TORONTO – Nick Nurse was in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League last July when he learned the news: Kawhi Leonard, the player most responsible for leading his Raptors team to a championship a month prior, had agreed to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers.
It could have been a time of great distress – and probably would’ve been for almost anybody else in that position – but Toronto’s head coach barely flinched. Instead of wasting energy lamenting what he and his club just lost, he started to think about what they still had, and what he could do with it.
It turned out to be a defining moment for the franchise, which hasn’t missed a beat in the post-Leonard era – finishing the 2019-20 season with the league’s second-best record and the highest win percentage in team history. But for Nurse, it was just another puzzle to solve, another obstacle to conquer.
“It’s kinda like the way I approach a lot of things,” Nurse said on Saturday afternoon, a few hours after learning he had won NBA Coach of the Year.
“It’s not unlike the playoffs – you get in these games, you think the series are going to go long, sometimes you’ve gotta take some of the eventualities of what happened and be able to keep moving. So, that’s it. I think we knew it was a possibility [that Leonard would leave], thought we had a great chance for him to come back considering how the season went, but it wasn’t meant to be. And again, you can’t blame anybody for wanting to go home. But we still have a job to do, and we looked at it as opportunities for the other guys.”
Fresh off a remarkable campaign in which his team overcame the loss of two championship starters – including the Finals MVP – and a barrage of injuries to key players, there was little doubt that Nurse would be named Coach of the Year. Still, he was not expecting the announcement to come when it did, and on live national television.
He had been asked to appear on TNT’s studio show ahead of the afternoon game between Milwaukee and Orlando. He wondered what the popular and award-winning panel of Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal were going to ask him, but didn’t give it too much thought. He’s got other things on his mind – the Raptors can sweep Brooklyn and advance to the second round with a win on Sunday.
Once they started playing a recorded message from his high school basketball coach, Wayne Chandlee, he figured something was up. When Chandlee, who coached him as a ninth grader at Kuemper Catholic School in Iowa, congratulated him on winning Coach of the Year, it nearly brought him to tears.
Fittingly, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet – the first two players that Nurse spoke to after Leonard made his decision last summer – delivered him the trophy. A landslide winner of the award, Nurse received 90 of 100 first-place votes from a global panel of sportswriters and broadcasters.
“It’s been an interesting journey, that’s for sure,” said the Raptors’ second-year head coach. “It’s a humbling award, it really is.”
Nurse had coached all over the world before Dwane Casey and the Raptors hired him as an assistant in 2013. From the British League to Division I basketball, from Belgium to the NBA Development League – he’s won championships and coaching awards at almost every stop.
When Nurse was in his second stint in England, he admits that he considered packing his bags, going home and giving up on coaching for good. He was in his mid-20s at the time, his team was hovering around .500, and he remembers going back to his hotel room and making a list of four things he thought he might want to do instead. It included real estate, accounting, and running a recreation centre.
“They all looked like absolute s— to me, so I figured I better get working on coaching and figure it out,” he joked.
Years later, after Casey was let go and Nurse was interviewing for the Raptors’ job, one of the things that stood out to Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster & Co. was his ability and willingness to improvise and adapt on the fly. Throughout his career, he’s always had to be flexible and go with the flow.
To him, replacing Leonard’s elite production without adding a player at or even close to his calibre didn’t seem all that different from chasing a D-League title with the Iowa Energy and finding out that his star player got called up to the NBA an hour before a big game.
“When you see Nick on the sidelines, that’s who he is as a person – relaxed but so hard working, creative and dynamic, always setting the tone for our team [by] attacking our next championship, rather than defending our last,” Ujiri said in a press release. “That is who Nick is, that is why we believe in him. His journey to this tremendous honour has been a long one – we are so happy to see him recognized this way.”
It’s not a coincidence that this Raptors team has adopted so many of those qualities. They play hard every night but there’s a calmness and quiet confidence to them. They always seem to find a way to figure things out – whether they’re undermanned going into a game, or battling back from a double-figure deficit. Just like their head coach, they never seem overwhelmed. They never panic.
