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Canucks remain hopeful home games in Vancouver will be allowed –



VANCOUVER — The West Coast was getting soaked Monday, but one of the biggest torrents was the flow of Vancouver Canucks players returning from abroad for another extraordinary National Hockey League season. They just don’t know yet if any of their 56 games will actually be at home.

There is a lot of fine print to the NHL’s return-to-play agreement with its players. But the blaring headline in Canada is: Where will they play?

With the American border still closed indefinitely and domestic travel advisories growing stricter, the Canucks and other teams in the all-Canadian North Division are still in discussion with provincial and federal health authorities for permission to play games home and away.

In British Columbia, hockey proved a tough sell last spring when the NHL was negotiating for sites to stage its Stanley Cup playoffs. Vancouver was in as the Western Conference bubble city until the league found health officials in Alberta more compliant.

But Canucks general manager Jim Benning remains hopeful this time ahead of more critical discussions this week.

“It’s exciting because with this Canadian division, every game is going to have a playoff feel to it,” Benning told Sportsnet. “Those games against Canadian teams are always exciting and the way the schedule is set up, where you play a team two or three times, it’s almost like a mini-playoff series. And when you look at those Canadian teams, every team has a couple of those high-end superstars. I think it’s going to be fun for the fans to watch.”

But it will be a lot less fun for the Canucks — and harder to win those mini-playoff series — if they need to play their “home” games in Edmonton.

“We’re working with the provincial government and federal government to work out any concerns and questions that they have so we are able to play our games out of Vancouver,” Benning said. “With the rules that we have in place for the players, the safety protocols, the players getting tested every day… they’re doing everything they can to be safe for themselves and the communities we fly into. Hopefully, that’s enough to get the confidence of the provincial people and we get to play in our home rink.”

Benning declined to say anything more about where-to-play discussions with the government. Clearly, it is a sensitive issue.

Anyone in Vancouver can get on an airplane and fly to another NHL city in Canada.

They are subject, of course, to provincial health guidelines in each jurisdiction. In Manitoba, this means domestic air passengers arriving from east of the province are subject to quarantine. The Ontario government announced Monday a full lockdown starting Dec. 26.

But airports are open, airlines are running and in most places visitors arriving by air from another Canadian city can make their way to a hotel, go out for a meal or at least takeout, and shop at whichever stores are open.

Certainly, you are allowed to explore the city. Wander around beautiful old Montreal, stroll by the Parliament buildings or Rideau Canal in Ottawa, watch the ice build on the North Saskatchewan River in downtown Edmonton. And you can do all this without anybody testing you for COVID-19.

Yes, there are health screenings, questionnaires, and a temperature check before you board your commercial flight, on which you may be wedged into a middle seat between strangers for several hours. You must wear a mask. But nobody is sticking a swab up your nose in order to travel.

The NHL and its players have agreed on more stringent travel guidelines.

On the road, players will be allowed to leave their hotel for walks and fresh air, but cannot enter a retail establishment. There will be no dining out, no shopping. All meals will be taken at their hotels, and air travel will be exclusively on chartered aircraft, essentially giving teams full control over their isolated environments while in transit. Players won’t be walking through crowded concourses or standing elbow to elbow with other travellers at the baggage carousel before lining up for taxis or waiting for their Uber.

And amid all this, unlike the rest of us, players will be tested and monitored constantly for COVID-19.

It is worth remembering that the league conducted an entire, expanded Stanley Cup playoff last summer in Toronto and Edmonton without a single COVID-19 case arising from 33,174 tests conducted on players and team personnel.

Granted, this tournament was carried out in hugely restrictive bubbles that players are unlikely to ever again submit to, and occurred before the monstrous second wave of this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic thundered ashore.

But there should be little doubt about the NHL’s ability to create a work environment that is far safer than that of nearly any other workforce, nor of the willingness of players to adhere to guidelines.

There are obstacles, protocols to negotiate, of course. But it seems the biggest challenge for governments is optical.

You and I may be able to fly about the country even if provincial authorities recommend against it. But how will it look to have NHL teams jetting around for games when non-essential travel is being discouraged?

