BROSSARD, Que. — Last time I watched Ilya Kovalchuk play was the last time he appeared in an NHL game, and the impression he left, not only on me but also on one pro scout whose opinion I hold in high regard, wasn’t a very good one.
“Any team with actual scouts doesn’t touch Kovalchuk,” the scout in question said after the Montreal Canadiens beat Kovalchuk and the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 at the Bell Centre on Nov. 9.
“Can’t move, doesn’t want to move, and his shot, which used to be lethal, is not good anymore,” the scout added.
It was in the leadup to Kovalchuk’s relationship with the Kings — and his three-year, $18.75-million contract — being terminated that Sportsnet’s Anthony Stewart sent out a series of tweets asking fans of several NHL teams if they were interested in the 36-year-old’s services. He photoshopped Kovalchuk into several uniforms and said, “I’ll hang up and listen.”
Here was my response to Stewart’s tweet showing Kovalchuk in a Canadiens jersey:
And now, with the news coming down on Friday that Kovalchuk signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Canadiens — a deal that will pay him a prorated $700,000 salary in the NHL and $70,000 in the AHL — that theory might actually be put to the test.
In all seriousness, when Marc Bergevin stood in front of reporters some hours after making this move and defended it by saying it was “no-risk,” I was nodding my head in agreement.
As Bergevin pointed out, the Canadiens are missing four of their top nine forwards in Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia and Paul Byron, and, realistically, only Gallagher has a chance of returning at some point over the next nine games the Canadiens will play before taking their bye week. And after watching them completely outplay the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 2-1 loss on Thursday, watching their all-out effort lead to 70 shot attempts and no more than one goal, Bergevin made a move thinking it can’t hurt to try something.
And this move wasn’t done with any illusions of Kovalchuk coming to Montreal and suddenly becoming an incarnation of his former self — a two-time 50 goal scorer who topped the 30-goal mark in eight of his 11 NHL seasons — but more with a hope that he can potentially take Jordan Weal’s spot next to Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling, and finish a couple of the chances Weal has missed in not producing more than a goal in his last 22 games.
It’s a move made, in concert with the deal Bergevin swung on Thursday to bring in veteran defenceman Marco Scandella from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a 2020 fourth-round pick, which could help the Canadiens earn a winning record between now and the bye week. A move that cost close to nothing, but could pay off.
“He has to buy in,” said Bergevin of Kovalchuk, who scored three goals and had nine points in 17 games with the Kings this season.
“It’s his last chance.”
Canadiens centre Nate Thompson, who played with Kovalchuk before being traded to Montreal at last year’s deadline, believes the big Russian might make good on that chance.
“Sometimes you go to a new team, new coaches, new players, and sometimes it can gel,” Thompson said after Friday’s practice. “I think it could fit. Kovy’s a guy who can make plays. He’s good offensively, he’s a big body. We’re a team that skates really well, we make plays, and I think that can bode well for him.”
Thompson said Kovalchuk is as hard a worker as he’s come across and said he would be extremely motivated.
When Bergevin was asked if he could potentially be disruptive to the team’s chemistry, he said there were no red flags about Kovalchuk’s character in his due diligence.
“(Canadiens assistant GM) Scott Mellanby had him as a captain in Atlanta, I’ve never heard anything bad about Kovy,” the GM continued. “He’s a hard worker, he’s a good person. Guys that perform, they want to score … I get that, and in L.A. it didn’t work out. I talked to (Kings GM Rob Blake), he’s never caused problems. He’s a good person, I did check that out.”
Whether or not Kovalchuk can be a good player is highly questionable.
You have to think part of the reason Bergevin had no issue convincing him to take a two-way contract worth such a negligible amount — and he said he had no issue convincing him — is because no one else was really interested in his services.
The hope has to be that Kovalchuk is sparked by that.
For what it’s worth, the Canadiens players we spoke to on Friday were encouraged by the news that came down as they were hitting the ice for practice. Nick Suzuki, the 20-year-old rookie, called himself a big fan of Kovalchuk’s. Defenceman Victor Mete said he used to regularly choose Kovalchuk as a player he’d use to build a team with in his EA Sports NHL games.
And then top-line centre Phillip Danault got to the root of what Kovalchuk’s acquisition means to this Canadiens team at this moment.
