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Sarah Chan, the Toronto Raptors’ dynamic new talent seeker

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Toronto Raptors fans may never have heard of one of the newest talent seekers shaping the basketball team’s future, because her work largely takes place on the other side of the world. But as the manager of scouting in Africa, Sarah Chan’s mission is to unearth the next Pascal Siakam.

When Chan, from South Sudan, volunteered to help out at a basketball camp in Kenya in 2017, she had no idea she was about to meet an NBA team executive named Masai Ujiri, and that it would lead to her dream job. Ujiri took quick notice of this well-spoken 6-foot-3 woman with obvious high-level basketball training, as she coached and related so authentically with the teens at his Giants of Africa camp.

The Nigerian-raised Raptors president eventually asked Chan about her background. Her life story involved leaving war-stricken Sudan for Kenya, finding basketball, and playing it in the United States and around the world. It included a tryout with a WNBA team and a master’s degree in international relations.

After their 2017 conversation, Ujiri was so impressed, he hired Chan to help organize, coach and scout talent for the growing series of Giants of Africa camps he holds each summer across the continent as part of the foundation he started in 2003. This past fall, Ujiri promoted her to a newly created position. Now she also co-ordinates the Raptors’ three other scouts in Africa to scour the continent to find talent.

“It’s so exciting for me, because if I go to Guinea, Botswana, Senegal or Angola – the least-likely places that people expect – and I find a kid that needs that opportunity, there’s nothing more gratifying than that,” Chan, 33, said recently in an interview at the Raptors Toronto practice facility, where she was meeting with front-office staff. “The trajectory of that player’s life will change, and in turn that player’s community, country and Africa all rise.”

The Raptors pride themselves on having a league-leading presence in Africa.

“There are many Pascals out there, they just need the opportunity,” said Chan, referring to Toronto’s Cameroon-born all-star. “That’s why it’s a huge responsibility to set the stage right for them. Using basketball as a tool to change lives can be an incredible thing.”

Chan, who speaks English, Swahili, Arabic and Dinka, sees herself in the young people she scouts. She grew up in the 1990s during a time of intense conflict between the north and south in Sudan. She, her parents, two brothers and sister lived among large groups of families. Often there were upward of 35 inhabiting a small mud-and-brick homestead, with latrines outside and compound walls surrounding them. She babysat younger kids. Her family often woke in the night to the harsh lights of pickup trucks outside, and men banging on their gates, demanding her father come outside.

“If you’re going to take a family down, you first try to take out the head of the household – that’s what they did to the people from the south,” recalled Chan, who said her father was taken many times, but survived. “My mom learned to mediate. I remember us kids would be hiding under our blankets. She would stand between the door and the family and say – with all kindness, strength and courage – ‘he is not here.’”

Chan’s family eventually got a precious opportunity – academic sponsorship for their parents to study theology at an evangelical university in Kenya. They moved in August of 1998, when Chan was 12. The scholarship included the girls’ schooling, too. Chan’s parents saved up so they could afford to include the two teenage boys as well, saving them from being enlisted as young soldiers.

The move to Nairobi was not smooth. Her father was detained at the airport for a long period before being released to go join the family in Kenya. They arrived just days before the U.S. embassy there was bombed, an event that killed 213 people.

They settled into a multicultural community in Nairobi, and her parents did odd jobs on campus to make money while studying. They cut grass, broke up stones to use as construction materials, and worked as night security. Their mother insisted they interact with other kids so they could practise their English.

Chan experienced sports for the first time in 2004 when she got to Laiser Hill High School, an international school where joining a team was mandatory for all students. Chan, a tall girl, tried and hated swimming and tennis, before eventually trying basketball. The game was a perfect fit for her and she improved quickly. Any time she heard bad news about the raging civil war back home in South Sudan, Chan would use basketball as a distraction.

A talented boy from her high school earned a basketball scholarship to Union University, in Jackson, Tenn. Once there, he told Union women’s coach Mark Campbell about the tall and gifted Chan. After watching her on video, Campbell offered her a scholarship to his Division II program – one with a history of recruiting African centres.

