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The U.S. might have Canada’s number at the world juniors
For the third time in 12 years, the U.S. beat Canada in a world junior hockey championship final on Canadian ice. Last night’s 2-0 win by the underdog Americans in Edmonton shocked many Canadian hockey fans who had seen their boys roll into the gold-medal game with a 6-0 record while outscoring their opponents 41-4.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise, though. The U.S. came in with a 34-10 goal margin and, in Trevor Zegras, a superstar forward to match Canada’s Dylan Cozens. Zegras scored the second goal last night and assisted on the first to steal both the tournament points title and MVP honours from the guy picked two spots ahead of him in the 2019 NHL draft. And, despite the eye-popping stats posted by Canada’s Devon Levi leading up to the final, the U.S. had the more talented goalie. Spencer Knight, who matched Levi by earning his third shutout of the tournament last night, was a first-round pick in 2019. Levi went in the seventh last year.
Last night’s result also solidifies a trend that Canadian hockey fans might not want to hear. Since Canada’s run of five straight world junior titles from 2005-09, the U.S. has become the best country in this event. The Americans have captured four of the past 12 titles — one more than both Canada and Finland — and won all three gold-medal-game meetings with Canada. The Canadians have the edge in silver medals (4-1) but the U.S. has more bronze (3-1).
The rise of American hockey is also reflected in the women’s game. Canada won four straight Olympic gold medals from 2002-2014, but the U.S. took the title back in 2018. The Americans have also won the past five world championships. At the most recent worlds, in 2019, Canada became the first of the two countries to fail to make the final.
Even though today’s junior stars can become tomorrow’s NHL standouts, the United States’ success at the world juniors still hasn’t bubbled up to Olympic men’s hockey. From 1998 to 2014 (when the tournament allowed NHL players), Canada won three of the five gold medals. The U.S. had only two silvers to show and hasn’t won gold since the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
Could that drought end soon? We’ll see. But a country with that many people and that much wealth can, when it decides to care about something, become a force of nature.
WNBA players may have helped shift the course of U.S. politics
They’re still counting the votes (oh boy) but the respectable American networks are projecting that Atlanta Dream co-owner and U.S. Senator from Georgia Kelly Loeffler has lost her high-profile run-off election to Democrat Raphael Warnock. If that result holds up, control of the Senate (and, essentially, control of federal lawmaking) comes down to the other Georgia run-off — between incumbent Republican David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff. Ossoff declared victory today, but has not yet been projected as the winner.
Should both Ossoff and Warnock seal victory, each party will control 50 Senate seats. The tiebreaking vote belongs to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and the Democrats also have a majority in the House of Representatives. Controlling both chambers of Congress would give Democrats the power to actually pass laws they want once President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
That’s why the stakes were so high in these two Georgia races, and a group of WNBA players grasped this earlier than most. At a time when most people were focused on the presidential election, they began publicly denouncing Loeffler. Some — including Atlanta players — even showed up to games wearing “Vote Warnock” shirts in support of the Black Atlanta church pastor running against her.
Those players despise Loeffler for several reasons. Besides her support of Trump and Trump-adjacent causes (both deeply unpopular in WNBA circles), Loeffler angered many players by criticizing the league’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement because she felt it “undermines the potential of the sport and sends a message of exclusion.”
As the WNBA made sure to let everyone know, Loeffler had already given up day-to-day operations of the Dream. But still, it took guts for the players to call out an owner like that.
It’s tough to say how much of a difference this made at the polls. But ESPN noted today that Warnock was polling at nine per cent in August when the WNBA endorsed him, and Loeffler at 26 per cent. In the November election, Loeffler held steady by getting 25.9 per cent of the vote on the 20-person ballot, while Warnock shot up to 32.9 per cent. The run-off was triggered because no one received at least 50 per cent.
Both parties poured hundreds of millions of dollars and a ton of work into the run-offs. And Trump’s deepening unpopularity may have influenced turnout. In the end, that stuff probably made the most impact. But, if the two Democrats end up being declared the winners as expected, the WNBA players who spoke out against Loeffler can say they made a difference too. A share of the victory belongs to them.
