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CHL leagues at mercy of pandemic, politics while formulating return-to-play plans –



Knowing the Western Hockey League plans to begin play again on Jan. 8 has brought a sigh of relief from Zack Ostapchuk and some of the other players he’s training with in St. Albert, Alta.

“I think everybody is pretty excited,” said Ostapchuk, a 17-year-old forward with the Vancouver Giants. “We were all a little worried that we weren’t ever going to start. Now that we’ve got a date, the energy on the ice and in the dressing room is completely changed. Everybody’s positive now, but I just want to get going.”

Ostapchuk’s enthusiasm may still be tempered by the realities faced by the people operating Canada’s three major junior hockey leagues as they deal with the issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We never know from day to day what the situation is going to be,” said Gilles Courteau, commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. “Every day there’s something new.”

The 18-team QMJHL opened its season Oct. 2, but about two weeks later suspended play in both of its Quebec-based divisions because of positive tests on two teams. Play continued for five of the six teams in the league’s Maritimes division.

The Ontario Hockey League hopes its 20 teams can begin play in December but “there’s no specific date at this point,” commissioner David Branch said.

The Canadian Hockey League announced March 12 it was cancelling the remaining games in the 2020 regular season due to COVID-19. A few weeks later the Memorial Cup, scheduled for Kelowna, B.C., was cancelled.

Players, team officials and executives across Canada were left wondering when junior hockey would return.

“My whole summer has been getting questions I can’t answer,” said Barclay Parneta, general manager of the Vancouver Giants.

OHL commissioner David Branch, above, says the league is aiming to begin play at some point in December but no specifics have been revealed. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

The closed border between Canada and the United States creates problems for both the OHL and WHL which have U.S. based teams.

Travel restrictions within Canada, protecting players’ health and rising infection rates in some provinces have presented more hoops league officials have tried to jump through.

“Without question, it’s the most difficult challenge I’ve ever faced both domestically and internationally in hockey in 40 years,” said Ron Robison, commissioner of the 22-team WHL.

“We never envisioned this. But we are in this together and we have to find ways to deal with it under the circumstances.”

Leagues still aren’t sure exactly how many games each team will play. None have finalized their playoff plans and details for the Memorial Cup haven’t been announced.

A reduced number of fans can attend games in some parts of the country but might not be allowed in other buildings.

The QMJHL hopes to resume playing on Oct. 28 but Courteau said talks are continuing with the Quebec government. Six of the 12 teams are located in red zones, where organized sport is prohibited.

“It’s not determined yet, so I cannot give you an answer,” he said.

The league said Thursday that a player with the Drummondville Voltigeurs had tested positive for COVID-19.

Provincial involvement

Politicians are also throwing a few bodychecks.

In Ontario, provincial sport minister Lisa MacLeod has suggested the OHL should eliminate bodychecking and physical contact if it wants to hold a safe season.

“There’s a lot of things that we are discussing with the provincial government,” Branch said. “The whole package in terms of our return to play will become a critical piece. We’ll just see where that ends up.”

In Quebec, Enrico Ciccone, a former NHL enforcer and now a Liberal Member of the National Assembly has presented a bill to prohibit fighting in sports for athletes younger than 18.

Courteau said QMJHL officials are studying the proposed bill.

Across the country, owners – who already lost revenue from last year’s cancelled games and playoffs – are now facing the possibility of losing more money because of no fans.

“The losses are very, very significant,” Robison said. “It could threaten the ability for teams to be viable moving forward.”

Courteau said the 12 Quebec-based teams in the QMJHL will receive $1 million each from the provincial government to offset some of their losses.

The league’s six Maritimes teams have been allowing fans, ranging from 18 to 25 per cent of the building capacity.

QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau said the league’s 12 Quebec-based teams will receive $1 million each in provincial support. (Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press)

To help formulate its return the WHL appointed Dr. Dhiren Naidu as chief medical advisor. Naidu served as the NHL medical director for the Edmonton hub used during this summer’s NHL playoffs

The WHL has teams stretched across four provinces and two U.S. states.

“There’s lots of challenges associated with the different jurisdictions and the conditions [of] the level of cases and how that’s impacted on the communities where we operate, and the facilities for that matter,” Robison said.

“We’re all aware of the fact that we’re dealing with very unique circumstances. We’re trying to do our best to work our way through this.”

Ostapchuk said the players understand and appreciate the efforts being made for them.

“We just want to play,” he said.

