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Herb Zurkowsky: A Year Later, the Alouettes are No Better



It has been roughly a year since the Alouettes won a game at BC Place Stadium — a rare occurrence indeed — that improved their record to 3-5, marking the second consecutive season the team started slowly under head coach Tom Higgins.

Higgins’ reward the next day, upon the team’s arrival in Montreal, was getting fired over the phone — the conversation lasting perhaps 15 seconds — by owner Robert Wetenhall. Hey, he signs the cheques and it’s his team but Higgins, a decent human being, deserved better.

The Als then went out the following week, at Hamilton, and won their first game under Higgins’ replacement, general manager Jim Popp. Montreal became the first team to win a game at Tim Hortons Field and reached the halfway mark of the regular schedule with a 4-5 record.

The victory might have been the highlight of Popp’s season. The Als would win only two more games, finishing with a 6-12 record and missing the Canadian Football League playoffs for the first time since the franchise returned in 1996. It also marked the team’s worst record in two decades.

A year later, what has changed? There might be more stability and harmony — president Mark Weightman’s catch-phrases last November, when it was announced Popp would return as head coach — but the Als appear no better. Heading into Friday night’s home game against Winnipeg, Montreal was 3-5, again, meaning it could be no better than 4-5, again, with 50 per cent of the season remaining.

This franchise has been in a free fall since 2013, the first season after head coach Marc Trestman departed for the Chicago Bears, and after quarterback Anthony Calvillo was concussed at Mosaic Stadium on Aug. 17, eventually signifying the end of his brilliant career.

In 2012, the Als were 7-2 following nine games en route to an 11-7 record. A year later, they were 4-5 and would finish 8-10. In 2014, Montreal rebounded from a 2-7 start to finish 9-9. This franchise has been spinning its wheels going on four seasons.

As we reach the midpoint of the schedule in this, our 20th season on the beat, here are some other random thoughts that have jumped out this season.

Rakeem Cato had engineered an impressive drive near the end of the first quarter against Ottawa on June 30. It was one of the few offensive forays to that point while starting quarterback Kevin Glenn was injured. Nonetheless, when the teams changed ends to begin the second quarter – and with the Als in the middle of a drive – Glenn returned. The drive eventually fizzled, thanks to an offensive pass interference penalty against S.J. Green. And then Boris Bede missed a 36-year field goal attempt.

The Als lost 22-14. How might things have changed had Cato completed the drive?

Redblacks quarterback Trevor Harris and receiver Chris Williams were named two of the league’s top performers of the week – after playing Montreal. In early August, British Columbia nickel-back Loucheiz Purifoy received a similar honour for recovering Corbin Louks’ fumble and returning it 47 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

This is the kind of stat no team can be proud of.

The halftime score against the Redblacks on June 30 was 14-5 for Ottawa. It would eventually be 14-13 in the third quarter. A week later it would be 5-4 for Hamilton following 30 minutes – indicating the Als can hang with teams, for a while, but aren’t, or weren’t, good enough. The Als have been outscored 66-30 in the fourth quarter through eight games. Three times, Montreal has failed to score a point in the final period.

For all the times Popp has stated injuries aren’t an excuse, it’s amazing how often the names of Green, Tyrell Sutton, Kenny Stafford and, for one game, Glenn, entered the conversation. Now that everyone but Green has returned, the Als should be vastly improved. No?

In what might have been the singularly most-bizarre moment this season, the Als decided to insert Canadian quarterback Brandon Bridge into a game at Toronto, July 25, late in the fourth quarter for a third-down gamble from the one-yard line. Bridge had spent the entire game on the bench and the visitors were trailing by 13 – so it really didn’t matter. Bridge, who struggled all season with short-yardage scenarios before being released, looked hopelessly lost on the play and got sacked.

We’re not denying Bede struggled this season and received plenty of rope to hang himself – which he eventually did. But when they decided to finally make a change at the position, why did it come following a 20-point loss to the Lions? Bede wasn’t the reason the Als lost, although he contributed.

From the first scrimmage of training camp at Bishop’s University – 150 kilometres from Montreal – which started close to one hour after the advertised time, the Als have appeared to be one of the league’s most-disorganized teams, unable to keep to a schedule.

How is it that Duron Carter was fined and suspended for an incident almost two months ago, appealed the suspension and, as the Als prepare to embark on the second half of the schedule, we’re still awaiting an arbitrator’s decision?

The Als waited five years for draft choice Vaughn Martin while he pursued his NFL dream, cut his salary once – and wanted to slash it a second time, according to RDS – and then ultimately released him. We get it. Some players don’t work out. But why release Martin after fellow defensive-tackle Michael Klassen suffered a fractured leg, possibly ending his season?

For all their inconsistencies, where would the Als be without their defence? This unit has been the one redeeming factor that has held this team together on an annual basis. It makes us wonder whether defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe shouldn’t be next-in-line to eventually replace Popp as head coach. Does Thorpe at least not deserve an opportunity?

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of all this is that while the Als continue to struggle, few seem to care. Attendance for the first home game was 21,522 but has continued to dwindle – from 20,098 to 20,018 to 19,125. And we can assure you Wetenhall, who has lost millions over 20 years, has noticed. This organization no longer has become a sexy destination for players. Just ask Sean Whyte. And Mitchell White. And others.

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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