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Canada’s 1st female in-game dunker ready to make mark on March Madness

Coming off the weak side, Laeticia Amihere leaped to deflect her opponent’s pass, batting it toward halfcourt.

The six-foot-three Canadian chased after the ball, retrieved it with no one around her near the timeline, dribbled once, took two strides and made history.

Amihere, then 15, became the first Canadian woman to dunk in a game.

“A lot of people would tell me that’s not typical for girls to do that. And I don’t know how many other Canadians have been able just to do it, even in practice. So I knew that when I did it, it was something remarkable,” Amihere, now 19, told CBC Sports.

The dunk, which came in a 2017 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournament game, left the rim rattling and college scouts turning their heads.

“It was crazy. Like none of my teammates expected it. The coaches didn’t expect it. But I think it was really just the momentum that carried me,” Amihere said.

Amihere, of Mississauga, Ont., now plays collegiately for the South Carolina Gamecocks, a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. South Carolina’s first game is Sunday against No. 16 Mercer at 6 p.m. ET.

She’s one of four Canadians representing each of the top seeds among 27 total competing.

Amihere typically serves as a versatile sparkplug off the bench for the Gamecocks. She averaged 6.2 points and five rebounds over 17.4 minutes per game in her 2020-21 sophomore season — both improvements over her freshman campaign when a serious knee injury zapped some athleticism and left her in a bulky knee brace.

“It kind of held me back, but just being able to be more explosive this year, definitely, I feel like is a big [improvement on] last year,” Amihere said.

In the next five months, she’ll try to win a college national championship and follow it up with Olympic gold in Tokyo.

“I really hope this can be a breakout tournament for me. I feel it. And I’ve been putting in the work,” Amihere said.

Amihere, one of four NCAA players invited to the Canadian women’s basketball virtual training camp in February, says she’ll play in Tokyo if asked.

“Making an Olympic team and competing for my country has always been my one of my biggest dreams. [My ultimate goals in basketball are] competing in the Olympics and making the WNBA,” she said.

Amihere said she envisions herself fitting right into coach Lisa Thomaidis’ high-pace system with Team Canada as a disruptive forward who is agile and can run the fast break.

She was part of the team representing Canada at the Olympic qualifying tournament in February 2020.

“She just looks comfortable — confident scoring around the basket, handling the ball a little bit away from the basket [and] just seems to fit in. Great rebounder. She’s such a presence around the hoop as well,” Thomaidis said.

At South Carolina, Amihere plays for head coach Dawn Staley, who doubles as the American national team coach. While they may have the book on each other as opponents in Tokyo, Amihere says Staley has been a massive influence on her burgeoning basketball career.

“She’s on me every single play and telling me what I need to do better. And I think that’s helped me so much, and especially in games, letting me work through what I need to work through in order to be who she thinks I can be. She instills a lot of confidence in me so I definitely don’t take that lightly,” Amihere said.

Thomaidis, meanwhile, sees no issues in having one of her national-team players develop under an opposing coach.

“Laeticia during the recruiting process was very open, but her goal was to get to the Olympics, play for the national team. So Dawn really respects those wishes and is doing everything she can to prepare Laeticia for that,” Thomaidis said.

Canadian content

But first, Amihere may have to go through some Canadian teammates in the NCAA tournament.

The only time she could meet UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards, with whom she said she shares a friendly rivalry, is in the championship game.

She could also see Canada training camp invitees Merissah Russell of No. 2 Louisville and Shaina Pellington of No. 3 Arizona in the Final Four.

“Even last year at training camp, we would talk about when our teams would meet, but it’s awesome. I love those guys and it’s just awesome to be able to compete with them,” Amihere said.

Connecticut’s Aaliyah Edwards, right, could face off against Amihere in the NCAA national championship game. (Jessica Hill/The Associated Press)

A freshman with the Huskies, Edwards averaged over 10 points and five rebounds per game, earning her conference’s sixth woman of the year award. She finished the season shooting 68 per cent from the field.

Alongside American phenom Paige Bueckers, Edwards represents the next wave of talent at traditional powerhouse UConn.

“She sure hasn’t disappointed. She’s had some very impressive games and I think probably the most impressive, aside from her rebounding prowess, is her efficiency from the floor. … She’s really perfected her role this year,” Thomaidis said.

Pellington, meanwhile, came off the bench for the Canadian qualifying team last February. The explosive guard is playing the same role with the Wildcats.

“An exceptional talent and has done well with us. And it’s been fun to watch her for sure,” Thomaidis said.

Russell was a late addition to training camp when the roster expanded to 20 players. Though she may not wind up in Tokyo, the 19-year-old shooting guard is firmly on the radar.

“She’s pretty versatile. She can play a number of different positions and we like what we’ve seen from her. She definitely competes. She knows the game, just young, inexperienced and is just going to continue to get better and better,” Thomaidis said.

The NCAA tournament begins Sunday, and a national champion will be crowned April 4. The Canadian women’s team is planning on holding training camp in May ahead of the FIBA AmeriCup tournament in June, which is followed by the Olympics.

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Curlers ready for a Scotties like no other — all in the face of the unknown

In the backdrop of empty seats, cardboard cutouts of fans sprinkled across some of them, and restricted movement unlike anything ever seen at a women’s national championship, the 2021 Scotties Tournament of Hearts is set to begin Friday night in Calgary — in the midst of pandemic.

And while the journey to get to this point has been anything but smooth, 18 of the top women’s teams from across the country have finally made it to the curling bubble and are sitting in hotel rooms ready to take the pebbled ice for the national championship.

  • Watch and engage with CBC Sports’ That Curling Show live every day of The Scotties at 7:30 p.m. ET on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube

This is anything but an ordinary Scotties, with curlers having taken extraordinary measures to find ice time, stay in shape and prepare for the event. Some were even sliding on backyard rinks and ponds and whatever they could find to remind them what it feels like. 

