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Toronto Maple Leafs Sparks’ NHL debut marked by history, tears and perfection

Damien Cox, Sportsnet | posted Tuesday, Dec 1st, 2015

Unexpected and unscripted. It happened just that way. The best way.

Young goalie, chubby and seemingly exiled to the low minors less than a year ago, gets a chance out of the blue to start an NHL game for a very famous team fallen upon hard times. Few imagine this as a solution to anything.

Goalie’s parents sit in the stands watching. Goalie gets a shutout. Makes history.

Goalie cries when interviewed.

Rocky Balboa did something along those lines after being pummelled by Apollo Creed the first time, and I seem to remember Todd Gill weeping a bit after the Toronto Maple Leafs upset the Detroit Red Wings in the 1993 playoffs.

But this was just simple and perfect — certainly too perfect for Toronto’s rarely-anywhere-near-perfect NHL franchise.

On Monday night at the Air Canada Centre, 22-year-old Garret Sparks of Elmhurst, Illinois, the first American to start in goal for the Leafs since Scott Clemmensen, also became the first Leafs goalie to register a whitewash in his NHL debut since… since… nobody.

“They’ve been playing hockey for a long time around here,” said Sparks afterwards. “So that’s kinda cool.”

Kinda. By that point, Sparks was relatively composed after letting the tears flow in his post-game interview. He was as endearingly emotional as a hockey player can get on Nov. 30 of a six-month season that ends somewhere far down the road, undoubtedly remembering being an Orlando Solar Bear in the East Coast Hockey League with almost zero chance of ever being a Leaf not very long ago.

“I’m a little lost right now, sorry,” he said as he searched for answers to questions nobody imagined asking him just last week.

Goins finds redemption with ‘perfect game’ for Blue Jays

Sportsnet | posted Monday, Oct 19th, 2015

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TORONTO — You mess up. You stand up. You do the right thing and then you find yourself in the middle of a very public drama involving one of your team’s star players, at a time when all the eyes of the game are on you.

Ryan Goins found redemption Monday night at Rogers Centre, blessed by one of the few sops offered you by this frustrating, failure-filled game. Blessed by tomorrow; blessed by the next game.

“Ryan’s probably my best friend on the team,” Kevin Pillar said following theToronto Blue Jays‘ 11-8 win over the Kansas City Royals. “He’s been with me a lot in the minors. We came up together. And that play … that’s not how he was going to go down. That’s not how he was going to be remembered.”

No, it won’t be. Two tomorrows after Goins took the blame for a bloop single into right field that fell in front of Jose Bautista and started a Royals resurgence in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, the Blue Jays second baseman cobbled together a 2-for-4 performance with a pair of runs scored, a home run and three RBIs. That’s at the plate. In the field, he made three putouts and had eight assists, one of them to start the seventh inning when he slid to his right, whirled and jumped to his feet to throw out the speedy Lorenzo Cain. As the Royals would show with their ninth-inning rally, any ground ball is a potential game-changer.

The Blue Jays have written their offensive story for most of the season with the middle of their order, but Pillar and Goins emerged as a useful bottom of the order as the season went on. “We’re two guys used to being at the top of the order in the minors,” Pillar said Monday, reiterating a statement he’s made often.

Pillar also scored two runs and had a run-scoring double and it was his head-first, left-hand swipe of home plate that brought in the second run on Goins’ double. Television replays appeared to show Johnny Cueto, the Royals starter, raising his knee on the play. Pillar, who has hit safely in 25 of his last 26 games and is hitting .376 over that time, said he was going to take a look at the videotape before commenting.

It was quite a night for the bottom of the order, with Pillar signalling their intentions in the first inning when he crashed into the centre-field wall making a catch off a Cain liner. Pillar also stole second base uncontested just ahead of Goins’ double; indeed, you can make the case that it was the Blue Jays’ eighth and ninth hitters that really put the screws to Cueto.

Pillar was terse in his defence of Goins’ play in Game 2, which resulted in Bautista and Joe Magrane of the MLB Network getting into a back and forth on social media. Never mind that there were plenty of former players who believed Bautista had to make the catch in Game 2 — even more thought he missed an opportunity to stand up for a teammate. Pillar wouldn’t go down that road after Monday’s game, but he did take a shot at “people outside the clubhouse,” who implied that Goins’ mistake cost the team Game 2. “He didn’t deserve that … not from where he started from,” Pillar said.

Goins’ glove has been major-league ready for a couple of seasons. It was his bat that lagged and even now there are people in the organization who will tell you he is destined for utility duty. At least the Blue Jays can see a role for him; two years ago, that wasn’t certain. He is easy to lose in this clubhouse of big personalities and big numbers, because he doesn’t have an ounce of self-promotion in him. (Asked about the at-bat that resulted in the double, he said: “Got down 0-2. And then it was a battle.”)

