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Maple Leafs’ Spezza cherishing fan support, chance to chase Stanley Cup – Sportsnet.ca

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TORONTO — Jason Spezza is of the vintage where his early hockey wasn’t all of the organized variety. He actually grew up skating on some of the 50-plus outdoor rinks around the city.

“Lots of memories from the outdoor rinks in and around Toronto,” he said. “Lots of time outside.”

It was getting out in the open air and having a few laughs that he most cherished about Thursday’s Maple Leafs practice in front of a large gathering of fans at Nathan Phillips Square.

In fact, this is part of what drew Spezza home for his 17th NHL season.

Fans watch the Toronto Maple Leafs during an outdoor three-on-three game at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Thursday, January 9, 2020. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The one-year contract he signed for a league-minimum $700,000 brought him close to family and provided a cherished opportunity to chase the Stanley Cup, but it also gave him a chance to live life inside the NHL’s largest fishbowl. To rekindle an allegiance he built as a kid and abandoned as a top draft choice who became a star in Ottawa.

To experience an afternoon where a significant number of citizens abandoned their day-to-day responsibilities in order to ride the subway alongside the Maple Leafs or watch them skate beside city hall.

“I’ve been around the league for a long time so I know how strong the Leafs fans are, but going to the visiting arenas and seeing all the fans, that’s something I’ve never experienced, said Spezza. “So that’s pretty cool to see the support we get all around the league and really it motivates you to want to do well because it shows that something can be pretty special if we can continue to win.”

After a tumultuous start that saw him scratched by former coach Mike Babcock for the home opener, Spezza has carved out a niche for himself here. He gives Sheldon Keefe a reliable right-handed faceoff option — basically the only one on the roster. And he’s been surprisingly productive in a depth role, producing 2.31 points per hour to rank third among regular skaters behind Auston Matthews (2.59) and Ilya Mikheyev (2.44).

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Martin Marincin, left, Maple Leafs centre John Tavares, back centre, and Maple Leafs defenceman Cody Ceci, right, watch the puck fly over the net during an outdoor three-on-three game at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Thursday, January 9, 2020. (Nathan Denette/CP)

During Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, Spezza was even successful on his shootout attempt — making him 2-for-2 in the skills tiebreaker this season.

Not bad for the NHL’s fifth-oldest forward and one of his team’s lowest-paid players.

Especially when you factor in that Keefe believes Spezza’s most significant contributions come in ways that can’t be quantified by statistics. Stuff like the presence that comes with having nearly 1,100 NHL games on the resume, or the institutional knowledge gathered while spending nearly half of your 36 years in pro hockey.

“The experience to me is the biggest one,” Keefe said. “Experience in the league, experience in various situations, experience in relationships with the officials. Just an older guy.”

Kasperi Kapanen, one of Spezza’s wingers, calls him the “brains” of a line with Pierre Engvall.

Spezza has been around the NHL long enough that he played against Kasperi’s father, Sami. And he still possesses the ability to create room for his speedier wingers by drawing defenders towards him in the middle of the ice before distributing the puck.

“It’s a huge honour to play with a guy like him,” said Kapanen.

The honour flows both ways.

Spezza remembers taping his father Rino’s old brown leather goalie pads as a kid to look like those of Felix Potvin. He recalls the excitement that came with Doug Gilmour’s arrival in Toronto and the team’s back-to-back runs to the conference final in 1993 and 1994.

He understands the connection between the team and the city after growing up in Mississauga, and at least has some idea about the unique chance the current-day Leafs possess with a strong roster that has reversed course after a choppy start.

“[He’s] just a great example, I think, around the locker-room,” said Leafs captain John Tavares. “For a guy that’s been highly touted for a long time, has had a great career, was a go-to guy for how long and really came in accepting a lesser role and understanding the opportunity here.

“For a lot of us … he really sets that example that these opportunities don’t come very often and he really believes in this group.”

He’s the kind of guy who finds an easy smile even when they take practice outdoors on a chilly January day.

When the sands of time are slipping through your fingers, and you’re still living out your childhood dream, there is no such thing as inconvenience.

All Spezza sees is a chance to make more lasting memories.