Nurse is laid back – a man that doesn’t seem to let the pressure of a stressful profession get him down. He’s almost always smiling and upbeat. He has a passion for music that rivals his love of basketball. He’ll make references to his time in the D-League and play his favourite Earth, Wind & Fire tracks during practice, yet he’s still able to relate to each of his players.
He also doesn’t beat around the bush. He’s a strong communicator, who is straightforward with his team – and with the media – and tells it as it is. He knows which buttons to push and how to get the most out of his players, which is why so many of them have had career seasons under his watch. In addition to his approach, they can probably identify with his story. Like Nurse, many of the Raptors’ players have had to scrap and claw to get their big break in the NBA.
“I think it’s part of the makeup of a lot of our guys,” Nurse said. That’s hard to manufacture, it’s hard to teach, it’s kind of something that’s in your gut, in your heart, or it isn’t, and we’ve got a group of guys that are like that. Now some of it is contagious and it spreads and I think it becomes part of who we are up and down the roster.”
Nurse has a collaborative coaching style. He takes feedback from his players and tight-knit staff. He’s always thinking outside of the box, looking for innovative ways to defend and to score. There’s nothing, no matter how outrageous it may seem, that he’s unwilling to try on the court. If it can help win games, it’s very much on the table.
“I think that my training gave me a chance to try a lot of different things,” said the 53-year-old. “I guess when I finally did make it to the NBA as an assistant and kinda saw some things, I thought if I ever got a chance to become a head coach, a lot of the things that I tried in some of those back-water places I thought maybe would still work. And that’s probably just the basis for that. But I would say this, too: Masai and Bobby as the leadership of the organization encourage a lot of [that]. They wanted me to go out on a limb or do things different or try to shake things up once in a while, so that also helps you to be able to go ahead and do that.”
The resume speaks for itself. In his first two seasons at the helm, Nurse has led the Raptors to a championship and he’s got them in position to compete for another. But it’s not just what they’ve accomplished that speaks to Nurse’s impact, it’s how they’ve accomplished it. This Toronto team embodies the personality of the man in charge, and that’s the mark of a great coach.
“There’s a player development segment, there’s a way we play defence, there’s a way we share the ball, there’s competitiveness, there’s a never-give-up attitude,” Nurse said. “There’s lots of things that have emerged from this team, but I think that the biggest one is the way we try to go out and play hard and try hard defensively, and how we try to figure things out almost each and every possession, on each and every night. We don’t do it every night, but we come out fighting most nights and that’s the trait that I think I would say we should all be proud of, anybody that likes the Raptors.”
Lightning, Stars ready to make history in unprecedented Stanley Cup Final – NHL.com
It was Media Day at the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, and Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper wore a gray Cup Final sweatshirt in front of a black Cup Final backdrop as he answered questions at the JW Marriott in Edmonton. Maybe on video it looked normal.
It was anything but.
At one point, Cooper heard the voice of Edmonton Journal writer Jim Matheson, whose plaque hangs at the Hockey Hall of Fame as a winner of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for bringing honor to journalism and hockey. Cooper couldn’t see him.
“Jim, did you ask that question on the other side of the fence?” Cooper said. “Are you close by?”
They laughed together, but separately.
Matheson was at his condo, 10 minutes from the hotel meeting room the Lightning and the Dallas Stars used to preview the Cup Final on Friday. Game 1 is at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the best-of-7 series, on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
[RELATED: Complete Stanley Cup Final coverage]
No media were in person at Media Day, just as no media have been in the bubble and no fans have been in the stands this postseason because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Normally, reporters crowd around each other and their subjects at Media Day, jostling for position, shouting questions. This time, whether close by or across the continent, they did what they’ve had to do for months: ask questions via video conference.