Staying mentally sharp for the next nine days of competition is going to be as much a part of the story as the curling playing out across the four sheets. 

Curling Canada is adamant the bubble setting will be “strictly enforced,” and curlers will not be seeing much light of day as they travel from hotel, to vehicle, to arena and back.

Most teams idle and handpicked

For months, the majority of curlers have been sitting around, locked away like the rest of Canada, without being able to practise properly — and in an overwhelming amount of cases, most teams didn’t even play in a provincial or territorial tournament at all. The majority of teams were handpicked to represent their area of the country. 

They’re going from idle time to a national championship overnight and the player’s health and safety, as well as being in championship form, will certainly be something to watch as the event drags on. 

Getting off to a solid start at the Scotties has always been paramount to success, but perhaps this year those first few games will be that much more important because nobody really knows what to expect after so much time away. 

And as if the situation wasn’t dramatic enough, Curling Canada has changed the playoff format this year, taking away the Page Playoff system, which saw four teams advance to the weekend. Now just the top-three teams from the preliminary and championship advance to the playoffs, with the best record going straight to the final game and the second- and third-place teams battling to also reach the final. 

From left to right: Team Canada skip Einarson, third, Val Sweeting, second, Shannon Birchard and lead, Briane Meilleur, pictured posing with the Scotties trophy in 2020, are looking to repeat as national champions. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Margin of error never slimmer

The margin of error at a Scotties has never been slimmer, all in the face of a dizzying amount of unknowns.

This year’s event marks 40 years of the women’s national championship being named the Scotties and it’s a stacked field. Defending champion Kerri Einarson’s team from Manitoba will take the ice as Team Canada having won the title against Rachel Homan in Moose Jaw, Sask., last year. 

Skips who have won the past 13 editions of the Scotties will all be in the bubble in Calgary. There is undoubtedly a richness of history and legacy to this event, and the throwback retro uniforms the teams will wear is a tip of the cap to all the great moments from the past. 

There is no shortage of storylines.

Will Jennifer Jones be able to capture a historic seventh Scotties title, allowing her to surpass Colleen Jones for most championships ever as a skip?

Can Homan regain her winning form, having lost the past two Scotties finals in extra ends? 

Then there’s Chelsea Carey, who didn’t think she’d be playing this year after her team disbanded during the off-season — only to get the call from Team Tracy Fleury to take the place of Fleury herself, who is staying home with her daughter due to health concerns. 

There are five Manitoba teams with the addition of two extra wild-card spots, including MacKenzie Zacharias’ world junior champion team. How will some of the younger teams handle the bright lights of the big bonspiel?

What about upsets? There could be plenty. And one of those dark horse teams could very well be Suzanne Birt’s Prince Edward Island foursome who are always in the mix — and have been on the ice for much of the winter. 

There are familiar faces. There are new faces. And there’s not a lot of time to figure things out. A couple of early losses will spell disaster for teams — and so it’ll be fascinating to see if the veterans can lean on their experience or if it’ll be the younger teams that don’t really have a lot to go on who rise to the top early. 

A seventh Scotties victory in 2021 would give all-time great Jones the most women’s national titles ever. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

Tournament format

The teams in Calgary are separated into two pools of nine, and have been seeded based on their final standing in the 2019-20 Canadian Team Ranking System.

They will play a full round robin within their respective pools, and then the top four teams in each pool will move on to the championship pool starting Friday, Feb. 26. They will then play four more games against the teams from the other pool with their preliminary pool records carried forward.

From there, the top three teams will make the playoffs — the first-place team after the championship round will go straight to the gold-medal game, while the second and third-place teams will meet in the semifinal.

Team Manitoba’s Chelsea Carey is a two-time Scotties champion, including in 2016 and 2019. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Winning teams earns Olympic trials berth

The winning team earns a spot at the Olympic trials in November and also will play as Team Canada at the Scotties next year in Thunder Bay. 

It also takes home $ 100,000.

Normally the winning team would also represent Canada at the women’s world championship — but the World Curling Federation had to cancel the event that was slated for mid-March in Switzerland. At this point there’s no word on whether the event will be in a different location this winter or spring or if they plan to move it to next fall. 

It will be a crucial event when it does take place with Canada needing a top-six finish to qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympics. 

There is a lot at stake, but with Scotties curling is officially back.

The teams

Pool A 

  • No. 1. Team Canada, Kerri Einarson (Val Sweeting, Shannon Birchard, Briane Meilleur, Krysten Karwacki, Heather Nedohin; Gimli).
  • No. 4. Ontario, Rachel Homan (Emma Miskew, Sarah Wilkes, Joanne Courtney, Danielle Inglis, Randy Ferbey; Ottawa).
  • No. 5. Alberta, Laura Walker (Kate Cameron, Taylor McDonald, Rachel Brown, Dana Ferguson, Shannon Pynn; Edmonton).
  • No. 8. Wild Card No. 2, Mackenzie Zacharias (Karlee Burgess, Emily Zacharias, Lauren Lenentine, Rachel Erickson, Sheldon Zacharias; Altona, Man.).
  • No. 9. Wild Card No. 3, Beth Peterson (Jenna Loder, Katherine Doerksen, Brittany Tran, Cathy Overton-Clapham; Winnipeg).
  • No. 12. Northwest Territories, Kerry Galusha (Jo-Ann Rizzo, Margot Flemming, Shona Barbour, Jim Waite; Yellowknife).
  • No. 13. Nova Scotia, Jill Brothers (Erin Carmody, Jennifer Brine, Emma Logan, Kim Kelly, Daryell Nowlan; Halifax).
  • No. 16. Northern Ontario, Krysta Burns (Megan Smith, Sara Guy, Amanda Gates, Kira Brunton, Rodney Guy; Sudbury).
  • No. 17. Yukon, Laura Eby (Lorna Spenner, Tamar Vandenberghe, Laura Williamson, Darlene Gammel, Scott Williamson; Whitehorse).