“It was going to be my first time out of Africa, my first time going anywhere on my own,” Chan said. “I remember my dad saying ‘My daughter, I want you to never change for anybody. When you go there, you’re representing you, our family, our nation and Africa.’”

So in 2007, Chan went to the United States to play for the Lady Bulldogs at this private evangelical Christian university, where she studied history and political science. She experienced for the first time how it felt to be stared at for being a tall woman with dark skin. School and basketball pushed the limits of her body and mind.

“She’s the fastest player I ever had, north-south, no doubt, and at that height, that’s really saying something,” Campbell said. “She had good hands, she was really instinctual and she used her quickness.”

In her four seasons at Union, playing power forward and centre, she tallied 1,892 points and 1,112 rebounds. She was an NAIA All-American and helped spearhead two Division II national titles.

“There is an awesome thing about the kids I’ve had from Africa on my teams when it comes to respect for authority, value of education and a very strong family mindset,” Campbell said. “Most choose to stay in America and make money to send to their families back home. Sarah wanted to take the education she acquired here and put it to work back home, making a difference in Africa.”

Chan got a tryout for the WNBA’s Indiana Fever, but she didn’t make the team. She played professionally for a while in Europe and then across Africa, too. Troubling reports about the continuing conflict in South Sudan had Chan longing to become an agent of change on her home continent.

So she returned to Nairobi to get a master’s degree at United States International University Africa, majoring in peace and conflict studies. She also played basketball for the university and competed in two FIBA Africa Women’s Club Championships in 2015 and 2017. At the 2015 edition, she was the top scorer and rebounder and made the all-tournament team.

As she was finishing her studies in 2017, Chan was eager to be a difference-maker. That’s when she heard about the local Giants of Africa (GOA) camp where she would eventually met Ujiri. That day, she was just hoping to volunteer with the kids. She called up someone she knew from school who was helping organizing it, Abel Nson, (who as it turns out is a scout and GOA camp organizer who worked for Ujiri).

“I just thought it would be an opportunity for me to help people and learn something,” Chan said.

Chan noticed lots of cameras documenting the camp but didn’t realize they were there to report on this passion project by Ujiri, the first African general manager of a North American sports club. She didn’t know who Ujiri was.

“From the first day, there was no … showboating, just her pure interactions with the boys and the girls,” Ujiri said. “You saw it from the first minute, and I noticed but I didn’t say anything to her at first.”

Ujiri followed Chan’s career thereafter, and noticed her strong eye for young talent. She impressed him with her diplomacy while working with African politicians, venue operators, and sports organizations to create opportunities for players to showcase their basketball skills. She has built a robust network of contacts within Africa.

Ujiri credits Chan with convincing him to hold GOA camps this past summer in Juba, South Sudan and Mogadishu, Somalia – places affected by great conflict. The inclusion of girls, and helping them experience basketball – especially those at risk of being teen brides – is close to Chan’s heart and Ujiri’s, too. Chan also has her own foundation that helps women and girls in war-torn countries.

“Sarah has an eye for basketball talent, which for me selfishly that’s the first thing I’m looking for in a scout. I’m not just going to hire someone because they are nice,” Ujiri said. “Juba and Mogadishu, those are not easy places to hold camps, but we have to visit those places and help girls there, too, and she was instrumental in taking us there. Those to me are the powerful things we also have to do.”

Ujiri invited Chan – an engaging public speaker – to share her story at two recent events in Toronto. She joined Ujiri on stage at a GOA Youth Summit for Toronto high schoolers, and at a panel for the group Women In Sports Events.

Emotional GOA videos played at those events show Chan in a vocal leadership role with male and female campers. She is coaching girls in Mogadishu, wearing a hijab just as they are and yelling out to them. ‘‘Be proud to be girls. We love you. You are so respected and so valued.” She tells the boys in South Sudan to look around the court and consider all their fellow players as brothers:.”I don’t care what tribe they’re from and nobody should.”

Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors director of global scouting and international affairs, said watching Chan with campers in South Sudan was just one example of her value in Africa. She noticed things in the way the players communicated with one another that represented their tribal differences – things the Raptors coaches at the camp might not have. The players see Chan playing one-on-one with the male coaches (“she’s one of us,” Engelbrecht says), and they learn about respect for women.