“It’s different,” said Stars center Tyler Seguin, who had been through Media Day at the Cup Final with the Boston Bruins in 2011 and 2013. “Someone just said to me outside that this probably must be better, just having to go in a room. But honestly, you definitely miss those days. … There’s so much media and cameras in your face, and that atmosphere’s buzzing. It’s definitely surreal.”
Surreal is an understatement.
After the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association came up with a Return to Play Plan with an unprecedented 24-team postseason tournament.
Twelve teams from the Eastern Conference went into the bubble in Toronto on July 26. Twelve teams from the Western Conference went into the bubble in Edmonton the same day. Now, 55 days later, we’re down to two finalists.
At the time of year we should be playing the preseason, we have two southern American teams playing the Cup Final in a northern Canadian city.
This is historic.
You have to go back 70 years to find the last time Cup Final games were played at a neutral site. In 1950, thanks to a scheduling conflict with a circus at Madison Square Garden, the New York Rangers hosted the Detroit Red Wings in Games 2 and 3 of the Cup Final at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. At least there were fans in the stands.
You have to go back 101 years to find the last time a Stanley Cup series was disrupted by a pandemic. The Montreal Canadiens played the Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in Seattle in 1919, but the series was halted after five games due to the Spanish flu. With the series 2-2-1, the Cup was not awarded. Multiple players got sick. Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall died.
Which brings us to what’s most important.
The goal all along has been to keep everyone safe and award the Stanley Cup with integrity. As of Monday, no one in the bubble has tested positive for COVID-19. As of Friday, we’re eight to 13 days from the Lightning or the Stars hoisting the Cup, and the debate isn’t whether this championship will be legitimate. It’s whether this will go down as the hardest to win in NHL history.
“It’s definitely been a weird season, obviously with everything that’s been going on,” Lightning forward Yanni Gourde said. “It’s been a long season considering we were off for four months, I think. But yeah, we’re grateful that we have this opportunity to play here in the bubble, that we’re still playing hockey for the Stanley Cup.”
Grateful is a good word. None of this has been ideal, not for the media and fans unable to be there, not for the teams and staff isolated from the world to put on the show. But the show has gone on, and we’re set for an emotional finale. After all this, who wants to go home from the bubble without the Cup?
“Usually, we know, we’re dealing face to face with all of you, so everything about that is different,” Stars coach Rick Bowness told reporters at Media Day. “But when it comes right down to it — and this is what we tell our players — this is the game, man. We’ve got to focus on the game. We’re here to win the Stanley Cup.
“All of these things outside of it have changed. It’s all different. But we’re used to that now. We’ve been here for almost eight weeks. But the most important thing is, when you stay focused on the goal, then the goal is the same regardless of the circumstances.”
Stars underdogs against Lightning to open Stanley Cup Final – Sportsnet.ca
The Dallas Stars will look for a fourth straight win when they take on the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final as +135 underdogs on the NHL odds at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.
Dallas has enjoyed somewhat of a Cinderella run in this year’s NHL playoffs, and will make its first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years when the team hits the ice for Saturday night’s matchup at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
The Stars needed six games to get past the Calgary Flames in the first round before stunning the favoured Colorado Avalanche in seven games in the second round. And it wasn’t until they took a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Final that they emerged as steady favourites on the NHL playoff series prices. Now poised to challenge for their second Stanley Cup win in franchise history, the Stars are once again pegged as underdogs on the series prices, sporting +165 odds.
Defensive-minded physical play has been key to the Stars’ playoff success. With goaltender Anton Khudobin rising to the occasion, the Stars limited Vegas to just nine total goals in their five-game clash, and they have allowed an average of just three goals per game since the start of the first round. That has paid dividends for totals bettors taking the under, which went 4-0-1 during the Western Conference Final.
The Stars will need to maintain their stingy play against the high-powered Lightning, who are -155 favourites for Game 1 on Saturday at betting sites. Tampa Bay returns to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2015 after disposing of the New York Islanders in six games. Like Dallas, the Islanders powered their playoff drive with a defensive game plan that limited the Lightning to two or fewer goals in three of the six games in the series.
