The 15 biggest moments in Canadian sports history

The 15 biggest moments in Canadian sports history

In honour of Canada's 150th birthday, we celebrate the events that made the greatest impact on the country

By David Giddens, CBC Sports
June 29, 2017

Editor's note: This is part of CBC Sports' series of stories celebrating some of Canada's top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday this year. We've revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, distance runner Tom Longboat, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer, sprinter Harry Jerome, auto racing's Villeneuve family and track star/sports writer Bobbie Rosenfeld. We've also explored the Richard Riot, Babe Ruth's Canadian connections and Canada's role in inventing the major North American sports.

Find all of CBC Sports' Canada 150 stories here.

The urge to make lists runs deep.

Name a magazine, website, radio or TV show, newspaper, blog, vlog or podcast that doesn’t crank out at least the occasional Top 10 list. Media workers, like everyone else, take comfort in making sense and order from life’s barrage of random stuff. Lists help.

So, with Canada turning 150 years old, your friends at CBC Sports decided it would be useful to create a definitive list of the 15 biggest moments in Canadian sports history. It's not one per decade, but 15 sort of rhymes with 150, so just roll with us on that part. There will be more to argue about than the length of our list.

We convened a panel — experienced journalists, stats people, researchers, young keeners, wily veterans. We wanted truly national events. Moments that made a lasting difference across the country. So a Grey Cup for the Roughriders or another Stanley Cup for the Canadiens wasn't good enough. We fought like bobcats in a sack.

So here we go. You have to do your own drumroll.


15. Vince Carter wins the Slam Dunk Contest

During the 2000 NBA All-Star festivities, Vince Carter, the Toronto Raptors star and Jordanesque "Air Apparent," blew the doors off the dunk contest with a series of moves including a through-the-legs slam. Carter’s show was a watershed moment for basketball in Canada. The hype surrounding his feat helped usher in NBA-level infrastructure to the Greater Toronto Area. The city that is home to one-fifth of all Canadians started to become a hotbed for competitive ball.

Basketball has exploded in Canada, and it was Vince’s jams that lit the fuse.


14. Schmirler the Curler captures Olympic gold

At the 1998 Nagano Games, Sandra Schmirler and her rink delivered Canada’s first Olympic gold in curling. To that date, it was the biggest single moment in our country’s history in the sport.

Schmirler, Joan McCusker, Jan Betker and Marcia Gudereit insisted that curling in Saskatchewan kept them humble — no matter how prestigious their international wins, they said friends at home could still challenge them on the ice. Schmirler’s rink won three Canadian championships and three worlds. They never lost an international tournament. Some say they were women’s curling’s best foursome ever.

Cancer ended the skip's life tragically young, but the Sandra Schmirler Foundation continues to contribute millions of dollars to neonatal units in hospitals across Canada.

13. Marilyn Bell swims Lake Ontario

Maybe the single most exciting shared moment for Canadians in the 1950s. The country was united, breathless, rooting for the 16-year-old girl during her 32-mile swim from Youngstown, N.Y., to Toronto.

Before modern media, beyond the reach of TV cameras, those 21 hours of endurance in 1954 gripped the country and sparked a full-blown newspaper war. They characterized Bell’s swim as quintessentially Canadian: a lone, modest, brave individual, striking off into a cold and hostile environment, determined not to be beaten.

Marilyn Bell "did it for Canada" without promise of any pay. She endured the stuff of horror films: lamprey attacks, oil spills, 15-metre waves. The first to swim Lake Ontario, she was also the youngest to swim the English Channel. Plaques, parks and monuments make lasting memorial to a nationally recognized historic event.


12. George Chuvalo goes the distance with Ali

A fight that was bigger than fighting, as they say. A thundering brawl between two superb and desperate athletes. Muhammad Ali, conscientious objector, Nation of Islam member, critic of the Vietnam War, was scrambling to find an opponent after veterans vowed to boycott any venue he entered in America. Ali’s people put together a hasty deal to fight Ernie Terrell in Toronto, but when Terrell backed out at the last minute, Chuvalo got the call: Would he meet the champ in 17 days at Maple Leaf Gardens?

The Canadian heavyweight never said no to a fight. Never got knocked down. And never took a step back in the ring. On March 29, 1966, Chuvalo and Ali squared off for 12 hammering rounds. Ali won the decision and thereafter told everyone that Chuvalo was the toughest man he ever fought. As the story goes, Ali left the ring and went to a hospital for the night. Chuvalo went dancing with his wife.