“Sarah is a child of the soil of East Africa,” Engelbrecht said. “She knows what those kids have gone through, especially those displaced because of civil war. She is extremely passionate about making the kids feel special. So, when she spoke to the boys at camp in South Sudan, many of us there coaching felt tears come to our eyes. When she talks to young African players, it’s like she is talking to her younger self.”

Engelbrecht, who was born in South Africa, describes the challenges of scouting in Africa, where most players don’t have the access to gyms, equipment, coaching and programs that they would in North America. Basketball’s popularity is just budding. A scout there has to help create opportunities for young players to show their skills, then imagine what that player could become someday if given the right resources.

“You have to have relationships, and Sarah does because she’s played in Africa and people respect her, and they give her information,” Engelbrecht said. “She is really special. She knows what questions to ask to learn about a kid’s background and his desire to play – like maybe he took 10 buses and borrowed money to get to the practice, but he didn’t have any shoes to play in.”

Chan is on the lookout for specific things when she’s meeting young African players.

“First thing I look at is his intelligence, and character,” Chan said. “And then the talent is the last thing and within that talent, how athletic is he? How strong is he, how is his vertical, how is his work ethic, how would he fit with the Raptors? I watch closely when they’re warming up because that’s when most people think it doesn’t matter, but it really does matter, because you’re preparing. How does he go to war?”

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Andreescu earns thrilling 1st-round win over Kasatkina at National Bank Open in Toronto – CBC Sports

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Bianca Andreescu feels as though she has found her fighting spirit after a tough, but thrilling 2 1/2 hour two-set victory on Tuesday.

The Mississauga, Ont., native defeated world No. 9 Daria Kasatkina 7-6 (5), 6-4 in her opening round match at the National Bank Open.

“A win is a win no matter how you pull it off and today really showed me a lot about myself and how I can push through these things if I really want it,” Andreescu said.

“It just shows that fighting spirit that I still have in me. I want to continue building on that.”

WATCH l Andreescu advances to 2nd round:

Bianca Andreescu digs deep, wins opening round match at National Bank Open

8 hours ago

Duration 3:20

Canada’s Bianca Andreescu defeated Russian Daria Kasatkina 7-6 (5), 6-4 Tuesday in Toronto at the National Bank Open.

The win didn’t come without difficulty though.

On a number of occasions, Andreescu was in discussion with her trainers and seemed to be breathing heavy at different points of the match.

But the 22-year-old insisted she felt much better post-match.

“I’m feeling much better. I felt really dizzy, I had no idea what it was,” she said. “Maybe something that I ate or all the stress leading up to the tournament, I have no idea. I’m super happy that I was able to clutch it out.”

Asked if she thought of retiring from the match, Andreescu was adamant about not wanting to.

“I did not want to at all. There was one moment where I was a bit afraid that I couldn’t [continue] but it’s not like I had that thought in my head where I wanted to quit. I really couldn’t today, something came upon me even though I was feeling like absolute crap,” she said.

“Especially during the tiebreaker, I hit a shot and I was seeing double almost. That was kind of the point where I didn’t feel the best. But the crowd, they really pushed me to continue.”

Bianca Andreescu returns a ball to Daria Kasatkina during their first-round match in Toronto on Tuesday. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Andreescu, who won the event in 2019 in Toronto, was sharp and active early, making comebacks within games she later won. She also went 3-for-3 on break points through the first five games.

Up 3-2, she mixed up her shots, using forehands, backhands and drop shots, making Kasatkina work. A Kasatkina error allowed Andreescu to have some breathing room with a 4-2 lead.

“Changing it up with my drop shot — I feel like I brought it out more today than (these) past four months,” Andreescu said. “I’m very happy with that.”

After Kasatkina eventually tied the set at 6-6, Andreescu scored six out the final eight points in the tiebreaker to win the set, punctuated by a powerful forehand. The set took 85 minutes to play.

