How a turbulent 2019 shifted the ground under Canadian sport

It was a year of highs and lows for Canadian sport, from Bianca Andreescu's U.S. Open win to Don Cherry's departure. (CP Images (3))

And sometimes, the ground shifts.

It felt like that in 2019, in Canada, in the mostly pretend world of sport — as though we were living through a moment of fundamental change.

The biggest individual sports story of the year involved not a hockey player, but a tennis player, and one whose name was unknown to all but the cognoscenti as recently as a year ago. Bianca Andreescu, the daughter of immigrant parents (that part would seem more relevant come autumn…), crept into the national consciousness by winning at Indian Wells and became a household name by winning the Rogers Cup in Toronto, where her generosity towards an injured Serena Williams was an added grace note. Then she ventured where no Canadian had gone before, defeating Williams again in the final to win the U.S. Open.

Andreescu personifies what we have always imagined our best athletes to be — she’s skilled, tough, tenacious, indomitable even under the brightest of lights, confident yet self-effacing, sportsmanlike, unspoiled by all of the attention.

And her journey has only just begun.

The biggest team sports story of the year involved not a Canadian NHL club or senior national team or the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues — though theirs was certainly a very good yarn indeed — but rather the Toronto Raptors winning the National Basketball Association championship, the pinnacle in a truly global game. Previously, those fully invested in a singularly hockey-focused identity could comfort themselves in the belief that the Raptors’ reach in Canada didn’t seem to extend much beyond the 416 and 905. By the time the team wrapped up a brilliant playoff run, ending the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty in the finals, those old assumptions had been shattered. Like the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015 and 2016, the Raptors became a pan-Canadian phenomenon, as the television numbers attested.

When you looked at the youth, at the gender mix, at the faces in those crowds at the victory parade, you saw reflected the urban, diverse Canada where most of us reside. Given the sport’s explosive growth on the participation level, the waves of Canadian talent entering the NBA and the possibility of Olympic and world championship medals down the road, it was impossible to deny what was happening before our eyes.

The future became the present — or at least that’s the way it feels sometimes, when our perception catches up with where we already are. The truth is, this is also a basketball country.

In the wake of those two ecstatic moments, the sport-that-defines-us was experiencing a season of discontent, forced to look uncomfortably into the mirror, and seemingly out of sync with the larger culture.

It began with the departure of Don Cherry, someone whose place in our national narrative will long be debated. What evolved over the decades in those minutes between the first and second periods on Saturday night is pretty much impossible to explain to a non-native: an ex-coach, originally brought onto the show to talk just about hockey who somehow morphed into a commentator on all subjects as proxy for the Average Canadian.

He was polarizing in that role — mention his name in Quebec, and then stand back — but Cherry had always managed to walk the fine line that allowed him to speak his mind while remaining employed.

The tipping point, finally, was truly unexpected. Cherry’s annual Remembrance Day tribute to the troops lurched into an attack on immigrants, or people he decided were immigrants based on how they looked, lumped together under the all-encompassing “you people.” Cherry claimed they were insufficiently patriotic and insufficiently appreciative of past wartime sacrifices as evidenced by the absence of a poppy on their lapels.

The intent was clear enough that it cost Cherry his job, while at the same time reinforcing the notion that hockey and hockey culture remained the exclusive domain of an older, whiter Canada, resentful and fearful of the other, that it had calcified 25 years ago or more.

The cascade of events that followed wasn’t directly linked to Cherry, yet seemed part of a single storyline.

Mike Babcock was fired as the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs not because of misbehaviour, but because his team was underperforming in the face of sky-high expectations. Emboldened by his fall, former players took to social media to reveal past, petty cruelties, pointless abuses of power masquerading as motivational techniques.

The fact that players had the temerity to speak out against the most powerful coach in the game suggested the age of athlete empowerment, already the norm in other sports, was finally beginning to creep into the NHL. Before the end of the calendar year, Marc Crawford, whose resume comes pretty close to matching Babcock’s, was tarred with the same brush, and suspended from his job as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks for similarly abusive behaviour in the past.

Akim Aliu followed up the Babcock stories with an “if you think that’s bad…” anecdote about the then-current coach of the Calgary Flames, Bill Peters, who he had encountered in the minor leagues. Peters, Aliu said, liberally dropped the n-word while objecting to the music playing in the dressing room. Further accusations from others followed, stories of Peters kicking and punching players while the head coach in Carolina. The Flames sent Peters home. Following the team’s own investigation, he resigned.

Aliu next dropped a photo taken at a Halloween party in 2011, during his short stint with a minor-league team called the Colorado Eagles. Aliu had been with the Eagles such a short time that his teammates would have barely known him. They told him he should turn up for the party a little late. When he arrived, he found the team’s equipment manager wearing a sweater with his nickname on the back — and wearing blackface. The boys thought it would be a hoot to have Aliu pose for a picture with him.

Aliu’s story resonated in a particular way because it was not ancient history, because the “joke” was so specifically directed at a lone person of colour on an otherwise lily-white team, and because it seemed to reinforce the message that hockey isn’t really for everyone. The NHL can talk diversity all it wants, but how much has really changed since Willie O’Ree made his unlikely debut with the Boston Bruins back in 1958? (Before, it should be noted, the Boston Red Sox dressed their first black player.)

But here’s the happy-ish ending.

When under threat, real or imagined, hockey people have traditionally circled the wagons, closed ranks, defended past practices, and dismissed those who complain as overly sensitive outsiders who have never played the game.

That wasn’t the reaction this time. Cherry certainly had — and still has — his defenders, but there was only a minor groundswell on his behalf, and quickly the conversation around his absence died down. They’re still playing hockey games on Saturday night without him.

No one stood up to defend a coach’s right to hit or humiliate a player in the interest of winning games. No one defended racism in the dressing room as harmless fun, as boys being boys.

Babcock acknowledged that what he had done was misguided. Crawford did as well, and opened up about entering therapy to deal with the anger that emerged through his coaching.

The National Hockey League was already aware that the sport had issues with inclusiveness, and understood that anything that might suppress grassroots participation levels mattered to the overall health of the business (that’s one big reason they hired the estimable Kim Davis in 2017). Rather than hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass, the New York office did its best to get out ahead of it, inviting Aliu for a meeting with commissioner Gary Bettman and saying all the right things.

No one in hockey will look back on the fall of 2019 fondly. But change, never mind revolution, often comes with a dollop of pain.

There may well be more uncomfortable stories to come. But players are speaking out, the sport is standing behind them, no one is saying “shut up and take it,” as was the norm in generations past.

That’s a beginning, and that’s the only path forward.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.