Bautista took Goins shopping for a Canada Goose winter jacket on Monday. “A makeup gift,” Goins said. “I know he (Jose) has my back every day. I don’t read anything from the outside sources. He came up to me on the plane and told me he had my back, and we moved past it, and that’s what we did today.”

Goins’ manager, John Gibbons, said that his second baseman “has been carrying that load around a little bit. But he stepped up, really got us on the board with that great at-bat.

“It was,” Gibbons added, “the perfect game for him.”

And who knows what the next tomorrow holds?

Sportsnet: MiniBautista fan channels inner Jose

Sportsnet | posted Thursday, Oct 15th, 2015

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It will go down as one of the most clutch home runs in Toronto Blue Jays history, and for one young Jose Bautista fan at the Rogers Centre on Wednesday night, he will have a pretty special video to commemorate the moment.

Instagram user benn2ns posted a video of a young fan dressed up as Jose Bautista in the outfield seats, imitating the Blue Jays slugger’s swing just as Bautista crushed a three-run shot to the put Toronto up 6-3 in the bottom of the seventh inning.

MiniBautista: Working on his bat flip.

Blue Jays fans petition MLB to open Rogers Centre roof for Game 5

Sportsnet | posted Wednesday, Oct 14th, 2015

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Despite winning two straight road games in Texas to even up the ALDS, a handful of Toronto Blue Jays’ fans still have a bone to pick to with MLB.

On a petition website, called change.org, a Blue Jays fan under the alias of Ace The Bird created a petition for MLB commissioner Rob Manfred called #OpentheDome, which called for the league to open the Rogers Centre roof in Toronto for Game 5.

In a letter to Manfred, Ace the Bird wrote:

“Weather permitting, the Toronto Blue Jays should be allowed to play with the roof of their stadium open.

In 2015’s regular season, the Blue Jays won 38 times and lost 14 when the dome was open. When it was closed, they won 11 and lost 14. Let’s give them all the support we can and get the dome opened up for Wednesday!

As of 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, more than 20,680 people had joined the petition.

While the effort is honourable, it remains highly unlikely that Manfred or MLB, who have the final decision on the status of the Rogers Centre roof, will change their stance on the matter, which was closed for the first two games of the ALDS.

According to the forecast, it will be mainly cloudy and windy on Wednesday and a high of 14 C by the time the game kicks off at 4 p.m. However, there is a slight chance of showers.

680 NEWS meteorologist Jill Taylor said the temperature will fall to 10 C by the end of the game. At that temperature, roof mechanics could be an issue. Then, if it rains, there’s no drainage system in place.

Sportsnet: Reynolds offers apology for comment about Canadian baseball fans

Sportsnet | posted Monday, Oct 12th, 2015

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ARLINGTON, Texas – A flippant quip from Harold Reynolds not meant to offend has drawn the ire of Canadian baseball fans.

He’s planning to address the matter during Monday’s broadcast of Game 4 between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers, and he offered the following to anyone upset over what he said.

“Happy Thanksgiving, I’m sorry I upset everybody in Canada,” Reynolds said in a brief interview. “That’s it.”

He appeared on Blue Jays Central on Sportsnet and further clarified his comments with Sportsnet’s Jamie Campbell.

On mobile? Watch the interview here.

Read the entire story online at Sportsnets here.

Sportsnet: Stroman’s childhood dream comes true with Game 2 start

Arden Zwelling, Sportsnet.ca | posted Friday, Oct 9th, 2015

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When Marcus Stroman pitched for Duke University as the Friday night starter, the ace of the pitching staff, he followed a close game-day routine.

Get up at the same time; drink his coffee a certain way; go to the same sushi place around the corner for his pre-game meal. And then, once everything was in place, he’d take the mound at Jack Coombs Field and absolutely deal.

He was a different guy then. Younger, more raw, more naïve. He was still trying to strike everyone out, still trying to make batters look foolish. He’d yet to discover his two-seamer – a funky, contorted grip that he stumbled upon while playing around with a baseball in his condo one afternoon – which would unlock his true potential as a starter, and allow him to become an innings-eating, ground-balling, lineup-dominating pitcher at the front of the Toronto Blue Jays‘ rotation.

A lot has changed. But now, in the first Blue Jays post-season run in 22 years, Stroman has found his way back to starting on a Friday for his team, and he can hardly wait.

“This is definitely the biggest start of my career, hands down,” Stroman said on Thursday, looking forward to his Game 2 ALDS start against the Texas Rangers. “But I’m ready for it. This is why you play the game. I’m excited. I can’t wait to get out there. This is the stuff you dream about.”