Pool B

  • No. 2. Wild Card No. 1, Tracy Fleury (NOTE: Fleury will not be participating; Chelsea Carey to skip; Selena Njegovan, Liz Fyfe, Kristin MacCuish, Clancy Grandy, Sherry Middaugh; East St. Paul, Man.).
  • No. 3. Manitoba, Jennifer Jones (Kaitlyn Lawes, Jocelyn Peterman, Lisa Weagle, Raunora Westcott, Viktor Kjell; Winnipeg).
  • No. 6. British Columbia, Corryn Brown (Erin Pincott, Dezaray Hawes, Samantha Fisher, Stephanie Jackson-Baier, Allison MacInnes; Kamloops).
  • No. 7. Prince Edward Island, Suzanne Birt (Marie Christianson, Meaghan Hughes, Michelle McQuaid, Kathy O’Rourke, Mitch O’Shea; Montague).
  • No. 10. Saskatchewan, Sherry Anderson (Nancy Martin, Chaelynn Kitz, Breanne Knapp, Amber Holland, Shane Kitz; Saskatoon).
  • No. 11. Quebec, Laurie St-Georges (Hailey Armstrong, Emily Riley, Cynthia St-Georges, Florence Boivin, Michel St-Georges; Laval).
  • No. 14. New Brunswick, Melissa Adams (Jaclyn Tingley, Nicole Bishop, Kendra Lister, Monique Massé; Fredericton).
  • No. 15. Nunavut, Lori Eddy (Sadie Pinksen, Alison Griffin, Kaitlin MacDonald, Donalda Mattie; Iqaluit).
  • No. 18. Newfoundland/Labrador, Sarah Hill (Beth Hamilton, Lauren Barron, Adrienne Mercer, Brooke Godsland; St. John’s).

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After blockbuster trade, ‘hectic’ quarantine, Pierre-Luc Dubois ready for his Jets’ debut

Over the weekend, Pierre-Luc Dubois emerged from a 14-day quarantine with his bulldogs Phillip and Georgia in a house provided by the Winnipeg Jets.

For two long weeks, Dubois immersed himself in game film provided by his new employer and worked out in his living room. In the morning, he savoured the coffee left on the front step by his mom and dad, who also live in the Manitoba capital.

“In a way, it’s been a slow two weeks because I haven’t done anything,” the 22-year-old said after his first practice Sunday with the Jets. “But in another way, it’s been a pretty crazy two weeks, with all the video, watching games, getting ready, meeting guys over text and FaceTime and Zoom, and stuff like that.

“It’s been a hectic, yet slow, two weeks.”

With the transition period over, it’s time for the 6-foot-2, 205-pound centre to author the next chapter of his hockey career on a Winnipeg club loaded with offensive prowess.

WATCH | Rob Pizzo takes a look at the blockbuster Jets-Blue Jackets trade:

Two disgruntled star forwards finally get their wish, and are heading out of town. 1:56

Main objectives

The Sainte-Agathe-des Monts, Que., product need not put pressure on himself to dominate the nightly highlights package. His main objectives are to fit into a new dressing room and play the role assigned by head coach Paul Maurice. Dubois is expected to make his debut for the Jets Tuesday against the Calgary Flames.

“The Jets are one of the teams I hated playing against,” Dubois said. “They can play fast and physical. They can play offence. They can play D. They can bring everything to the table.

“I think there’s a lot of talent in the forward group and whoever you’re playing with, you’re playing with a really amazing player.”

In Sunday’s practice, Dubois skated on a line with veteran Trevor Lewis and Winnipeg’s leading goal scorer, Kyle Connor.

“Two amazing players,” Dubois said. “K.C. is one of the most underrated players in the NHL and Lewie brings that experience, just helping me with all the systems and everything. He can pass the puck, he works really hard, so it felt really great to be out there with those two.”

For Dubois, the expectations in Winnipeg are immense, given the Jets acquired him along with a third-round pick from Columbus for disgruntled left wing Patrik Laine and equally disgruntled forward Jack Roslovic.

A third overall pick in 2016, Dubois collected 159 points in his first 239 games. His relationship with Columbus head coach John Tortorella broke down in explosive fashion, and the youngster asked for a change in area code.

Fans in Winnipeg understandably mourned the departure of Laine, a second-overall pick in 2016. At age 22, Laine has the potential to win the Rocket Richard Trophy, as the league’s top goal scorer, for many years to come.

Impressive depth

But the Jets now possess arguably the most impressive depth up the middle in the entire NHL with Dubois, Mark Scheifele, Paul Stastny and Adam Lowry.

“That Patrik Laine trade is so tricky to do and the one thing that you can do [is] to make it right to get a centreman,” Maurice said, heaping praise on general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. “That’s the one way that you can have a goal-scorer leave your team — and he’s going to score an awful lot of goals — but if you can bring in a centreman, you’ve put your team in really good shape for an awfully long time.”

With Mark Scheifele on board, the Jets have plenty of depth up the middle. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Under the more-relaxed quarantine rules in the U.S., Laine has already scored three goals in three games for Columbus (Roslovic has collected one goal and six points in six appearances with the Blue Jackets).

Dubois knows he must stay true to himself and not try to be someone he is not — despite the inevitable comparisons to Laine.

“I’m a two-way forward, a two-way centre,” he said. “I can play well defensively, play well offensively, I can block shots, I can hit, I can score, I can pass. I try to be the guy that does everything out there –  supports his wingers, supports his defencemen, talks…

“Ever since I was a kid, growing up with a dad as a coach, he tried to instil in me details of the game, stuff that doesn’t necessarily show up on the stats sheet, but at the end of the game matters.”

