gritty Ostrava.

After beating the United States in their opener, the Canadians were embarrassed 6-0 by Russia — the national program’s worst-ever defeat at the event — on a disastrous night that also saw star winger Alexis Lafreniere suffer what looked like a serious knee injury.

To make matters worse, workhorse centre Joe Veleno was handed a one-game suspension for a dubious head-butting incident, while Hayton added to the drama by forgetting to remove his helmet for Russia’s anthem.

Some teams might have crumbled. But not this one. Not this group.

“There were some big, ugly things that happened,” said Mark Hunter, Dale’s younger brother and Canada’s general manager. “It didn’t rattle them. They just kept playing.”

A necessary wake-up call

Lafreniere missed two games with that injured knee — Canada’s most talked about joint for a couple days — but returned to finish with four goals and 10 points in five outings to win MVP honours, while also dragging his team into the fight with inspired physicality not often seen among elite talent.

“Being focused on one goal was really big for us,” said Lafreniere, who cemented his No. 1 overall NHL draft status at the tournament and was selected first by the New York Rangers in October. “We faced a lot of adversity and were able to come back stronger.”

With the benefit of hindsight, players on the Canadian roster feel that horrendous early performance against Russia provided a necessary wake-up call.

“It fuelled us,” Byram said. “You want to avoid those things as much as possible.

“But when you do go through something like that, you’ve just got to make sure you learn from it.”

WATCH | Canada’s Byfield explodes for 6 points in win over Switzerland:

Quinton Byfield recorded two goals and four assists in Canada’s 10-0 win at the world junior hockey championship. 0:30

McMichael said while fans back home were panicking, confidence among the tight-knit group from places like Bay Roberts, N.L., Truro, N.S., Saint-Eustache, Que., Port Perry, Ont., Brandon, Man., Canmore, Alta., Kelowna, B.C., and Whitehorse never wavered.

“You know you’re going to face adversity,” McMichael said. “But you don’t know how it’s going to be until you do.

“And we faced a lot of adversity.”

Restoring the country’s pride

After finishing a disappointing sixth in Vancouver in 2019, the Hunter brothers — who have dominated the Ontario Hockey League for the last two decades with the London Knights, but had taken part in just one under-18 event with Hockey Canada — were tasked with restoring the country’s pride at the showcase tournament.

In the wake of that Russia debacle, however, it was probably a good thing an ocean separated the Canadian contingent from the vast majority of their supporters.

“Somebody called me and said, ‘You two guys are just getting buried on social media. [The Hunters] are overrated, they don’t know what they’re doing,”‘ Mark Hunter recounted. “I go to Dale, ‘Hey did you see this? They sure turn on you pretty quickly.’

“But that’s part of the business. It’s about having experience and not overreacting.”

Canada took a deep breath and recalibrated, beating Germany and thumping the Czechs to finish atop its group. Lafreniere returned to lead the charge in a 6-1 whitewash of Slovakia in the quarterfinals — Nolan Foote got the early boot for an illegal check to the head to provide another bump in the road — and a 5-0 defeat of Finland in the semis minus a flu-ridden Byram, setting up the Russian rematch that once again didn’t start according to plan.

Canada’s captain Barrett Hayton (right) and Ty Dallandrea celebrate Team Canada’s 18th gold medal at the under-20 tournament in front of a throng of travelling, rabid fans. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

“Even after we went down 3-1 in the final, I had a feeling we weren’t going to lose,” Byram said. “That’s the feeling we had the whole tournament.”

And following the goals by McMichael and Hayton, who couldn’t lift his arm over his head because of that bum shoulder, Thomas found himself almost improbably on centre stage, poking a loose puck past a defender, moving in alone and burying a backhand to send the travelling Canadian support inside Ostravar Arena into a chaotic, spine-tingling frenzy.