Tennis is back. The women’s season opened today at the Abu Dhabi Open. Due to pandemic-related cancellations, this is one of the few chances for players to tune up for the delayed Australian Open, which starts Feb. 8. From here, players can head straight to Melbourne to quarantine and then participate in a warmup tournament there starting Feb. 1. Or, if they need to qualify for the Aussie Open, that competition will take place in Dubai starting Sunday. The only Canadian competing in the main draw this week is Leylah Annie Fernandez. The world’s 88th-ranked player won her first-round match today in straight sets over No. 96 Jasmine Paolini. Read more about it here.
For the first time in 29 years, a receiver won the Heisman Trophy. Since Michigan receiver and kick returner Desmond Howard got it for the 1991 season, only two guys who played something other than quarterback or running back have been voted the best player in U.S. college football. Michigan cornerback/returner Charles Woodson did it in ’97, and yesterday Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith won the honour. He caught 105 passes for 1,641 and 20 touchdowns and added a rushing TD for the top-ranked Crimson Tide, who are favoured to win the national championship game on Monday vs. Ohio State. Alabama’s No. 2 receiver is Canadian John Metchie III, who made 47 catches for 835 yards and six TDs.
Back to American hockey players for a minute. Another sign of the country’s growing potential in the sport came when Auston Matthews — a guy born in California and raised in Arizona — went first overall in the 2016 NHL draft. The super-talented Sunbelter has lived up to the hype, averaging nearly 40 goals in his four seasons with Toronto — including a career-high 47 last season.
Matthews’ ability to dominate opponents became evident literally right away. In his first NHL regular-season game, in October 2016, he lit up the Ottawa Senators for four goals in the first two periods. The Leafs went on to lose 5-4 in OT, but a star was born.
Craig Anderson was Ottawa’s goalie that night, and he shares his memories of one of the greatest debuts in hockey history in the newest edition of Rob Pizzo’s “I was in net for…” video series:
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Canadiens cruise past Canucks 5-2 and pull into first place in Canadian Division – Montreal Gazette
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The Canadiens’ depth continues to be factor as veteran Corey Perry came off the taxi squad and scored in his first game as a Canadien to give Montreal a 2-0 lead in the second period.
Montreal caught a break when Canucks defenceman Olli Juolevi hit a post and Jesperi Kotkaniemi blocked a shot by Hoglander to start a 3-on-1, which ended wth Perry’s goal.
Tyler Toffoli, who fired wide on an open net on a feed from Perry earlier in the period, picked up an assist on the Perry goal. That gave him five goals and three assists in the Vancouver series.
Nick Suzuki, who was the player the Columbus Blue Jackets coveted when the Canadiens expressed an interest in acquiring Pierre-Luc Dubois, showed why Marc Bergevin was reluctant to make the trade. Suzuki opened the scoring with a quick shot on a pass from Brett Kulak, who picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and led the rush. It was Suzuki’s second goal of the season and he has a point in each of the Canadiens’ six games.
Stanley Johnson turns the tides as Toronto’s defense recovers against the Miami Heat – Raptors Republic
The game, as so many Toronto Raptors games do this season, was drifting out of reach like a released helium balloon. The Raptors had allowed the Miami Heat to fight back into the game during the third quarter, as Toronto’s previous offensive fluidity froze stiff and solid. The Raptors couldn’t break inside the arc. They came to rely on difficult shots. Sometimes they went in, as Chris Boucher hit a triple, then OG Anunoby a late-clock, side-step one of his own. Norman Powell hit a one-legged 18-foot (!) floater.
Such heroics kept the Heat at bay. But if Toronto couldn’t find a way to score against Miami’s zone, then they weren’t going to win the game. When the fourth quarter started, Andre Iguodala and Kendrick Nunn began to heat up for Miami, and the game seemed eerily similar to the first Toronto-Miami game, one in which the Raptors led for much of the game before eventually sputtering before the finish line.
Then Stanley Johnson made his mark.
First he hit a moonwalk triple as he slid back to the right corner and received a pass from the driving Terence Davis. It had been the first instance of paint penetration in what felt like hours; the Raptors had endured yet another stretch of three-plus minutes scoring in the third quarter that allowed the Heat to tie the game at 61-apiece, making this their fourth game of the season with such an ignominious stretch. Yet Johnson’s triple put the Raptors ahead by 11. Even more than that, it was Toronto’s first shot out of a solid offensive possession in the half-court for some time.
Johnson didn’t stop there. A minute later he saw Chris Boucher cutting along the baseline and knifed a pass through the zone for the dunk. To my eyes, it was one of the only baskets Toronto scored all game off a cut. Johnson wasn’t all that impressed with himself and explained it to me in simple terms.
