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Why Kyle Lowry’s carefully-planned exit was necessary for Raptors to take next step –



TORONTO — The Toronto Raptors would never be where they are now without Kyle Lowry.

But they wouldn’t be able to get to where they want to be if the team’s all-time leader in assists, steals, charges drawn and wins was still wearing No. 7, throwing his body all over the wood and into the crowd like every loose ball was a live grenade that needed to be smothered.

That those two seemingly incongruent paths representing the Raptors’ glorious, Lowry-led past and its increasingly promising future were successfully navigated is the fundamental reason Sunday evening will be such a special moment not only in the history of the franchise, but in the sporting history of the city it represents.

Lowry’s leaving — and hence his return — was carefully planned and precisely executed, at least to the extent possible in the chaotic swirl that is the NBA marketplace.

But from the beginning of the end, getting it right was vital for all concerned.

“It was a very, very high priority,” Raptors president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri told me in a conversation this week. “Kyle is a legend. To me he’s the best Raptor ever, there’s no doubt about that. So therefore, with fans, ownership, with the organization, it had to go the right way.

“Out of respect for them and out of respect for someone like Kyle.”

Lowry earned that respect because he taught a franchise how to win, and a fan base what winning basketball looks like.

This is not feel-good, prisoner-of-the-moment nostalgia. It’s just facts.

Remember when then Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chief executive officer Tim Leiweke appeared on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and wished that more guys on the (then) moribund Toronto Maple Leafs played like the (then) under-appreciated point guard on a basketball team that no one outside of their die-hard fanbase cared about?

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It was an unfathomable thing to say to an audience quite literally raised on the idea that hockey manifested the ideals of competitiveness, toughness, and teamwork more fully than any other sport, and that basketball was barely on the radar in that respect.

Lowry proved Leiweke correct.

His tireless motor was the locomotive driving the dawn of the “We The North” era. It sparked a run of success that eventually led to the 2019 NBA championship, a title that will stand for the ages for a host of reasons, not the least of which: it forced the basketball universe to acknowledge the Raptors in a way that had never otherwise been possible, and for Canadians to recognize what the sport represents in Toronto and across the country, in some cases for the first time.

Lowry didn’t act alone, of course, but he was the key that allowed basketball and the NBA and all those who are a part of the game and the culture around the game to be fully seen.

For all of those reasons, his leaving had to be managed with great care as it became apparent that the organization needed to move on to its next phase and that Lowry, now 36 and in his 16th season, wanted to write one more chapter before he ran out of years.

Nailing the timing has paid off. Lowry is on an NBA title contender with the Heat, and the youthful Raptors are charging for fifth-place in the East and could win 48 games — their total in their first playoff run under Lowry and at the time the franchise record.

Lowry’s leaving opened doors. Would the Raptors have been able to play rookie Scottie Barnes’ 35 minutes a game — including some at point guard — if Lowry was still here? The same goes for Pascal Siakam, who has become the team’s primary ball-handler often, allowing his game to grow while simultaneously allowing the six-year veteran to find a voice he wasn’t quite sure he had.

“Opportunity always enhances growth,” says Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And this is an opportunity for these guys. There’s more minutes, there’s more time, there’s more leadership opportunities and I think that was the biggest thing. We knew we were going to be losing a big leader… but for some of the guys that have been around here long enough, we needed them to understand they are the leaders of the team, and it’s up to them to perform and act like that.”

Siakam’s first, best minutes in the NBA came as a raw rookie playing wide receiver running under Lowry’s pin-point passes in transition. But as he’s evolved into one of the NBA’s most dynamic scoring and passing threats recently and this year in particular, Lowry’s departure has opened different parts of his game.

“Kyle was such a big part of what we do as a team and as an organization, like, obviously, for good reason when you look at everything that he’s done here,” Siakam told me recently. “With someone as big and as great as Kyle, you had to take a step back, because he’s that impactful, so with him gone it was just an opportunity for one more voice to be heard and I felt like, yeah, I could be that person.”

Still, as important — and maybe even more important — as the organization getting a reasonable return in any transaction involving Lowry was making sure that nothing would happen on the way out that would in any way tarnish everything that had come before, for either side.

The whole process was made easier because of the way Ujiri and the franchise point guard bonded over the events of the past few years, something Lowry alluded to in his open letter to Raptors fans in The Players Tribune on Friday when he made reference to the phone call he shared with his old boss after Toronto helped organize the sign-and-trade deal that landed Lowry with the Miami Heat — always his preferred destination — and brought Precious Achiuwa and (eventually) Thad Young to Toronto.

