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IndyCar walks away from the Pocono Raceway

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From the air, the second turn at Pocono Raceway doesn’t seem all that imposing. The corner that left Canadian IndyCar driver Robert Wickens paralyzed – after a horrific accident last year ended his record-setting rookie season – is a broad, sweeping curve with a straightaway on either end.

But at track level on race day, it’s a much different story.

“It’s what’s called a pucker corner,” said Nick Igdalsky, the chief executive officer of Pocono Raceway. “Your whole body puckers up – and you especially know which part in particular.”

At full speed, the banked left turn can give even the most seasoned drivers pause, particularly in a cluster of cars all vying for position, in a swarm of competing interests.

“It’s a corner that gets you,” Igdalsky said. “You’re going in there at over 200 miles an hour. You turn the wheel at any point at 200 miles an hour and it’s going to be a crazy corner.”

Wickens’s life was forever altered there in August, 2018, when he tested the limits of Turn 2 early. On the seventh lap of his debut race at Pocono, he made a move to pass rival Ryan Hunter-Reay. Some saw it as a bold manoeuvre for such an early stage of the race. But for Wickens, it was in-character. He was aggressive and shrewd, and was winning races because of it.

But their tires touched for a split second and Wickens’s car was flung violently into the catchfence, shredding the vehicle to pieces and leaving the sport’s fastest-rising star with a catastrophic spinal cord injury, neck fracture and a host of other serious injuries.

Since then, one question has hung like a pall over Pocono: Is the track dangerous, or just cursed?

Less than a year and a half after the Wickens tragedy, IndyCar has walked away from the storied raceway, seemingly unwilling to wait around to find out the answer.

With three high-profile accidents in the past four years, beginning with the 2015 death of driver Justin Wilson, followed by Wickens’s paralysis and a crash this year on Turn 2 that sent another driver to hospital, Pocono leaves behind a troubled legacy.

Some drivers have called the track unsafe. Others have rushed to Pocono’s defence.

Watching this year’s race on television, Wickens lashed out angrily on social media after witnessing another pileup in Turn 2, which conjured memories of his own accident, and sent driver Felix Rosenqvist to hospital.

“How many times do we have to go through the same situation before we can all accept that an IndyCar should not race at Pocono,” he said. “It’s just a toxic relationship and maybe it’s time to consider a divorce.”

“I think the answer is clear that we should not be here,” driver Sage Karam added. “I think it’s just not meant for IndyCars.”

In 2015, Karam’s car hit the wall at Pocono, scattering parts of the vehicle all over the track. One piece of debris ricocheted off the asphalt at high speed and struck Wilson in the helmet, killing the 37-year-old British driver.

“In my opinion, that question was answered a while ago,” Karam said.

Others in the sport struck back, including retired former champion Mario Andretti, who said Pocono was “not for sissies.”

The bitterness and finger-pointing has exposed a deep divide within the sport, wounds that are not likely to heal anytime soon.

But the man now at the centre of the storm insists the track has been unfairly impugned by the accidents. He insists it is neither cursed nor excessively unsafe, despite the series of events that have unfolded there.

“Yes, it’s a racetrack; yes, it’s dangerous,” Igdalsky told The Globe. “Dangerous more than others? I don’t think so.”

Officially, IndyCar said it left Pocono purely for business reasons. There were greener pastures elsewhere, at a newly renovated track in Virginia. Meanwhile, negotiations with the Eastern Pennsylvania raceway had stalled.

“I don’t really think it was anything in particular,” IndyCar president Jay Frye said in an interview. “It was really just a timing thing.”

But the details are murky. Asked if the issue of safety entered into the negotiations between Pocono and IndyCar, Igdalsky replied: “I’m going to no-comment on that one.”

But as Wickens struggles to teach himself to walk again – hoping to one day compete again, and fighting to not be left behind by the sport – the legacy of his accident is a complicated one.

A year later, the sport is no closer to ensuring any driver would walk away from the same crash if it happened again.

After Wilson’s death, IndyCar mandated a clear ‘aeroscreen’ that will shield the open-air cockpit of the cars starting next season. IndyCar also hopes the screen will prevent other accidents, such as the 2011 death of driver Dan Wheldon, who was killed when his head struck a pole after his car was launched into the catchfence.

