Alphonso, R.J., Taylor, Denis: Canada's talented teens shine across sports spectrum
With stars in basketball, tennis, soccer, swimming, it's not just about hockey in Great White North
The number of teenage Canadian athletes seemingly on the precipice of big things in high-visibility sports appears to be at its highest level in recent memory.
The tennis scene includes Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime. R.J. Barrett has NBA scouts drooling. Soccer player Alphonso Davies has superstar potential and Taylor Ruck is the real deal in the pool.
"I've never seen something like this across that breadth of sport in Canadian history," said longtime CBC Sports broadcaster Scott Russell. "Certainly not since I've been covering it."
In a country that pumps out star hockey players with regularity, other high-profile sports are also getting a turn in the spotlight.
Shapovalov rocketed up the rankings last year after a breakout performance at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. The 19-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., could share the tennis spotlight in future seasons with Montreal's Auger-Aliassime, a former U.S. Open junior champ who just turned 18.
"I've been around the game a long time," said Rogers Cup tournament director and former ATP Tour player Karl Hale. "To have two players that are potential top-10, top-five players is tremendous for the future of tennis in Canada."
On the basketball scene, Barrett is a good bet to go first overall in next year's NBA draft. The six-foot-seven swingman from Mississauga, Ont., appears primed to excel as an 18-year-old freshman at Duke.
Davies, from Edmonton, is only 17 and has already displayed standout form with the Vancouver Whitecaps, earning a spot in this year's MLS all-star game. The team recently reached an MLS record transfer agreement for Davies with Germany's Bayern Munich that could total over US$22 million.
Ruck, an 18-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., won a Canadian record five medals at last week's Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Tokyo. She could be a podium favourite at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
"We're becoming major players in those major international sports that a lot of people consume," Russell said.
.<a href="https://twitter.com/RjBarrett6?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RjBarrett6</a> with just a casual dunk in practice <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/DukeCanadaTour?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#DukeCanadaTour</a> <a href="https://t.co/iaufwbMkid">pic.twitter.com/iaufwbMkid</a>—@chicco_n
It's also easy to forget that swimmer Penny Oleksiak is still in her teens. She was only 16 when she won four medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Some Canadian youngsters are barely out of their teenage years and continue to show that their early success was no fluke.
Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, 21, has averaged over a point a game in all three of his NHL seasons. Golfer Brooke Henderson, who was 18 when she won a major two years ago, already has six LPGA Tour titles. Sprinter Andre De Grasse, 23, has been hampered by injuries of late but raced to three medals two years ago at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
"We're really maturing as a sporting nation," Russell said in a recent interview. "We're no longer (just) about skiing, skating and sliding. We're about all of these other things."
It's difficult to pinpoint a specific reason why Canadian youngsters are blossoming on the sports scene. Funding, amateur investment, additional professional franchises, and changing demographics are just some of the factors.
The effect from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver — where Canada led all countries with 14 gold medals — cannot be understated.
"Believe me, I've seen it over the years — nothing inspires young boys and girls, men and women, (more) than winning or when they see a Canadian win," said veteran sports broadcaster Brian Williams of TSN. "That's what inspires them."
The Ontario capital has been spoiled of late with Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime playing at the Rogers Cup and Barrett in town this week for pre-season games. Davies is nursing a hip flexor injury but could suit up for the Whitecaps in the second leg of the Canadian Championship on Wednesday against Toronto FC.
A golden teen age in Canadian sport might just be on the horizon if it's not here already. It can be hard to tell since some prospects soar while others can quickly fizzle out.
But the depth of talent should have sports fans in this country very excited about the future.
"I think it's a real sign of our maturity as a sporting nation," Russell said. "I think not only that, it's a maturation of our appreciation of sport as a people."