SPORTS WATCH

Searching for big-sport heroes

Apart from hockey players, Canadian athletes can’t seem to get it together in the games that draw big crowds

TRENT FRAYNE November 21 1994
SPORTS WATCH

Searching for big-sport heroes

Apart from hockey players, Canadian athletes can’t seem to get it together in the games that draw big crowds

TRENT FRAYNE November 21 1994

Searching for big-sport heroes

SPORTS WATCH

Apart from hockey players, Canadian athletes can’t seem to get it together in the games that draw big crowds

TRENT FRAYNE

What a relief a few weeks ago when a three-man Canadian golf team led by the burly grump from British Columbia, Dave Barr, travelled over to the most revered golf links in the known galaxy, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, and won the Dunhill Cup. One reason a lot of people practically fainted in surprise when Barr and fellow B.C.ers Ray Stewart and Rick Gibson outshot such world-class notables as Nick Price, Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples was that, apart from hockey players and a tiny handful of race-car drivers, Canadian athletes can’t seem to get it together in the games that draw big crowds. All our pros, or almost all, are out to lunch in the big spectator sports.

In football, where are the Canadian quarterbacks? In basketball, anybody know a Canadian slam-dunker? In baseball, forgetting Larry Walker for a minute, is there a Canadian slugger clearing the fences? In tennis, who can get past the first round?

On the other hand, in places where the prize money runs from scarce to non-existent and the crowds consist largely of the athletes’ nearest and dearest, Canadians are right there on the podium. Nobody has better rowers than Silken Laumann, Marnie McBean and Derek Porter and no one has better swimmers than Curtis Myden, Jon Cleveland and Marianne Iimpert. Still, these are stars in what might be called low-profile sports. Meanwhile, out where the big crowds gather, how come that, apart from hockey, which we practically invented, and motor racing, which is less sport than noise, outdoor advertising and sex, Canadians can’t lick their lips?

It’s a question to be juggled by the masters, in football a kingpin such as Russ Jackson. Russ is the last great Canadian quarterback, a shining light for the Ottawa Rough Riders all through the 1960s, a bruising runner with the arm of a blacksmith, confident to the point of arrogance. What Doug Flutie is in the 1990s, Russ Jackson was in the 1960s.

Anyway, there hasn’t been a Russ Jackson since, and the word Russ chooses to explain it is commitment. He says he got this notion last summer while reading a newspaper piece about marvellous Canadian rower Derek Porter. Porter was the stroke for Canada’s gold-medal-winning eights crew at the 1992 Olympics. Then, he achieved the unlikely feat of switching to singles sculls for the 1993 world championships and winning again.

What caught Jackson’s eye was that at the 1994 world championships in Indianapolis, Porter failed to qualify for the final heat, lamenting the fact his training had been cut to a measly four months. The reason was that Porter, preparing for his future, had entered chiropractic school following his 1993 triumph. His training time had been invaded.

“Geez, four months,” Russ Jackson said. “That’s real commitment.”

In baseball, as noted, not many Canadians can send a fly ball into somebody’s lap beyond a big-league fence. Pitchers are plentiful, led by the redoubtable Fergie Jenkins, who achieved the utterly impossible by winning 20 or more games for six successive seasons for the Cubs in Chicago’s windy bandbox, Wrigley Field.

“Pitching is easier,” Bob Prentice says. “Pitchers don’t have to field much, run much or hit at all. Hitting is an art in itself.”

Bob Prentice has been the director of Canadian scouting for the Blue Jays since the team’s first season. He scouted Larry Walker when Walker was a sprout of a shortstop at age 18, long before he became an outfielder with pop in his bat for the Expos.

“There was this world tournament for kids under 19 out in Kindersley, Sask.,” Bob mutters. “I spoke to him. I knew of him; his father had been a pitcher. But the kid had a bad tournament. Two weeks later, a bird-dog from the United States caught up to him and he hit real good and that’s when the Expos tagged him.”

Basketball is an inner-city game; all you need is a ball. In the United States, hoops is a way for poor kids to get to college, to climb from a low economic environment. It’s not a pattern that applies to many Canadian kids.

This, anyway, is the thinking of Jack Donohue, who was imported a quarter-century ago to Basketball Canada from Holy Cross College in Boston. Jack was, and remains, a nonstop talker who has retained each syllable of a Bronx accent. When he coached high-school ball in New York City, he tutored a seven-foot kid all elbows and knees named Lew Alcindor who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and joined the Los Angeles Lakers.

Jack says part of basketball’s problem for Canadian players is that the game was not taken seriously here for a long time. Also, it has not been competitive. “Coaches don’t get fired here,” Jack says. American competition is fierce, producing better players. There, colleges promote athletes, and well-publicized players catch the pros’ attention.

This doesn’t happen here, though Canada has produced a few very good players. Bill Wennington, a seven-footer who played for Canada’s national team, now lines up with the Chicago Bulls. Leo Rautins crossed the border to Syracuse University where he was a star and became a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia 76ers a decade ago. Jack says a few other national-team players might have made the pros—Jay Triano, Eli Pasquale, Billy Robinson, Lars Hansen—but didn’t for one reason or another. Mostly, Canadians are victims of a lack of competition and a dearth of publicity, factors that may change with the arrival of NBA teams next fall in Vancouver and Toronto.

For now, though, leaving hockey aside, golf is our best game among the sports that attract the big crowds. Even so, only the recent golf surprise in the Dunhill Cup team event in Scotland has elevated Canadians to the forefront For instance, no native has won the Canadian Open for 40 years. Even being low Canadian in the Open carries small solace, as Dan Halldorson, the U.S. tour veteran from Brandon, Man., indicated at Glen Abbey in September. Applauded on three excellent rounds, Dan wasn’t impressed. “Being the low Canadian in the Canadian Open is like being the world’s tallest midget,” Dan said.