At one point during the final voting for the Lou Marsh Award (Canada's 2011 athlete of the year), one of the committee members spoke up with a point of clarification.
"Wait a minute," Damien Cox of the Toronto Star
interjected. "You're telling me that in Canada we have the best figure skater, the best shot putter, the best speed skater and the best show jumper?"
Those of us gathered around the table paused for a brief moment and then nodded our heads in agreement. Yes, Canada could count the best athletes in all of those sports. No one in 2011 could rival the accomplishments of Patrick Chan, Dylan Armstrong, Christine Nesbitt and Eric Lamaze respectively.
It was a startling wakeup call for many of the assembled. This is much more than a hockey nation and the richness of Canadian sport seems fitting for a country such as ours, which is both culturally and geographically diverse. The bottom line is there are many seasons and many fields of play to captivate our attention.
There are also many big stars that wear running shoes instead of ice skates and there is a bigger picture to what sport can mean to many Canadians.
Hockey dominates and there can be no question that the biggest win of the year occurred when Winnipeg reclaimed its NHL team, the Jets, after 15 years of doing without. It was a victory not only for the community but also for the psyche of Canadian hockey fans in general.
The pre-inaugural game celebrations at "The Forks" were proof positive that in Canadian cities, the presence of hockey at its highest level is seen as a right of passage and can ultimately lead to renaissance.
But losses occurred in hockey as well. It's because the game is so important to Canadians that these setbacks interrupted the natural flow of day-to-day life, caused shame and embarrassment, and even, for a time, shook the foundation of what we believe in.
So it was that the loss of the Canadian juniors to the Russians at the world championships in Buffalo in January, made us question our dominance in the game. The defeat of the Canucks by the Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final caused temporary insanity as hooligans rioted in the streets of Vancouver.
The absence of the game's brightest star, Sidney Crosby, for a prolonged period of time due to the effects of concussion is sparking an examination of the way the game is played now and most assuredly, deep into the future.
Still, there is more to consider than hockey.
Tennis is one the most popular individual sports on earth and in 2011 Canadians continued to breakthrough.
Milos Raonic achieved a career high ranking of No. 25 and though hobbled by injury at just the wrong time, served notice that he will become one of the game's dominant figures in the years to come.
Rebecca Marino of Vancouver is only 20 years old and made it to the third round of the French Open. She climbed to a ranking of 38 on the WTA tour and is generally regarded as a bright light in women's tennis.
Meantime, Olympic gold medallist Daniel Nestor of Toronto continues to roll along. There is little that this 39-year-old has not accomplished in the doubles game. He won his seventh Grand Slam title at the 2011 French Open and also won the 800th match of his career this year. Nestor is, quite simply, the best in the world at his craft and has been for quite some time.
There are other stories to tell and from so many other sports.
Soccer comes to mind where Canadians like Christine Sinclair and Dwayne De Rosario dominate their respective leagues. Canadian swimmers such as Ryan Cochrane and Brent Hayden count themselves as the finest distance men and sprinters in international waters.
Joey Votto and John Axford are bright lights in Major League Baseball and continue the tradition of players from north of the border having a huge impact on America's beloved national pastime.
World champions come from Canada and in myriad pursuits. Mont Tremblant, Quebec's Erik Guay reigns in alpine skiing and the downhill discipline. Alex Harvey and Devon Kershaw have captured a first World championship crown in men's cross-country skiing. Adam Van Koeverden is still supreme in sprint kayaking. Tara Whitten and Catharine Pendrel have risen to the top in cycling, on the track and on the mountain respectively.
The list of accomplishment goes on.
And the immediate prognosis for Canadian sport is very bright indeed. Heading into another Olympic year, athletes from this country have established themselves as frontrunners in a multitude of athletic endeavours.
The big picture revealed that 2011 was an important year in reminding us all that Canadian sport is about hockey but also about so much more. Athletes from this country take a back seat to nobody.
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