“They’re looking at the people they’re guarding or looking at the ball,” explained Johnson. “So Chris makes a cut, two people looking at the ball, I can throw it right between them.”
“That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s not really difficult to beat a 2-3 zone. I think all of us have played against it our whole lives, but we got to stick to the script and do what we are supposed to do.”
A minute after that, Johnson caught the ball in the middle of the zone. That position had been Toronto’s only chance at good offense against the Heat’s zone throughout the night, and Johnson took advantage. He took one dribble, sucking in the wing defender, and immediately pivoted to hit Anunoby for an open triple, one of the five he hit on the night. Johnson only finished with three points and three assist, but his contributions came at a key point in the game, only a few nights after Toronto folded in a similar situation.
Toronto put the game away as the stars did the last of the heavy lifting. Anunoby flew for a dunk (an alley-oop, in fact, assisted by Jonson); Siakam took a charge; VanVleet stole the ball for a pick-six layup. But it was Johnson who held the team up in the moment when it seemed they may flounder.
Of course, Johnson may have kept the Raptors afloat offensively for one brief stretch, but the team as a whole was a mirror image of itself defensively. Entering the game, Nick Nurse was as curt and forthright as he has ever been with media members.
“Normally you can walk out of there and say at least we were putting an effort out there,” said Nurse. “It’s too bad because I think we played really hard for about six or seven straight games. We were building and building and building and building, and it kind of culminated with that defensive effort against Dallas. And then there was just nothing there the other night. It’s hard to explain. It just happens.
But it’s unacceptable.”
Norman Powell said after the game that it constituted one of the two or three proper bouts of criticism Nurse gives per year. And, according to Powell, it was “definitely warranted.”
To the team’s credit, they responded to Nurse’s public prodding. Siakam played his best defensive game of the season. He played with effort and attention to detail, and with his physical gifts and incredible mind on the defensive end, he is able to stop almost any matchup. He switched freely from guards to bigs, and Toronto was all the better for it.
Siakam wasn’t alone. Aron Baynes played his best game of the season. He bullied Bam Adebayo on the defensive end and grabbed available rebounds with both hands. He finished with two blocks, six boards, and a made triple, as Toronto won his minutes by a solid five points. OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet returned to their brilliant defensive ways. In general, the team was itself again.
If you’re counting at home, Toronto now has two statement wins over good teams in the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat. Yes, ignore the fact that both teams were down approximately half the rotation. But the Raptors are rapidly becoming themselves again. And at 6-9 in the standings, the Raptors are only two games out of fifth place in the East.
The bad vibes that haunted Toronto’s early season may not be over, but it’s clear that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, if we aren’t already there. You can credit Stanley Johnson’s steady and timely play against the Heat as a key reason why the Raptors prevailed in this one, but so too has his solidification in the roster been a key reason why the Raptors may now be out of the tunnel.
Hank Aaron, model of baseball consistency, made showing up for work a heroic gesture – The Globe and Mail
In the first of what would become a volume’s worth of hagiographical profiles written about him in Sports Illustrated, the scene is set with Hank Aaron arriving at spring training. It was 1956. Mr. Aaron was 22.
Mr. Aaron sauntered – the magazine’s word, not mine – up to the plate. He’d borrowed a bat from a teammate. He took no practice cuts. He stepped in and knocked the first three pitches out of the park.
Then he turned to no one in particular and said, “Ol’ Hank is ready.”
No ballplayer in history was more ready for his moment than Henry Louis (Hank) Aaron. He didn’t just singlehandedly pulp the record books. He wasn’t just the best right-handed hitter in baseball history.
What made Mr. Aaron special was that he did those things while a good chunk of the paying public rooted against him, many in the ugliest terms imaginable. He turned the simple act of showing up for work each day into a heroic gesture.
Mr. Aaron’s family announced on Friday that he’d died. No cause of death was released. He was 86.
Just two weeks ago, reporters were on hand as he got the coronavirus vaccine. It was Mr. Aaron’s hope that seeing him get the shot would encourage other Black Americans to do likewise.
“I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” Mr. Aaron told the Associated Press. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”
For the majority of his major-league career, the most remarkable thing about Mr. Aaron was how a player this good could be so unremarkable.
