Year In Review

Most influential figures in Canadian sports

A panel of CBC journalists has once again come up with a list of the most important actors on the Canadian sports scene over the past 12 months. See who (or, this year, what) was chosen as the most influential of 2013.

2013's heaviest hitters as chosen by CBC panel

Five instrumental actors in the NHL's Canadian media rights deal with Rogers, left to right: Rogers president of broadcast Scott Moore, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, outgoing Rogers Communications president and CEO Nadir Mohamed, Rogers Media president Keith Pelley, and NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Getty Images)

A panel of CBC journalists, representing both the sports and news departments, has, for the fifth year, come up with a list of the most influential figures on the Canadian sports scene over the past 12 months. 

That list then was voted on by a larger group at the CBC to produce the order of merit.

The figures in question don't have to be Canadian citizens, but their presence must be felt in the country's sports landscape.

Once again, with the help of, let’s take a look at the Most Influential in Canadian Sports in 2013.

1. Rogers Communications

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” — Sun Tzu 

Keith Pelley, the president of Rogers Media, was No. 2 on this list in 2010, No. 8 a year later and wasn’t seen last year. Lying in the weeds, perhaps.

Pelley and Nadir Mohamed (No. 4 in 2011 and just retired as president and CEO of Rogers Communications as a whole) have grasped the brass ring by making a deal with the NHL that gives the company exclusive control over the league’s national broadcasting in Canada for 12 years. That’s for seven days a week, whether they show games those nights or not. 

And all for a mere $5.232 billion (no returns allowed, all sales final). 

There has never been a deal like this, one that shuts out TSN nationally while the CBC is allowed to continue with Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts on Saturday nights under Rogers' editorial control.

Questions abound, including:

  • How is the CRTC, Canada’s regulatory commission, going to react to this national deal when Sportsnet is licensed as a regional carrier? And, does this reduce choice for consumers, as the ratings agency Moody’s suggests may be the case? That would especially concern the feds.
  • For the first time we can think of since the Second World War when government censorship controlled what the CBC could report on radio, an outside entity will have editorial control on at least 800 hours (over four years) of CBC programming on the government-funded network. Will this pass a political test?
  • How will the ongoing relationship with Bell Media in the boardroom of MLSE work out now that TSN (owned by Bell) is left with nothing? These entities both own 37.5 per cent of Canada’s most important sports team (that’s the Leafs, folks) and the first meeting of that group since the sale was described as contentious.

When, if and how this is worked out, there is no doubt that Rogers is the big dog now.

2. Gary Bettman

“The penalty of leadership is loneliness.” — H. Wheeler Robinson 

As we’ve mentioned in the past (and Gary is always on this list), Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary owe their franchises to Bettman. He will be the most influential voice in the room when the decision on putting a team back into Quebec is decided. 

Second team in Toronto? That’s up to Gary because he controls enough votes on the NHL's Board of Governors to get his way. 

With a nod of his head, the Rogers deal was set and the future of the NHL broadcast scene in Canada was decided for the next dozen years. 

He really doesn’t care if he gets booed at the rink. Gary Bettman leads. He makes money for the owners. That’s his job.

3. Milos Raonic

“Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.” — Bill Russell  

As long as the game has been played, Canadian men’s tennis players have mostly caused no more than a slight ripple in a low-tide pool. Not any more. 

Raonic (turning 23 on Dec. 27) has won five career pro titles and made the finals on five other occasions, been to the fourth round of a Grand Slam four times, won 68 per cent of his matches on the ATP Tour and established himself as a name around the world while moving into the top 10 for a couple of weeks back in August (right now he’s 11).

Milos can put people away — his record this year after winning the first set was 37-2. 

He’s also the face of an improving men’s program that did the absolute unthinkable this year by advancing to the semifinals in the Davis Cup world team competition, beating Spain and Italy along the way.

Born in Montenegro but fiercely Canadian, Raonic declined to follow Greg Rusedski’s lead (1995) and abandon his country to represent someone else. 

4. Andrew Wiggins

“Age considers; youth ventures.” — Ernst Raupach 

Andrew Wiggins was playing at home in Vaughan, Ont., (a city above Toronto) in 2011 when he had to make a tough decision for a 15-year-old. Did he stay safe, or did he venture south to Huntington Prep, in West Virgina, in effect tossing the dice on a possible pro career?

South it was, and Wiggins became the Naismith Prep Player of the Year for 2013 before heading to the University of Kansas where he’s expected to stay one year before entering the 2014 NBA draft as a consensus top-three pick.

That’s down from “absolutely No. 1,” by the way, as the youngster has struggled a bit with consistency. 

How influential is Wiggins? TSN is showing every Kansas Jayhawks game this year, just so everyone can follow the 6-foot-8 small forward. 