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Canada’s Deanne Rose ready for ’emotional,’ whirlwind 2021 soccer season

In a span of two short weeks, Canadian soccer striker Deanne Rose went from getting ready for the second half of her senior year at the University of Florida, to being selected in the first round of the NWSL draft to learning she’d finally be reunited with her Canadian teammates for the first time in almost a year. 

Let’s just say 2021 has started off pretty well.  “I’m just really excited,” she said of being drafted 10th overall by the North Carolina Courage and being named to Canadian training camp for the upcoming SheBelieves Cup in Orlando, Fla., an hour-and-45 minute drive south from her collegiate home in Gainesville, Fla.

“It’s going to be pretty emotional. We haven’t been together in so long,” Rose said of seeing her Canadian teammates in person. “I think it’s going to be a kind of ‘coming-home feeling.'”

Not only is it the first time the reigning two-time Olympic bronze medallists from Canada have been together in 11 months, it’s also the first time they’ll be under the watchful eye of new head coach Bev Priestman, who took over the position at the beginning of October. 

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Signa Butler interview with Deanne Rose:

Deanne Rose speaks with Signa Butler about going in the first round of the NWSL draft, dealing with the pandemic, and the SheBelieves cup. 3:07

29 players for Feb. 6 camp

Priestman called 29 players to the Feb. 6 camp for the SheBelieves Cup, a four-team invitational tournament featuring some of the top nations in women’s soccer, including FIFA women’s World Cup champions, the United States and No. 8-ranked Brazil. This year, due to Covid restrictions, Canada (also No. 8) took the place of No. 6 England and Argentina (No. 31) is filling in for Japan (No. 10). 

The roster will be trimmed to 23 before Canada opens against its longtime rivals, the U.S. on Feb. 18.

Since making her senior team debut in 2015 at just 16, Rose, a native of Alliston, Ont., has gradually become a mainstay in the lineup and was a member of the 2019 World Cup team.

Known as an explosive, attacking player no matter which position she plays on the pitch, Rose enjoyed a breakout performance in Canada’s bronze-medal match versus Brazil at the Rio 2016 Olympics. 

Superb Olympic debut

Making the 11th start of her young career, Rose scored the game’s opening goal in the 24th minute, becoming the youngest to score in Olympic competition at age 17. She added an assist on Christine Sinclair’s eventual game winner and nearly added another goal, but hit the crossbar. It was a superb Olympic debut.

Rose, right, facing Jamaica goalie Sydney Schneider during a CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualifying soccer in 2020, is now a veteran on Canada’s national team. (Delcia Lopez/Associated Press)

“I was part of the 2016 Olympic staff where I felt Deanne was fantastic,” Priestman said on a recent call. “Not just on the pitch, either. What I’m learning through the last couple months being in this role is she gives some great insight and has a really good awareness of where the group’s at and what the group might need.

“Deanne, when she is fit, is absolutely outstanding and is a great addition to this group and a great threat for any team to defend against. [I’m a] big fan, big fan of Deanne.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some NCAA conferences chose to split their season into two parts — fall and spring. Rose was limited to half of the Gators’ eight fall games due to a nagging hamstring injury. Still, when she was available, she made an impact, scoring twice and assisting on two others in those four games.

The good news for Priestman is Rose is healthy and ready to go. 

“I’m cleared now and I haven’t been injured since the season,” Rose said, smiling ear to ear.  “I’m pretty excited to get back on the field injury-free and play freely.” 

Like many Olympic athletes, this past year hasn’t unfolded the way she’d hoped. Whether it was the ongoing global pandemic, the postponement of the Tokyo Games, heightened awareness around the Black Lives Matter movement, coaching changes on Team Canada and recently at Florida, and an injury in her senior year, Rose found strength in the lessons learned from Rio 2016.

“The lesson of this last year is you have to control what you can control and you have to be ready when you’re called upon. That was something that I learned in Rio. It doesn’t matter what your role is, you have to be ready to perform. No matter your age, no matter your status, anything like that, you’re part of this team.”

Rose, right celebrates the bronze medal with her parents after Canada’s victory against Brazil at the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)

Next generation

That lesson really defines this Canadian team, one that the most experienced group of players established and have passed down to the next generations of players. The blend of older veterans (e.g. Christine Sinclair) with younger veterans (Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence), newer veterans (Rose) and now the fresh faces (six uncapped players invited to camp) keep the culture rolling.

“What I love about the Canadian program is they’re always willing to give younger, new faces an opportunity,” Rose said. “I think it’s great for our team to push everybody having new players come in. They have a fresh set of eyes. They’ve been watching for the last four, five years so they’re going to come in with new ideas as we all did in the past.”

For now, Rose is concentrating on her national team duties. After that, possibly joining the Courage, though that’s still up to be determined once she wraps up her senior season with the Gators. 

“I want to have the greatest impact I can on my teammates,” said Rose, a sociology major. “The Gator Nation is important to me as well, but if I can show my love and support for my teammates, then that’s the most important thing that I could leave behind.” 

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Canadian NHL teams getting ready for season-long sprint

The sprint to the NHL’s 56-game finish line started in earnest Sunday.

The seven teams that missed out on the league’s summer restart to a 2019-20 season brought to a screeching halt in March by the COVID-19 pandemic opened training camps Thursday ahead of the new campaign.

The other 24 clubs, including six from Canada, that took part in the expanded post-season inside the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles got going with testing and physicals to close out the weekend before hitting the ice Monday.

And with the schedule’s Jan. 13 curtain-raisers fast-approaching — plus no exhibition schedule — time is precious and the runway short.

“It’s going to be different,” Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid said on a video conference call with reporters Sunday. “We’ve got to learn on the fly, we’ve got to learn quick. It’s going to be different for everybody. It’s the times we live in.”