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Transition game — three vignettes from Darnell Nurse's "quiet" road trip – Edmonton Journal

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Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse always seems to be under the microscope, and that trend has continued into the 2021-22 season in the wake of the big defender signing an 8-year, $74-million extension over the summer. A ferocious competitor gifted with size, speed, and skill, Nurse has always had his share of critics. Nowadays he is frequently referenced as “our $9 million d-man”, often with a tinge of disdain in the voice of the speaker or the context of the writer. Never mind the fact that for one more season before that extension kicks in, Nurse has a cap hit of $5.6 million and appears highly likely to deliver excellent value yet again.

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As he has for the last four seasons at least, in which he has:

  • played every game
  • led the team in total ice time and average even-strength ice time in each season
  • led the blueline in even-strength goals, assists, and points every season. Indeed, Nurse’s lowest output of the four — 26 even strength points in 2017-18 — was higher than any other Oiler D over the entire span, that being Tyson Barrie’s 25 EVP last season. No other rearguard even hit 20.
  • ranked in the top 8 of NHL blueliners in even-strength minutes, goals and points over the four years combined.
  • carried a cap hit of $0.863 million, $3.2 million, $3.2 million, and $5.6 million.  A strong case can be made that he comfortably covered the bet in all four of those seasons.

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But that was then; this is now. What has he done for the Oilers lately?

By the boxcars it’s been  a quiet enough start, with 5 GP, 0-3-3, +4 to this point. Dig a little deeper, and we find a workhorse who leads the entire NHL in Time On Ice per game and (by a wider margin) in Hits . This on an Oilers team that is down several of their most physical players from last season including Adam Larsson , Jujhar Khaira and Josh Archibald . In their absence Nurse has come out banging, landing 8 hits in three different games and 4 each in the other two. Through all of that ice time and all of those battles, he has taken just one minor penalty through five games.

To these eyes the 26-year-old continues to improve at some of the more subtle aspects of the game. Cases in point, the following three sequences in which Nurse played a critical role in an important Oilers goal. All three from the recent road trip in which he officially got zero (0) points. Just don’t say he didn’t contribute to the offence, and specifically to Edmonton’s increasingly deadly transition game. All this while himself making a challenging transition to a new partner !

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As we did in last week’s popular post micro-analyzing a superb goal by Jesse Puljujarvi , let’s “roll back the tape” and engage the screen grab function. In each case we will focus on the change of possession that preceded the goal — which is to say much earlier in the sequence than the typical highlight reel will show. But what happens at that moment, and in the ~second that follows, often sets the stage for the good stuff that happens later. To wit:

Goal #1: Shorthanded game winner at Arizona

  • Darnell Nurse (circled) is at the point of attack, where the Coyotes shooter has whiffed on his shot and gone down to the ice. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins collects the loose puck in the low slot while Zach Hyman looks on from the top of the circle.

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  • As RNH turns with the puck, Hyman puts it into gear and heads up-ice. Behind him Nurse negotiates the traffic.

  • Nuge retreats toward the corner with three Arizona players fixated on the puck. A fourth has just regained his footing on the weak side. Seeing the chance, Nurse joins the lane fifteen feet behind behind Hyman.

  • Now out of frame, Nugent-Hopkins has beaten all four Coyotes with a gorgeous soft dump off the wall and into the path of the streaking Hyman. Nurse surges up the middle to make it a 2-on-1.

  • Seeing the danger, the remaining Arizona defender steps towards the middle of the ice to defend the pass opening a lane for Hyman to take the puck directly to the net.

  • …and cashes with a fine shot from inside the faceoff dot. Nurse never touches the puck from first to last, but his recognition of the opportunity and his plus skating have aided Hyman greatly. Officially, though, the scoring play is Hyman from Nugent-Hopkins, and a well-deserved point for each. Nurse? +1 and thanks for coming.

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Goal #2: Game-tying goal at Vegas

  • One of the responsibilities that comes with playing a lot with Connor McDavid and company is scenes like this. The Golden Knights’ top (healthy) line counterattacks 3-on-2 with the Oilers forwards all chasing the play. Nurse and his new partner Evan Bouchard gap up and play their angles as the Vegans hit the blueline.

  • Suddenly the gap closes as Nurse stops up, extends and attacks the puck, chipping it off the stick of William Karlsson.