But the 2018 second-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings said if it wasn’t for the positive mentality he forced on himself — players of his calibre aren’t used to sitting — things could have played out much differently.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to overcome in my career,” Thomas said of waiting for a chance he knew might not come. “Maybe in the back of my head I was thinking: ‘I’m doing this for no reason, I’m not going to get a shot.’ But I just tried to block the negative thoughts out.

“If Dale saw me on the bench slouched over and I had negative body language, it’s not an appealing sight and he probably wouldn’t have picked me. The fact that I was ready to go, positive, didn’t care about the past, just wanted to look forward, it taught me a lesson I can use in any situation.”

And that moment the puck crossed the line?

“I can’t really explain how I felt because it was an accumulation of so many different things,” he said. “When I watch that goal, I feel how I felt during that game … just so surreal.

“It honestly feels like I did that just a minute ago.”

A dramatic plot twist — one of many — Thomas, his teammates and Canadian hockey fans won’t soon forget.

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The Maple Leafs are a joke – Pension Plan Puppets



First Period

The first period got off to a pretty tepid start. The first five minutes of action were characterized by unscreened point shots and board battles that didn’t really lead anywhere. The Leafs had more territorial control, as you’d expect against a team of the Senators quality, but they weren’t really able to turn it into great chances.

About seven minutes in, the Leafs get a break as Derek Stepan fires the puck out of play in his own zone, and they get a power play. The Leafs appear to be persisting with the spread out power play units, breaking up the loaded unit we saw under Keefe last season. The Tavares / Nylander unit got the first 45 seconds, with the Matthews / Marner group finishing it off. The latter looks better than the former, as they were able to maintain great possession in the offensive zone. However, Matt Murray stops the only real chance they generate, a Matthews one-timer off a scramble.

Shortly thereafter, Cedric Paquette holds Alexander Kerfoot, and the Leafs get another power play. And this time, the Leafs score! Nylander passes to Tavares in the bumper spot, who fools a defender by holding for a beat, rather than one-timing. Tavares shoots and the rebound pops up perfectly for Hyman to bunt into the net. 1-0 Leafs.

Matthews’ line came out for the next shift, and like we saw in the Blue/White scrimmage, they’re great at offensive zone puck recovery. This led to a Marner shot off a pass from Matthews, but it’s wayward (to say the least).

Tim Stützle had been quiet (hard to blame him, given the power plays of the Leafs), but he draws a slashing penalty on Travis Dermott. The power play led to the first real work for Frederik Andersen in the game, and he handles it ably. Politely, the Leafs gave him another chance to demonstrate his prowess, as Joe Thornton caught Thomas Chabot with a high stick with about two minutes remaining.

Hyman got a breakaway that he was unable to convert on, and afterwards, the Leafs took another bench minor for too many men. This resulted in a minute-long 5v3 that the Senators needed about half of to capitalize on. Drake Batherson finds Chabot for a one-timer, and he pounds it by Andersen. 1-1 game.

The rest of the period passes without incident, as the Leafs attempted to kill off the part of the bench minor.

In general, the 1-1 score is relatively fair. The Leafs haven’t generated much at 5v5, and what they have generated was almost entirely from the Matthews group. However, the Senators have generated even less. Both teams got reasonable chances via their power plays, and took advantage.

Second Period

The second period started with Ottawa having a 40 second power play. However the Leafs manage to kill it without issues. It’s worth noting that Matthews didn’t get any PK time.

About five minutes in, the Mikheyev-Kerfoot-Hyman line hems the Senators in for about 90 seconds. Because it’s those three, there were precisely 0 dangerous shots, but hey, it’s better than spending time in your own zone. The shift afterwards, Justin Holl and Thornton somehow found themselves on a 2-on-1. Presumably shocked, Holl did literally nothing and the chance evaporated.

That said, the Leafs looked better in terms of territorial advantage and pressure in this part of the game. That said, they still didn’t really generate a large amount of great chances, especially when Matthews and his crew isn’t on the ice.

But sometimes, you don’t need great chances to score. Alex Kerfoot wired one in from the point, with Hyman and Mikheyev both providing effective screens. 2-1 Leafs.

