Brunt: The not-so-obvious choice

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Naming Canada’s best athlete is an annual exercise in comparing ourselves to the rest of the world

It is more of a debate here than it is in a lot of places, one of those little things that reminds us we’re Canadian.

Each year as the calendar pages are reduced to one or two, we gather to discuss which athlete’s accomplishments are the most noteworthy in the world of sports, and almost never is the choice black and white.

If you’re an American, you can line up LeBron James versus Peyton Manning versus Abby Wambach versus Tiger Woods versus whomever, and obviously it’s a tough call among those who are tops in their field.

If you’re a Canadian, you’ll more likely be debating whether second place in the women’s heptathlon at the World Athletics Championships—FYI, that would be Brianne Theisen-Eaton—trumps, say, a World Cup win in bobsled.

The Olympics tend to streamline the process, because we’re an Olympics-crazy nation. Grab a gold medal on that big stage—or multiple gold medals—and you automatically go to the top of the class.

The rest of the time, as with this year, it boils down to a discussion of relative merits, all in shades of grey.

There are always plenty of hockey players, of course—but should a Canadian win if he is anything less than the unassailable best in the world? (Female hockey players don’t tend to get much consideration in this conversation, losing out on depth-of-field criteria—it’s us and the Americans and no one else.)

And speaking of depth of field, the two sports with the greatest global reach are soccer and basketball. Christine Sinclair was a clear choice in 2012 because of her heroics in London, though that was really another Olympic nod. But how about Steve Nash? Shouldn’t he have won every year he was considered one of the five or 10 best players in the best basketball league in the world, never mind his two MVP seasons? (He won Canada’s oldest best-athlete prize, the Lou Marsh Award, just once.)

This year, both Anthony Bennett (a finalist for Sportsnet’s Canadian Athlete of the Year award) and Andrew Wiggins are in the mix, but there you’re talking about a terrific college player who was a surprise first pick in the NBA draft, and the best high school player around, who has just begun his first (and presumably only) college season with the University of Kansas. Are they really more deserving than the Canadians already established in the NBA?

But the most interesting case study is Jon Cornish.

A running back from New Westminster, B.C., and the University of Kansas who stars for the Calgary Stampeders, Cornish is a dead cold lock to be named the CFL’s most outstanding player later this month. For non–CFL devotees, that might not seem so shocking, until you consider that the last Canadian to win that award was Tony Gabriel way back in 1978, playing for a team that no longer exists.

Canadians are a significant part of the game because a quota guarantees them roster spots. But over the long history of the CFL, its biggest stars have tended to be quarterbacks, running backs and receivers, and in all of those positions Americans have dominated.

So Cornish is a true, once-in-a-generation outlier. If a CFL player is going to be considered as Canada’s athlete of the year, he’s the guy, just like Russ Jackson was the guy in 1969, when he became the last of his breed to win the Lou Marsh. The only other CFL player to win the Marsh, which dates back to 1936, was Joe Krol in 1946 (though Bob McFarlane, an Olympian who was a double threat in track and university football, was the winner in 1950).

Along the way, that award has gone to runners, rowers, equestrians, jockeys, auto racers, hockey players, swimmers, figure skaters, golfers, shooters, weightlifters, skiers, harness-racing drivers, baseball players, synchronized swimmers, biathletes, kayakers, wrestlers, wheelchair racers and Terry Fox. Given Canadian football’s long history, given that culturally it’s second only to hockey in this country, you could certainly make the point that with two wins in the past 81 years, it’s been given rather short shrift.

But… well… it’s the CFL. And, though a loyalist would point out that it’s the best three-down football league in the world, it’s also just the second-best football league on this continent. How do you put Cornish at the top of the list ahead of Canadians playing regularly in the NFL? (Israel Idonije, for instance, though he’s far less of a factor in Detroit this year than he was the past few seasons with the Chicago Bears.)

Let that perfectly Canadian argument begin.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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