5. Bob Nicholson

“You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower 

Nothing happens in amateur, junior, international and Olympic hockey in this country without the involvement of Nicholson’s Hockey Canada. 

Right now, its biggest battle is convincing the old farts that hitting people in the head is wrong, and paying attention to concussion and other injuries is important for the future of the game.

Half the population of Canada thinks they know more about hockey than Nicholson (you could ask ‘em), and that’s part of the Hockey Canada president's challenge, one he’s handled since 1998.

He’s never far from some controversy, most recently the removal of women’s head coach Dan Church (who officially resigned) and the choosing of late replacement Kevin Dineen just two months before the Olympics. 

6. Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy

“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time." — John Kenneth Galbraith

Researchers at Boston University and the Sports Legacy Institute got together just five years ago to form the CSTE in hopes of studying and raising awareness of brain disease in former athletes who suffered repeated blows to the head.

In a short time, their findings have been felt all over the North American landscape, including in Canada, as new rules are brought in to prevent this suspected cause of dementia.

Whether pro or amateur, sports leagues, organizations and individual athletes have paid ever-closer attention to the findings of the CSTE, ones to a great extent made possible by the donation of brains by the families of late athletes including hockey players Derek Boogaard and former NFLer Dave Duerson. 

Five years ago, no one knew what chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was. Now, it’s front and centre in water-cooler conversations everywhere. 

7. Marcel Aubut

“Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers.” — Sir Cecil Beaton

Marcel Aubut has the ear of many people. Such as, the Prime Minister.

As we mentioned last year when Aubut checked in at No. 6 on the list, the president of the Canadian Olympic Committee knows how to shake the trees and get government money to fall out that can be used to support athletes and their success (see No. 8 below).

He never stops thinking, or dreaming (a Winter Olympics for Quebec City without a tall enough ski hill? Why not?) or talking about how great our athletes can be if we just give them a chance, and he’s been right all along about that.

Oh, the Quebec lawyer also continues to work quietly behind the scenes with No. 2 above on bringing the Nordiques back to the NHL. Imagine where he’ll be on this list if that happens? Come to think of it, imagine where Bettman will be? What’s higher than No. 1?

8. Anne Merklinger

“A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better." — Jim Rohn 

To understand the importance of what the Own the Podium CEO and her organization does, let’s go back to before the Vancouver Olympics.

Because of money from this program (then under Alex Baumann), one that funds elite athletes in the Winter and Summer Games sports (the latter as Road to Excellence), the ski cross folks were able to hold a special training camp late in 2009 that included intense start training.

At Vancouver, Canadians dominated the starts and came up with a gold in women’s (Ashleigh McIvor) and a fourth in men’s (Chris Del Bosco). These days, Canada rules the sport. 

This is what OTP does — help our athletes make the jump from competing for medals to winning them. In 2010, Canada led the gold-medal standings. 

For Sochi, some are saying the nation could win the overall medal count, and while that’s speculative, it does show how things have changed since the days when our athletes were desperate for training funds.

In early December, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced $37 million in funding for the next four years, up 46 per cent from the previous four for OTP.

9. The Subban Family

“Where can a person be better than in the bosom of their family.” — Marmontel Gretry 

Karl and Maria Subban moved, separately, to Canada from the Caribbean in the 1970s, met and married, and had five children. 

Three of them are hockey players — Pernell Karl (or P.K., as he's better known), a defenceman who may be on the Olympic team and is a star with Les Habitants up in Montreal; Malcolm, a goaltender, is Bruins property playing in the AHL and has a bright future; and youngest brother Jordan, who was taken in the fourth round of this year’s NHL draft by Vancouver and is still in junior. 

This is important in two ways, over and above the remarkable athletic success. 

They are a black family in North America’s whitest major sport, and as such represent a future both the NHL and Canadian hockey officials hope to see far more of. 

And, with Karl as the lead, they are turning their influence towards future generations of players through a foundation that offers grants to help families with equipment and registration fees. Key work.

10. Georges St-Pierre

“A timid person is frightened before a danger, a coward during the time, and a courageous person afterwards.” — Jean Paul Richter 

Question for UFC fans in 2014 is whether a man can be more influential in his retirement than when he was active.

There has been a line of argument going on that St. Pierre has been keeping this mixed martial arts product going in Canada both through his fights (two wins this past year, including a controversial split decision victory over Johny Hendricks) and the anticipation of those events.

The native of Montreal is vacating his welterweight title and taking an indefinite leave (retiring, at least for the moment). Now we’ll see if the above argument is true. 

Of one thing there is no doubt: St. Pierre was the No. 1 fighter and attraction in UFC for Canadian fans. He’s now gone. 


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