However, dealing with the problem of catchfences themselves has been painstakingly slow.

Originally designed to keep cars from flying off the track into the fans, the barriers of steel mesh and poles are designed to absorb energy on impact. But their design also tends to shred cars to pieces – like a cheese grater – sending debris into the track and spinning or snagging the car violently on the fence.

Wickens’s accident was just that. When his car spun like a top into the catchfence, it snagged on the mesh and shattered to pieces, tearing an 80-foot hole in the structure.

While outer sections of the cars are designed to break apart on impact, as a way of absorbing energy to protect the driver’s cockpit, the sudden jarring of the crash is believed to be what left Wickens near death and unable to walk. It is the first time in IndyCar history that a vehicle’s black box data recorder was destroyed on impact, giving an idea of the force of the crash.

But few, if any, safety changes have come as a result of Wickens’s accident – in part because the sport can’t figure out or agree upon what it needs to do with the crash fence.

Proponents of change have argued for a clear Plexiglas structure, not unlike hockey boards, but bigger, that wouldn’t ensnare the cars. However, purists doubt such a structure would be able to sustain a collision and argue the cost is simply too high.

Others put their hopes in future technology, such as the use of magnetic forces that would invisibly keep the cars from flying into the grandstand without the need for a sudden impact. But those are distant solutions that require much technological advancement and money before they become a reality.

“Quite honestly, have you heard of anything other than a fencing system?” Igdalsky said, when asked about safety improvements. “We haven’t. As soon somebody invents it, I’d be happy to take a look at it.”

The only tangible change that’s come from Wickens’s accident, IndyCar said, is the redesign of a small fire extinguisher carried on each car. Previously, the ‘fire bottle,’ as it’s known, had no set place where it had to be mounted in the car, and crash inspectors noticed it came loose during Wickens’s accident. Now, the bottle is mounted in a standard spot near the driver’s feet, so that it doesn’t turn into a projectile.

But it’s not clear if the bottle had any role in Wickens’s injuries, compared with the impact with the fence itself.

With few safety solutions to offer up, IndyCar appears ready to simply move on from Pocono, putting the tragedies and controversy in the rear-view mirror.

For Wickens, the catchfence is both a problem and his saviour.

On one hand, it prevented his car from hurtling out of the track into a grove of trees beyond Turn 2. On the other, it changed his life forever.

“It’s not hidden that Pocono is one of the older tracks in terms of safety and you could see it on the track walks that the fences weren’t quite – I guess you could say, the upkeep wasn’t there,” he told The Globe and Mail this year. “But it’s not that you need a whole lot of upkeep on a fence. It’s either working or it’s not. And the thing is, the fence did everything it needed to do. It kept me in the track.”

“I actually asked that question: What would have happened if I just sailed through it. Because I actually almost went through the fence. There were trees [on the other side]. So what would you rather do? I don’t know.”

Early on, Wickens’s crash prompted renewed talk of safety improvements, but that talk has largely died down.

In many ways, the sport has returned to business as usual: the long-held belief that racing is just inherently dangerous, potentially deadly, and that everyone involved – including drivers and fans – accepts it. Like other racing circuits, from NASCAR to Formula 1, IndyCar knows that risk is part of the attraction. When it comes to attendance and television rights, it’s partly what pays the bills.

“It’s a dangerous sport, yes,” Frye said. “We, as a league and series, do everything we can to mitigate it. And every time you have something happen, you learn something from it and then it’s our job to react to it.”

For Igdalsky, there is a cruel irony to Turn 2 that he argues has been overlooked.

Pocono Raceway, which is more of a triangle with rounded corners than an oval, was built as an homage to other famous tracks in the late-1960s. Turn 2 is a carbon copy of a turn at Indianapolis Speedway, site of the Indianapolis 500.

“The measurements and the physics of the corner are nearly identical,” Igdalsky said. “But people say, ‘Turn 2 is terribly dangerous.’ ”

However, since the track played host to its first race in 1971, the top-end speed of IndyCars has increased by nearly 85 kilometres an hour. Although the physics of the track remain unchanged, the same can’t be said for the cars.