11. Canadian women take the 1928 Olympics by storm

1928 in Amsterdam was the first time that women were allowed to compete in Olympic track and field events. Canada’s contingent, which quickly earned the nickname "the matchless six,” managed a dazzling debut. Anchor Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld finished for Jane Bell, Ethel Smith and Myrtle Cook, giving Canada gold in the inaugural 4x100-metre women’s relay. Ethel Catherwood won gold in high jump. In total, Canada’s women’s track and field team won two gold, two silver and a bronze — the best result among all competing countries.

Rosenfeld, who took silver in the women's 100, was the premier sprinter of the Games, and in 1950 she was named Canada's female athlete of the first half of the century.

Bobbie Rosenfeld, second from left, took silver in the women's 100 and anchored the 4x100 team to gold at the 1928 Olympics. (Canadian Press/National Archives of Canada) Bobbie Rosenfeld, second from left, took silver in the women's 100 and anchored the 4x100 team to gold at the 1928 Olympics. (Canadian Press/National Archives of Canada)

10. Gretzky-to-Lemieux clinches the ’87 Canada Cup

If number of replays is the measure of a highlight, then Mario Lemieux's winning goal has earned its place among the all-time greats. The 1987 Canada Cup drew teams from Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. The three-game final between Canada and the USSR saw some of the best hockey ever played, and Canadians got to drink in delicious minutes of Wayne Gretzky and Lemieux playing on the same line.

The moment? Canada and the Soviets were tied 5-5 in the deciding third game of the final in Hamilton. With less than two minutes left on the clock, coach Mike Keenan put Dale Hawerchuk between Gretzky and Lemieux, and sent the three centres out for a faceoff in their own zone. Seconds later, it was over.  On a three-on-one rush with Larry Murphy ahead, Gretzky slipped a soft pass to Lemieux, whose high glove-side shot settled the matter. A thing of beauty.


9. Mike Weir wins the Masters

Small, left-handed Canadians are not supposed to wade into the biggest tournament in golf and emerge with a new green blazer slipped over their shoulders by Tiger Woods. Never happened before, and hasn’t happened since that glorious Sunday in 2003 when Mike Weir became the first Canadian and the first southpaw ever to win the Masters.

In a field stacked with long hitters, the modestly-powered Weir won amid downpours that lengthened the course by 400 yards and compressed play into three days. Sunday’s suspense was agony — Len Mattiace charged, Weir’s lead disappeared. He had to fight back to a playoff. One hole for the most prestigious win in the game. Weir kept it together for the previous 72, and found the mental strength to make it 73. “Even as well as I was playing, no one expected me to win there,” said the 32-year-old from Sarnia, Ont.


8. Barbara Ann Scott skates to gold

For a woman who barely weighed 100 pounds, Barbara Ann Scott hauled an awful lot of precious metal. She was the national ladies’ figure skating champion four times. World champ twice. But it was the Olympic gold in 1948 in St. Moritz that launched “Canada’s Sweetheart” into modern superstardom.

Her defining performance came on a windswept outdoor rink that had been hacked up by hockey games, but “Tinkerbell” was not put off by any of that. Her winning moves were double loops, which were too much for her Olympic competitors.

Scott was a hero and role model to Canadian girls. She later transitioned from skating to become one of the top equestrians in North America, and Officer of the Order of Canada.


7. Wayne Gretzky gets traded to L.A.

Oh, boy. Where do you start?

Sympathy for Peter Pocklington? The Los Angeles Kings wanted the greatest player in history, offered $18.5 million and some players, and the Edmonton Oilers owner cracked. Then came Wayne's tearful newser on August 9, 1988, complete with soggy Kleenex dabs. Parliamentarians tried to block the trade. The Pocklingtons got death threats. 

A tale of two cities? Edmonton was kicked in the nuts. Los Angeles went nuts. The Kings became the first sports franchise in L.A. to sell out a season. Wayne made hockey a warm-weather sport, all by himself. 

Cherchez la femme? After the Beatles, they blamed Yoko. After Wayne, they blamed Janet Jones. It felt like the end of the world for hockey fans here, but in the long run? The Oilers hoisted the Cup in 1990. Gretzky lived happily ever after. Not so tragic, really.


6. Terry Fox runs across Canada

Maybe the most influential distance runner of all time. In the eyes of the rest of the world, perhaps the most impactful moment in Canadian sport. Fox ran almost a marathon every day, for 143 days. On one leg. His left leg was all muscle. His right was lost to cancer when he was 18.

