At every turn of his young CFL career, B.C. Lions quarterback Nathan Rourke has managed to rise to the moment.
In front of a hostile West Final crowd in Winnipeg, that streak of excellence came to a decisive end.
“We didn’t get off to the start that we wanted to. I didn’t think it was necessarily anything that they were doing that was special, I thought that we were really kicking ourselves,” Rourke told reporters following his team’s 28-20 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“We had some breaks go our way early, which was great and we were able to stay in it, but it was just a little too late when we got into a rhythm. You just can’t do that against a good team like Winnipeg.”
Battling through the effects of a surgically repaired foot, the tough Manitoba elements, and the two-time defending Grey Cup champions, the Canadian sensation fell flat in a way CFL fans had not yet seen. He opened the game with five straight incompletions and was plagued by an erratic release throughout the first half, entering the break 7-of-17 for 87 yards and an interception.
While analysts and experts will spend an offseason trying to pinpoint an exact reason for the failure, Rourke himself could offer no easy answer.
“It’s tough to say. Mentally, I thought I was okay with the environment, with the cold, and all that different stuff,” he shared at the podium.
“Sometimes it happens for you and sometimes it doesn’t and to be honest, at this point I don’t exactly know why, but clearly it wasn’t out there and I didn’t show up the way that I needed to.”
The second half offered some chance at redemption and Rourke finished the game 20-of-37 for 300 yards, a fourth-quarter touchdown, and two interceptions. He also added 20 yards on the ground to lead the team, which was an unexpected result he cited as evidence that his injured right foot had no bearing on his playoff output.
Down eight points in the final minutes, there was hope that the Canadian pivot could once again catch fire and pull off a heroic comeback. In the end, he was stymied by the IG Field crowd rendering his play calls inaudible and allowing precious seconds to tick off the clock.
Despite the slow start and failed two-minute drill, Lions’ head coach Rick Campbell still had nothing negative to say about his quarterback. Context is critical, a fact often forgotten when talking about a player still just fourteen starts into his professional career.
“I think this is about as hard a game that he’ll play in so far as everything, the whole situation, all that. And he’s a 24-year-old and can handle all this stuff. I couldn’t have done this when I was 24, I know that,” Campbell stressed.
“I think he’s got nowhere to go but up, which is saying something. It just didn’t happen tonight.”
No loss can dampen the offseason circus that is now set to begin in Vancouver, with conversations around Rourke’s future beginning almost as soon as the final whistle blew. Many will openly wonder if the last image Lions fans will ever see of their homegrown phenom will be one of defeat, with him sobbing on the shoulder of veteran receiver Bryan Burnham.
Those realities are still far too abstract for the youngster to grapple with in the midst of the greatest letdown in his sporting life.
“Honestly, what’s going to happen next season and all that stuff is really at the back of my mind. What’s hard right now, what stings right now, is for people like Burnham, for people like our veterans on this team; the people that I was playing for out there,” he said. “When you’re not able to get it done and you put in a performance like that, that makes it a lot tougher.”
No matter how tough the final outing was, the staggering raw numbers and early season tape remain out there. Even in defeat, Rourke can only avoid the NFL question for so long and to most, the answer seems obvious.
However, leaving is harder when unfinished business remains. Asked point blank if he’ll be back in Lions colours next year, the heartbeat of the franchise left the door open — if only slightly.
“I don’t know,” Rourke admitted. “I’d sure like to be the way that I’m feeling right now.”
Broncos trade for former Saints HC Payton
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The Denver Broncos have agreed to a deal with the New Orleans Saints that will make Sean Payton their head coach, a person with knowledge of the accord said Tuesday.
The person, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the teams hadn’t announced the agreement, said the Broncos would send their first-round pick, No. 29 overall, in this year’s draft to the Saints along with a future second-rounder. Denver also will receive a third-round pick in the trade.
Payton remained under contract with New Orleans after stepping down from the Saints last year and working in broadcasting this season.
Payton, 59, went 152-89 in 15 seasons with the Saints and 9-8 in the playoffs. He led New Orleans to a 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl following the 2009 season. He stepped away last year when quarterback Drew Brees retired.
The Broncos, who went 5-12 in 2022 and extended their playoff drought to seven years, fired rookie coach Nathaniel Hackett on Dec. 26 after he went 4-11. Interim coach Jerry Rosburg went 1-1.
Payton’s top task will be to get quarterback Russell Wilson back to his winning ways after the 11-year pro had his worst statistical season following his blockbuster trade from Seattle for four premium draft picks and three players.
The Seahawks reached the playoffs under QB Geno Smith in their first year without Wilson, and now they own the Broncos’ No. 5 overall selection in the draft in April.
The Broncos got back into the first round by trading pass rusher Bradley Chubb at midseason to the Miami Dolphins, who sent the Broncos a first-rounder originally owned by the San Francisco 49ers.
That selection, the 29th overall pick, now belongs to the Saints.