Shortly after the Kerfoot goal, the Sens generated a mad scramble in front of Andersen that did not inspire confidence in the Leafs’ ability to lock this game down, but the puck stayed out. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the ensuing shift, where a Nikita Zaitsev shot from the right half-boards is tipped by Brady Tkachuk. 2-2 game, and the Sens aren’t going away quietly.

Joe Thornton then displayed some of the superlative skills he still has. He managed to box out a Sen below the net, and found a darting Matthews at the netfront. Matt Murray makes a great save to keep it tied. On the other end, the Leafs don’t get quite as good goaltending.

Nick Paul made a good play to get the puck off the boards in the offensive zone, finding Braydon Cobourn, who drops it off to Austin Watson. His shot from the right circle goes bar down, and it’s 3-2 Sens.

It’s a great shot, don’t get me wrong… but in a game where the Leafs have gotten more chances, you’d like Andersen to make a big save here.

The period then went from bad to worse for the Leafs. On a delayed penalty, Chris Tierney shovels a rebound into the net while facing the wrong way. 4-2 Senators and this is not ideal at all. While I’d say the Leafs have gotten more chances than the Senators on the whole, they’re not creating tons of golden chances offensively. And the few chances that the Sens are getting are basically right in front of the net, and pretty high value.

With three minutes to go, the Leafs received a chance to atone for some of their sins, with Chabot getting the gate for high sticking. Did they take it? Reader, they did not. Instead, Nylander turned the puck over in his own zone, and Spezza took a penalty as a result.

Toronto escaped the second without further damage.

Third Period

Like the second period, the third started with Ottawa on the power play, and like the second, nothing happens in that time. Two minutes in, Chabot took another penalty, this time for holding. However, Toronto was unable take advantage of the power play.

At this point, Keefe started busting out the line blender, with Hyman moving up to join Tavares and Nylander.

After a pretty unforced icing from the Leafs, Brodie turns the puck over behind his own net. Derek Stepan finds Batherson in front, and his shot results in a loose puck that Stepan tucks home himself. 5-2 Senators.

The Leafs then loaded up their top unit power play with the five guys who you would expect to see there. It immediately paid off as Tavares absolutely rips a wrister home on a broken play. 5-3 Senators, and the Leafs have a glimmer of hope.

I gotta be honest. The fact that when the chips are down, the Leafs move Vesey off Tavares’ wing and play their five best players on the PP suggests that maybe they should do that from puck drop, instead of waiting until their win probability is in single digits.

After Dermott iced the puck under literally zero pressure, he then failed to clear the puck on the ensuing shift. As usual, the Leafs were terrible in their own zone, which led to a great chance for Erik Gudbranson, of all people. Andersen made a great save to keep it superficially close.

Nylander capped off a brutal performance by giving the puck away and then taking a high sticking penalty to kill off any chance of a comeback. After a strong opening night from him, this was a game to forget.

Nothing happens the rest of the game. I mean, maybe something did, but I paid as much attention as the Leafs evidently do when south of their own blue line. Final score, 5-3 Senators.

One thing I want to be clear about here. The Senators have not executed a smash and grab. They are basically going even with a team that they are far worse than on paper. There are universes where this performance resulted in a win for the Leafs, but Ottawa was by no means undeserving of the result here.

This third period is especially bad. Maybe the Leafs deserved better in the first two frames, but they’re in the position they’re in. To have a third period where you generate nothing offensively at 5v5, trailing, against a team like the Senators is inexcusable. Just a straight up terrible effort.

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Olympic champion says she was assaulted by sports official –



Olympic sailing champion Sofia Bekatorou of Greece has accused an unnamed sporting official of sexually assaulting her in 1998 during preparations for the Sydney Games.

Bekatorou, who won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, said the male official from the Hellenic Sailing Federation performed a “lewd act” after inviting her to his hotel room to discuss team preparations.