Pocono will continue to play host to NASCAR races, in which the cars are slower and the drivers are less exposed, but for now, no one knows if IndyCar will ever be back. The legacy of Wickens’s accident may, in fact, be the end of an era in the sport.

For his part, Wickens has not moved on from racing. In the fall, he married his fiancée, Karli, leaning on a walker while he recited his vows. The new couple danced, with Karli bracing him as they swayed to the music and Wickens shuffled from side to side. It was a promise he fulfilled to her after the accident, that he would dance at their wedding. At the time of the crash, even some of his doctors thought he would never get there.

Returning to racing is another goal he refuses to surrender.

Last week, Wickens practised learning to walk with a cane, putting one tentative foot in front of the other during his latest round of intense physiotherapy. He’s still a long way off from walking normally, but it’s a start.

“I tried a couple months ago, and I couldn’t even take two steps,” he said on social media. “Today I was walking around at a snail’s pace. It’s days like today that make me want to work even harder.”

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NHL announces massive update to 2021-22 season schedule with games moved due to COVID-19 – CBS Sports

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IMAGN

The NHL has announced an update to the 2021-22 regular season schedule, which will allow all 32 teams to finish their 82-game seasons by the original closing date of April 29.

As a part of the update, there are new dates for all 98 games that had been previously postponed from Nov. 18, 2021 to Jan. 18, 2022 due to COVID-19. In addition, there are date changes regarding 23 other games in an effort to accommodate the new dates for games that were postponed.

The league will use the 16-day period from Feb. 7-22 that was previously slated for the NHL‘s participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics. There will be games scheduled on all 16 of those days.

“We are profoundly grateful to our fans for their support and understanding during a challenging time and to our Clubs, the NHL Players’ Association and the Players for their cooperation in a rescheduling of unprecedented logistical complexity,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a press release.

In addition to these changes, the NHL also revealed that there will be start time changes for the following games:

The NHL had a short pause over the holiday break due to several teams dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks. The league returned to the ice on Dec. 28.

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Stu Cowan: New Canadiens GM Kent Hughes a breath of fresh air – Montreal Gazette

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Montreal native and former player agent calls new job job “the chance of a lifetime” on an emotional day filled with pride and excitement.

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Jeff Gorton wanted to make it clear that Kent Hughes is not his best friend.

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“Nobody would want any of my best friends to be running the Montreal Canadiens, so I would never do that to you,” Gorton, the Canadiens’ executive vice-president of hockey operations, said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon at the Bell Centre to introduce Hughes as the team’s new general manager.

“No offence, but Kent is not my best friend.”

Gorton explained that his relationship with Hughes dates back to when he was an assistant GM with Boston and was negotiating an NHL entry-level deal for Patrice Bergeron after the Bruins selected their future captain in the second round of the 2003 draft. Hughes was Bergeron’s agent and he impressed Gorton.

Over the years, Gorton and Hughes — both living in the Boston area — kept in regular contact, talking on the phone a couple of times a week because Gorton trusted the agent’s opinion on hockey matters and respected him as a person. Gorton called it a professional relationship and added they never socialized together, although Gorton did meet Hughes’s wife, Deena, a couple of times.

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As GM of the New York Rangers, Gorton also selected Hughes’s son Riley in the seventh round of the 2018 NHL Draft.

While they might not be best friends, there’s no doubt Gorton wanted Hughes to join the Canadiens. During Wednesday’s press conference, we learned why.

For someone not used to being in the public spotlight, Hughes shone on the stage set up on the ice at the Bell Centre for him, Gorton and team owner/president Geoff Molson. Hughes answered a variety of hockey-related questions thoughtfully and intelligently for 50 minutes and looked like the GM of a billion-dollar NHL franchise in a sharp blue business suit with a red tie. The 51-year-old was also very, very comfortable speaking French.

Hughes’s life changed dramatically when he walked onto the stage just after 4 p.m. in front of the TV cameras, photographers and journalists. He will never walk the streets of Montreal unrecognized again.

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Hughes said it was an emotional day for him, one filled with pride and excitement, adding he grew up dreaming of playing for the Canadiens but that this was the second-best option. He called this the “chance of a lifetime.”