“Our relationship, it’s more than just player and management at this point. It’s bigger than just ‘work stuff,’ where you’re leaving one job to go to another, so you give the old boss a call to say thanks,” wrote Lowry. “Nah. It’s deeper than that with me and Masai. When you’ve been through what we’ve been through? When you share the history we share? That’s not just the GM on the other end of the phone. That’s big brother. That’s family.”

Which is why his return to Scotiabank Arena for the first time since he joined the Miami Heat as a free agent will be different than any reunion that has come before.

For so many years the Raptors vacillated between being the NBA organization no one respected or — even as it slowly gained its footing — the one no one widely recognized for how it had grown and had the potential for more.

If you knew, you knew, but not everyone did. And it’s not a coincidence that so often — like, every time — the difficult partings between Raptors stars and the team and the city left a bitter aftertaste.

Any long-time fan knows the roll call: Damon, Tracy, Vince, Bosh, DeMar (even though in DeRozan’s case it was him who was understandably hurt and angry after the franchise-shaking trade) and even Kawhi, though the fact he left on the heels of a championship certainly helped smooth things over. But his choosing the Clippers in free agency and leaving one or more titles on the table clouds things a bit.

That wasn’t going to happen this time. Lowry and Ujiri had grown close over their eight shared season in Toronto after some rocky earlier years and tension following Ujiri’s decision to trade DeRozan, his best friend.

It was famously Lowry who pulled Ujiri onto the floor for the victory celebration after they won the title at Oracle Arena moments after the Raptors president had been assaulted by a police officer working security. They grew closer than ever during the pandemic as they worked on committees charged with figuring out the NBA’s return to play and again in the bubble as they discussed how to harness the momentum for social justice issues following the murder of George Floyd.

The relationship deepened in Tampa where they would cross paths at the Raptors’ temporary practice facility during early-morning workouts, communicate about the logistics of the team’s temporary relocation and — ultimately — how to manage the exit of a legend.

In the lead-up to the trade deadline last season — with Lowry very much in play as the Raptors pivoted to the ‘Tampa tank’, everything was done transparently, there were no surprises. It’s not that Lowry’s wishes were put ahead of the best interests of the franchise, it’s that making sure Lowry was looked after was deemed in the franchise’s best interest.

The moment was right, for all concerned.

“It’s almost like you’re handing the regime down to them. And Kyle did it in a beautiful way,” said Ujiri. “Look at the torch has passed to Fred, Pascal and OG and how these guys are doing it.

“We can’t ask for anything better as an organization. The best thing I love about them is they’ll tell you stuff that they learned from Kyle, they’ll tell you stuff that they learned from DeMar, they’ll tell you stuff they learned from Kawhi and (Marc) Gasol. That stuff, I’m telling you, that’s going to turn into something and that something is winning and unbelievable human beings. That’s what it’s going to turn to, and they’re all going to be leaders. I know it.”

The Raptors wouldn’t be where they are without Kyle Lowry, but his legacy is such that they wouldn’t be where they are now — young and competitive and brimming with potential — without him moving on.

Threading that needle might go down as Lowry’s last, most important pass as a Raptor. As usual, it was on time and on target.

Sunday’s ovation will be proof of that.

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Rocket advance with win in 3OT thriller | – American Hockey League



The Laval Rocket are off to the Eastern Conference Finals after a wild 6-5 triple-overtime victory over the Rochester Americans on Wednesday night.

The Rocket completed a three-game sweep of the Amerks and will face either Charlotte or Springfield in the next round.

Working on a power play following a delay of game penalty against Rochester, former Amerk Jean-Sébastien Dea wristed a shot that beat Aaron Dell at 1:51 of the third OT period to give the Rocket the victory. It was the second goal of the night for Dea, and came on Laval’s 60th shot of the evening.

Rochester nearly escaped with a Game 3 victory, scoring three times in the third period to take a 5-4 lead before Jesse Ylönen netted the equalizer for the Rocket with 1:07 remaining in regulation.

Back home in front of an energetic crowd of 10,662 fans at Blue Cross Arena, the Amerks struck quickly when Mark Jankowski pounced on a loose puck and scored his sixth goal of the playoffs just 1:04 into the contest.