In the second set, Andreescu jumped out to a strong start, outlasting Kasatkina through multiple lengthy exchanges as the Russian committed multiple errors, sending shots into the net.

Andreescu again began to mix it up between drop shots and forehands that Kasatkina struggled to return with accuracy at times, as the Canadian grabbed a 2-0 lead.

After Kasatkina took the next three sets, Andreescu followed with three straight wins of her own, finishing with a forehand winner that had her opponent visibly upset.

With the home crowd behind her, Andreescu went up 40-0 in the clinching game before committing two errors. She then used another drop shot that Kasatkina could not run down to close the match.

She immediately raised her hands as the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Andreescu will play against Alize Cornet of France in the second round, a player she hasn’t defeated in two career outings.

Eyeing her revenge against Cornet, Andreescu feels more confident in her chances after beating Kasatkina.

“It definitely gives me confidence for the next match. Alize kind of plays like Daria a little bit in a way — more consistent and all that,” she said. “So having this match under my belt and going into tomorrow against Alize definitely gives me confidence.”

In women’s doubles, Canada’s Leylah Fernandez won her opening match alongside younger sister, Bianca Jolie. The duo topped Belgium’s Kirsen Flipkens and Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-4, 6-1.

Shapovalov, Pospisil eliminated

An opening double-fault. Two wayward backhands. Another mistake on match ball.

Denis Shapovalov’s rain-suspended match was over shortly after it resumed Tuesday afternoon as he dropped a 7-5, 7-6 (4) decision to Australia’s Alex de Minaur at the National Bank Open men’s tournament in Montreal.

The players were in a tight battle a night earlier but rain forced a postponement with the tiebreaker tied at three. Shapovalov was hoping to force a decisive third set but instead was eliminated after just a few minutes on court.

“I haven’t had this exact experience before so it was tricky,” Shapovalov said.

WATCH | Shapovalov labours in straight-sets loss:

Denis Shapovalov’s struggles continue at National Bank Open

13 hours ago

Duration 0:38

Alex de Minaur of Australia won his rain-suspended opening match at the National Bank Open in Montreal, defeating Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont., 7-5, 7-6(4). It’s Shapovalov’s ninth loss in his last 10 matches.

The result capped a tough day for the Canadians in the 56-player singles draw. Vasek Pospisil dropped a 6-4, 6-4 decision to American Tommy Paul and 15th-seeded Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov posted a 6-4, 7-5 win over Alexis Galarneau of Laval, Que.

That left sixth-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal as the last Canadian remaining in singles play. He had a first-round bye and will likely play his opening match Wednesday.

Groans could be heard at last Friday’s draw ceremony when de Minaur’s name was called out as Shapovalov’s first opponent.

At No. 21, de Minaur is one spot ahead of Shapovalov in the world rankings. The five-time winner on the ATP Tour had also beaten the Canadian in both previous meetings at the pro level.

De Minaur wasn’t fazed by Shapovalov’s power game during the match and was able to handle the left-hander’s wide serves. Tremendous retrieving skills helped blunt the Canadian’s aggressiveness and led to some mistakes.

“I think I did a lot of good things yesterday, I was playing some great points,” Shapovalov said. “I felt like I was starting to get some momentum in the match. I thought I was dictating and playing some good-level tennis.”

Shapovalov, from Richmond Hill, Ont., has recorded just one win since beating Rafael Nadal last May in Rome.

In men’s doubles, Shapovalov and Russian partner Karen Khachanov lost a tough three-match set in 86 minutes to Rohan Bopanna of India and Matwe Middelkoop of the Netherlands 7-6(5), 4-6, 10-6.

Pospisil, meanwhile, had three break points in the final game of the opening set but was unable to convert. Paul went on to complete the victory in one hour 25 minutes.

“[It] just wasn’t one of my best matches for sure,” Pospisil said. “Tommy played his match. He didn’t play anything that was so exceptional that I couldn’t have given myself a better look. But yeah, wasn’t the best of matches. Had good moments, but not consistent.”

WATCH | Pospisil loses in straight sets: 

Vasek Pospisil ousted in National Bank Open 1st round

16 hours ago

Duration 2:15

Vasek Pospisil of Vernon, B.C. lost to American Tommy Paul 6-4, 6-4 in the opening round of the National Bank Open in Montreal.

