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Jamie Benn’s Remarkable Rise Into NHL Superstar Almost Never Happened



Jamie Benn might be playing a different sport right now if the Dallas Stars hadn’t picked their future captain late in the NHL draft nearly a decade ago.

Benn has rung up more points than Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane and every other NHL player over the past two seasons and signed an eight-year extension worth US$76 million with the Dallas Stars this past summer.

But the remarkable, unexpected rise of one of the top Canadian hockey players almost never happened. Long before any of his NHL success, baseball was still tugging at his heart.

“I think if I never got drafted, baseball could’ve been an option,” Benn said in an interview with the Canadian Press.

He was pretty good, too. One former coach called Benn the second-best left-handed hitter ever from Victoria, after Toronto Blue Jays all-star Michael Saunders.

Benn played centre-field, first base and pitched occasionally. He was a daring fielder and powerful hitter, the type who would typically bat third in the batting order. He was also a wily bunter who liked to beat defences with bunts to third base.

Benn got his love for the sport from his father, Randy. Bruce Hamilton, the owner, president and GM of the Kelowna Rockets, where Benn would later play junior hockey, thinks Randy would have been thrilled if his son pursued baseball over hockey.

“I think he would’ve loved it if I went that route,” Benn concurred.

Benn said the love for the two sports is equal, though he does admit that he could watch baseball all day.

“I knew his dad fairly well and his dad would always say how Jamie liked baseball better,” said Ron Arcuri, Benn’s coach with the Victoria Capitals.

Before the NHL draft in 2007, Benn had a commitment to attend the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he would play hockey in the winter and baseball in the Alaska Summer League, which has seen the likes of Barry Bonds and Josh Donaldson roll through.

But after the Stars drafted him with the 129th overall pick in 2007 Benn decided to give hockey a go, agreeing to play for Kelowna.

It’s a decision that still stings Arcuri, who said Benn had baseball scouts taking notice.

Benn had the eye of scouts in hockey, too. But as they remember it, his dedication to the sport was casual.

“Jamie was a really naive kid,” said Tim Bernhardt, the Stars former director of amateur scouting who now works with the Arizona Coyotes. “He was out on (Vancouver Island) and he was just playing. He was a good baseball player and hockey, I’m sure it was part of his life, but it wasn’t his whole life.”

Because he wasn’t lacing his skates up at every possible moment and hitting the diamond in the summer, Benn was rough around the edges as a hockey player early on. His skating and conditioning were concerns. He wasn’t considered lazy, just unaware of what was actually required to make it in hockey.

Some think it’s why Benn sunk to the fifth round.

His stock also might have slipped because he played his draft year in a league (BCHL) that wasn’t scouted all that seriously back then. Benn’s impressive numbers then for the Victoria Grizzlies — 42 goals, 65 points in 53 games — lacked the weight they might had in the Canadian Hockey League.

Bernhardt thinks a snub from Hockey Canada was a more likely reason for Benn’s tumble at the draft. Benn wasn’t picked in 2006 for the Canada West team at the heavily scouted Junior-A challenge.

The Stars were alerted to Benn by Dennis Holland, a B.C. area scout and brother of Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland. Long-time Stars executive Les Jackson said Holland described Benn as a big, raw kid who could handle the puck. Smart, too. More substance over style.

The Stars chose four players before Benn, and only one ever played an NHL game. The organization evidently thought enough of Benn to keep him off even their own internal radar.

“We didn’t want his name out there floating around, people asking ‘What about Jamie Benn?'” Jackson recalled.

Dallas knew they might have found something when Benn sparkled at development camp a few weeks after the draft. It was a reality check for Benn too. He not only saw how good he might be, but also how much his habits would have to change. He’d have to eat better and train more diligently, make hockey the centrepiece of his life.

Benn quickly became a star for the Rockets, leading the team to a WHL crown in his second season. He also caught the attention of Hockey Canada finally and landed a spot on the 2009 world junior team.

“We always would laugh (at) what a steal Dallas got when they took him,” Hamilton, the Rockets owner, said. “But I don’t know if you ever really anticipate or envision him being as good as he really is.”

Less than six months after he tied for the Memorial Cup lead in scoring (the Rockets lost the championship game to Windsor), Benn was in the NHL. He scored 22 goals as a relatively anonymous rookie in Dallas. Tyler Seguin knew of him only as a “good player that had really long hair.” It was only in summer 2013 when Seguin was traded to Dallas that he got caught a real hint of Benn’s talents.

He asked the Stars for game video and was wowed by what he saw from his future linemate.

Quiet off the ice, Benn’s star probably doesn’t shine as bright as it could. His production — the second most points after Crosby since the start of the 2013-14 campaign — can get lost in the shuffle. A successful stint on the 2014 Olympic team helped a little and Benn was among the first 16 players picked to Canada’s World Cup of Hockey squad before pulling out with injury.

Seguin thinks Benn is growing more comfortable in the spotlight.

“I think really with the transition of him turning into this well-known player and one of the best in the world there’s also the transition of his personality a little bit,” Seguin said.

It’s hardly unusual for late round picks to exceed expectations, but rarely though do they reach the peaks Benn has.

Over the last 20 years the NHL’s scoring title has been won by 13 different players. Eleven were first-round picks. One was undrafted (Martin St. Louis) and the other was Benn.

Benn could be finishing up a season on a baseball diamond somewhere right now, but he’s not regretting his choice to stick to the rink.

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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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