The Lightning have shown glimpses of their vast offensive potential during their current 12-4 run. And with leading scorer and Conn Smythe Trophy hopeful Brayden Point back in the lineup after missing Game 3 and Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final, Tampa Bay enters Game 1 as -190 chalk on the series prices to win their first Stanley Cup title since 2004.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Tampa Bay is the team’s shaky performance against the Stars this season. The Lightning dropped a pair of one-goal decisions to Dallas, putting the brakes on a dominating five-game win streak in head-to-head matchups in which they had outscored the Stars by a wide 25-8 margin.
Lightning book ticket to Stanley Cup final after OT win knocks out Islanders – CBC.ca
Five years after socially distancing from the Prince of Wales Trophy and losing in the Stanley Cup Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning got their hands on and arms around it to embrace their Eastern Conference championship.
“It didn’t work last time, so we tried obviously touching the trophy this year,” alternate captain Victor Hedman said. “That was a no-brainer for us. We’re not superstitious but obviously didn’t touch it last time, so this year we did. That’s the end of it. We won one trophy and now we’re going for the next one.”
Stamkos, Hedman, Alex Killorn and Ryan McDonagh were the first players to shake deputy commissioner Bill Daly’s hand inside the NHL bubble that has had zero positive coronavirus test results. It mattered to the team’s leaders to have Stamkos there even though he hasn’t played since February.
WATCH | Cirelli’s OT goal lifts Lightning over Islanders:
“We wanted all the team captains up there and wanted Steven a part of it,” McDonagh said. “He’s been a huge part of this run even without playing. Definitely a special moment for that group and then to get the whole team involved: great moment.”
Players and coaches screamed with joy after taking a team photo with Daly. That came minutes after they streamed on to the ice to celebrate Cirelli’s goal 13:18 into overtime.
Tampa Bay ended each of its three series victories in overtime. Winger Patrick Maroon, the only player in the final in back-to-back years after winning with St. Louis in 2019, deadpanned, “My finger nails are gone.”
Only New York lasted more than five games, pushing the Lightning to their limits before their talented core got them into the final.
“We got close,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “We could see the mountain top, but we couldn’t get to the mountain top.”
‘Emotions are so high’
Now the Lightning are four wins from that mountaintop despite being without Stamkos all post-season and missing top centre Brayden Point for two games against the Islanders. They can thank defenceman Hedman for scoring his ninth goal of the playoffs, Nikita Kucherov for playing 28:22 and Andrei Vasilveskiy making 26 saves while his teammates peppered Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov with 48 shots.
And Cirelli, who came back from an injury scare to score the Lightning’s biggest goal in years.
“The emotions are so high,” Cirelli said. “We worked all year. Our goal is to be playing for the Stanley Cup. We’re here now. I think it’s every kid’s dream to be in this situation. I think we’re excited and we’re ready to go.”
Cirelli appeared to injure his right knee on a collision with Islanders captain Anders Lee in the second period. He returned in the third, and coach Jon Cooper said Cirelli was “doing it basically on one leg.”
“Trying not to disclose injuries but it was pretty clear on that,” Cooper said. “For him to come back was pretty remarkable.”
WATCH | Stars eliminate Golden Knights to reach Stanley Cup:
Tampa Bay is trying to win its first championship since 2004. It’s the first time in franchise history the Lightning didn’t play a seven-game series in the conference finals.
It wasn’t easy getting to this point against an opponent willing to rope-a-dope, block shots and wait to pounce on chances. The Islanders got their break in Game 5 to prolong the series when Tampa Bay defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk fanned on a shot to pave the way for Jordan Eberle’s double-overtime goal, but they were on the wrong side of it Thursday.
“We had a chance to win,” said Varlamov, whose 46 saves were a single-season playoff career high. “Disappointing, of course. We want to go to the final and I think we had a chance to go to the final and play there, but we lost. Season’s over.”
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