Would it be easier for the Canucks to be granted approval for home games in Vancouver had a team of Kelowna beer-leaguers not ignorantly travelled in November to a tournament in Alberta, presumably doing beer-league things before and after games, and bringing a big shipment of coronavirus back to B.C.? Possibly.

That trip of fools brought an uncharacteristically blunt rebuke from the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, who said: “There’s a hockey team in the Interior that travelled to Alberta and has come back and now there are dozens of people who are infected and it has spread in the community. We need to stop right now to protect our communities and our families and our health care workers.”

Nobody would argue that. But to equate the risks generated by a travelling beer-league team to what the NHL is trying to do is not only unfair, but absurd.

For most of us awaiting vaccination, one of the safest places to be in Canada this winter would be with an NHL team. But they’re not letting in outsiders. They’re too careful for that.

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72 players now in quarantine amid COVID-19 issues before Australian Open – Yahoo Canada Sports



The Canadian Press

Browns, Mayfield expecting to build upon 2020 successes

CLEVELAND — On their wild ride of an unforgettable, almost unimaginable 2020 season when Zoom calls, masks and contact tracing were daily fixtures, the Browns discovered two things that point to a bright future for an awakened franchise. They’ve got the right coach and the right quarterback. After years of being beaten and beaten down, the Browns have climbed back. While Sunday’s 22-17 loss in the divisional round to the Kansas City Chiefs — and Rashard Higgins’ costly fumble on a controversial play at the goal line — felt like so many other painful playoff moments and losses for the Browns and their fans, this one is different. Not an ending but a beginning. “We’ll be back,” quarterback Baker Mayfield claimed after the Browns, who won 11 games in the regular season and their first playoff game in 26 years, pushed the defending Super Bowl champions to the limit. “We aren’t done yet, and that is the best part.” Mayfield’s maturity in his third NFL season, and first working with rookie coach Kevin Stefanski, gives the Browns reason to believe they have entered a period when they should contend for years. Mayfield improved as much as any player in the league, ending any discussion about whether the Browns should commit to him long term. “He’s continued to grow as a player and as a person and as a leader,” Browns centre JC Tretter said Monday. “That’s what you need, and Baker’s growth is not yet done. He’s not a finished product and he’d be the first one to tell you that.” The Browns are expected to exercise Mayfield’s fifth-year contract option this off-season, and the team will explore an extension over the next few months with the 25-year-old quarterback who finished with 30 touchdown passes, nine interceptions and 4,030 yards in 18 games. Stefanski’s role in Mayfield’s development while guiding the Browns (12-6) through a season shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, can’t be overstated. One of his first objectives after coming to Cleveland was to connect with Mayfield, knowing the QB/coach dynamic is essential to success. Stefanski bonded with Mayfield right away and they grew tighter as the year progressed. Stefanski brought out the best in his young QB, who threw 20 TD passes and only three picks in his last 12 games. “Once he started getting comfortable with what we were doing and once I was using more concepts that he was comfortable with, he really started playing at a high level,” said Stefanski, among the leading candidates for Coach of the Year honours. “I am proud of the progress he made.” Stefanski, perhaps knowing negotiations will be upcoming, stopped short of calling Mayfield a franchise QB. “He did the things we asked him to do,” he said. “He definitely led this football team from Day 1. We have a bunch of ball games to look at with him and find out ways that he can get better, but in terms of the ‘franchise quarterback’ thing, I do not even know necessarily what that means.” It means everything for a team that went through 29 starting QBs before Mayfield arrived. Before landing Stefanski, the Browns cycled through six coaches in the past decade. But the unflappable 38-year-old Stefanski seems perfectly suited for a team with young core stars — Mayfield; defensive end Myles Garrett; running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt; left tackle Jedrick Wills; and cornerback Denzel Ward are all 25 or younger — who appear primed to make a long run together. In Cleveland, there’s hope, not hopelessness. DEFENSIVE HOLES The Browns’ defence needs an overhaul. Co-ordinator Joe Woods spent the season plugging holes after injuries to rookie safety Grant Delpit (torn Achilles tendon) and cornerback Greedy Williams (shoulder) in training camp, and run stuffer Andrew Billings’ decision to opt out due to COVID-19, costing Cleveland three projected starters. The linebacking corps needs an upgrade and end Olivier Vernon probably won’t be re-signed as a free agent. Cleveland, which normally picks at the top of the draft, has the No. 26 selection to find help. BECKHAM’S FUTURE The Browns’ emergence and playoff run happened without star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 25 in Cincinnati. While Beckham’s talent isn’t debatable, there’s no denying Mayfield played his best when Beckham wasn’t around. His $12.8 million salary for next season becomes guaranteed in March, so it may be tough for Cleveland to trade Beckham while he’s rehabbing. For now, Stefanski made it sound like he wants OBJ in his offence in 2021. “I’m excited to get him back here,” Stefanski said. “I know it was not easy for him being away from his teammates, especially as these games got bigger and into the playoffs. I know he definitely wanted to be a part of it.” OTHER BUSINESS Browns general manager Andrew Berry has some other decisions to make with several free agents, including defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, linebacker B,J. Goodson and Higgins. The 30-year-old Vernon tore an Achilles tendon in the Browns’ regular-season finale and probably won’t return. Ogunjobi’s been solid, but the Browns have depth in the middle with Billings, Sheldon Richardson and rookie Jordan Elliott. Goodson emerged as a leader in his first season with Cleveland. Then there’s Higgins, a fan favourite and go-to target for Mayfield. He had five catches for 88 yards on Sunday, but his fumble while reaching for the goal line before halftime was a major turning point in a game the Browns could have won. ___ More AP NFL: and Tom Withers, The Associated Press