The native of Vernon, B.C., is entered in the doubles draw with Italy’s Jannik Sinner. Calgary native Cleeve Harper and Liam Draxl of Newmarket, Ont., are the other Canadians in the doubles field.

The start of Tuesday’s opening session was delayed about 90 minutes due to wet weather. Another rain delay forced a 20-minute pause in the afternoon.

Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, who was victorious last week in Washington, beat Argentina’s Sebastian Baez 6-4, 6-4 to set up an intriguing second-round matchup with top-ranked Daniil Medvedev of Russia.

Marin Cilic, the No. 13 seed, defeated fellow Croatian Borna Coric 6-3, 6-2. Other seeded players to advance were No. 14 Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain and No. 17 Gael Monfils of France.

The lone upset in afternoon play saw Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta surprise 11th-seeded Matteo Berrettini 6-3, 6-2. 

British wild-card Andy Murray, who was ranked world No. 1 by the Association of Tennis Professionals for 41 straight weeks in 2016, couldn’t find that old magic against 10th-seeded Taylor Fritz of San Diego in the feature evening match.

Fritz made quick work of the 35-year-old Murray, winning 6-1, 6-3.

The US$6.57-million tournament continues through Sunday.

WATCH | Galarneau loses to Bulgaria’s Dimitrov:

Laval’s Alexis Galarneau falls in Masters 1000 debut at National Bank Open

14 hours ago

Duration 2:44

Making his Masters 1000 debut, Alexis Galarneau of Laval, Que., lost to Grigor Dmitrov of Bulgaria 6-4, 7-5 in the opening round of the National Bank Open in Montreal.

Marino ousted

Canada’s Rebecca Marino lost 6-3, 6-7 (5), 4-6 to China’s Zheng Qinwen in her opening-round match on Tuesday.

The Vancouver native entered the tournament coming off a quarterfinal appearance at the Citi Open, where she fell to Daria Saville of Australia.

Marino, who made it into the WTA top 100 rankings for the first time since 2012 and is currently No. 96, got rolling early as she took the first set with relative ease.

WATCH | Marino bounced in 1st round: 

Rebecca Marino bounced in opening round of National Bank Open

16 hours ago

Duration 2:00

Despite claiming the first set, Vancouver’s Rebecca Marino fell to China’s Qinwen Zheng 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-4 in the first round of the National Bank Open in Toronto.

Marino overcame a strong start from Zheng in the second set, but had trouble with unforced errors in the tiebreaker.

The Canadian went up 4-3 in the final set before losing the final three games.

Marino fired 12 aces to Zheng’s 10 and was a perfect 2 for 2 on break points in the loss.

The 19-year-old Zheng, ranked 51st, will next play fifth-ranked Ons Jabeur in the second round.

Fellow Canadian Carol Zhao also dropped her first match, 6-1, 6-3 to American Amanda Anisimova.

Osaka’s struggles continue

Naomi Osaka’s recent struggles continued Tuesday with an early exit in Toronto.

The four-time Grand Slam champion retired from her first-round match with a back injury. Osaka was losing 7-6 (4), 3-0 against Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi when she withdrew from the contest.

“I felt my back from the start of the match, and despite trying to push through it, I just wasn’t able to today,” Osaka said in a written statement. “I’d like to pay credit to Kaia for playing well and want to wish her all the best for the rest of the tournament.”

Entering the tournament, Osaka had been eliminated from her last three competitions in the first or second round, including a straight-sets loss to Coco Gauff at last week’s Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.

That was her first competition since the French Open as she recovered from an Achilles injury.

Prior to that run, she had her best tournament of the year making it to the final of the Miami Open in early April before losing to world No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

The 31st-ranked Kanepi will next play No. 8 Garbine Muguruza of Spain.

Another successful young star had an early exit Tuesday when ninth seed Toronto-born player Emma Raducanu of Great Britain lost 7-6 (0), 6-2 to Italy’s Camila Giorgi.