JJ Peterka made it 2-0 in favor of Rochester with a power-play goal at 8:05, and that lead held until late in the second period, when Laval scored four goals in a span of 3:56 to swing the game in their favor.

Brandon Gignac started the comeback with 6:08 to go in the second period with a nifty deflection of a Corey Schueneman shot from the point. Danick Martel tied things up 55 seconds later, taking Gabriel Bourque’s pass from behind the net and snapping home his fifth goal of the series.

Just 76 seconds after that, the Rocket took their first lead of the night as Xavier Ouellet floated a shot from the left point through traffic that found the top corner over the glove of Aaron Dell.

And with 2:12 to go before intermission, Dea put Laval in front by two, hitting an open cage with Dell out of position following a collision with a teammate in front.

Rochester regrouped during the break and needed just 1:32 to tie things back up. Brett Murray scored 13 seconds into the third period to pull the Amerks to within 4-3, and Peterka got his second of the night 1:19 later off a slick feed from Peyton Krebs.

Murray then scored his second of the period at 8:35, getting a piece of Ethan Prow’s shot from the point and deflecting it home to put Rochester back in front.

Laval outshot Rochester 24-12 during sudden death and killed off two Amerks power plays before converting on their own for the winner.

Cayden Primeau (6-1) made 34 saves and earned his fourth consecutive victory in net for the Rocket. Dell (5-5) stopped a career-high 54 shots for Rochester.

North Division Finals (best-of-5)
N3-Laval Rocket vs. N5-Rochester Americans
Game 1 – Sun., May 22 – LAVAL 6, Rochester 1
Game 2 – Mon., May 23 – LAVAL 3, Rochester 1
Game 3 – Wed., May 25 – Laval 6, ROCHESTER 5 (3OT)

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Bozak scores OT winner, Blues rally vs. Avs to stave off elimination –



DENVER (AP) — Tyler Bozak and the St. Louis Blues experienced just about every emotion imaginable over the course of a win-or-season-ends game in which they fell behind by three goals.

Ultimately, they landed on this improbable one — elation.

Bozak scored 3:38 into overtime and the Blues fended off elimination in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals, overcoming a pair of deficits in a 5-4 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night.

Bozak, a fourth-line center, unleashed a shot from near the blueline that got past Darcy Kuemper, capping a remarkable comeback for St. Louis.

“It was an amazing hockey game,” Bozak said. “I’m sure everyone that was watching thought the same thing.”

Robert Thomas had two goals, including the tying tally with 56 seconds left in regulation, for a resilient Blues team. It’s the latest game-tying goal for the Blues when facing elimination, according to NHL Stats. Vladimir Tarasenko and Justin Faulk also scored, Nick Leddy had four assists and Pavel Buchnevich had two.

They never doubted — even down 3-0 late in the second period and 4-3 late in the third.

“You’ve got nothing to lose, you might as well throw it all out there,” Thomas said. “That was our mentality.”

The comeback offset a hat trick from Nathan MacKinnon, who looked like he might have just turned in a signature moment with goal No. 3. He went end-to-end, working his way around Blues defenseman Leddy with nifty stick work and lifting a shot over goaltender Ville Husso for a 4-3 lead. It was his second career postseason hat trick.

Hats hit the ice.

“Doesn’t matter,” MacKinnon said of his feat. “Looking to get a win.”

Thomas tied it up with Husso on the bench for an extra skater, setting the stage for Bozak, who played college hockey down the road at the University of Denver.

To think, he didn’t play much down the stretch of the third period, with the Blues rolling out just three lines. When he got his chance in OT, he made the most of it.

“There’s definitely no such thing as a bad shot,” Bozak said. “So just tried to get it through the traffic and it went in. So that’s awesome.”

Game 6 is Friday in St. Louis.

The Blues have rallied from a 3-1 deficit to take a playoff series twice in their history _ 1999 against Phoenix and 1991 versus Detroit.

They’re looking to write another chapter.

“This team’s come from behind quite a bit this year in games so they don’t give up,” Blues coach Craig Berube said.

Captain Gabriel Landeskog also scored and Bowen Byram had two assists for the Avalanche, who were on the verge of advancing to the Western Conference final for the first time since 2002.

Instead, they have to wait — and wonder. The second-round has proven to be a big hurdle for the Avalanche. They’ve been eliminated at this stage in each of the last three postseasons.