“It’s going to be a little tricky,” Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin added. “But we’re in the same boat as every other team.”

Because of border restrictions related to non-essential travel, the NHL has rejigged its divisions for the shortened 2020-21 season, including a seven-team Canadian circuit that should present plenty of mouth-watering matchups.

“I remember the last 48-game season [in 2012-13] when you woke up one day and you had 15 games left,” Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving said. “It just goes by. You play every night.”

WATCH | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo breaks down NHL’s return-to-play plan:

It’s official: hockey is back, but it will look a little different this year. 2:08

That one-time-only North Division will begin in empty arenas — a handful of U.S. franchises, meanwhile, have indicated they will have some fans in attendance from the start — but that’s unlikely to turn the temperature down with teams often playing the same opponent two and three times in quick succession, and up to 10 occasions total over 116 days of action.

“I’m looking forward to it,” McDavid said. “An all-Canadian division’s exciting. It’s never happened before. You look at some of the rivalries, the matchups, it can make for a pretty exciting division.

“Just about anyone can win the division, but with that being said, three teams aren’t going to make the playoffs.”

While the NHL has said it believes it has an agreement on health and safety protocols to play games in Canada, the B.C. and Alberta governments are the only provinces with teams to publicly announce a thumbs up for the puck to drop.

The Ottawa Senators, who were the only Canadian club not included in the NHL’s summer bubbles, have already been on the ice, but the other six situated north of the border are about to get their first looks at a number of new faces.

And there won’t be any easing into things.

“In years past when you’ve had a 21-day camp … you sort of build up and build your way through camp until right to the end,” Calgary captain Mark Giordano said. “We know that starting [Monday] that on-ice session, the attention to detail has to be really bang on.

“You have to force yourself as a professional to make sure that every little play and practice, every little pass means something, and you’re sharp and you’re crisp.”

Notable off-season moves

Among the biggest moves made by Canada’s NHL teams this off-season, the Toronto Maple Leafs added Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds up front to go along with T.J. Brodie and Zach Bogosian on defence, while the Canadiens acquired forwards Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli and Corey Perry, and also brought in blue-liner Joel Edmundson and backup goalie Jake Allen.

“Every time you start a new season, you’re always excited,” Bergevin said. “I like what we’ve done, (but) you can put anything you want on paper. It doesn’t matter until you start playing games.”

Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, whose team sits as the betting favourite to win the North, said his team’s focus during camp will be on its details following a string of post-season failures, including during the summer qualifying round.

“Going back to [the 2016-17 season] all the way through last year, we’ve had stretches that have hindered our ability to position ourselves as strongly as possible going into the playoffs,” Dubas said. “What we’re focused on right now on Day 1 of camp is building the foundation that’s going to serve us in the regular season.

“If we don’t do that, then we’re not going to be in a position to have the success that we all would like.”

The rebuilding Senators’ new faces include forwards Alex Galchenyuk, Evgenii Dadonov and Austin Watson, along with defenceman Erik Gudbranson and goalie Matt Murray. Fans in the nation’s capital are also excited to see what Tim Stuetzle — the No. 3 pick at the 2020 draft — can bring after his impressive offensive performance for Germany at the world junior hockey championship.

The Winnipeg Jets brought centre Paul Stastny, an integral part of their run to the 2018 Western Conference final, back into the fold, but questions remain regarding the future of sniper Patrik Laine, whose agent has reportedly said a trade would be best for all parties, and the status of restricted free agent forward Jack Roslovic.

‘Fast and furious’ pace

Calgary added goalie Jacob Markstrom and defenceman Chris Tanev in free agency from the Vancouver Canucks, while Edmonton’s biggest moves were the signings of defenceman Tyson Barrie and centre Kyle Turris, and the return of winger and 2016 fourth overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi from Europe.

“Based on what I’ve gone through before in a lockout-shortened schedule, the games are going to come fast and furious,” Flames head coach Geoff Ward said. “Rest is going to be so critical. Depth is really, really necessary.”

McDavid said it’s no secret what Edmonton will key on after a promising 2019-20 regular season was soured by a disappointing showing in the bubble.

“I don’t think we have a problem scoring goals,” he said. “It’s keeping the puck out of our net. Lots has been made about that. No one’s hiding their head in the sand here. Everyone understands where we’re at.”

The Vancouver Canucks, meanwhile, added Braden Holtby to replace Markstrom, and Nate Schmidt on the back end after their young core took a big step last season.

“It’s going to be an exciting year,” GM Jim Benning said. “Games are going to be intense … they’re going to be playoff-style.

“It’s going to be a sprint.”

One that, after a long wait and plenty of uncertainty, is right around the corner.

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Quinton Byfield ready for a bigger role at world juniors

In Quinton Byfield’s Instagram bio, he has a smile emoji and a link to the
definition of the word smile.

The use of emoji’s are everywhere, sometimes overused in today’s world, but it certainly defines
Byfield as he tries to make a positive impact and embrace every experience given to him.

Last year, as the youngest player on Team Canada, Byfield was primarily used as a 13th forward
during the tournament and didn’t play a single minute in the gold medal game, but that didn’t
phase Byfield — he embraced it.

“I didn’t play much, but I really felt it helped me develop in my hockey career. I got to see what it
takes to perform on the world stage,” said Byfield earlier this week from his hotel in Edmonton.
“Going into the tournament (last year) it was really iffy if I was going to make the team or not. I
wanted to take any spot just to play and be part of the team and embrace any role given to me.
My focus was on the team’s success, and that was an experience I’ll never forget.”

This year, Byfield is still the youngest player on Team Canada, but the 18-year-old centre is
ready to make a bigger impact in is second chance with Team Canada.