He wasn’t a preener or a showboat. He wasn’t a big, imposing man, or especially fast. When people talked about his superpower, it was his wrists. He had unusually large wrists, allowing him to throw the bat forward like a spinning airplane propeller.
Like many others in his generation, Mr. Aaron came up poor in the Deep South. He taught himself to hit cross-handed – left hand over right. Because he couldn’t afford a bat or a ball, he honed his ability hitting bottle caps with whittled-down sticks.
Mr. Aaron began his pro career as a teenager in the Negro Leagues, five years after Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s colour barrier.
He would later recall a team meal at a diner in Washington. After they’d finished, the waitstaff took their plates into the back and shattered them.
“If dogs had eaten off those plates, they’d have washed them,” Mr. Aaron said.
After a year, he signed with the Milwaukee (later Atlanta) Braves.
Mr. Aaron was not a name-up-in-neon performer. He didn’t put up circus numbers. His calling card was consistency. He had no good years or bad years. He had Hank Aaron-type years, every year.
How consistent was he? Mr. Aaron got most-valuable-player votes in 19 consecutive seasons.
How underrated was he? Despite setting the all-time career marks in runs batted in, extra-base hits and total bases, he was only named MVP once.
Because the Braves weren’t nearly as great as he was, Mr. Aaron didn’t bob to the surface of the American imagination until he was 37 years old. That’s when he began closing in on Babe Ruth’s all-time home-run record.
Mr. Aaron hit his 600th homer in April, 1971. He wouldn’t pass the Babe’s mark – 714 – for nearly three seasons.
During that time, Mr. Aaron became the most famous, the most discussed and the most resented athlete in America.
The racial abuse he faced was medieval. He had to hire an assistant to sort his correspondence – a few fan notes and a great mountain of hate mail.
The bile of his often anonymous persecutors was so overflowing, they started sending death threats to his assistant as well, because she was Jewish.
Some of the threats were so detailed the FBI advised Mr. Aaron to hire a bodyguard. For security reasons, he couldn’t stay in the same hotels as his teammates. He spent some nights bunking alone in empty ballparks. His children required their own protective details.
Mr. Aaron never showed much interest in Mr. Ruth’s record while he was reeling it in, but he refused to be cowed for going to work every night.
“It wasn’t just playing against Babe Ruth,” teammate Dusty Baker said later. “He was playing against parts of America.”
He hit his 713th homer on the second-to-last day of the 1973 season. That extended the chase another six excruciating months. During that time, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote his obituary, just in case.
Mr. Aaron broke the record on April 8, 1974 – the fourth game of the season. He drove the second pitch of an at-bat just over the left-field fence into the bullpen.
The man who surrendered the hit, Los Angeles Dodgers starter Al Downing, had a long and laurelled career. But in that moment, Mr. Downing realized he’d become the answer to an obscure piece of bar trivia.
“If you don’t want to give up home runs,” Mr. Downing shrugged. “Don’t pitch.”
Most baseball fans can recall from memory Mr. Aaron’s loping run around the bases. His parents met him at the plate. Only once he’d laid his eyes on them did he seem excited.
Interviewed a short while later, Mr. Aaron appeared to take little joy in his achievement. The best he could come up with was, “Thank God, it’s over.”
Mr. Aaron played two more years, but his career effectively ended that night. He’d dragged baseball – some of it unwillingly – from one era into the next.
In retirement, Mr. Aaron became one of the game’s wise men. A consensus became to form around him – that he was the professional’s idea of how a professional ballplayer ought to comport himself.
He worked for years in the front office of the Atlanta Braves. He lent his name to charitable causes, especially those involving children. He owned an eponymous string of car dealerships.
Eventually, Barry Bonds – aided by more than bottle-cap practice – overtook Mr. Aaron’s career home-run mark of 755. This was in the teeth of the steroid era. Everyone knew what was going on, but no one could figure out what to do about it.
Mr. Aaron wasn’t there the night Mr. Bonds broke his record, but he did pre-tape a video tribute.
Mr. Aaron – a man who’d built his legend on the simple rule of showing up and doing a day’s work for a day’s pay – never bad-mouthed Mr. Bonds. He also never made much of a secret of what he thought of his approach to the game.
Long after he’d finished playing, Mr. Aaron kept the hate mail he’d received during the pursuit of Mr. Ruth’s mark. He would show it to startled friends, and occasionally sit with it alone in his attic.
“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in this country,” Mr. Aaron told an interviewer in 2014. “The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
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