“That (Bergevin) helps us like that — I think he believes in us and he wants to give us a little hand,” Danault said. “We have so many guys out, Army, Gally, all these guys, and that’s two righties right there and two top-two (right wingers), so Kovy’s not going to be (a) bad (thing) for us.”
If his work visa gets sorted on time, Kovalchuk will make his Canadiens debut at the Bell Centre on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, though Bergevin did caution that was improbable.
But Scandella will suit up next to Cale Fleury on the team’s third defence pairing, and the Canadiens will begin their push to stay alive in the playoff race.
“I’ve watched our team perform … they’re not giving up,” said Bergevin.
It’s clear with the moves he made over the last 24 hours that the Canadiens GM isn’t giving up, either.
Maple Leafs stay hot, thump Avalanche 8-3 for 15th victory in 17 games – TSN
TORONTO — The Maple Leafs knew there were plenty of built-in excuses.
Just back from a California road trip, the jet lag had yet to lift, bodies were tired, and it had been more than a week and a half since the luxury of a day off — all with one of the NHL’s hottest teams waiting on deck.
None of it mattered.
Auston Matthews scored three times to register the fourth hat trick of his career as the scorching Leafs thumped the Colorado Avalanche 8-3 on Wednesday night.
John Tavares added a goal and two assists for Toronto (17-6-1), while William Nylander scored and set up another. Jack Campbell made 28 saves.
“Really good effort from everybody,” Matthews said. “Playing a really good team with a lot of really dangerous players, you know that they’re gonna get their push and they’re gonna get their opportunities.
“All 20 guys out there did a really good job.”
Jason Spezza, Travis Dermott and Pierre Engvall had the other goals for the Leafs, who have won five straight and are 15-2-0 over their last 17 to take over top spot in the NHL’s overall standings. Michael Bunting added three assists, while Mitch Marner and Alexander Kerfoot chipped in with two each.
“Good preparation coming in, good mindset,” Tavares said. “Good energy, especially coming off the West Coast trip.”
Nazem Kari, with two, and Samuel Girard replied for Colorado (11-7-1). Jonas Johansson stopped 33 shots as the Avalanche lost for the second time in their last three contests after winning six in a row.
“The energy in the room was that it’d be easy to make an excuse right now,” Dermott said. “But tonight was a game that I think we could really show our character.”
Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon, who had two assists, returned after missing eight games with a lower-body injury, while Kadri suited up at Scotiabank Arena as a visitor for the second time since being traded to the Mile High City in July 2019.
The Avalanche announced shortly before the game No. 1 goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper-body injury) — named as Wednesday’s starter by head coach Jared Bednar following the morning skate — was unavailable.
“That was not the issue,” Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “The issue was we just didn’t play good enough.”
That did mean, however, University of Toronto netminder Jett Alexander dressed as Johansson’s emergency backup for warmups. But the 22-year-old from Bloomfield, Ont., remained in the locker-room area until third-stringer Justus Annunen arrived to witness the carnage up close in the second period.
“I don’t think it was an 8-3 game if we’re being honest,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, whose team built a 3-0 lead in the first. “We played against a really good team that had some adversity.
“That makes the game feel a lot different than it really was.”
Coming off a trip that saw them sweep the New York Islanders and all three California teams, the Leafs went up 1-0 at 4:31 of the opening period when Tavares delicately fed a pass ahead to Nylander, who ripped his 10th goal of the season.
Toronto went up 2-0 at 7:57 when Spezza tapped home his fifth after the Colorado netminder could only get a piece of Nick Ritchie‘s shot.
The Leafs went up by three at 14:24 when Matthews — minus his trademark moustache following a shave for charity — took a feed from Marner and went between the legs and back against the grain to roof his team-leading 11th goal, and fourth in as many games.
“He’s such a special player,” Dermott said. “When he’s hot like this, you just want to put the puck … not even on his tape.
“You put it on his backhand — he’ll make magic out of that.”
Colorado got on the board with 1.2 seconds left in the period when Girard blasted a one-timer past Campbell for his second.
The NHL’s second star in November after going 9-2-0 with a league-leading .959 save percentage, the Leafs goaltender made a number of big stops early in the second period.
But the Avalanche finally broke through to make it 3-2 at 11:57 when Kadri — the league’s third star last month thanks to 21 points in 10 games — swept his eighth past Campbell.
The Leafs got that one back just 47 seconds later when Dermott’s fluttering one-timer beat Johansson upstairs for his first.
