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Hardcore CFL lifers pay homage to their football passions at Grey Cup

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TORONTO – This is what the Canadian Football League looks like on Grey Cup week.

An old man wearing a Winnipeg jersey. A baby all dressed in Saskatchewan green. A middle-aged couple in Hamilton black and yellow. A whole row of Montreal red.

And a guy wearing a collector’s item, a Baltimore Stallions winter jacket, not looking at all out of place.

The ballroom is packed on the third floor of the Delta Hotel in downtown Toronto, one block in one direction from the Rogers Centre, one block in the other from the Air Canada Centre. This is the centre of the centre of the hockey universe.

Everyone in this room, this morning, to listen to, and maybe ask a question, of CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge. This is his annual Town Hall meeting, the kind of quaintness that is so CFL.

Maybe this is the only Toronto football sell-out we’ll see this year. It’s Orridge’s reprieve from the pointed media questions he was asked an hour earlier at his annual state of the union address. This is more his crowd.

Standing room only for those dressed in every colour of every team: Here in this Ontario city of CFL cynics, there are none in this room.

These are the true believers of Canadian football. All here to listen to the commissioner and pay homage to their football passions.

“You guys are the game,” Matt Dunigan, the former quarterback and moderator for the day, said to the fans in attendance. “You make this what it is. You are what the league is all about.”

And anyone who has ever been around the CFL, in all its glory, knows how different a world this is. There isn’t anything like the CFL anywhere, which is what makes it so special and sometimes so frustrating.

This isn’t Roger Goodell on the Friday before Super Bowl, and we should be thankful for that. This isn’t Gary Bettman’s condescension at the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

On this stage, in front of all these fans, the soon-to-be-56-year-old Dunigan challenged the 56-year-old commissioner to a most important event — a pushup challenge.

And so it went. With everyone watching, the two men dropped and gave us 20. Maybe more. I lost count. Orridge gave up after an impressive run. Dunigan, still a specimen, kept on going.

Just like the CFL. Unbuttoned. Strong. Well-built. A little sweaty.

That got applause, but the larger applause came when two RCMP officers walked the Grey Cup into the room. The trophy is the star of the week.

This may not feel like much of a Grey Cup week outside the few blocks outside of downtown and the Metro Convention Centre where all the activity is happening, but here, it is everywhere.

Everyone in some kind of CFL uniform. The lifers. The newbies. The partiers. The Roughriders fans who were once from Saskatchewan and now live somewhere else.

It’s the same people almost every year — these people of immense passion — with the same questions, the same comments, the same concerns you hear every year.

Grey Cup is the Canadian equivalent to “same time next year.”

The cities change. The fans rarely do.

They want better officiating. They want less instant replay. They don’t care for coach’s challenges. They want a 10-team league with a team in the Maritimes. They want more love in Toronto and fewer Grey Cups here.

They want a league where the West isn’t exponentially better than the East, but they don’t, and they made this abundantly clear, and want a one-division league. They prefer West and East.

“This is our game,” Orridge said to the group of converts. “This is our celebration, a celebration like no other.”

In that, he is correct. Orridge was asked many of the same questions the media had grilled him with earlier in the day, just with a different tone. More hopeful. Less caustic.

The good news in the CFL: Scoring is up, TV ratings are up, more young people are watching, games were closer than ever. More good news: Flags are down and concussions are down.

The bad news, always: What are we going to do about Toronto?

I have been to news conferences with Orridge, Mark Cohon, Tom Wright, Mike Lysko, John Tory, Larry Smith, Donald Crump, Bill Baker, Doug Mitchell and Jake Gaudaur as CFL commissioners and the same question was asked.

There was no real answer then. There is no real answer now.

There is, however, a David Braley connection, as there seems to be with everything in Canadian football. He was acting commissioner for a minute or two when he wasn’t telling the commissioner of the day what to do. Braley used to own the Argos. He still owns a piece of this Grey Cup and the B.C. Lions.

The Argos have the worst attendance in the league. The Lions are in a down cycle at the gate. And this Grey Cup seems to be a not-for-profit occasion. Things are happening in threes for Mr. Braley.

They are actually quieting down ever so slightly for Jeffrey Orridge at his second Grey Cup. This week may be under attack. The commissioner not so much.

The fans, in all kinds of CFL colours, were just happy Friday morning to hang around, listen and count pushups. And complain just a little more about officiating.

That is the one point just about everyone agrees with.

ssimmons@postmedia.com

twitter.com/simmonssteve

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020

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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.

https://cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2016/11/29/07/06/bleachers-1867992_960_720.jpg

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

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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

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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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