CHL return-to-play plans

A look at how the three major junior hockey leagues hope to return to play during COVID-19

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

Date: League began play on Oct. 2, but Quebec-based teams paused about two weeks later after positive tests on two teams. Hopes to resume Oct. 28

Schedule: The 18-team league is divided into two Quebec divisions of six teams each plus six teams in a Maritimes division. The teams hope to play a 60-game schedule within their own divisions

Playoff Format: TBA:

Fans: Maritime Division teams have been allowing fans, ranging from 18 to 25 per cent of the building capacity.

Western Hockey League:

Date. Jan.8.

Schedule: The 22-team league will be split into four divisions. Seven teams from Saskatchewan and Manitoba will play in the East Division. Five Alberta teams will play in the Central Division. Five B.C. teams play in the B.C. Division. Four US teams will play in U.S. Division. Teams will only play within their division. Exact number of games to be determined but up to 52 games possible.

Playoff Format: TBA.

Fans: Will depend on different jurisdictions.

Ontario Hockey League:

Date: Hopefully December but no specific date yet.

Schedule: Still being developed for the 20-team league, with three U.S. franchises.

Playoff Format: TBA

Fans: To be determined.

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Don’t exploit migrants for politics, pope says on Lesbos visit –



Pope Francis has denounced Europe’s fear and indifference to migrants on his second visit to the Greek island of Lesbos.

Pope Francis has blasted Europe’s indifference to the plight of migrants as the “shipwreck of civilisation” during a visit to a refugee camp in the Greek island of Lesbos.

On Sunday, the leader of the Catholic Church arrived at the Mavrovouni camp, where nearly 2,200 asylum seekers currently reside. He is on the second day of a five-day-long visit to Greece and Cyprus dominated by the issue of migration.

“I ask every man and woman, all of us, to overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns to death those on the fringes,” he said. “Please, let us stop this shipwreck of civilisation.”

Using latin terms, he called for the Mediterranean Sea to remain a bridge between cultures.

“Let us not let our sea (mare nostrum) be transformed into a desolate sea of death (mare mortuum),” he said.

He also condemned the exploitation of migrants for political purposes, lamenting that Europe had entered “an era of walls and barbed wire”.

Pope Francis has criticised the indifference and self-interest shown by Europe towards migrants [Alessandra Tarantino/AP]

The pope last visited Lesbos in 2016, when more than one million people crossed from Turkey into Greece and the island became one of the busiest crossing points. On that occasion, Francis brought 12 Syrian Muslim refugees home with him aboard the papal plane.

No such transfers were announced this time around, but the visit to the camp nonetheless raised hopes among its residents, some of whom have given birth to children while waiting for their asylum claims to be processed.

Enice Kiaku, from Congo, gave birth to Guiliain two years ago. He was born on the Greek island but has no identity documents.

“The arrival of the pope here makes us feel blessed,” Kiaku told The Associated Press. “We have a lot of problems here as refugees, a lot of suffering.”

Francis was greeted upon arrival by a group of African women who sung for him. He patted the heads of children and babies as he toured the camp and posed for selfies.

Pope Francis greeted children in Mavrovouni camp on the Greek island on Lesbos. [Vatican Media/­Handout via Reuters]

He was accompanied by Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas.

Greece has recently built a steel wall along a section of its border with Turkey and is intercepting boats transporting migrants from the Turkish side.

It denies allegations that it is carrying out summary deportations of migrants reaching Greek territory but human rights groups say numerous such pushbacks have occurred.

Francis also listened to the camp’s residents, among whom was Christian Tango Mukaya, a Congolese father of three, who thanked the pope for his show of solidarity and for his appeal to Europe.

The refugee said he lost track of his wife and their third child in their journey and was hoping his visibility with the pope might reunite them.

Mavrovouni is a temporary holding centre pending the construction on the island of a “closed controlled facility”.

These new closed camps, which are funded by the European Union, are already running on three other Greek islands, Samos, Leros and Kos.

Amnesty International has said that new EU-funded detention camps on Greek islands are in violation of Athens’ commitments to provide international protection to those in need.

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Sudan’s al-Burhan says army will exit politics after 2023 vote –



Top general says Sudan’s military will not participate in politics after a civilian government is elected in 2023.

Sudan’s military chief says the army will leave politics after elections that are scheduled for 2023.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan offered the assurance during one of several interviews he gave to international news agencies on Saturday.

The general had led a military takeover in late October, upending Sudan’s transition to civilian-led democracy, but a deal struck on November 21 has reinstated Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to lead a technocratic Cabinet until elections in July 2023.

“When a government is elected, I don’t think the army, the armed forces, or any of the security forces will participate in politics. This is what we agreed on and this is the natural situation,” al-Burhan told the Reuters news agency.

The coup, which ended a partnership with civilian political parties after the toppling of long time ruler Omar al-Bashir, drew international condemnation after the detention of dozens of key officials and crackdowns on protesters.