“You sulk for three minutes and you move on. Simple as that,” Landeskog said. “It’s playoff hockey. It’s not supposed to be easy.”

Husso made 30 saves for St. Louis. He took over in Game 3 when Jordan Binnington was injured following a collision between Nazem Kadri and Blues defenseman Calle Rosen that caused Kadri to crash into Binnington.

Afterward, Kadri received racist death threats on social media, which led to increased security to protect him. He responded in Game 4 with a hat trick. On Wednesday, fans along the boards held up signs that read “Stand with Naz.”

Kuemper stopped 25 shots.

MacKinnon came out flying in the first period, taking five shots and scoring twice to give the Colorado an early 2-0 lead. Those were the first two goals of the series for MacKinnon, who has seven in the postseason.

The speedy MacKinnon also had an assist to give him 82 career playoff points. He became the fourth player in franchise history with 80 or more postseason points, joining the company of Sakic (188), Peter Forsberg (159) and Peter Stastny (81).

After Landeskog made it 3-0 just over 4 minutes into the second period, Tarasenko knocked in his first goal of the series 10 1/2 minutes later to jumpstart the Blues.

“We got on our heels a little bit,” said MacKinnon, whose team is 4-0 on the road in these playoffs. “We wanted it so bad, I guess. … Win the third, go to the conference finals, whatever. It’s one period. Got to keep our game going, stay aggressive. That’s what we’ll do.”

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Canada Soccer cancels men’s national team friendly vs. Iran in Vancouver –



TORONTO — Canada Soccer has cancelled a planned friendly with Iran in the face of growing criticism.

In a one-paragraph statement, the governing body gave no reason for the cancellation of the scheduled June 5 game at B.C. Place Stadium in Vancouver.

But the idea of hosting the Iranian team, ranked 21st in the world, has drawn fire since it was first announced.

At issue is whether Canada should be hosting Iran given the Canadians who died on Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 when it was shot down on Jan. 8, 2020, minutes after taking off from Tehran, by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. The Canadian government says 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents were among the 176 people killed.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week the game “wasn’t a very good idea,” pointing the finger at Canada Soccer. The Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims called for Canada Soccer “to cancel the game immediately.”

Association spokesman Hamed Esmaeilion, whose wife Parisa and young daughter Reera were among those who died on Flight 752, said in an interview last week. “What kind of friendship do we have with the Islamic Republic of Iran?

“We want the (Canadian) government to take them to international court. And instead of that, we get humiliated by them … I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back — (as well as) the other family members. After 28 months we don’t see any sign of seeking justice here. We don’t see sign of taking Iran to any international forum. And instead of that they invite the (Iran) soccer team here.”

Conservative MPs added their voice to the protest on Wednesday. And the PM said this week that it will be up to the Canada Border Services Agency whether the Iran team is allowed into the country.

The Iran game was to be the first of a two-game Vancouver homestand. The Canadian men open CONCACAF Nations League A play there against Curacao on June 9 before closing out the FIFA international window with another CONCACAF Nations League game against Honduras in San Pedro Sula on June 13.

Canada, ranked 38th in the world, and Iran are both preparing for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar this November.

For Canada Soccer, the Iran contest was a rare chance to test the Canadian men against a team outside of their CONCACAF confederation, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean.

The Canadians have played just two teams from outside their region since John Herdman took over as coach in January 2018: a 1-0 loss to Iceland in January 2020 and a 1-0 win over New Zealand in March 2018.

The FIFA International window opens Monday, with players arriving from their clubs from around the world. Now they will get extended training time rather than a match ahead of the CONCACAF Nations League fixtures.

Canada has not played on home soil since qualifying for the World Cup in a 4-0 win over Jamaica at Toronto’s BMO Field on March 27. The Canadian men last played at B.C. Place in March 2019 when they beat French Guiana 4-1 in CONCACAF Nations League qualifying.

The Canadians topped the final round of CONCACAF qualifying with an 8-2-4 record. Their last game was a 1-0 loss in Panama on March 30.

Canada has a 1-2-0 all-time record against Iran, winning the most recent encounter 1-0 in April 2001 in Cairo. Iran posted 1-0 wins in 1997 and 1999 games in Toronto and Edmonton, respectively.

Canada opens World Cup play Nov. 23 against No. 2 Belgium before facing No. 16 Croatia on Nov. 27 and No. 24 Morocco on Dec. 1.

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