Payton was the headliner during this year’s cycle of head coach openings. Just five teams were searching for coaches: the Broncos, Texans, Panthers, Colts and Cardinals.
The Broncos conducted an extensive search, beginning with a virtual visit with Jim Harbaugh, who decided to stay at the University of Michigan. Also considered were Dan Quinn, DeMeco Ryans, Raheem Morris, Ejiro Evero, Jim Caldwell and David Shaw. The Texans hired Ryans on Tuesday.
NFL rules didn’t allow the Broncos to speak with Payton until Jan. 17, more than three weeks after they’d fired Hackett.
Team owner and CEO Greg Penner led the search with assistance from limited partner Condoleezza Rice and general manager George Paton.
Paton led last year’s search and landed on Hackett, one of several decisions that backfired on him in 2022 as Hackett became just the fifth head coach in NFL history not to survive his first season.
Others were the $70 million contract he gave to free agent Randy Gregory, who played in six games and recorded a pair of sacks, and the $245 million contract extension he gave to Wilson before the opener.
Wilson threw a career-low 16 touchdown passes and was sacked a league-leading and career-high 55 times in 15 games for Denver. He has vowed to do everything he can to bounce back in 2023.
Wilson played well for two weeks under Rosburg, giving the team hope that his poor performances last season were an aberration and that maybe his skill set was just a bad fit in Hackett’s offense.
Penner, his wife, Carrie Walton-Penner, and her father, Rob Walton, purchased the Broncos last summer for $4.65 billion, a global record for a professional sports franchise. But the team turned out to be more of a fixer-upper than they expected.
“When we purchased this great franchise in August, this is not the season we were expecting,” Penner said after firing Hackett. “I want to personally apologize to our fans and all of Broncos country. We know that we need to be better and we will.”
Leafs may have lucked out with timing of Auston Matthews and Matt Murray injuries
Not that it is ever good to have key players injured, but the Maple Leafs may have caught a break with Auston Matthews and Matt Murray.
With the NHL’s all-star weekend just ahead, both will have more time to nurse what ails them while also possibly missing less action.
Matthews suffered a knee sprain in an overtime victory against the New York Rangers on Jan. 25 and the team’s star centre is expected to be sidelined at least three weeks. It will cause him to miss Saturday’s all-star spectacle in Sunrise, Fla.
Murray, who had already surrendered the starting job in Toronto’s net to Ilya Samsonov, is now plagued by an ankle affliction and it is anybody’s guess when he will return.
The 28-year-old, whose acquisition was seen as risky owing to his history of injuries, has already missed more than a month with an adductor strain. He has not played 40 games in a season since 2018-19.
“There’s something there that’s going to require time for sure,” Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs’ head coach, said. “We won’t quite know, really, until we come back from the break.”
Toronto has a contest against Boston at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday before its eight-day recess begins. Its next game after that will be at Columbus on Feb. 10.
Despite a lengthy list of injuries, the Maple Leafs have done well over the first two-thirds of the season. They are 31-12-8, second in the NHL’s Atlantic Division and a shoe-in to reach the playoffs even if 11 points behind the Bruins.
Boston is an almost incomprehensible 38-7-5 but arrives in town with three consecutive losses. A win will boost the Maple Leafs’ faint hopes of catching up.
“You want to go into the break feeling good,” Keefe said Monday after a team meeting and an optional workout for players at the Ford Performance Centre. “We expect a tough game for sure.
“Our job is to keep pace and apply pressure a little more, just like the teams behind us are trying to do to us. It is a great way to go into the all-star break. There is a lot of excitement.”
After an uninspired effort in a loss to Ottawa on Friday, Toronto rebounded to dismantle the Washington Capitals 5-1 on Sunday.
John Tavares recorded two assists in the 1,000th game of his NHL career, Morgan Rielly scored for the first time this campaign and Samsonov recorded 23 saves as he ran his record on home ice to 15-1-1.
“We played today more for John,” Samsonov said after improving his record to 17-5-2 overall. He did not realize Tavares was about to reach a milestone until a pre-game ceremony.
“One thousand games,” Samonov said, pausing, “That’s amazing.”
Rielly, who is respected as an offensively skilled defenceman, had gone without a goal in 35 previous games this season. In the best year of his career, he had 20 goals.
“Mostly, I just feel relief,” Rielly said. “We wanted to respond after a bad game against Ottawa. We weren’t very proud of ourselves when we went home from here on Friday.”
Joseph Woll, who is 12-1 with a .928 save percentage for the Toronto Marlies, has been called up from the American Hockey League as Samsonov’s backup.
With any luck at all, Woll will not be pressed to play thanks to the upcoming prolonged break.
But first the Bruins come to town.
“Every game against Boston is special,” Alexander Kerfoot, the Maple Leafs’ forward, said.
William Nylander had an assist on Sunday and on Monday was named the league’s second star of the week. He leads Toronto with 28 goals and is tied with Mitch Marner for the team lead with 59 points.