Other women’s winners Tuesday included Shuai Zhang of China, Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain and Elise Mertens of Belgium.

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Judge rules three LIV players will not be permitted to join FedEx Cup playoffs – Yahoo Canada Sports

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The battle between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour has reached the first of what will surely be many courtrooms.

U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman heard arguments from attorneys representing both the PGA Tour and a consortium of eleven LIV-affiliated players on Tuesday afternoon. Three LIV players — Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones — were seeking a temporary restraining order that would permit them to compete in this week’s tournament, the first event of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

However, after a two-hour hearing, Judge Freeman ruled that the players had not proven that they would suffer “irreparable harm” if they were not permitted to play. She also indicated that the players were fully aware of the potential consequences of joining LIV when they did earlier this summer, and that they had earned a substantial amount of purse revenue as a result of their decision to play on the LIV tour. Accordingly, the LIV players will not be in the field this week or the rest of the PGA Tour playoffs.

The players’ temporary restraining order was only one part of a much larger lawsuit that the LIV players, led by Phil Mickelson, have brought against the Tour on antitrust grounds. That suit charges that the PGA Tour has engaged in anticompetitive behavior and coerced other entities in the golf world — the four majors, various vendors, courses — to shun LIV and its players. The Tour has responded that it is protecting the interests of its members — the players — by keeping walls high against players from competing tours seeking to, in the Tour’s oft-repeated words, “have their cake and eat it too.”

While Tuesday’s hearing focused primarily on the narrow issue of the three players’ eligibility to play in the Tour’s playoffs — an event for which they’d already qualified prior to leaving for LIV — both the LIV players’ attorneys and the Tour’s attorneys previewed the arguments that will be at play in the coming months.

Judge Freeman seemed to take issue with the breadth of PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan’s power to suspend and otherwise control the destiny of players on the Tour. On the other hand, she raised significant doubts about the level of antitrust violation at work here, given how successful LIV has been in attracting and retaining some of the biggest names in the sport. Five of the 10 most popular players on Tour, according to the Tour’s own metrics, have now joined forces with LIV.

Some significant revelations also surfaced during the hearing, the most significant of which concerns the way at least some LIV players are paid. According to the players’ own attorney, at least some LIV players have their tournament winnings deducted from their upfront payment — which, in effect, works like an advance rather than as an actual, discrete payment. So under that arrangement, a player who hypothetically received $10 million to play for LIV would need to earn $10 million in tournament purses before earning additional money on the LIV tour. That’s a significant and substantial difference from the way that PGA Tour players are paid.

The FedEx St. Jude Classic, the first of the three-event FedEx Cup playoffs, starts Thursday. The next LIV Golf event is scheduled for early September in Boston.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Hudson Swafford is one of three LIV Golf players seeking to compete in this week's FedEx Cup playoffs. (Joe Maher/LIV Golf/Getty Images)

Hudson Swafford is one of three LIV Golf players seeking to compete in this week’s FedEx Cup playoffs. (Joe Maher/LIV Golf/Getty Images)

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.

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What you need to know ahead of the restaged 2022 World Junior Championships – ESPN

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The World Junior Championship is a holiday hockey tradition like no other.

This year is an exception.

The tournament is still coming your way during peak vacation time, only now it’s happening mid-summer, rather than post-Christmas. Confused? Let’s recap.

The 2022 WJC was set to be played as usual last December. Due to COVID-19 concerns, the location was moved to Edmonton, Alberta, under restrictive “bubble” conditions. The International Ice Hockey Federation hoped strict protocols would allow the event to go off as scheduled. Spoiler: It did not.

Four days in, the IIHF was forced to call things off after the United States, Czechia and Russia each forfeited preliminary round games because of mounting COVID cases through their ranks. The IIHF didn’t know at the time whether the tournament could be rescheduled.

In April, a new plan was announced. The IIHF said it would restage the 2022 iteration of its event from Aug. 9-20 in Edmonton. The results from games that were played last December would be thrown out. Players born in 2002 or later would retain their eligibility to participate. And so, here we are.