  • The puck springs to the left, where Bouchard alertly gets a touch on it as well to tip it beyond the line of attackers…

  •  …where McDavid pounces on it and makes the turn with numbers on his side. Oil fans will recognize this frame as the money shot…

  • …even as it takes another few seconds for the sequence to play out. Once again it’s Hyman with the finishing nail after a short but intense pressure where Oilers buzzed the net and Knights played chase. By now Nurse is an interested bystander out at the point, his damage already done a dozen seconds earlier and 140 feet away.

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Goal #3: Go-ahead goal at Vegas

  • Just over a minute after the start of the prior sequence, the Nurse-Bouchard duo is still on the ice, having played an effective shift with the Derek Ryan line in between times, in which Nurse generated a decent shot. Now the Leon Draisaitl line has taken to the ice, has exerted some pressure but the puck has gone the other way. Both Nuge and Drai are in decent position and moving their feet, so there’s no odd-man aspect to this rush.

  • Bouchard is beaten by a pass into the middle of the ice, but Nurse gaps up and reads the play…

  • … assumes the “ready” position…

  • …and again extends to get stick-on-puck.

  • As Nurse retreats right out of the frame, the puck bounces off a couple of bodies in the neutral zone before being collected by Draisaitl…

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  • …who spins the other way in full possession, a breaking Kailer Yamamoto providing a target for the lead pass.

  • Fast forward again to the finishing nail, delivered by a kneeling Draisaitl some 20 seconds after the initial change of possession, but with the Oilers again in the ascendant the entire time. By this time Nurse has made the change after a superb 77-second shift and is sitting on the bench while his replacement, Kris Russell, contributes to the eventual scoring play. Not so much as a plus for Darnell on this one, even as his well-timed “defensive stick” has freed the puck to skilled mates for a second straight goal.

___

Three important goals over two games, with Nurse making key contributions to each. Just two touches, both at full stretch on his own side of centre, and a third great decision made from deep in his own territory to join the attack even as he ultimately played the role of decoy. Three subtle plays, three happy endings, with more than a little help from his friends. It is, after all, a team game.

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It’s my observation that Nurse does a lot of this sort of thing over the course of a game, and has learned/is learning to pick his spots better by the year. With his superb athleticism, he wins puck battles in a variety of ways: by simply winning a race to it, by overpowering an opponent, or through judicious use of his long reach. And while not featured in these sequences, he’s increasingly dangerous with the puck on his own blade.

Yes he still makes the wrong decision at times. There was that one play in the Calgary game where he got pulled behind the goal line and was beaten by a centring pass that was quickly deposited. Heard plenty about that one, but it remains the only powerplay goal scored on his watch in 17 shorthanded minutes. Meanwhile, in just 6 minutes he’s been on the PP, that unit has scored 4 times.

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In all situations — which in his case means literally ALL situations with a heaping helping of crunch time — Darnell has been on the ice for 12 goals scored by the Oilers, just 5 against.

Best of all, I’ve yet to see a sign that he’s reached his ceiling just yet. Now an impact player in his seventh NHL season, Nurse continues to upgrade the fine details of his considerable game.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

STAPLES: Is Nurse-Bouchard the top pairing of Oil fans’ dreams?

LEAVINS: Together the Oilers can win — 9 Things

McCURDY: Oilers score a pulsating win in Sin City

STAPLES: Nurse dominates, Oilers flatten Coyotes

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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What 2022 Holds for the Canadian Sports Betting Sector

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After years of confusing legislation, Canada finally achieved some clarity with regard to its sports betting laws earlier this year. The passing of Bill C-218 saw single event betting become legalized for the first time, paving the way for sportsbooks and online operators to begin serving Canadian customers all across the country.

Since then, the industry has gone from strength to strength. Unsurprisingly, Ontario has led the way in terms of online competition, with a wide array of options for punters to choose from. Home to some 15 million people, Ontario is the fifth biggest jurisdiction in the USA and Canada and is expected to rival the likes of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan in the coming years.

So with sports betting finally up and running in a more comprehensive format in Canada, what does the future hold? Here’s a quick look ahead to some of the biggest developments that are expected to occur in the next 12 months.

Mobile gaming

The ability to place bets on-the-go is something that customers have come to expect from their sportsbooks nowadays. Although the idea of sports betting on single events is still a relative novelty for many Canadians, it won’t be long before they begin to demand a truly mobile experience from their gambling provider, allowing them the freedom to lay wagers wherever, whenever and on whatever they please.