Campbell then made terrific saves on Logan O’Connor and Alex Newhook in quick succession before Tavares slipped his own rebound through Johansson for his 11th to match Matthews and push Toronto’s lead back to three at 5-2.
But Matthews retook top spot on the Leafs’ stats page when he collected a pass from Marner in tight and outwaited Johansson for his 12th just 46 seconds into third.
The reigning Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy winner then fired his third of the night at 8:41 on a shot that beat the Colorado netminder shortside to continue the onslaught before Engvall and Kadri rounded out the scoring.
“Those first two goals, really good sequences by that line,” Keefe said of the Bunting-Matthews-Marner trio. “Just unbelievable passes by Mitch Marner in both cases.
“On the third one, (Matthews) gets it alone. That’s a pretty good shot … kisses the post.”
Added Campbell: “Auston being Auston. Just spectacular.”
Fans around Scotiabank Arena chanted Matthews’ name after hats rained down on the ice following his hat-trick snipe.
“It definitely gives you chills down your spine,” he said. “It’s just a really special place to play.
“It’s fun when the crowd gets going like that and you play as well we did tonight.”
Notes: The 21 goals the Leafs have scored over their last four games equals the team’s October total. … Kadri’s second goal was the 200th of his career. … Bunting stretched his point streak to five games (two goals, seven assists) to tie Detroit’s Moritz Seider for a longest by a rookie this season. … The Avalanche visit Montreal on Thursday before heading to Ottawa on Saturday. … The Leafs play in Minnesota on Saturday and Winnipeg on Sunday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 1, 2021.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter
MLB locks out players as collective bargaining agreement expires – Sportsnet.ca
IRVING, Texas — Major League Baseball plunged into its first work stoppage in a quarter-century when the sport’s collective bargaining agreement expired Wednesday night and owners immediately locked out players in a move that threatens spring training and opening day.
The strategy, management’s equivalent of a strike under federal labour law, ended the sport’s labour peace after 9,740 days over 26 1/2 years.
Teams decided to force the long-anticipated confrontation during an offseason rather than risk players walking out during the summer, as they did in 1994. Players and owners had successfully reached four consecutive agreements without a work stoppage, but they have been accelerating toward a clash for more than two years.
Talks ended when management negotiators left the union’s hotel about nine hours before the deal lapsed at 11:59 p.m. EST. Players said MLB did not make any new central economic proposals this week.
Commissioner Rob Manfred confirmed that the league had locked out the players in a letter to fans published shortly after the CBA had expired.
“As we began to emerge from one of the darkest periods in our history, our ballparks were filled with fans; the games were filled with excitement; and millions of families felt the joy of watching baseball together. That is why I am so disappointed about the situation in which our game finds itself today,” the commissioner wrote. “Despite the league’s best efforts to make a deal with the Players Association, we were unable to extend our 26 year-long history of labour peace and come to an agreement with the MLBPA before the current CBA expired. Therefore, we have been forced to commence a lockout of Major League players, effective at 12:01am ET on December 2.”
The MLB Players Association responded to Manfred’s letter with a statement of their own, calling the lockout “dramatic” and unnecessary.
“(The lockout) was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just players but the game and industry as a whole,” the union’s statement reads in part. “These tactics are not new. We have been here before, and players have risen to the occasion time and again — guided by a solidarity that has been forged over generations. We will do so again.”
The union demanded change following anger over a declining average salary, middle-class players forced out by teams concentrating payroll on the wealthy and veterans jettisoned in favor of lower-paid youth, especially among clubs tearing down their rosters to rebuild.
“As players we see major problems with it,” New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer said of the 2016 agreement. “First and foremost, we see a competition problem and how teams are behaving because of certain rules that are within that, and adjustments have to be made because of that in order to bring out the competition.”
Eleven weeks remain until pitchers and catchers are to report for spring training on Feb. 16, leaving about 70 days to reach a deal allowing for an on-time start. Opening day is set for March 31, and a minimum of three weeks of organized workouts have been required in the past.
Management, intent on preserving salary restraints gained in recent decades, rejected the union’s requests for what teams regarded as significant alterations to the sport’s economic structure, including lowering service time needed for free agency and salary arbitration.
Many clubs scrambled to add players ahead of a lockout and an expected signing freeze, committing to more than $1.9 billion in new contracts — including a one-day record of more than $1.4 billion Wednesday.
“It did feel like at least certain groups of free agents were moving more quickly the last few days,” Pittsburgh general manager Ben Cherington said.