Byfield is expected to take on a much larger role with Canada — especially after Canada lost the
services of captain and Chicago forward Kirby Dach to a wrist injury for the entire
tournament in Wednesday pre-tournament game against Russia. Byfield will be relied on even

“The coaches talked to each one of us before camp started and they expect more out of me.
“They want me to be a bigger part of the team and take on more of an offensive role and I’m
ready for it.”

Expectations have always been big for the six-foot-five, 220-pound centre who was tasked in
turning around the Sudbury Wolves organization that had fallen on hard times.
He helped turn Sudbury into a contender again and his impact spread further than just on the
ice it was felt throughout the city with his charitable efforts helping sick kids.

WATCH | Quinton Byfield discusses being the highest-drafted Black player in NHL history:

Quinton Byfield, from Newmarket, Ont., has become the highest-drafted Black player in NHL history going to the Los Angeles Kings as the second overall pick. 2:03

Last year, before COVID-19 shut down the sporting world, Byfield put up 32 goals and 80 points
in 52 games and was poised to help the Wolves go on a Memorial Cup run, just two years after
the team drafted him with the first overall pick in the 2018 OHL draft.

“We knew he was going to be special from the moment he stepped on the ice for his first practice
with us, he had that wow factor,” said Wolves GM Rob Papineau.

“He’s always had a positive attitude and a leader who’s willing to take on any challenge. He’s an
amazing young role model for people. He’s been huge for our team and the city. He’s going to go
down as likely as the greatest Wolves player in our franchise history.

“Every single time he was on the ice you would get to the edge of your seat. Every shift was
anticipated and he delivered for us. We’re proud that he will always be a Sudbury Wolve.”

In a year, where the 18-year-old faced the pressures of the NHL draft in the middle of a global
pandemic, that didn’t stop him from becoming the highest-drafted black player in NHL history
after the Los Angeles Kings selected him with the second overall pick.

‘I want to use my platform to have a positive influence’

When the NHL returned to play this summer, Byfield watched Minnesota Wild defenceman
Mathew Dumba show incredible courage before the national anthem of the opening game by
delivering a heartfelt speech about racism and social injustice, and that sparked others around
the NHL to speak up and take action.

Making history is special for Byfield, but he wants to use his platform to help create change in
a sport that is working hard to fix issues of race and equality.

“Down the road, that is definitely something I want to be a part of. I want to use my platform to
have a positive influence on the game,” said Byfield.

“I was always welcomed and never really faced anything like that, but I want everyone to have
the same dream, no matter their skin colour or where they come from.”

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Job Ads for AI Could Soon Look Like This. Are You Ready?

This site may earn affiliate commissions from the links on this page. Terms of use.

Wanted: Human Assistant to the Artificial Intelligence

We are seeking junior and mid-level human applicants to serve as data science assistants to our departmental artificial intelligence (AI) in charge of data analytics. Responsibilities include reviewing, interpreting, and providing feedback about analytics results to the AI, and writing summary reports of AI results for human communication. Requires ability to interact with vendors and information technology staff to provide hardware support for the AI. Experience collaborating with computer-based staff a plus. Must have good human-computer interaction skills. Formal training in the ethical treatment of computers and assessment of the fairness and bias of computer-generated results preferred.

The above is a job advertisement from the future – but not that far into it. It points to where we are going, and where we could be in maybe even as few as five years if we devote the resources and resolution to do the necessary research. But our recent past has shown us that we can develop the type of machines that would soon open up a whole new field of lucrative and fulfilling work.

See, over the last decade, a new computer science discipline called automated machine learning, or AutoML, has rapidly developed. AutoML grew organically in response to the many challenges of applying machine learning to the analysis of big data for the purpose of making predictions about health outcomes, economic trends, device failures, and any number of things in a wide field that are best served when rapid and comprehensive data can be analyzed.

For run-of-the-mill machine learning to work, an abundance of choices is required, ranging from the optimal method for the data being analyzed, and the parameters that should be chosen therein. For perspective, there are dozens of popular machine learning methods, each with thousands or millions of possible settings. Wading through these options can be daunting for new users and experts alike.

The promise of AutoML, then, is that the computer can find the optimal approach automatically, significantly lowering the barrier of entry.

So how do we get to AutoML and to the job advertisement above? There are several hurdles.

The first is persistence. An artificial intelligence (AI) for AutoML must be able to analyze data continuously and without interruption. This means the AutoML AI needs to live in a robust, redundant, and reliable computing environment. This can likely be accomplished using currently available cloud computing platforms. The key advance is modifying the software to be persistent.

The second hurdle is memory and learning. An AutoML AI must have a memory of all machine learning analyses it has run and learn from that experience. PennAI, which my colleagues and I developed, is an example of an open-source AutoML tool that has both, but there aren’t many others. An importance would be to give AutoML the ability to learn from failure. Its current tools all learn from successes, but humans learn more from failure than success. Building this ability into AutoML AI could be quite challenging but necessary.

The third hurdle is explainability. A strength of human-based data science is our ability to ask each other why. Why did you choose that algorithm? Why did you favor one result over another? Current AutoML tools do not yet allow the user to ask.

The final hurdle is human-computer interaction (HCI). What is the optimal way for a human to interact with AI doing data analytics? What is the best way for a human to give an AI feedback or provide it with knowledge? While we have made great progress in the general space of HCI, our knowledge of how to interact with AIs remains in its infancy.

It is entirely conceivable that an AI for AutoML could be built within the next few years that is persistent and can learn from experience, explain the decisions it makes as well as the results it generates, interact seamlessly with humans, and efficiently incorporate and use expert knowledge as it tries to solve a data science problem. These are all active areas of investigation and progress will depend mostly on a dedicated effort to bring these pieces together.

All that said, automated and persistent AI systems will find their place in the near future, once we make a concerted effort to thoroughly research it. We should start preparing our human-based workforce for this reality. We will need vocational programs to train humans how to interact with a persistent AI agent, in much the same way that we have programs to train others who work with and interpret specialized equipment, such as emergency room technicians. There will also need to be an educational culture shift on top of that training, as we will need to integrate AI interaction into courses covering communication, ethics, psychology, and sociology.

