TORONTO – Masai Ujiri has had his hands full recently, so you can understand why his contractual status may not be top of mind.
After advising the NBA on its return-to-play strategy early in the pandemic and spending months with his team in the Orlando bubble, while continuing to embrace a leadership role in the ongoing fight for racial justice and equality, the Toronto Raptors president remained busy navigating the draft and free agency.
At the same time, Ujiri was working closely with the Canadian and American governments in the hopes of securing the necessary clearance for his team to host games north of the border this coming season. Once the bid was denied, he helped oversee their temporary relocation to Tampa.
He and his not-for-profit organization, Giants of Africa, just finished planning their seventh annual event honouring the life and memory of former South African president Nelson Mandela, which was held virtually last week – a cause that is near and dear to Ujiri’s heart.
Meanwhile, his stated goal of securing new contracts for his Raptors staff is nearly completed – starting with the extension for head coach Nick Nurse in September and culminating in general manager Bobby Webster’s deal, which, according to Ujiri, is “pretty much done.”
As the Raptors get set to open training camp this week – their first team practice is scheduled for Sunday – and tip-off the 2020-21 campaign at “home” to New Orleans on December 23, the elephant in the room is Ujiri’s own future with the club.
One of league’s top executives, the 50-year-old Ujiri is going into the final season of his current contract. In September, he told the media that he still hadn’t spoken to ownership regarding an extension, and on a Saturday morning conference call, he gave no indication that anything had changed in that regard.
“There’s just been so much [going on],” he said. “Honestly, it’s not a matter of not doing it, I think there’s just been so much [and] I’ve pushed it [back] until, I think, we get through a lot of this. There’s just so much going on with this relocation, and the focus, I don’t want to be distracted that way.”
With his people taken care of and the team getting comfortable in its new home, the time is approaching for Ujiri to sit down and evaluate his next move.
Already among the association’s highest paid execs, Ujiri should have all the leverage he needs to essentially craft the terms of his new deal. Short of sliding a pen and blank cheque across the table – or however contracts are drawn up in the COVID-19 era – it’s hard to imagine Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment balking at anything Ujiri could or would ask for, not only because of what he’s accomplished in Toronto or even the number of interested teams that have come calling, but because of how crucially important he is to where the franchise wants to go from here.
Ujiri and the Raptors have made no secret of their ambitions for the summer of 2021. Maintaining cap flexibility, and the option of opening up the requisite space to offer a max contact, has been a top priority – it’s motivated nearly every decision they’ve made, or haven’t made, over the past couple years.
Since taking the job atop Toronto’s front office back in 2013, Ujiri has checked off a lot of boxes on his list of goals. He wanted to build a state-of-the-art practice facility and get the franchise its own G League – at the time, D-League – affiliate. He wanted to change the culture of an organization that had fallen on hard times and was mired in a team record five-year playoff drought. He wanted to build a winning foundation, and yes, he promised to bring the city a championship. He’s delivered on all of those things, and then some.
Just about the only thing he’s yet to accomplish, and another stated goal of his, is to finally lure a star free agent – at or close to the peak of his career – to Toronto. In 25 years, it’s never been done.
For the bulk of their existence, the Raptors have been haunted by the stigma that star players don’t want to be in Canada. That many of their own stars left or engineered their exists, particularly in that first decade – Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh – certainly didn’t help dispel that narrative.
Under Ujiri, these Raptors are looked at very differently – within their own city and country, but also around the league. Keeping their own stars no longer seems like an impossible task – DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry both signed multiple contracts to stay in Toronto and, most recently, Fred VanVleet did the same – and they’re confident that the reputation they’ve built is strong enough to attract the league’s best players on the open market.
It’s been a while since they’ve had the chance to test that theory. Operating as an above cap team for most of Ujiri’s tenure, the Raptors haven’t had significant money to spend in free agency since they signed DeMarre Carroll to an ill fated four-year, $60-million deal in 2015.
They’ve set themselves up to be major players in the highly anticipated 2021 free agency sweepstakes, which could include the reigning two-time MVP – and long-time Ujiri target – Giannis Antetokounmpo, among other stars. The question is, will Ujiri be around to make the sales pitch?
If Ujiri is succession planning, the Raptors would be in capable hands with Webster and assistant GM Dan Tolzman – a couple of rising stars in the executive ranks – steering the ship. Still, there aren’t many people in the business that can replicate Ujiri’s presence and salesmanship. He’s the guy you want leading any meeting with a star free agent, especially if that free agent happens to be a certain Greek forward, with whom Ujiri already has a relationship. But what if Ujiri, himself, is also a free agent?
Simply put, the Raptors can’t let that happen. Assuming there hasn’t been any progress made on the extension front, it’s hard to believe that’s an ownership choice. Meaning, Ujiri will decide if and when the time is right to start the conversation.
Now that the dust is settling on an eventful 2020, this would seem like as good a time as any.
“I don’t know what the timeframe will be,” said Ujiri, who was asked if he anticipates getting a new deal done over the coming months. “I go into this thing with a very positive mind and attitude. And we hope it goes that way.”