Stroman’s been dreaming of it for a long time. Since he was a small Long Island kid who loved basketball but could play a mean second base as well. Since his strict-as-hell father was making him run windsprints after school before going home to consume the newspaper and test his reading comprehension. Since he turned down a $400,000 bonus offer from the Washington Nationals and went to Duke instead to study sociology and play ball.

It was there that he read the internet message boards that said the undersized pitcher the Blue Devils just recruited wouldn’t be able to line the fields at Jack Coombs Park. He printed out all that criticism and doubt, taping it to his wall and reading it over and over before he went to work out. It was there that Stroman developed what some would call an underdog complex and others would more accurately describe as an unyielding ambition.

No matter which side of that duality you fall on, it’s impossible to deny that Stroman is fuelled by the thoughts constantly swirling in his head that everyone in the stadium, everyone in the league, everyone in the world is doubting him – that we’re all saying he can’t do it. And when he steps on a mound, he lets all that frustration pour out.

“I feel like I do a good job of being able to bottle it up and use it when I need to. I’m a very emotional pitcher. I wear my heart on my sleeve – that’s how I’ve always been. I pitch with a lot of hate and anger and emotion in my heart,” Stroman said. “Yeah, hate. A lot of anger. A lot goes into it. I’m 5’8” – a lot of people doubt me. So that’s with me every single pitch on the mound.”

You get the sense he needs that perceived persecution to operate, and he really needed it for most of the last six months when he aggressively attacked a rehab schedule for the ACL surgery he underwent this March. It was as if the Blue Jays telling everyone he was done for the season was contrived, a master plan to motivate Stroman to work out two times a day, six days a week at his old stomping grounds – the same Jack Coombs Field they said he couldn’t line, while finishing off his degree simultaneously.

“I’m not scared to say it – I exhausted every opportunity and did everything in my power to get back to this team, I did – and it was not fun,” Stroman said. “I’ll never have to go through anything as hard as that in my life again.”

Now, he’s here, about to pitch a ballgame that has taken on quite a bit of added importance for the Blue Jays following their 5-3 loss in Game 1 of the series. Stroman will be tasked with outdueling Texas ace Cole Hamels, who has only powered the Rangers to wins in each of the last 10 games he’s started, no big deal.

Stroman certainly has the stuff to stand in with his Rangers counterpart. His two-seamer is nasty and generates all kinds of swing-and-miss or weak contact, which is why Stroman has used it more than 40 per cent of the time in his four starts since returning from surgery. He’ll also mix in a four-seamer that can hit 95, a wipe-out slider, a knifing cutter, a slow curveball and even a fading changeup that Stroman developed this season and comes in almost 10 mph slower than his hard stuff. When he mixes his six pitches and locates them on the edges of the strike zone Stroman can be as effective as anyone in the game, no matter how tall they are.

And then there’s the intensity he carries to the mound. It’s not unusual to see Stroman flexing his body in excitement and yelling to himself when the defence behind him turns a double play, and that’s just in the regular season, not in a playoff game like the one he’ll pitch in Friday – one that will come in front of a deliriously charged atmosphere and mean so much more.

“[Mark] Buehrle is always trying to get me to do less, but I’m always trying to tell him I need more to get me going,” Stroman said of his fellow Blue Jays starter. “I’m just excited, man. This is an unbelievable opportunity, especially where I came from this past year. I’m ecstatic just to be here, you know what I mean? I’m ready to go out there and compete and dominate.”

In a lot of ways, Friday afternoon could be Stroman’s moment. The game will reach a lot more eyeballs in the United States than any of his prior starts. While he’s well known in Toronto – a city he says he loves – he doesn’t register quite as strongly in the country that houses 29 of MLB’s 30 franchises. A dominant performance in what’s as close to a must-win game as you can get for the Blue Jays, could thrust Stroman into the consciousness of a lot of fans who haven’t become aware of him yet.

It’s been a long time coming from those days at Duke, having his coffee the same way and ordering the same sushi rolls. And of course it comes on a Friday.

“I love it, I love it,” Stroman repeated. “I’m playing in the playoffs. This is why you play the game. I couldn’t be more excited. I’m not nervous. I’m not even slightly nervous. I haven’t pitched in nine days, I’m excited to get out there and get on the mound and get going.”

Hockey Night in Canada Cheat Sheet: Feb. 28

Jeff Simmons | posted Saturday, Feb 28th, 2015

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Adjust your schedules.

This week, the hockey action begins at 3 p.m. (Eastern time) with the Red Wings and Predators facing off in Nashville before a four-game set of nationally televised games that includes four Canadian teams.