Two of the eight members of the union’s executive subcommittee signed big deals: Texas infielder Marcus Semien ($175 million) and Scherzer ($130 million).
“This is actually kind of fun,” Scherzer said. “I’m a fan of the game, and to watch everybody sign right now, to actually see teams competing in this kind of timely fashion, it’s been refreshing because we’ve seen freezes for the past several offseasons.”
Much has changed since the 232-day strike that cut short the 1994 season, led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years and caused the 1995 season to start late. That stoppage ended only when a federal judge — future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — issued an injunction forcing owners to restore the work rules of the expired labor contract.
The average salary dropped from $1.17 million before the strike to $1.11 million but then resumed its seemingly inexorable rise. It peaked at just under $4.1 million in 2017, the first season of the latest CBA, but likely will fall to about $3.7 million when this year’s final figures are calculated.
That money is concentrated heavily at the top of the salary structure. Among approximately 1,955 players who signed major league contracts at any point going into the regular season’s final month, 112 had earned $10 million or more this year as of Aug. 31, of which 40 made at least $20 million, including prorated shares of signing bonuses.
There were 1,397 earning under $1 million, of which 1,271 were at $600,000 or less and 332 under $100,000, a group of younger players who shuttle back and forth to the minors.
“Simply put, we believe that an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season. We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time,” Manfred wrote. “This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. It’s simply not a viable option. From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”
Union head Tony Clark, a former All-Star first baseman who became executive director following Michael Weiner’s death in 2013, said players are united and understand the need to stick together to achieve common goals. The sides are still litigating over the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, sniping over how to long the season could have been and taking their positions before a neutral arbitrator.
The union has withheld licensing money, as it usually does going into bargaining; cash, U.S. Treasury securities and investments totaled $178.5 million last Dec. 31, according to a financial disclosure form filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.
“We have a pretty big war chest behind us of money that we can allocate to players,” Scherzer said.
Some player agents have speculated that management’s credit lines already may be pressured following income deprivation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but the clubs’ finances are more opaque publicly than that of the union, making it difficult to ascertain comparative financial strength to withstand a lengthy work stoppage.
Rob Manfred, who succeeded Bud Selig as commissioner in 2015 following a quarter-century as an MLB labor negotiator, made clear last month that management preferred an offseason lockout to a midseason strike.
“We’ve been down this path. We locked out in ’89-’90,” he said. “I don’t think ’94 worked out too great for anybody. I think when you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labor dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season. That’s what it’s about. It’s avoiding doing damage to the season.”
Scott Boras, who negotiated Scherzer’s deal and shortstop Corey Seager’s $325 million contract with Texas, has pushed for the union to insist on change to decrease the incentive for lowering payrolls during rebuilding.
“Sometimes the rules of the game require them to do things that are not in the best interest of the game,” Boras said, “for them to be a better competitor for next year, they have to do things that the rules direct them to do.”
Why the Women’s Tennis Association rallied for Peng Shuai – Aljazeera.com
A prominent Chinese citizen associated with a major international organisation disappears, then a letter is sent stating all is well. The organisation appears to accept the letter at face value although questions remain before the citizen emerges months later under duress.
The circumstances are different but there is a similar thread to the disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who last month accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct, and Meng Hongwei, the former head of Interpol, who disappeared on a trip to China in 2018 and 18 months later pleaded guilty to corruption. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Following Meng’s disappearance, Interpol largely appeared to accept his resignation letter and Secretary-General Jurgen Stock told the Associated Press news agency that the international police body was forbidden by internal rules to investigate.
Things could have turned out the same for Peng, a world-class athlete and Olympian, after a social media post about her ordeal with Zhang was deleted, except that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) immediately began to push back. Prominent tennis players also followed suit, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.
The WTA has also continued to raise questions even after Chinese state broadcaster CGTN shared an email on Twitter – purportedly from Peng – saying that she was “not missing” or “unsafe” and that reports of her allegations were “not true”. She reemerged in public a few days later and spoke to the International Olympic Committee over a now heavily-criticised video call.
“[It] remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said afterwards, stressing that the organisation remained concerned about her wellbeing.
Late on Wednesday, the WTA announced the “immediate suspension” of all tournaments in China and Hong Kong. China hosted nine WTA events in 2019 and a year earlier signed a 10-year deal to host the WTA finals in Shenzhen, according to Reuters news agency.