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Maple Leafs avoid disaster scenario with Jason Spezza clearing waivers – Yahoo Sports



Welcome to our weekly tour of the NHL’s North Division. Fingers crossed that this column will live beyond this season. Do it, NHL. It’s best for everyone.

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 13:  Jason Spezza #19 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Montreal Canadiens during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on January 13, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 5-4 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON – JANUARY 13: Jason Spezza #19 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Montreal Canadiens during an NHL game at Scotiabank Arena on January 13, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Maple Leafs defeated the Canadiens 5-4 in overtime. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

When Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as coach of the Toronto Maple leafs less than two months into the 2019-20 NHL season, many of the things he’d say after practice and games seemed to serve as a good ol’ fashioned subtweet towards the man who held the seat before him.

Expressing care and compassion for his players and going out of his way to put them in positions to create special moments they can look back on fondly when their careers are finished, Keefe’s words often belied the actions we saw from the former Maple Leafs coach, who in many ways had a distaste for sentimentality.

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 13: Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs guards the net with teammate Jason Spezza #19 against Jesperi Kotkaniemi #15 and Joel Armia #40 of the Montreal Canadiens during the third period at the Scotiabank Arena on January 13, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 13: Frederik Andersen #31 of the Toronto Maple Leafs guards the net with teammate Jason Spezza #19 against Jesperi Kotkaniemi #15 and Joel Armia #40 of the Montreal Canadiens during the third period at the Scotiabank Arena on January 13, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jason Spezza will remain with the Leafs. (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

No subject laid these facts bare more accurately than Jason Spezza, who Babcock chose to scratch on opening night last year, denying the veteran the opportunity to experience something special versus his former team — the visiting Ottawa Senators.

In what almost seemed like an effort to make up for the loss of that moment, Keefe started Spezza on a matinee game two days before Christmas last season, on a hunch that his four daughters would be in attendance that afternoon.

As it went, Spezza scored on that opening shift. The special moment once lost, Spezza now had for his family.

Not to paint Keefe as cold in any way, but now one year later it seems we’ve learned a little bit about why the Leafs coach made a concerted effort to make members of the organization feel a certain way — and it was not to criticize or challenge a previous regime.