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The Canadian Press
Canadian international Mark-Anthony Kaye has been elected to the Major League Soccer Players Association executive board. The 26-year-old Los Angeles FC midfielder, along with Jalil Anibaba (Nashville SC) and Victor Ulloa (Inter Miami CF), was elected to a three-year term. The executive board serves as the decision- and policy-making body of the Players Association with its members serving as the MLSPA’s chief officers. “The leadership and hard work of our executive board members, both past and present, has made the MLSPA into what it is today,” MLSPA executive director Bob Foose said in a statement. “I want to congratulate our newest board members, and those who are returning, and thank them for their commitment to serving their fellow players and continuing to grow and improve the MLSPA.” Foose thanked departing board members Jeff Larentowicz and Luis Robles. Other current members of the executive board are Scott Caldwell (New England Revolution), Ethan Finlay (Minnesota United), Clint Irwin (Colorado Rapids), Eric Miller (Nashville) and Patrick Mullins (Toronto FC). The MLS and MLSPA are currently at loggerheads over the league’s decision to trigger a “force majeure” clause in the collective bargaining agreement to reopen negotiations on the CBA signed in January 2019. The league has said it lost nearly US$1 billion last season due to the global pandemic. This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15. 2021 The Canadian Press
Laine 'pissed' to miss Gordie Howe hat trick – TSN
Winnipeg Jets winger Patrik Laine had a productive opening game of the season, scoring the overtime winner as part of a three-point night in Thursday’s 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames.
Laine, however, was not happy to wind up with only a minor penalty for roughing after dropping the gloves with Matthew Tkachuk as part of a skirmish late in the second period.
“I was pissed off because that would have been a Gordie Howe hat trick,” Laine said after the win. “That one time when I drop my gloves, I get a two-minute penalty. So that’s kind of embarrassing.”
Laine went after Noah Hanifin after the Flames defenceman cross-checked Jets forward Kyle Connor behind the Calgary net, with Tkachuk jumping in soon after.
Hanifin received a minor penalty for cross-checking on the play, while Laine and Tkachuk both picked up roughing minors. Laine has never been assessed a fighting major.
“It gets the team fired up,” Jets forward Nik Ehlers said of Laine’s actions. “I’ve maybe been a little bit in his head in the last week, saying he hasn’t fought yet and when is it going to happen? I think he took that a little personal. He stood up for his teammate. It fires the guys up. Patty’s a big boy, and he went in there today and showed that. It’s exciting, it gets the boys going, it always does. And he got himself buzzing, too. It’s exciting for us.”
The Jets won’t face the Flames again until Feb. 1, when they will play the first of four consecutive games against Calgary – three of which will be on home ice.
Laine winner caps sparkling performance as Jets extinguish Flames in overtime – CBC.ca
Patrik Laine let his play on the ice speak volumes Thursday night with a three-point performance that should squash questions about his committment to the Winnipeg Jets.
“Hopefully I can just build off that game,” Laine said after the victory. “There’s a lot of things I need to look at. The three points isn’t going to tell the whole truth of the game. But it’s a good start.”
His big night comes after Laine’s agent made comments during the off-season suggesting that both the powerful forward and the Jets could benefit from his being traded. Laine ducked questions on the subject as training camp opened.
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His commitment to the team seemed clear Thursday as Laine not only lit up the scoreboard, but stood up for his teammate.
With less than a minute to go in the second period, Calgary’s Noah Hanifin cross-checked Laine’s linemate Kyle Connor into the boards.
Laine responded by going after Hanifin and a scuffle ensued, with Laine and Flames left-winger Matthew Tkachuk exchanging blows.
“That’s just the type of guy he is. He’ll go to battle for his teammates,” Connor said. “He’s a pretty selfless guy and I think you can see that. I have his back out there and vice versa. He’s just an all-around great teammate, I’d say.”
Hanifin was called for cross-checking, and Laine and Tkachuk were each sent to the box for roughing.
It was somewhat of a disappointing result for Laine, who rarely drops the gloves and was hoping he’d register a Gordie Howe hat trick — a goal, an assist and a fight.
“The one time I drop my gloves, I get a two-minute penalty. So that’s kind of embarrassing,” he said.
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The tussle helped ignite a Winnipeg (1-0-0) side that was tepid at times on Thursday.
Calgary (0-0-1) dominated play through much of the first period, starting just 4:28 in when Tkachuk scored on the second shot of the game with a deflection in front of the Jets’ net.
Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm added goals before the end of the first frame, and the Flames held a 3-1 lead heading into the break.
During the intermission, Jets coach Paul Maurice went into the locker room and told his group to relax. His words changed the way the group played heading into the second period, said Paul Stastny.
“Sometimes when you’re kind of thinking too much, your feet are in quicksand, you’re looking around too much. Everyone was kind of hoping for things to happen,” he said. “The first game of the season it always kind of happens like that. I think it’s just nerves, in a sense.”
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Thirty-four seconds into the second period, Nikolaj Ehlers took a shot from the slot and, while Jacob Markstrom made the stop, he couldn’t control the rebound. The puck squirted out to Mark Schiefele who popped it in from the side of the net to make it 3-2.
Connor’s power-play goal evened the score at 3-3, and Laine buried the winner 1:18 into overtime, streaking from deep in his own end all the way past the Calgary blue line. He fanned on his first shot but quickly recovered and beat Markstrom on his second attempt.
Laine has worked harder in training camp than any other time during his career in Winnipeg, and is bigger, stronger and more mature than ever before, Maurice said.
“He’s a very driven young man. He wants to be great. And sometimes you have to learn how that unfolds,” the coach said. “What he got tonight he earned. He didn’t get lucky, he didn’t have a bunch of bounces go for him. He just worked and worked.”
Markstrom was making his debut for Calgary after signing a six-year, $36-million US deal in free agency and stopped 30-of-34 shots Thursday.
Connor Hellebuyck, the NHL’s reigning Vezina winner, had 23 saves for Winnipeg.
The game was a rematch of last year’s playoff series where the Flames dispatched with the Jets in four games in the qualifying round.
It was also the first of nine meetings between the two clubs in the pandemic-condensed 56-game season.
The Flames will host the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, and the Jets are set to visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday.
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