Bekatorou said she had made it clear that the act was not consensual, adding that she was left feeling “exhausted and humiliated.”

The AP does not usually identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, but Bekatorou made her allegation on Thursday while speaking at an online event organized by the ministry of culture and sport. A transcript of the event was released on Friday.

She did not name the official but described him as having a senior rank in the federation.

In a statement Friday, the sailing federation said it had not received any formal or informal complaint from Bekatorou but urged her to make one.

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Harden on trade request: Rockets ‘didn’t have a chance’ to compete for title –



James Harden‘s displeasure with the state of the Houston Rockets wasn’t a well-kept secret.

Such is often the case in high-profile NBA deals: rumours of unhappiness long precede any official trade calls taking place. It happened when Vince Carter wanted out of Toronto, his on-court performances doing as much of the talking as his post-game interviews. It happened with Kawhi Leonard, whose quiet dissatisfaction with the San Antonio Spurs’ handling of his chronic quad injury was one of the few details leaked to the public, and eventually became a contributing factor in his trade to the Toronto Raptors.

And it happened for Harden in the weeks leading up to his blockbuster acquisition by the Brooklyn Nets this season, with reports swirling about the specific nature of why he wanted out. On Friday, he explained it in his own words.

“After the bubble, after that loss, I just wanted to re-evaluate my career and the team and the direction that the organization was going,” Harden told reporters during his first media availability as a member of the Nets. “You look from top to bottom, from the general manager leaving, to Mike D’Antoni leaving, to re-evaluating our personnel and seeing if we had enough to compete with the best teams in the league. As time went on, free agency and that started to go on, it was like, well, I felt like we didn’t have a chance.”

The Rockets’ post-season shortcomings have been a recurring issue for the team during Harden’s tenure — not a one-off event in the NBA’s bubble. Harden’s box-score performances were predictably stellar. He averaged 28.4 points, 7.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds across 85 post-season appearances with Houston. But only twice in his eight Rockets seasons did his on-court excellence, and Houston’s willingness to mould their team to fit his strengths, result in Conference Finals appearances — and a pair of losses to the Golden State Warriors.

This past off-season, after a second-round loss to the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets underwent a significant front-office overhaul. They replaced head coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey, the lead architects behind every roster and on-court iteration of the Rockets that tried to best-suit Harden’s needs.

But the roster changes themselves were limited until Harden’s co-star, Russell Westbrook, was sent to the Washington Wizards in exchange for John Wall. The early results were mixed, with Houston opening the season 4-6.

“As much as I love the city of Houston — loved being there — I think at this point in my career it’s not about money, it’s not about anything else but having a chance to reach that ultimate goal. It’s winning at the highest level,” Harden said. “It didn’t go as smooth as I would have loved it to go but I think both sides are happy.”

Since his displeasure with the Rockets was first reported, Harden has been at the centre of multiple non-basketball related incidents.

Prior to the season starting, Harden’s arrival to training camp was delayed when he decided to breach COVID-19 protocols by attending rapper Lil Baby’s birthday party in Atlanta. Neither Harden nor Lil Baby were wearing masks in the photo Harden shared on his personal Instagram.

Then, ahead of Houston’s season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder, an investigation was launched by the NBA into a viral video that showed a mask-less Harden attending an event at a club — violating the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Harden was fined $50,000 for the violation.

On the court, Harden’s final days as a member of the Rockets saw him held out practice after he publicly commented that he did not think his issues with the team could be fixed.

“I regret [the way things ended in Houston],” Harden said. “I don’t need the attention, especially the negative energy, the negative attention. I’ve never been that guy. There were some things that I felt like were out of my character. But the ultimate goal was to get somewhere where I can compete and here I am in Brooklyn.”

The Nets acquired Harden from the Rockets on Thursday in a blockbuster deal that will reunite him with Kevin Durant, his teammate in Oklahoma City. Harden could play as early as Saturday if all the players in the deal pass their physicals in time.

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