Neighbourhood resistance committees and political parties have called for the military to exit politics immediately and have rejected any compromise, including the deal with Hamdok. At least 44 people have died during demonstrations, many from gunshot wounds from security forces, according to medics.

“Investigations regarding the victims of the protests have begun to identify who has done this … and to punish the criminals,” al-Burhan said, adding that security forces had only dispersed non-peaceful protests.

Al-Bashir has been jailed since his overthrow on corruption and other charges. Along with several other Sudanese suspects, he is also wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over alleged war crimes in Darfur.

The civilian government dissolved in the coup had approved al-Bashir’s handover, but the military has yet to agree.

“We have understandings with the International Criminal Court for the appearance [of suspects] before the judiciary or before the court,” al-Burhan said. “We have remained in dialogue with the court on how to do right by the victims.”

In the aftermath of the coup, many civilian bureaucrats were dismissed or transferred and replaced with al-Bashir-era veterans in decisions Hamdok has sought to reverse.

Al-Burhan said on Saturday that al-Bashir’s former ruling party would have no role in the transition.

“We will work together so that the National Congress Party will not be a part of the transition in any form,” he said.

Sudan is in a deep economic crisis, though an influx of international economic support had begun to be felt before much of it was suspended after the coup.

Al-Burhan said he expected the backing to return once a civilian government is formed, indicating that the country would not reverse reforms enacted over the past two years by reinstating subsidies or returning to printing money.

“The international community including the African Union is watching what will happen in the coming days,” he told the AFP news agency.

“I believe there are positive indicators that things will return [to how they were] soon. The formation of a civilian government will put things back in order.”

Though Western nations and the African Union have spoken out against the coup, diplomats say Russia, which is seeking to develop a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast, has been cultivating ties with military leaders.

A deal for the base has yet to be finalised, al-Burhan told Reuters.

“We hope that our relations [with Russia] will become stronger with the signature of this agreement,” he said. “Consultations are continuing and we are working on the agreement until it becomes acceptable and legal.”

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Biden and Putin to hold video call on Tuesday, will discuss Ukraine



U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold a video call on Tuesday to deal with military tensions over Ukraine other topics.

Biden wants to discuss U.S. concerns about Russia’s military buildup on the Ukraine border, a U.S. source said on Saturday, as well as strategic stability, cyber and regional issues.

“We’re aware of Russia’s actions for a long time and my expectation is we’re going to have a long discussion with Putin,” Biden told reporters on Friday as he departed for a weekend trip to Camp David. “I don’t accept anybody’s red lines,” he said.

The two will also talk about bilateral ties and the implementation of agreements reached at their Geneva summit in June, the Kremlin said on Saturday.

“The conversation will indeed take place on Tuesday,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters. “Bilateral relations, of course Ukraine and the realisation of the agreements reached in Geneva are the main (items) on the agenda,” he said.

More than 94,000 Russian troops are massed near Ukraine’s borders. Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Friday that Moscow may be planning a large-scale military offensive for the end of January, citing intelligence reports.

Biden will reaffirm the United States’ support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, the U.S. source said. The exact timing of the call was not disclosed. The White House declined to comment.

The U.S. president on Friday said he and his advisers are preparing a comprehensive set of initiatives aimed at deterring Putin from an invasion. He did not give further details, but the Biden administration has discussed partnering with European allies to impose more sanctions on Russia.

Moscow accuses Kyiv of pursuing its own military build-up. It has dismissed as inflammatory suggestions that it is preparing for an attack on its southern neighbor and has defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory as it sees fit.

U.S. officials say they do not know yet what Putin’s intentions are, adding while intelligence points to preparations for a possible invasion of Ukraine, it is unclear whether a final decision to do so has been made.

U.S.-Russia relations have been deteriorating for years, notably with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its 2015 intervention in Syria and U.S. intelligence charges of meddling in the 2016 election won by now-former President Donald Trump.

But they have become more volatile in recent months.

The Biden administration has asked Moscow to crack down on ransomware and cyber crime attacks emanating from Russian soil, and in November charged a Ukraine national and a Russian in one of the worst ransomware attacks against American targets.

Russia has repeatedly denied carrying out or tolerating cyber attacks.

The two leaders have had one face-to-face meeting since Biden took office in January, sitting down for talks in Geneva last June. They last talked by phone on July 9. Biden relishes direct talks with world leaders, seeing them as a way to lower tensions.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Russian Foreign Minister ” Sergei Lavrov in Stockholm earlier this week that the United States and its European allies would impose “severe costs and consequences on Russia if it takes further aggressive action against Ukraine.”

(Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in WashingtonEditing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)

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