This technology is very much within reach. When we do reach it, we’ll have a new, expansive field for human workers. Soon, it will be time to write a job description, but only once we figure out some crucial problems.

Now Read:

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Health officials ‘cautiously optimistic’ a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready by early next year

Top health officials say they are “cautiously optimistic” about Canada’s odds of obtaining a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine for distribution sometime in the first quarter of 2021.

But even if that timeline is met, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam warns that doses would be in short supply at first — which would force governments to decide who gets immunized first.

“While that supply will continue to increase over time, it does mean that federal, provincial and territorial governments will have to make important decisions about how to use the initial vaccine supply,” Tam told reporters at a press conference Friday.

Tam said preliminary guidelines published earlier this week by Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), a multi-disciplinary panel of experts, should help guide decisions on who should be first in line.

Key populations identified by NACI for early immunization include seniors and people with high-risk conditions, health care workers, long-term care providers and people who can’t work virtually, such as police, firefighters and grocery staff.

“There are many conversations to be had about who gets those first doses of vaccines,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“The most vulnerable, Indigenous peoples, frontline health workers — these are the kinds of populations we’re looking at for their high degree of vulnerability. But of course, those are conversations that will be had amongst provinces and territories and including experts.”

WATCH: Dr. Howard Njoo discusses COVID vaccine approvals, now expected early next year

Canada’s deputy chief public health officer spoke with reporters at the pandemic briefing in Ottawa on Friday. 3:17

Canada betting on multiple vaccine candidates

The Government of Canada has signed deals with several teams of vaccine developers to reserve millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines in various stages of development — an effort to make sure Canadians can start getting immunized as soon as a vaccine becomes available.

While many vaccine candidates have shown promising early results, Tam warned that further research must be done in clinical trials to ensure they are safe and effective and Health Canada still needs to evaluate and approve any vaccines before they can be distributed.

Health Canada has so far received three official applications for vaccine approval, all of which are under review: from U.K.-based AstraZeneca, which is manufacturing a vaccine developed at the University of Oxford; from U.S. biotechnology firm Moderna, which launched the first Phase 3 clinical trial in the U.S. in July; and from U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotechnology company BioNTech, which are collaborating on a vaccine.

“We will be receiving additional advice on prioritization based on the characteristics of each vaccine once approved,” said Tam.

WATCH: Trudeau says the first COVID vaccines are close to being approved but are tricky to handle

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters at the pandemic briefing in Ottawa on Friday. 2:41

Beyond deciding who will get priority, bureaucrats at all levels of government are working to ensure the infrastructure and equipment is in place to distribute vaccines once they are ready, said Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo.

That work includes procuring equipment (such as syringes) and ensuring there is cold storage infrastructure in place to store and transport vaccines — some of which need to be kept at extremely low temperatures.

Njoo pointed out that the vaccine furthest along the development phase needs to be stored at -80 C, which could pose logistical challenges for the pharmacies and doctor’s offices typically involved in vaccine distribution.

“That’s not the way most vaccines in Canada in the past … in fact, none of them have been obligated to have that kind of cold chain in terms of logistics,” said Njoo. “We have to … work out the mechanics in terms of buying the right kinds of freezers, etcetera, the transportation mechanisms, etcetera, to be able to assure that if that’s the first one out of the pipeline that get’s approved … that we’re able to do that in the most effective and efficient manner.”

Njoo said all vaccines will be free of charge to all Canadians once they become available.

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Canada ready to mediate dispute between Turkey and Greece, says Champagne

Canada is ready to be “an honest broker” in an escalating dispute between Turkey and Greece over offshore exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, says Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.

Champagne is in Greece for the first leg of his week-long tour of European capitals to discuss with allies the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and the situation in Belarus.

“We have been dealing with the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean since day one,” Champagne said in an interview with Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini published today.

“I am in contact with the secretary general of NATO to explore what possibilities there are for Canada to play a role as an honest broker.”

Canada’s top diplomat met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his counterpart Nikos Dendias today — the first such visit by a Canadian foreign affairs minister in about 30 years.

A statement by the Greek prime minister’s office said the two sides discussed the “possibilities of political, economic and defence cooperation between Greece and Canada.”

The office said Mitsotakis also raised the issue of Turkish activities in the Eastern Mediterranean which Athens says violate Greek and Cypriot sovereignty.

“We had a very fruitful exchange on our intention to give our bilateral relations new momentum,” Champagne tweeted following the meeting with Dendias.

The meetings in Athens happened as Turkey faces growing international criticism for sending a research vessel, Oruc Reis, to carry seismic testing in a disputed area off the coasts of Turkey, Cyprus and Greece.

The U.S. State Department said today it “deplores” Turkey’s Oct. 11 announcement of renewed Turkish survey activity in areas over which Greece asserts jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean.

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said Turkey’s announcement unilaterally raises tensions in the region and deliberately complicates the resumption of crucial exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey.

“Coercion, threats, intimidation, and military activity will not resolve tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Ortagus said. “We urge Turkey to end this calculated provocation and immediately begin exploratory talks with Greece.”

A ‘direct threat to peace’ in the Med

On Monday, Greece’s foreign ministry described the new voyage by the Oruc Reis as a “major escalation” and a “direct threat to peace in the region.” Turkey accused Athens of fuelling tensions.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said Greece had no right to oppose its operations, which were taking place 15 km from Turkey and 425 km from the Greek mainland.

The objection to Turkish exploration activities in the area is based on the “maximalist maritime jurisdiction claims of Greece,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar promised to “provide the necessary escort and protection” to Turkish vessels as needed.

Turkey’s policy in the Eastern Mediterranean is not the only area of concern for its NATO allies.

