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Empty Seats, Thomas Chabot’s Standout Performance, and Other Takeaways from the 2017 World Juniors



MONTREAL — Put this one up there with John Carlson’s overtime goal in the 2007 World Junior Hockey Championship. Or, if you want to be cruel, call it the U.S. version of Sidney Crosby’s “golden goal.”

Sure, the 5-4 shootout loss in the championship final of the world juniors wasn’t the ending that Canada had wanted — or expected. But hockey fans couldn’t be disappointed.

The finish to the championship final between Canada and the United States had just about everything that is great about hockey. For a tournament that had been making news for all the empty seats, it was must-watch TV. If there was a downside — aside from Canada losing, of course — it was that it had to end.

And, perhaps more frustratingly, that it had to end in a shootout.

From the coming out party of Thomas Chabot and draft-eligible prospect Nico Hischier to the lack of fans at games and Finland firing its coach, here are the seven takeaways from a very memorable tournament:

Empty rinks
Blame the costly ticket prices or the overkill of hosting a tournament in the same two cities two years apart, but attendance was downright disappointing. Blocks of empty seats were visible throughout the Air Canada Centre in Toronto and in Montreal’s Bell Centre. And it wasn’t just for non-Canadian games. Canada’s quarter-final against the Czech Republic drew 10,215 fans — half of the arena’s capacity — while 13,456 fans came out to see Canada’s semi-final against Sweden. It wasn’t until the gold medal game when we finally saw a true sellout. Of course, based on how fans have been gouged in what is increasingly becoming less of a junior-type event, sellouts could describe Hockey Canada.

Finland’s faceplant
A year after winning the world juniors on home soil — and also winning the under-18 championship — Finland came into this year’s tournament with sky-high expectations. But the defending champs had an embarrassing tournament, firing their coach after losing the first three games and becoming the first team to play in the relegation round a year after winning. Part of the reason for the sub-par performance was that the team was missing NHLers Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine, who had gone 1-2-3 in scoring last year. But the bigger reason had to do with experience. The team was one of the youngest, with as many as five draft-eligible players on the roster.

Kids will be kids
From Puljujarvi and Laine to Auston Matthews and Alexander Nylander, it was the 17-year-old draft-eligible prospects who made the most noise at last year’s world juniors. As one scout said, we were spoiled. With top-ranked prospects Nolan Patrick and Timothy Liljegren absent from the tournament due to injuries, the normalcy returned this year. That didn’t mean that the draft-eligibles were invisible. Switzerland’s Nico Hischier, who is considered a top-five pick, improved his draft stock with four goals and seven points in five games, including a two-goal effort in a close 3-2 loss in the quarter-final to the U.S. Finland’s Eeli Tolvanen had two goals and six points and Sweden’s Lias Andersson scored three goals in seven games.

Sens-sational tournament
You’d be hard-pressed not to notice Thomas Chabot’s play at the world juniors. After all, he was on the ice for nearly 60 more minutes than the next-highest player in terms of ice time. With four goals and a team-leading 10 points, the Ottawa Senators prospect finished first amongst defencemen in scoring and tied for fourth overall. So it was hardly a surprise that Chabot, who was not used in the shootout versus the U.S., was named tournament MVP, as well as the best defenceman. “I’m proud of everything I accomplished here,” Chabot said after picking up a goal and an assist — and logging nearly 44 minutes — in the gold-medal final. “I put everything I could on the ice, night after night.”

The Mini-Ovie
Heading into the tournament, Dylan Strome was supposed to be the main attraction. Not just for Canada, but as a No. 3 pick in 2015, the entire world juniors. Someone forgot to tell Russia’s Kirill Kaprizov. While Strome tied for fourth in scoring with 10 points, it was the 5-foot-9 Kaprizov who looked like a miniature version of Alex Ovechkin with nine goals and 12 points. In the process, the Minnesota Wild prospect, who has 15 goals in 37 games in the KHL, was named the tournament’s best forward. Sweden’s Alexander Nylander (five goals and 12 points) and Clayton Keller of the United States (three goals and 11 points) were also named to the all-star team.

“T.J.” Terry
Move over T.J. Oshie — there’s a new shootout hero. Troy Terry scored four goals and seven points for the U.S., but it was his prowess in the shootout that made him a legend. In the semi-final against Russia, U.S. head coach Bob Motzko tapped Terry on the shoulder three times. And Terry converted on all three attempts, beating goalie Ilya Samsonov through the legs each time. A day later, with the championship final tied after 20 minutes of overtime, Terry once again played shootout hero following three rounds of failed attempts. Once again, he went with what he knew best. “I didn’t plan on going five-hole,” he said. “I guess it just took over me.”

Goaltending woes
Washington Capitals prospect Ilya Samsonov, who had a .930 save percentage and a 2.11 goals-against average for Russia, was named the top goaltender of the tournament. It was the ninth straight year that someone not from Canada won the award (the last two were Carey Price in 2007 and Steve Mason in 2008). But before we hold another goaltending summit, cut Carter Hart and Connor Ingram some slack. Individually, they had their moments, like when Ingram allowed two goals on the first three shots he faced in the quarter-final or when Hart gave up a two-goal lead in the third period. But collectively, the pair gave up 18 goals in seven games and gave Canada more than enough chances to win.

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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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