Sports heroes & villains of 2012

From Christine Sinclair and Jonathan Quick to Yunel Escobar and Gary Bettman/Donald Fehr, the past year in sports had its share of both good guys (or girls) and bad.
There was no shortage of storylines in 2012, with plenty of protagonists and antagonists making things interesting in the world of sports. (Getty Images/Associated Press/CBCSports.ca)

From Christine Sinclair and Jonathan Quick to Yunel Escobar and Gary Bettman/Donald Fehr, the past year in sports had its share of both good guys (or girls) and bad.

We match the heroes with the villains in various sports:

Christine Sinclair and Christiana Pedersen

Christine Sinclair & Christiana Pedersen

The Olympic women's soccer semifinal between Canada and the United States was an unforgettable game — for both the right and wrong reasons.

On one hand you have our hero, Christine Sinclair. Facing a powerhouse American squad, she was the go-to player for the Canadians and didn’t disappoint, scoring a hat trick that had Canada leading 3-2 in the waning moments of the second half at Old Trafford in Manchester.

Enter our villain.

At the American end of the pitch, Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen missed a handball call on U.S. player Megan Rapinoe. The game progressed into Canadian territory, and the ref doled out a delay-of-game penalty against Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod for not playing the ball after six seconds.

This rarely (if ever) called foul was a head-scratcher, especially in a game with so much riding on it — namely, a spot in the Olympic gold medal contest.

The call led directly to an American score on a penalty kick and a tie game.

After the match ended 4-3 in favour of the U.S. in extra time, we discovered that Sinclair could be considered a hero not only for her actions on the pitch, but how she reacted after the game.

"To play the way we did ... we feel like the ref took it away from us," she said. "We didn’t feel like we lost. It's a shame that in a game like that, which is so important, the ref decided the result before it started.

"Every single one of us did everything we possibly could to get a result. I am so proud of our team. I've never been prouder."

Sinclair's words landed her a fine, a four-game suspension, and perhaps a snub in FIFA's female player of the year nominations, but they certainly endeared her to Canadians. Ninety-one per cent of votes in a CBCSports.ca story said that the Canadian captain should not have apologized for her actions.

The accolades continued this month when Sinclair was voted the CBCSports.ca's People's Pick for Canadian athlete of the year and the Lou Marsh Award winner as Canada’s most outstanding athlete of 2012.

Jonathan Quick, centre, is flanked by Gary Bettman, left, and Donald Fehr, right.

Jonathan Quick & Gary Bettman/Donald Fehr

"Shutting the door" has very different implications when it comes to our NHL hero and villains.

2012 was a remarkable year for Jonathan Quick, the goalie who almost single-handedly lifted his Los Angeles Kings into the playoffs and well beyond.

The team scored the second-fewest number of goals in the NHL in the 2011-12 season, but Quick’s .929 save percentage, 1.95 GAA, and 10 shutouts shut the door on opponents and helped L.A. squeak into the playoffs as the lowest seed in the West.

From there, Quick pushed his Kings even further, to the first Stanley Cup win in franchise history and the first by an eighth-seeded team, earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP along the way.

That season has been bled from the memory banks of many hockey fans, as the league shut the door on players and the spotlight normally reserved for pro athletes sits occupied by men in suits.

Yes, Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are our villains, even though it's true that they're only doing their jobs.

But hockey fans worldwide are losing patience with a league and players that can;t agree on dollars and cents so coaches can get back to X's and O's …and fans can get back to cheering goals, not booing labour negotiations.

Tom Cheek and Yunel Escobar.

Tom Cheek & Yunel Escobar

The old adage goes, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it," but in the cases of Tom Cheek and Yunel Escobar it’s both.

On one hand you have the most famous call in Blue Jays history: "Touch 'em all Joe! You'll never hit a bigger home run in your life!"

On the other, a poorly thought out choice of message written on eye black.

Simply put, the posthumous honour bestowed upon Cheek, the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting, was a much-needed high point in the organization’s history, and a reminder of how good things once were for Major League Baseball's only remaining Canadian club. Especially when the team and its fans were doing their best to forget about one of the team's lowest points, but we'll get to that shortly.