“We are just trying to carve our way back to Boston,” Nylander said. “We have to keeping winning games and see what happens.
“The Bruins are on an incredible pace and will be hard to catch but we are going to try our best to do that.”
Bobby Hull was a hockey wild man
Before Bobby Hull showed up, the NHL was long on workmanlike effort and short on rock ’n’ roll erraticism. Now that he’s gone, it’s returned to its former state.
But for a while there, Hull played hockey the way Led Zeppelin played arenas – the most interesting stories didn’t happen in public view, and few of them were the sort you’d want to hear in decent company.
One of the great pure goal scorers in the game’s history and its most notable off-season farmer, Hull bridged the gap between the NHL’s working-class roots and its jet-set aspirations. His career was full of ‘what ifs’ – what if he’d stayed in the NHL past his early 30s?; what if he’d been allowed to play in the Summit Series? The best testament to Hull’s athletic greatness was that despite often working against his own best interests, he still managed to be remembered as great.
Hull, 84, died on Monday.
Like many of his contemporaries, Hull was the sort they grew big on the farm. Born in rural Ontario, he came up through the provincial ranks and joined the Chicago Black Hawks in 1957. He was only 18, but already fully formed as a player.
In a league full of big, tough men, Hull was bigger and tougher, but also remarkably skilled. His slap shot is still remembered as a weapon of NHL mass destruction.
Teammate Glenn Hall once said of it: “The idea was not to stop that thing, but to avoid getting killed.”
Defending Hull was a special challenge because he didn’t have to find a way around you. He could just go through you.
He remains the only hockey player who is more recognizable with a pitchfork in his hands, bailing hay, than he was in uniform on the ice. Up until the chemists got involved, Hull may have had the most imposing physique in sports history. He put it to brutal use on the ice.
He was the first player to score more than 50 goals in a campaign. He scored more points than anyone ever had in a season. He won a single Stanley Cup, giving him access to the best-ever conversation.
In a two-fisted league, Hull and his Chicago teammates played a particularly exuberant brand of hockey. It made them famous outside the game’s usual strongholds.
Like a lot of other famous people in the sixties, Hull took full advantage of the social perks.
I spent an hour with him in a hotel room a decade ago. He was releasing a book and in high spirits, clearly enjoying the attention. But there was a hook of resentment in every story he told.
“We had guys who liked to have fun. But when they dropped the puck at 7:30, we played guilty,” Hull said. I remember him titled forward, waving his hands around. They were enormous.
“We used to say to each other, ‘C’mon, guys. We were pissed up last night. So now we gotta play guilty.’ And there are a lot of guys who don’t understand that – these coaches, I mean. Don’t bother us, cause we’re the guys who know how to play. I never listened to a coach in my life.”
This sort of approach worked for Hull, until it didn’t.
When he publicly mused that he would consider leaving the NHL to join the upstart World Hockey Association for a million dollars – a ridiculous amount at the time – guess what? They gave him a million dollars. That was 1972.
Having got what he wanted, Hull found out it wasn’t what he needed. Once the biggest deal in the biggest league, Hull became the richest guy in an outfit no one cared about.
He continued to score goals in the WHA through the seventies, but his star dimmed. His turncoat status meant he wasn’t invited to join Team Canada for the Summit Series. Just like that, Hull was cut out of Canadian history.
Eventually, he’d find his way back to the national team and the NHL, but the damage had been done. Hull became a cautionary tale about valuing the wrong things.
Post-career, shorn of the protection that teams and the journalists who cover them offer to active stars, Hull went from colourful to objectionable. In the late nineties, it was reported that Hull had given an interview to an English-language Russian newspaper in which he praised Hitler and denigrated Black people.
Once back home, Hull denied it all. The paper stuck to its version of the story and the issue was left unresolved. Whatever the truth of it, Hull was pushed down to the second tier of NHL legends. He still worked the autograph circuit, but no one was anxious to have him make appearances on behalf of the game.
Hull leaned into his reputation as a hockey wild man rather than a legend of the sport. By that point, he was most familiar to contemporary fans as the father of Brett Hull. That seemed to bother him as well.
Where does Hull figure in the pantheon? As a cult figure.
The NHL’s golden age is chock-a-block with team-first guys who played the game the right way – Howe, Beliveau, Richard, Orr, et al. The hard thing is finding a guy in there that anyone had a bad word to say about.
Hull was the wild card in that pack. He played like a virtuoso and lived like a roadie. He made terrible decisions, but kept emerging from them, diminished but intact. He was hockey’s fallen star, and one who kept falling.
It doesn’t make him heroic, but it does make him interesting.
That time I met him he was going through his own book, looking at pictures of himself and pointing out the other people in them.
“He’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead,” Hull said, quiet and contemplative for the first time that afternoon. “I hate it when I’m the only one alive in these things.”
Now he’s gone, and an era with him. If it can be said that the NHL had a wild, uncontrollable period in its adolescence, Hull embodied it. Then, like a lot of precocious teens, he never quite get over it.
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