When preliminary action begins (again), all eyes will of course be on the tournament’s perennial favorites from the U.S. and Canada. Those countries highlight two groups of participating nations: Group A has the U.S., Austria, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, while Group B is Canada, Czechia, Finland, Latvia and Slovakia.

Austria retained its place in a top division despite finishing in 10th place last year. Normally, it would have faced relegation, but the cancellation of various U20 tournaments altered regulations and they remain in the mix.

The top four teams from each group will play in the quarterfinals, starting on Aug. 17. That will be followed by the semifinals on Aug. 19, and the gold and bronze medal games on Aug. 20.

Before things get rolling, we’re checking in on some of the major storylines and more intriguing players populating this year’s tournament. As hockey fans know, there is no comparison for the drama the World Juniors can bring. (Editor’s note: A version of this story was posted in December ahead of the initial start of the tournament. This has been updated to account for what has changed between then and now)

Can Team USA go back-to-back?

Spencer Knight made 34 saves and Trevor Zegras recorded two points when Team USA shut out Team Canada 2-0 to win gold at the 2021 World Juniors tournament.

That marked the fifth WJC title for Team USA, along with victories in 2004, 2010, 2013 and 2017. What the U.S. has never accomplished is winning gold in consecutive years. And there’s no time like the present to give it another shot.

Head coach Neal Leaman will be behind the bench again this year, after guiding Team USA to gold in 2021. Leaman has been the men’s coach at Providence College for 11 seasons and won an NCAA title in 2015.

Team USA has four skaters returning from that championship-winning roster in 2021 in Brock Faber, Landon Slaggert, Brett Berard and Tyler Kleven, and retained 17 of the 25 players who were originally slated to be in the December tournament.

Standing prominently in the U.S.’s way of a repeat will be Team Canada, although they’ve suffered significant losses to their numbers from before. Nine players from Canada’s December roster aren’t returning this time around, including Owen Power and Kaiden Guhle. However, Canada does boast impressive goaltending depth highlighted by the Canadian Hockey League’s goalie of the year, Dylan Garand.

Canada was also the last team to win consecutive WJC titles, earning five straight gold medals from 2005 to 2009. Will the U.S. be next to go back-to-back?

Can Connor Bedard dominate — again?

Technically, the last 16-year-old to play for Canada in the World Juniors was some guy named Connor McDavid.

In December, another Connor followed in McDavid’s footsteps — and the (then) 16-year-old Connor Bedard was off to a great start. Bedard entered Canada’s winter selection camp with an outside shot at being the team’s 13th forward. He made the final roster and proceeded to become the youngest player in tournament history to score four goals in a game during Canada’s preliminary round rout of Austria. One day later, the IIHF shut the championship down.

Bedard returned then to the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats and produced an electrifying 76 points in 38 games.

It’s no wonder then that Bedard enters this tournament re-do not only on Canada’s top line with Mason McTavish, but as the favorite to go No. 1 overall in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft.

Canada’s head coach Dave Cameron said the three months of playing time that elapsed for Bedard between one championship and the next made a “huge” impact on his overall game. The center agrees, telling reporters this week he felt improved from the second half of last season, particularly when it comes to his face-off percentage. Bedard will be angling to show off those advancements on an international stage.

There’s no reason to doubt he can. Bedard has long been an overachiever, like when he became the first player in WHL history to be granted exceptional status to join the Pats as a 15-year-old. So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Bedard came to last winter’s camp and was Canada’s leading scorer through exhibition play with two goals and four assists.

Even still, Bedard wasn’t projected to play a huge role for Canada. That’s changed quickly. Expectations are now sky-high for what Bedard can produce on a squad hungry to get back on top.

Same goes for the USA’s Logan Cooley. He was part of the team’s original WJC roster, tallying an assist in one preliminary round game before the COVID shutdown. Leman thought Cooley made great plays in that match against Slovakia and expected he’d rely on Cooley more from there.

That should be especially true now, given all that’s happened for Cooley since. He returned to the US National Team Development Program and had a terrific year with the U-18 squad, collecting 75 points in 51 games. That translated to Cooley being drafted third overall by Arizona in last month’s NHL Entry Draft. Confidence boost? You bet.