As we do in the Cheat Sheet every week, here’s everything you need to know for Hockey Night in Canada:

Note: All games below are listed in Eastern time.

The 3 p.m. game:

Detroit Red Wings vs. Nashville Predators 
Channel: Sportsnet
Broadcast crew: N/A
Game notes: Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk has 71 career points against the Predators, the most by any player in NHL history…Predators forward Filip Forsberg could become the first rookie since the NHL’s first season to lead a first-place overall team in points. He has 52 points entering Friday night.

The 7 p.m. game:

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Montreal Canadiens 
Channel: CBC
Broadcast crew: Jim Hughson, Craig Simpson, Glenn Healy
Game notes: Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier has lost six of seven career starts against Montreal…Canadiens goalie leads all qualified goalies in save percentage (.935) and goals-against average (1.92)…The Leafs are on their first two-game winning streak since Dec. 16.

The 8 p.m. game:

New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers 
Channel: City
Broadcast crew: N/A
Game notes: Flyers forward Jakub Voracek leads the NHL with 59 points scored on Saturdays since 2012-13….Entering Friday, the Rangers haven’t recorded a loss in their past 10 games.

The 10 p.m. games:

St. Louis Blues vs. Edmonton Oilers 
Channel: CBC
Broadcast crew: Paul Romanuk, Mike Johnson, Cassie Campbell-Pascall
Game notes: Edmonton has lost 10 of its past 11 games against St. Louis, getting outscored 42-19…Blues forward T.J. Oshie is averaging a point per game against the Oilers over his career (six goals, 16 assists in 22 games).

Ottawa Senators vs. San Jose Sharks 
Channel: Sportsnet
Broadcast crew: John Bartlett, Greg Millen, Christine Simpson
Game notes: Senators goalie Andrew Hammond has posted back-to-back shutouts…His shutout streak sits at 172:22…San Jose has won seven of their past eight games against the Senators.

Hockey Night in Canada Cheat Sheet: Feb. 21

Jeff Simmons | posted Saturday, Feb 21st, 2015

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Get ready for a busy Saturday night of hockey.

The action begins at 12:30 p.m. (Eastern time) with an intriguing bout between the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders before a five-game nationally televised lineup that includes five Canadian teams and an outdoor game in Santa Clara, California.

As we do in the Cheat Sheet every week, here’s everything you need to know for Hockey Night in Canada:

Note: All games below are listed in Eastern time.

THE 12:30 P.M. GAME:

New York Islanders vs. Washington Capitals 
Channel: Sportsnet
Broadcast crew: N/A
Game notes: Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin has scored six goals in his last six games…In 20 career games against Washington, Islanders centre John Tavares has 10 goals and eight assists…Since Dec. 1, Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak has a .900 save percentage.

THE 7 P.M. GAMES:

Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Montreal Canadiens 
Channel: City
Broadcast crew: Dave Randorf, Jason York, David Amber
Game notes: The Blue Jackets have not won three games in a row on the road in regulation since Feb 8-18, 2011…The last three meetings between the two clubs have been decided by a 3-2 score.

Florida Panthers vs. Ottawa Senators 
Channel: City
Broadcast crew: Bob Cole, Greg Millen, Arash Madani
Game notes: Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo has allowed two goals or less in seven straight starts…Entering Friday, Ottawa Senators forward Mike Hoffman is tied with Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg for most goals among rookies (20).

Winnipeg Jets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs 
Channel: CBC
Broadcast crew: Jim Hughson, Craig Simpson, Glenn Healy
Game notes: Entering Friday, the Leafs are the only team in the NHL without a road win in 2015…Toronto has lost five straight versus Jets. The Leafs have been outscored 23-13 in those games, not including shootout goals…Jets forward Bryan Little has a 12-game point streak versus the Leafs, during which he has recorded four goals and 14 assists.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers 
Channel: Sportsnet ONE
Broadcast crew: Kevin Quinn, Garry Galley, Gene Principe
Game notes: Ducks are 11-2-1 in their last 14 games vs. Oilers…Ducks forward Ryan Kesler has 37 points (10 goals, 27 assists) in 53 career games versus Edmonton.

THE 10 P.M. OUTDOOR GAME:

Los Angeles Kings vs. San Jose Sharks 
Channel: Sportsnet ONE
Broadcast crew: Paul Romanuk, Mike Johnson, Kelly Hrudey
Game notes: The 2015 Coors Light Stadium Series game will take place at Levi’s Stadium — the home of the San Francisco 49ers…Kings are 13-0-0 this season when Jeff Carter records at least two points in a game…Sharks centre Joe Thornton has 63 points (13 goals, 50 assists) in 68 career games vs. Kings.

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