He’s suggested in his media appearances this season that he believes the team he inherited was, if not broken, seriously fractured. Because of this, he believed his only option in his first weeks and months on the job was to try and improve the feeling and atmosphere around the group. If not the music blaring through the speakers while the team practiced, that at least explained Keefe’s focus on accentuating the players’ strengths, not always attacking their weaknesses.

Fast-forward to now, treading lightly has not been one of Keefe’s mandates in his first full(-ish) season at the helm.

He’s not stroking egos, instead challenging his star players to show more than what they have; he’s revealed that he’s stickler for habits and details, perhaps to the extent that Babcock was; and he’s demanding more from the team’s workouts, changing the foundation in which the club’s on-ice sessions are built around. What’s also true is that as a leading voice in the conversations around roster construction and salary cap manipulation, Keefe, and by extension the Maple Leafs, appear willing to make unpopular decisions, to get blood on their hands.

On Sunday, Spezza, the same player who Keefe and the Maple Leafs management team seemed to believe was owed something for the mistreatment he received previously, was placed on waivers three games into the season, offered up for free to any team that might have interest.

Now, Toronto’s intentions weren’t to show malice, or even to cut ties. Instead, it was a move required to maximize the flexibility on a roster being restricted by the rules governing the salary cap. But regardless of why the decision was made, the reality was that the Leafs made the decision to surrender control of what remains of Spezza’s fabulous career.

Powerless to the decisions of 30 other teams, Spezza’s only defence in preserving the life he and his family chose — which was, accepting less money to settle in his hometown — was his agent desperately working the phones, asserting that his client would simply retired if claimed by another team.

Thankfully, not a single team was convinced the agent was bluffing. Spezza went unclaimed on the open market (though it’s possible that would have happened anyway), preventing an 18-year career from ending on a waiver-wire transaction. Now he’ll be in the Leafs lineup Monday night versus the Winnipeg Jets.

Leafs fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief, and so too should the team’s braintrust.

Because the opportunity that Babcock stole from Spezza would not compare to making the decision that would prevent one the game’s most respected veterans, and a former superstar in the league, from not only exiting the game the way he should, but being blindsided by the end of his playing days.

And elsewhere up north:

Montreal: Would you include Nick Suzuki or Alexander Romanov in a trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois? As much as I believe that PLD would elevate the Canadiens, reaching that next tier may be an opportunity that only exists with Suzuki and Romanov remaining in the fold. The partnership Suzuki has created with Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson is so exciting, while Romanov looks like a 10-year veteran on the blue line, having exceeded 22 minutes in his debut. These two players hold the key to meeting the preseason hype. That’s worth seeing through for Marc Bergevin.

But Jesperi Kotkaniemi on the other hand….

Ottawa: How can you not be encouraged by this start? Ottawa split its first two games in 10 months — against the Maple Leafs, no less — and actually came away with a plus goal differential.

And more importantly: Tim Stutzle, y’all.

That’s an unbelievable debut goal.

Toronto: Best sign through three games for the Leafs? John Tavares is flying out there.

Winnipeg: If Patrik Laine decides that his means to earn a trade out of Winnipeg is to score the lights out, we’re in for some serious entertainment. That was special, singular stuff from the Finnish sniper — on and off the ice. It’s too bad he’s already dealing with an injury, though.

Calgary: If this were a ranking of the seven Canadian teams, I would have touched on the Flames first. Just one win through two games, but massive potential shown already with Jacob Markstrom holding things down in net.

Edmonton: It’s crazy how upgrades in net just seem to escape this team. The Oilers went big-game hunting for a goalie over the summer and ended up bringing back Mike Smith. And in their desperate attempts to bring in a third goaltender with Smith on the shelf, they have dudes flying in from Austria and California over the weekend — and are therefore subject to quarantine rules — while Aaron Dell (already in Canada) is claimed by the New Jersey Devils one day later. It’s just not breaking right for the Oil in net, an area that could be the difference in making or not making the playoffs.

Vancouver: I’d be concerned, frankly. The Canucks have seemed second-best in terms of talent in both of their matchups so far this season, having faced the Oilers and Flames to this point. J.T. Miller will help in this regard, obviously, but this team has the look of one that could be overmatched on most nights.