Rescuers carry a body after an eruption of shelling by Armenian artillery during fighting over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh in Ganja, Azerbaijan, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020. (Aziz Karimov/The Associated Press)

Speaking to Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday, Champagne also urged Turkey to “stay away” from the war in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces in the breakaway region.

The latest outburst of fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces began Sept. 27 and marked the largest escalation of the decades-old conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The region lies in Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a Russian-backed ceasefire in 1994.

Armenian authorities have accused Turkey of sending arms — including F-16 fighter jets and combat drones, military advisers and Syrian jihadist mercenaries — to Azerbaijan to fight against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey denies these claims.

Russia brokered a ceasefire on Oct. 9 to allow Armenian and Azerbaijani forces to collect their dead, exchange prisoners and begin substantive negotiations on resolving the decades-long conflict.

A house burns after shelling by Azerbaijan’s artillery in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh late Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. (The Associated Press)

The ceasefire never took hold, however; both parties have accused each other of violating it by shelling civilian areas, among other things. On Oct. 11, Armenia again accused Turkey of using half a dozen F-16 fighter jets to provide air cover for Turkish- and Israeli-made drones deployed by Azerbaijan against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Two weeks ago, Champagne suspended the export of sophisticated Canadian drone technology to Turkey in response to allegations that it is being used by the Azerbaijani military against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Champagne’s next stop of his European tour is Vienna, where he has a series of meetings planned at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), headquartered in the Austrian capital. The OSCE plays an important role in the search for a negotiated solution to the decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through its Minsk Group mechanism.

Then, Champagne will fly to Brussels for a series of meetings with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. While there, Champagne will meet with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell.

Champagne is also planning to meet Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes before moving on to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, where he will hold a “mini-summit” with his counterparts from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

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Jets sniper Patrik Laine ‘still kind of far away’ from being ready for game action

Patrik Laine said back in May there was a good chance he’d look “terrible” if the NHL resumed its season this summer.

Like most players locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the always-blunt Winnipeg Jets sniper hadn’t been on skates in more than two months. He also scoffed at the idea of strapping on rollerblades.

With training camps now in full swing eight weeks later, and the league’s restart fast-approaching, that feeling of not being ready hasn’t really changed.

“Still kind of far away,” Laine said Wednesday when asked about the current state of his game. “It’s kind of hard to see myself playing playoff hockey in two weeks.

“But just trying to make the most out of it and trying to be as well-prepared as I and as we can… just try to work hard these next couple of weeks so we’ll be ready when the puck drops.”

Those games are coming quick for the 24 teams involved in the resumption of play, including the Jets, who are set to meet the Calgary Flames in the only all-Canadian matchup of the best-of-five qualifying round beginning Aug. 1 in the Edmonton hub for spot in the traditional post-season bracket.

In truth, the entire league is scrambling to get back up to speed. Certain players had access to home gyms and ice sooner than others. It’s simply a reality of the times.

And all things considered, Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice said Laine, who eventually got skating back home in Finland, isn’t as far away as the winger made it sound.

“Kind of looks exactly like everybody else,” Maurice said. “I don’t think anybody looks the way they’re going to in about two weeks. We all expect that. It’s part of building.”

Building out full game

Building is also what Laine did with his own game this season before the NHL was shuttered in mid-March by the novel coronavirus.

Coming off a disappointing 50-point campaign in 2018-19 — he’d scored 80 goals and added 54 assists in his first two seasons after being picked second overall behind Auston Matthews at the 2016 draft — Laine focused on becoming a more complete player.

“You always want to get better at everything you’re doing, but I think just try to add some consistency,” said the 22-year-old. “The difference between a bad night and a good night — that gap — just try to get that a little bit smaller and try to get the better overall game in better shape.”

WATCH | Edmonton, Toronto prepare to welcome NHL:

As Toronto and Edmonton prepare to host the rest of the NHL season, questions are being raised about player safety and the accuracy of the financial benefits for the bubble cities. 2:01

Laine missed training camp back in September while working on a two-year, $ 13.5-million US contract extension, but shot out of the starting blocks after rejoining the team, having put up 28 goals and 63 points in 68 games when the season was suspended.

“Development and growth,” Maurice said of what Laine showed from October through March compared to his three previous campaigns. “It’s hard to explain when you get a young man that has such success in something specific like scoring goals. But in so many ways, he wouldn’t be any different than any other 18-year-old, especially coming from Europe. [The NHL is] a different style of hockey.

“It’s a far different level of the game. It happens so much faster.”

Hoping for top-line duties

Maurice said Laine’s biggest jump came at 5-on-5 and understanding the need to work as part of a unit.

“There’s a big chunk of the game of hockey where nothing actually happens unless you don’t do your job,” said the coach. “He’s gotten to be quite a bit better at just doing the job, plays without the puck more.

“If he’s the first guy on the forecheck, he needs to do something so the four players can move. Most skilled players or uniquely-skilled players that you get into the NHL, they’ve never really had an awareness of that — that what they do changes what everybody else around them does.”

Laine made waves during his contract impasse when he told a Finnish reporter he deserved to play with the Jets’ best players, namely Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

“I think I’ve been able to show everybody that I’m capable of playing top minutes and against top players,” Laine said Wednesday. “Hopefully I’m going to get more responsibilities in the future.”

Maurice, meanwhile, made it clear at no time did he have a problem with Laine’s comments.

“Had I taken offence to that, I would’ve been greatly offended 20 years ago and every year since,” said the veteran of exactly 1,600 regular-season NHL games. “I wonder a lot of times if it’s not requisite to greatness. These guys want more. They want to play more. They want to play more minutes.

“The great players have to have that belief in themselves that they deserve to be on the ice all the time.”

That belief is surely still there for Laine, even though it might be a little shaky at the moment.

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