Lou Marsh Trophy race loaded with deserving candidates in unusual 2020

Watch as Sportsnet's Faizal Khamisa is joined by Stephen Brunt and Caroline Cameron to discuss who they believe will be the recipient of the 2020 Lou Marsh award.

Tennis. Freestyle skiing. Baseball. Bobsleigh — bobsleigh.

You’d almost think we do more than play hockey in Canada if you looked at the recent results from voting for the Lou Marsh Trophy. Could Edmonton’s Alphonso Davies win it in 2020 after a year that saw his team win five trophies and him become one of the hottest young soccer players in the world’s most popular game? Should Montreal’s Laurent Duvernay-Tardif’s extraordinarily unselfish decision — which has landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated — make him an uncommon winner for an uncommon year?

That’s my dilemma, these next 24 hours.

The beautiful game has a new addition. Jeff Blair and Dan Riccio host A Kick In The Grass, a soccer podcast from Sportsnet.

This was supposed to be an Olympic year. It wasn’t supposed to be a year in which the CFL didn’t take the field, or the Stanley Cup was awarded in an empty building in Edmonton on Sept. 28 while the home team was on the golf course, or the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy was awarded on Oct. 13 on what amounted to a sound stage. But that was the pandemic year in sports: entire leagues shut down, the international sports calendar one big, smoking crater.

But on Tuesday, as has been the case since 1936 (with a three-year interruption in the middle of World War II), a Canadian athlete will be named winner of the Lou Marsh Trophy, named after a former sports editor of the Toronto Star who was also a prominent athlete and official.

Unlike other annual athlete awards, it is not split into male or female athlete categories. In fact, of the past six winners, three have been women, including 2019 winner Bianca Andreescu, who was a unanimous selection by a representative group of media members from across the country. A short list is compiled after a lengthy, often spirited — and this year virtual — debate. This year, for logistical reasons, that list will be five, with voters asked to select one of the names instead of the usual ranking process.

As a voter, I can say without equivocation that there is no award or process about which I’m so passionate — yes, including the Baseball Hall of Fame. At the heart of it for me is athletic excellence, back-story and hurdles overcome, rareness of achievement — and, above all, the idea that if someone said to me “show me somebody I should aspire to copy who is a Canadian athlete,” I could point to the winner and say: her or him.

Just because the calendar has been a mess and has robbed us of the possibility of Olympic medals from the likes of Kylie Masse or Penny Oleksiak or Andre DeGrasse, doesn’t mean there aren’t names to consider. NHL players often receive short shrift in these considerations, especially in an Olympic year, but I would certainly look at Connor McDavid’s 2020 — second in NHL scoring with 97 points after returning from a gruesome knee injury and dealing with a positive COVID-19 test — and suggest his name be considered.

So, too, should that of Mikael Kingsbury. Is there a more consistent international performer than the 2018 Marsh winner, who is currently out for more than a month with a back injury, but who won his ninth consecutive Crystal Globe in moguls and never finished below second place in any competition?

Cyclist Mike Woods … long-track speed skater Graeme Fish … U.S. Open men’s quarter-finalist Dennis Shapovalov … Brooke Henderson … Malindi Elmore, who set the Canadian women’s marathon record … Christine Sinclair (whose 185th goal broke the international scoring record for men’s or women’s soccer players) … national team teammate Kadeisha Buchanan, Canada’s women’s player of the year who plays for the powerhouse women’s Champions League side Olympique Lyonnaise.

Kia Nurse. Lance Stroll. So, so many. And we have yet to talk about Chase Claypool, a dominant offensive performer on a Pittsburgh Steelers team that could go undefeated. Or Chuba Hubbard, who won’t win the Heisman Trophy this season despite being the odds-makers’ fourth pick going into the season, but is still a star.

Or — my goodness! — Jamal Murray, a stalwart of the Canadian men’s basketball program who at 23 years of age is one of the top five point guards in the NBA, the best player this country has produced since Steve Nash (which is a mouthful considering the depth of talent) and set a Canadian record for points in a playoff series with the Denver Nuggets.

Murray was also a vocal part of the NBA’s social-justice initiatives, in a year of political partisanship that asked more of our athletes than ever before. Murray, like so many others, was front and centre in the fight against police brutality against African-Americans and its foundational force — systemic racism.

And now we come back to the athletes mentioned at the top of the story. If you don’t know Davies’ story by now, you should. He was born in a refugee camp in Ghana to Liberian parents, who fled their country’s civil war and then moved to Edmonton. It was an Edmonton-based sports charity, Sport Central, that provided an entry into sports for Davies and his brother by gifting the newcomers bikes and soccer balls. The Davies were part of a group of 10,000 recipients who annually receive free sports equipment from the charity.