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Maple Leafs avoid disaster scenario with Jason Spezza clearing waivers – Yahoo Canada Sports



The Canadian Press

Confident Buccaneers defence reverts to form at right time

TAMPA, Fla. — Tom Brady’s quest for a seventh Super Bowl ring continues, thanks to a young defence that’s regained its swagger when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed it most. The Bucs (13-5) advanced to the NFC championship game for the first time in 18 years, with Brady outplaying Drew Brees with plenty of assistance from a rejuvenated defence that forced four turnovers in a 30-20 divisional playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints. Brady threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third, finishing scoring drives of 3, 40 and 20 yards set up by takeaways by a unit many felt would be a liability in the third meeting of the season between the NFC South rivals. “They played incredible,” said Brady, who is headed to his 14th conference title game — first in the NFC. “This team has been doing that all year at different times,” the 43-year-old quarterback added. “The defence has picked us up, some weeks the offence has been a little bit better. Special teams has been so consistent. The way the defence played (Sunday), they were spectacular.” New Orleans had won five straight over Tampa Bay, including a pair of lopsided wins this season. While the Bucs led the NFL in run defence for the second straight year, a young secondary featuring three starters in their first or second seasons seemed to regress during a stretch in which Tampa Bay dropped three of four games in November. Despite going 4-0 over the final month of the regular season and beating Washington in the NFC wild-card round, questions persisted about the pass defence heading to New Orleans, where Devin White, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Mike Edwards had interceptions and rookie Antoine Winfield Jr., forced a fumble that White scooped up to position Brady to throw a tying TD pass in the third quarter. “We’ve been fighting adversity all year … battling the naysayers and those that say we can’t do things,” Murphy-Bunting said. “I know one thing,” White, a second-year linebacker who was the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft, added. “We might be young, but we can get after it when we’ve got our minds set to it.” Brees was limited to 134 yards and one TD passing, while Saints star receiver Michael Thomas was held without a catch. NFL touchdown leader Alvin Kamara had 105 yards from scrimmage, but failed to get into the end zone. New Orleans scored early in the third quarter to take a 20-13 lead. Four possessions the rest of the way ended fumble, punt, interception and interception. Now, it’s on to Green Bay for a matchup against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The Bucs will need another strong defensive performance. “It’s hard to get to this point,” Brady said. “There’s nothing guaranteed from this point forward, but we’ve got to go out there and we’re going to have to play our very best to beat one of the best teams in the league.” WHAT’S WORKING A huge part of advancing to the NFC championship game for the fourth time in franchise history was Brees turned the ball over and Brady didn’t after throwing five of his 12 interceptions against the Saints during the regular season. The Bucs have won six straight since their bye week in early December, and they’ve only turned the ball over twice during that stretch. WHAT NEEDS HELP Although Brady lauded the overall consistency of the special teams this season, New Orleans’ Deonte Harris returned a punt 54 yards to set up an early field goal. Minutes later, Harris had a 67-yarder for an apparent touchdown nullified by penalty. STOCK UP When it looked as if New Orleans might have an opportunity to take control of the game, Winfield — son of former NFL cornerback Antoine Winfield, Jr. — forced the third-quarter fumble that shifted momentum to Tampa Bay’s favour for good. “I can’t say enough about him,” coach Bruce Arians said. “To me, he’s the defensive rookie of the year.” STOCK DOWN A rare week when mistakes didn’t mar an otherwise impressive performance. INJURED Receiver Antonio Brown suffered a knee injury against the Saints. He had a MRI on Monday. KEY NUMBER One, as in one more road victory needed to become the first team to appear in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. This year’s NFL title game will be played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, on Feb. 7. NEXT STEPS A chilly date with the Packers in Green Bay, where the weather forecast is for temperatures in the mid-20s and snow. “You’ve just got to have some mental toughness, wear some warm clothes and be ready to go,” Brady said. “We’ll be prepared. The team that plays the best is going to win.” ___ More AP NFL: and Fred Goodall, The Associated Press

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