Thankfully, there is already a healthy infrastructure in place to deal with that demand. The list of sports betting apps in Canada is growing longer by the day, with sportsbook operators giving their customers round-the-clock access to better odds, up-to-the-minute stats and exclusive promotions and bonuses. There’s an app for everything these days – so it should come as no surprise that an increasing percentage of Canadians will choose to bet on their smartphone via the app in the coming months and years.

Greater competition

Even before the passing of Bill C-218 officially endorsed sports betting from a legal perspective, overseas operators had been serving a Canadian market for years. Although the practice was not legal prior to this summer, it wasn’t strictly illegal, either. This created a grey area which many foreign sportsbooks exploited, with some reports suggesting that billions of dollars were being funneled into them every year.

Now that the practice has become fair game for domestic operators, it should open the floodgates with regard to the number of available options. Early adopters and established names in the industry were quick to jump aboard the bandwagon, but more and more rivals will spring up as time goes on. This can only be good news for punters, since they will gain access to more lucrative incentives and better markets with the increased competition.

Booming popularity

As well as increased competition among operators, it’s also likely that this excess supply will be met by ballooning demand. Indeed, a particularly bullish report from Deloitte Canada speculated that the industry could be worth a massive $28 billion inside five years. Given that it isn’t projected to exceed $1 billion in its first 12 months of operation, that’s quite a seismic shift.

What that means for players is that sports betting is likely to become endorsed and advertised with greater frequency. Collaborations between teams and individual athletes will enhance the profile of the sector, while lucrative sponsorship deals will benefit both parties. And of course, the government itself is poised to cash in on a significant revenue stream, potentially swelling its coffers for reinvestment in other areas of policy.

Technological advances

Another exciting possibility is the increased incorporation of technological advances into the sports betting experience. Fans can already benefit from livestreams of their favorite matches, as well as real-time analysis and in-play betting opportunities. However, the sky is the limit when it comes to tech and sports betting, since there are a variety of tantalizing innovations currently on the horizon.

Chief among these is the possibility of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) becoming a more central pillar of sportsbooks. Imagine if it were possible to view a sporting event in 3D, as if you were in the stadium yourself, all from the comfort of your own home? That kind of tech breakthrough might seem lightyears away, yet similar software is already commonplace in the world of gaming. If it could be adapted to live sporting events, it would dramatically alter the way in which sport is consumed (and bet upon) all across Canada. Watch this space for news on potential developments of VR and AR in 2022.

Although sports betting is still in its infancy in Canada, it has already made quite a splash among punters, operators and regulators alike. As the practice becomes more and more mainstream, it’s to be expected that it will both deliver higher revenues and benefit from greater investment – potentially creating some exciting times ahead.

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Longtime NFL official Carl Madsen dies on way home from Chiefs-Titans – Yahoo Canada Sports

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Carl Madsen had worked for the NFL since 1997. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

Carl Madsen, who had worked for the NFL as an official for more than 20 years, died on Sunday. He was 71.

According to NFL.com, Madsen died on his way home from Sunday’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans, where he was working as a replay official.

While details are hazy on Madsen’s death, the Nashville Police Department told TMZ that early signs indicate Madsen suffered “a medical emergency” while driving on I-65 North. A spokesperson reportedly said officers answered a call about a motorist blocking a traffic lane and found Madsen unconscious at the scene.

Chest compressions were immediately administered once Madsen was removed from the vehicle, per the report, but he ultimately died after being transported to a nearby hospital. His exact cause of death remains unknown.

An Air Force veteran, Madsen spent 12 years as an on-field official from 1997 to 2008 before transitioning to his replay official role. He was reportedly tied with Paul Weidner as the league’s most experienced replay official.

From NFL.com:

“Carl Madsen was an NFL officiating fixture for more than two decades, first as a highly respected on-field official before transitioning to a replay role beginning in 2009,” NFL senior VP of officiating training and development Walt Anderson said in a statement. “A terrific friend and colleague, Carl’s love of football and dedication to officiating was ever-present, as he generously shared his time to mentor young officials at clinics across the country. A veteran of the Air Force, Carl had a tremendous spirit and will be greatly missed.”

NFL Referees Association president Scott Green also released a statement to Pro Football Talk:

“Carl will be missed by those who worked with him on the field and in replay,” Green said. “He had a nickname among his fellow officials of “Big Country” which was not only related to his size but to his big personality as a warm and generous man.”

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