Davies’ journey is something else. He was sold to Bayern Munich by the Vancouver Whitecaps and became a regular at Bayern Munich last season under Hansi Flick. He is on the verge of becoming the most recognizable Canadian athlete in the world, if he’s not there already. He placed in the top five among Bayern jersey sales worldwide – a big deal when you play for a club that generated $751 million (U.S.) in revenue in 2019, and is ranked the fourth largest in the world behind Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United.

Davies, who turned 20 last month, was a regular on the Bayern team that won the Champions League – the largest club competition in the world. Bayern also won the German domestic double: the Bundesliga and the DFB-Pokal, the German club competition, as well as the European and German Super Cup. He terrorized English giants Chelsea in a Champions League match pre-pandemic, drawing acclaim from the notoriously parochial English media.

And along the way, Davies, who in 2017 at the age of 17 became the youngest-ever debutant for the Canadian men’s team, was named a finalist for UEFA’s Golden Boy Award as Europe’s best young player. And that’s just the beginning of his 2020 accolades. He was described by Fox Sports analyst Alexei Lalas as the best player in CONCACAF; he made the ‘World XI’ all-star club as selected by noted soccer journalist Jonathan Wilson; he was named to the Champions League all-star team; he was runner-up for Champions League defender of the year; he was named Bundesliga rookie of the year; and he was ranked the 20th best men’s player in the world in an international survey conducted by Goal. He was clocked as being the fastest player in the Bundesliga and has effectively re-defined the position of left-back.

“It’s becoming a more important position, tactically, in the game,” said Canadian men’s coach John Herdman. “Phonzie’s one of the reasons.”

Davies was signed to a five-year, $27.5-million (U.S.) contract by Bayern this season, and is scheduled to return to action next month after recovering from a gruesome ankle injury. Until that injury, he was so dominant that he was keeping a 24-year-old Frenchmen, Lucas Hernandez, on the bench. Bayern paid Atletico Madrid a club and league record 80 million Euros for Hernandez in 2019.

That’s not usually how stuff is supposed to work.

And yet while soccer is the world’s game, the NFL remains the giant in North American sports and the Super Bowl remains the biggest one-day sports feast on the continent, and on Feb. 2, 2020, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a native of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Que., started at right guard for the Kansas City Chiefs and won a Super Bowl ring.

He then followed that up in July by announcing he was opting out of the 2020 NFL season due to COVID-19 because it was time to be Dr. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.

It was a stunningly selfless move for a 29-year-old plying his wares in a league where contracts aren’t guaranteed and turnover is a fact of life. Duvernay-Tardif, who graduated from McGill in 2018 with a Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery (M.D., C.M.), has worked on the front lines during the COVID-19 outbreak at a Quebec long-term care facility while continuing his post-graduate studies. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ont., has one of his scrubs and medical coats on display and, this weekend, Duvernay-Tardif was named one of Sports Illustrated’s Sportspersons of the Year along with activist athletes LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes (his Chiefs teammate), Naomi Osaka and Breanna Stewart.

Politics and sports have never really been as separate as fans think, but this was a year in which they became completely inseparable. Dr. Duvernay-Tardif answered a call for help the best way he could, and while it takes a certain amount of financial security to make that decision, the fact is he has forced us all to ask ourselves: Would I do that, too?

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not think about it for too long.

In a year of living seriously, of social distancing and masking up, Duvernay-Tardif has forced us to think serious thoughts. He has reminded us of our responsibilities to fellow citizens. Another Canadian did that in 1980, when Terry Fox ran across the country in the Marathon of Hope, which was designed to bring attention to the fight against cancer.

Wayne Gretzky won the NHL scoring race and the Hart Trophy in the 1979–80 NHL season (his first in the league) and was ripping apart the league again; Gaetan Boucher won silver at the Lake Placid Olympics … but it was Fox, 22, who won the Lou Marsh.

Gretzky, of course, would go on to win the trophy a record four times, but since 2000 the Lou Marsh has been won only three times by hockey players — twice by Sidney Crosby. And with every passing year, there seems to be a growing and more varied list of athletes — younger and younger, it seems — from which we can pick the one that we will point to with pride and say: “That is a Canadian athlete.”

That’s good — that’s what we want.

This year, I’ll vote for Davies, because of how far he’s come, the cultural adaptation he’s managed and because he is doing things I never thought I’d see a Canadian soccer player do. His year was simply breathtaking and his story, which is more typically Canadian than those old, frozen-pond yarns of days past, is an inspiration. But I have to tell you this: I will vote for him while wondering if the new format might not give us something we haven’t seen since 1983 when wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen and Gretzky shared the award: a tie, one of only two in the award’s history.

A tie? I can hear you now: “A tie. That’s so Canadian.” To which my riposte would be: So Canadian? Nah. It’s so 2020.

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