The Marathon of Hope aimed to raise $1 million to fund new cancer treatments. $750 million and counting later, he is our youngest Companion of the Order of Canada, a Newsmaker of the Year, and there's a mountain named after him. Fox died in 1981 at the age of 22. There are now 4,000 Terry Fox Runs in 56 nations.


5. Ben Johnson wins (for a moment) 100m gold

Every Canadian alive in 1988 can remember witnessing those 9.79 seconds at the Seoul Olympics. The elation was off the scale. Our man, Ben Johnson, beat American Carl Lewis!

And then the sickening news, 48 hours later… Steroids. We cheated! Canada’s whiplash trip from fame to shame burned deep in the national psyche. In hindsight, we were first among losers in what many now consider the "dirtiest race in history."  At least six of the eight lanes in Seoul were running on ‘roids. Justice Charles Dubin’s subsquent inquiry into drug use in sport would hear from 119 people and spawn nearly 15,000 pages of testimony. The depressing legacy? Random drug testing and lingering suspicion anytime any athlete in any sport stands out from the field.

4. Sidney Crosby scores the golden goal

“Iggy!” he shouted. Jarome Iginla’s pass came to Sidney Crosby’s stick, and in the final moment of the final event of the 2010 Vancouver Games, Crosby snapped a shot between the pads of U.S. goalie Ryan Miller. It was the perfect icing on the cake for Canada’s best Olympics ever. Gold medal No. 14 for the host country — more gold than any other nation has won in the history of the Winter Olympics.

Crosby, who was already the rock star and icon of Canadian hockey, was still just 22 years old. The great ones always seem to know that when it counts, there is a right place to be, a right moment to be there, and a right move to make. “I just shot it. I knew where the net was, but I didn't see where it went,” said Crosby.

It went, as it turns out, straight into Canadian hockey lore.


3. The Blue Jays win back-to-back World Series

One is a fluke. Maybe. Could be. Two World Series in a row? Forget about it.

In 1992 against the Atlanta Braves, Toronto became the first baseball team from outside the U.S. to win it all. Robbie Alomar, Dave Winfield, John Olerud, Devon White… manager Cito Gaston had so much quality to work with. Yonge Street became the biggest, happiest party Hogtown had ever seen.

Then in 1993, Joltin’ Joe Carter hit Philadelphia’s Mitch Williams for a walk-off three-run homer to deliver a second straight title. As Tom Cheek said, “Touch ‘em all, Joe.”

When Canada wins at hockey, it is just the natural order of things. When Canada wins at America’s pastime? Letterman devoted a Top 10 list to "Reasons Why Canada Keeps Beating Us in the World Series" (No. 6: Our secret plays are being funneled to them by that weasel Paul Shaffer). All was forgiven for the high cost of watery draft at SkyDome.


2. Donovan Bailey sprints to gold in Atlanta

He was the world champion coming into the 1996 Olympics. But Donovan Bailey’s entire career had played out in the shade of Canada’s steroidal hangover from the 1988 Ben Johnson disgrace. Uniquely among his cohort of sprinters, Bailey was never implicated in any doping scandals. Not once. So, as eight men took their lanes at that 100-metre line in Atlanta, our guy was defiantly clean. But the weary question still hung in the air: could a drug-free runner win? 

Bang! In 9.84 seconds, he answered all that. Bailey became the fastest man in history. No asterisks. A week later, he anchored Robert Esmie, Glenroy Gilbert and Bruny Surin to 4x100-metre gold. Bailey took no chances there either, rolling his final 100m in 8.95 seconds.

Canadians could look other sporting nations in the eye again.


1. Paul Henderson scores for Canada

The only sporting moment that nobody quibbles about. If anything makes 1972 feel like yesterday, it’s the memory of that instant in the Canada-Russia series, watched on clunky colour TVs wheeled into classrooms.

The Cold War was in full force, the Summit Series absurdly freighted with meaning. It wasn’t just hockey, it was an honest-to-goodness clash of competing world visions. The NHL versus the Red Army. Canada should have lost, really, because the Russians were so good. But that is not what history wrote.

Through seven games, Canada had squeaked out three wins, Russia had three, and there was one tie. So, with 34 seconds left in a deadlocked series that had gone on for 27 nailbiting days, superstar goalie Vladislav Tretiak rebounded a poked shot from Phil Esposito, Henderson picked up the bounce and flicked the puck into the net. In a moment that became immortal, Henderson was a Canadian hero. He also scored the winners in the sixth and seventh games, keeping Canada in the series to that point.

There are no contenders for a bigger moment in Canadian sports. It is hard to even imagine one.

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