“It’s really crazy that the Women’s Tennis Association has more credibility right now than Interpol in pushing back on China’s gross human rights abuses, abduction of members of its organisation, and poking holes in what is just thinly-veiled coercive statements and propaganda,” said Michael Caster, co-founder of the human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders, which monitors disappearances in China.
China’s foreign ministry has accused critics and media of “malicious hyping” and politicising Peng’s disappearance from public view.
Meanwhile, Zhang, the high-ranking party member at the centre of Peng’s allegations, has not been seen in public in several weeks, according to Caster.
He described Peng’s situation as part of the same “playbook” used by the Chinese government when concerns are raised about the wellbeing of a citizen or foreigner living in China – from human rights lawyer Wang Yu to Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin who went on to become one of the founders of Safeguard Defenders.
“These farcical public presentations from Peng Shuai are clearly scripted as part of a propaganda effort and we say that because we’ve seen this movie before,” Caster told Al Jazeera.
In announcing the suspension of tournaments, the WTA’s Simon stressed that China’s handling of Peng’s case was not acceptable and should not be allowed to become acceptable.
“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep sexual assault under the rug then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback,” Simon said in a statement. “I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
Game, set, and match to the @WTA in the grand slam for sports and human rights in #China! Steve Simon announces WTA’s decision to suspend tournaments in China… via @WTA https://t.co/LlZ7yW86BQ @hrw @MinkysHighjinks @hrw
— Sophie Richardson (@SophieHRW) December 1, 2021
I applaud Steve Simon & the @WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China & around the world. The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players.
This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports. https://t.co/PHiU0S7Prw
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) December 1, 2021
Other international sporting bodies have already been targeted by Beijing over positions taken by their players and officials.
China briefly stopped airing NBA games after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s 2019 democracy protests and erased Premier League football player Mesut Ozil from the Chinese internet after he spoke out against China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs.
More recently, games involving the NBA’s Boston Celtics have been pulled from broadcast in China as Enes Kanter, their centre, continues to make criticisms about President Xi Jinping and China’s treatment of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet while also voicing support for Taiwan.
Moment of reckoning
The WTA, however, had political momentum and timing on its side allowing the organisation to take a calculated risk, says Simon Chadwick, a professor of international sports business at Emlyon Business School in France.
Peng’s case and allegations of sexual misconduct also come at a moment of reckoning in the sports world over #MeToo allegations and mental health following the public struggles of athletes like Osaka and American gymnast Simone Biles.
“Number one for the WTA is that women and girls are their core business. It’s what the organisation is founded upon and to not be seen as supporting someone who apparently has gone missing would undermine what the WTA does,” Chadwick said.
“My feeling is that the WTA probably made a calculation and decided that it stood to lose more globally by not saying anything, then it stood to lose by essentially standing up to China.”
Chadwick says that despite considerable investments in the Chinese tennis industry, women’s tennis has not taken off there as quickly as the WTA initially anticipated.
Its deal with China has also struggled as a result of the pandemic. So far, Shenzhen has hosted only one WTA finals event in 2019. The 2020 final was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus, and the 2021 event was moved to Mexico following another Covid-19 outbreak in China.
That may give the WTA the kind of latitude unavailable to groups like the IOC, which is due to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in February. That organisation has also suffered as a result of the pandemic with the Tokyo Olympics, pushed back a year and not attended by the usual number of spectators.
Following Peng’s disappearance, the IOC has said it would “continue our open dialogue on all levels with the Olympic movement in China” following questions about Peng, according to the Associated Press.
Emma Terho, the IOC Athletes Commission Chair, said on Twitter that the organisation prefers a policy of “quiet diplomacy”.
Based in the Republican state of Florida, the WTA may have also felt some political pressure beyond Beijing.
Washington is mulling a boycott of the Winter Games protest against human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong, notes Chadwick.
“I wonder to what extent there may have been some political pressure from within the United States put on the WTA to respond in the way that it did. I think from the perspective of the WTA, they reacted very, very quickly… unusually quickly, within a matter of two or three days, he said. “And that is extremely unusual.”
On Wednesday, Simon expressed regret at having to suspend events in China, but he said he was “greatly concerned” at the risks players and staff could face if events were held in the country in 2022.
He once again urged Beijing to prove Peng was free, and able to speak “without interference or intimidation” and to fully investigate the allegations of assault.
“I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”
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