Cheek called every single one of Toronto's games — both regular season and post-season — from April 7, 1977 through June 2, 2004, when it ended because Cheek attended  the funeral of his father. His name and number of consecutive games called, 4,306, appear on the "level of excellence" inside the Jays' stadium. 

After years of lobbying on his behalf, Cheek finally won the Frick award recognizing him as one of the best broadcasters in MLB history.

The less said about Escobar's anti-gay slur written on his eye black during a game against Boston in September, the better. After a hastily called press conference to explain, but not apologize for, his actions, the shortstop finished out the season with Toronto and was later traded to the Marlins, who in turn flipped Escobar to Tampa Bay.

LeBron James, then and now.

LeBron James & LeBron James

"I'm taking my talents to South Beach": the line that launched thousands of hate-filled chants, jersey burnings and Comic-Sans fonted retorts... well, maybe just one of the latter, but plenty of the former.

LeBron James joined the Miami Heat in pretty much the worst way possible (though I suppose he could have set fire to Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena on his way to the press conference), and was taken down a peg after his super-team in Miami was dropped by the Mavericks in the NBA Finals in 2011.

Many basketball fans, aside the ones wearing Miami garb, rejoiced and reveled in the schadenfreude.

But last season, a humbled James said all the right things and did all the right things on the way to leading the Heat to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The question: Did that win complete the redemption of a bloated ego? It's just one, "not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven" championships.

That said, winning it all in your second year together, with everyone clamouring for you to choke, to lose, to fail miserably — that's worthy of praise.

Usain Bolt and disgraced badminton players Yu Yang and Wand Xiaoli.

Usain Bolt & badminton fixing

The London Olympics produced some amazing, once-in-a-lifetime moments, for better and worse.

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt did something that had never been done. So did a few Olympic badminton teams.

While Bolt gave it his all, becoming the first man to successfully defend a 100-metre Olympic title (along with repeating as 200 and 4x100 champion), three badminton pairs teams from South Korea and China perpetrated an act that put the Olympic motto of "Faster, Higher, Stronger" to shame.

Attempting to gain an easier path in their tournament bracket, the teams tried their best… to lose their matches. The London crowds weren't happy about this, loudly booing the teams as they tried to out-terrible their opponents, putting shot after shot into the net.

The Olympic officials weren’t amused either, expelling the teams caught trying to purposely stink it up at the highest level of competition on the planet.

Forget other Olympians — most recreational league players have too much pride to purposely throw games.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. (Getty Images)

Chuckstrong & Bountygate

On one hand, you have a program that was allegedly intended to reward players for hurting other players. On the other, you have a team rallying around their head coach who's in a battle for his life.

The New Orleans Saints dealt themselves (and the game of football) a huge blow after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ruled that some of the team's defensive players and members of the coaching staff had been engaged in, or aware of, or did nothing to stop, a bounty program that paid players for injuring their opponents during games. The team was hit hard by sanctions, which included suspensions to players and key personnel such as the banishment of head coach Sean Payton for the entire season. (This week, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned the players' suspensions even though he determined they had "engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football.")

Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, a football team not expected to make any noise following a disastrous 2011 campaign and the end of the Peyton Manning era has rallied around head coach Chuck Pagano after he was diagnosed with leukemia early in the season.

Led by rookie quarterback (and top overall draft pick) Andrew Luck, the team has endorsed "Chuckstrong" as its call to arms, and an emotional Pagano — on a break from chemotherapy — was back in the locker room to address his troops following their big win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 5.

While the Saints' alleged blood money may be an example of what’s wrong with pro football, the story of Pagano and his Colts pushes the more noble narrative of turning despair into hope.

Ryder Hesjedal and Lance Armstrong. (Getty Images)

Ryder Hesjedal & Lance Armstrong

By popular demand, we've added one more pairing.

In May, Ryder Hesjedal erased a 31-second deficit in the final stage of the Giro d'Italia in Milan to overtake leader Joaquin Rodriguez and become the first Canadian to win one of cycling’s Grand Tours.

Hesjedal’s victory was a bright spot during a dark year for cycling in which the sport's most famous athlete, Lance Armstrong, was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for his involvement in what officials described as a massive doping program.