“Certainly, from an agent perspective I was more of a behind-the-scenes type of agent,” Hughes said. “Having said that, I’m more excited about not who I am publicly, rather the challenges that lie ahead.

“I would describe myself as a hockey junkie,” he added. “I always have been. I’ve worked in the sport, I’ve coached in the sport. I’ve coached without my own children as part of it and my wife will tell you that if I’m not coaching or working in hockey I’m talking about hockey. So for me the public part of it is what it is. The excitement is the hockey piece.”

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Eleven candidates were interviewed for the job, but Gorton was hoping Hughes would be willing to leave his lucrative player-agent business to become GM of the team he grew up cheering for. Gorton approached Hughes at the beginning of the search process and he needed time to think about it. Near the end of the process Gorton went back to Hughes and then it was a matter of “leaving him alone and letting him come back to me.”

As GM of the Rangers, Gorton had tried to get Hughes to join him in New York, but the timing wasn’t right for him from a business or a family standpoint. While pondering whether to take the Canadiens job, Hughes got a call from his friend Bill Guerin, who is GM of the Minnesota Wild.

“Kent, it’s the New York Yankees, it’s the Dallas Cowboys, it’s the Montreal Canadiens,” Hughes said Guerin told him. “Come on! You don’t have a decision.”

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Now Gorton and Hughes can start the very difficult job together of rebuilding a franchise with a record 24 Stanley Cups that sits in last place in the overall NHL standings. Hughes is going to take some time getting to know the players both on and off the ice ahead of the March 21 trade deadline.

Hughes said the choice of words — rebuild, retool, reset — isn’t important. He noted the team that wins the Stanley Cup every year isn’t necessarily the one with the most talented players. He wants to create an environment people want to be a part of and build a team culture where everyone is pulling in the same direction. He’s not looking to win for just one or two years, but to create an environment where the team can compete for many years to come.

“I think when we set out, ultimately I wanted somebody … our committee wanted somebody that was a really good hockey person that would complement my skills or my skill set as well as we could and I think that’s what we’ve done,” Gorton said. “I’m really confident in that.”

I can see why — even if Hughes isn’t his best friend.

scowan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/StuCowan1

  1. Kent Hughes, centre, listens to Jeff Gorton, the Canadiens' executive vice-president of hockey operations, left, as owner Geoff Molson looks on.

    New Canadiens GM Kent Hughes passes first test with the team

  2. Kent Hughes walks across the Bell Centre ice after a news conference introducing him as the Montreal Canadiens' new general manager in Montreal on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.

    What the Puck: Canadiens turn page with Kent Hughes

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Soccer-USMNT embrace the cold as World Cup qualifying heats up

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Bone chilling conditions are forecast for the next three U.S. men’s national team World Cup qualifying matches and the players on Wednesday said they were excited to battle the elements and their opponents.

Snow, frigid wind and sub-zero temperatures will likely greet the USMNT when they host El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio on Jan. 27, take on Canada in Ontario three days later, and close out the window against Honduras in Saint Paul, Minnesota on Feb. 2.

Defender Walker Zimmerman said the prospect of cold weather brought back memories of the USMNT’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica in March 2013’s Snow Clasico in Colorado.

“I’m really excited,” Zimmerman told reporters on a call.

“I was talking to my wife over the break and I was saying, I want it to be freezing, I want it to be cold, I want it to snow. I want to be part of something so iconic, something like that game that I really remember seeing when I was growing up.

“And I think the guys are ready to embrace it.”

Forward Paul Arriola said he and his team mates have played in cold weather before and trust in their support staff to help them get ready.

“The staff on the national team do a tremendous job, and we have full confidence in them to prepare us,” he said.

“And we have our own duties as professional players and players on the national team to be ready for every possible condition.

“We’ll embrace the cold, and it will be a really good environment for the fans as well.”

The U.S. are second in the standings for the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers with 15 points, a point behind Canada and one ahead of rivals Mexico.

The top three in the eight-team group qualify automatically for Qatar 2022 with the fourth-placed finisher going into an intercontinental playoff for another spot.

The team are eager to put behind them the humiliating loss they suffered at the hands of Trinidad and Tobago in 2017, which prevented them reaching the World Cup in Russia and led to a complete rebuild.

 

(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Toby Davis)

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