Cooley wants to go pro quickly but is committed to play at Minnesota next season. The World Juniors should be an ideal segue into his freshman year. The Pittsburgh native is a highly skilled center who can take on a top-six role for the USA and be toe-to-toe with Bedard and other elite skaters in this tournament.

Where’s Russia?

This is the first time ever that a World Junior championship won’t include Team Russia.

They’ve been involved since the tournament’s outset in 1974 and claim the most medals (37) of any participating nation. Russia was also part of the championship taking place in December. But in February, the IIHF ruled all teams from Russia and Belarus were suspended from competing in any IIHF-sanctioned events. The verdict was made amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of the Ukraine.

“The IIHF is not a political entity and cannot influence the decisions being taken over the war in Ukraine,” IIHF President Luc Tardif said in a statement at the time. “We nevertheless have a duty of care to all of our members and participants and must therefore do all we can to ensure that we are able to operate our events in a safe environment for all teams taking part in the IIHF World Championship program.”

So, with Russia out, Latvia is now in. This will be Latvia’s first appearance in the tournament since 2017, and its seventh trip overall. Latvia earned its spot by placing second in the tournament’s Division 1A competition in December. Belarus finished first and would normally take Russia’s spot in this instance, but Belarus is also banned.

Will new faces emerge?

All players from the tournament in December could have returned for this summer showcase. Naturally not all of them will be, requiring some reinforcements on just about every roster.

Say hello to (a few of) the new guys.

William Dufour, F (Canada)

Dufour didn’t made Team Canada the first time he tried out. But that was then. The New York Islanders’ prospect put together a tremendous 2022 season with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, leading the league in goals (56) and finishing second in points (116). It was good enough to earn Dufour the QMJHL’s Michel-Briere trophy as league MVP — and he didn’t stop there. Dufour earned another MVP title when he led the Sea Dogs to a Memorial Cup championship this spring, tallying the most goals (7) and points (8) in the tournament. Dufour has the goal-scoring prowess that Canada needs and should be a lock for big minutes at even-strength and on the power play.

Sean Behrens, D (USA)

Technically, Behrens isn’t totally new here. He did make Team USA’s roster in December but couldn’t travel to the tournament after testing positive for COVID-19. The defenseman has another crack at playing now and will be coming into this championship on a high. The Colorado prospect just wrapped up a sensational freshman season at the University of Denver, producing 29 points in 37 games and helping guide the Pioneers to a national title. Behrens is a talented overall skater with great puck-moving ability that will make him especially fun to watch in Edmonton.

Thomas Bordeleau, C (USA)

This opportunity has been a long time coming for Bordeleau. He was supposed to play for Team USA in both 2021 and last winter but was thwarted by COVID-19 protocols on both occasions. The 20-year-old did get to play a small role for the U.S. during the men’s World Championship this year. He should have a bigger role at the Juniors. Bordeleau projects to be a top-six center, using his creativity and high-end skill set to generate plenty of offense for the U.S. A San Jose Sharks draft pick, Bordeleau signed his entry-level contract with the team at the end of last season.

Jonathan Lekkerimaki, F (Sweden)

Keep an eye out for this Vancouver Canucks draftee. Lekkerimaki has had a great international season for Sweden already, notching a tournament-high 15 points in the U18 World Championship (where he won gold) and five goals at the Hlinka tournament. Add to that a seven-goal performance back in the Swedish Hockey League and there is little surprise the 18-year-old is generating some big buzz — and expectations — about how he’ll help lead Sweden’s offense in this championship.

Aatu Raty, F (Finland)

This season was a real turning point for Raty. The Islanders’ prospect got off to a poor start with the Finnish League’s Karpat, registering little ice time through the team’s first six games. Raty was then traded in October from Karpat to Jukurit, where he played under head coach (and former NHLer) Olli Jokinen. It was a perfect match, and Raty excelled in his new quarters putting up 13 goals and 40 points in 41 games. After being left off Finland’s roster entirely last year, he’s now centering their top line with Roni Hirvonen and Joakim Kemell and could end up being the tournament’s top scorer. Talk about a glow up.

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