In Memoriam: Notable deaths of the sports world during 2021


Walter Gretzky, father of Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky waves to fans at a Toronto Maple Leafs game in 2017. (Nathan Denette/CP)

As 2021 reaches its end, Sportsnet is remembering not only the moments that stayed with us, but the people who’ve left us.

In memory of Walter Gretzky, Hank Aaron, Lee Elder, Tony Esposito, Matiss Kivlenieks, Elgin Baylor and the many others who died this year.


John Madden, 85. A Hall of Fame coach who became the soundtrack to the NFL during his tenure as a broadcaster.

Madden gained fame in a decade-long stint as the coach of the renegade Oakland Raiders, making it to seven AFC title games and winning the Super Bowl following the 1976 season.

But it was his work after prematurely retiring as coach at age 42 that made Madden truly a household name. He educated a football nation with his use of the telestrator on broadcasts; entertained millions with his interjections of “Boom!” and “Doink!” throughout games; was an omnipresent pitchman selling restaurants, hardware stores and beer; became the face of Madden NFL Football, one of the most successful sports video games of all-time; and was a best-selling author.

Most of all, he was the preeminent television sports analyst for most of his three decades calling games, winning an unprecedented 16 Emmy Awards for outstanding sports analyst/personality, and covering 11 Super Bowls for four networks from 1979-2009.

Read more about Madden.

Demaryius Thomas, 33. A Super Bowl champion remembered for his humility, warmth, kindness and infectious smile.

Demaryius Thomas takes part in drills during the Denver Broncos’ training camp in 2018.

His contributions to the community went beyond the playing field, the team said, noting his work with the Broncos Boys and Girls Club, hospital visits, his annual football camp and “many other genuine interactions.”

Read more about Thomas.

Claude Humphrey, 77. A Pro Football Hall of Famer and one of the NFL’s most fearsome pass rushers during the 1970s.

Claude Humphrey, pictured as a member of the Atlanta Falcons in 1970.

Claude Humphrey, the No. 3 overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons out of Tennessee State in 1968, went on to play 11 years with the team, earning the last of six Pro Bowl appearances as a member of the famed “Grits Blitz” defence in 1977.

He went to the Eagles in 1979 and served as a designated pass rusher on the 1980 team that reached the Super Bowl, and was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

Read more about Humphrey.


Lee Elder, 87. A Texan who developed his game during segregated times and became the first Black golfer to play in the Masters.

Lee Elder watches the flight of his ball as he tees off in the first round of play at the Masters.

Lee Elder, who developed his game during segregated times while caddying and hustling for rounds, made history in 1975 at Augusta National. The tournament had held an all-white tournament until he received an invitation after winning the Monsanto Open the previous year, paving the way for Tiger Woods and others to follow.

Read more about Elder.

Frank Williams, 79. The founder and former team principal of Formula One’s Williams Racing.

Sir Frank Williams is seen at the pits during a practice for the Italian Formula One Grand Prix, in Monza, Italy in 2009.

Frank Williams took his motor racing team from an empty carpet warehouse to the summit of Formula One, overseeing 114 victories, a combined 16 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships, while becoming the longest-serving team boss in the sport’s history.

Read more about Williams.

Angelo Mosca, 84. A Canadian football legend who turned to pro wrestling in retirement, performing at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens and Madison Square Garden in New York.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ alumnus Angelo Mosca in Hamilton, Ont., on Thursday, August 27, 2015.

Widely remembered for his colourful character, Angelo Mosca was a five-time Grey Cup champion and is in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

But his notoriety on the national level stemmed largely the controversial hit that knocked tailback Willie Fleming out of the ’63 CFL title game, and subsequent fight with Joe Kapp, Fleming’s teammate, more than 40 years later.

Read more about Mosca.


Walter Smith, 73. With a dry sense of humour and an endearing humbleness, he established the Rangers as the Scotland’s biggest force in soccer.

Tributes are laid at Ibrox Stadium in memory of former Walter Smith in Glasgow, Scotland.

Walter Smith, the Scottish soccer coach who won 21 trophies over two spells with Rangers, restored respectability to his national team in a brief stint in charge.

Read more about Smith.

Ray Fosse, 74. A strong-armed catcher whose career was upended in the 1970 all-star game, and later became a popular broadcaster for the Athletics.

Carol Fosse, Ray’s wife of 51 years, said he had died after a 16-year bout with cancer.

A budding talent for Cleveland when he made his first All-Star team as a 23-year-old, Ray Fosse’s career was upended when he was bowled over by Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star Game, a hit that he said left his body still aching 45 years later.

Read more about Fosse.


Francis Perron, 25. A bright, passionate, and caring person, Francis poured himself into his craft as a player and his pursuit of becoming an engineer.

Perron was a star in the classroom too, being named a multi-time U SPORTS Academic All-Canadian.

Ottawa Gee-Gees defensive lineman Francis Perron passed away Saturday shortly after the team’s season opener on the road against the University of Toronto Varsity Blues.

Read more about Perron.

David Patten, 47. An undrafted free agent, he made two iconic catches to help New England capture its first Super Bowl win.

David Patten celebrates after catching a touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

Former NFL receiver and three-time Super Bowl champion David Patten Jr., who caught Tom Brady’s first post-season touchdown pass to help the Patriots win their first title, died in a motorcycle accident.

Read more about Patten.


Jacques Rogge, 79. An orthopaedic surgeon who approached the job of running the Olympics the same way he approached his work as a physician: Listen, analyze and consult.

Jacques Rogge speaks during a lunch organized by Fondation Nordiques in Quebec City, Tuesday, May 22, 2012.

Jacques Rogge’s medical background heavily influenced his leadership style during his 12-year reign in the most powerful post in international sports, bringing stability and a steady hand to the IOC after its worst ethics scandal. He also pursued a hard line against doping as IOC president.

Read more about Rogge.

Rod Gilbert, 80. An icon in New York, his storied career and love for the people of the city earned him the title “Mr. Ranger.”

Rod Gilbert displays a hockey stick marked with a “300,” the total number of goals he has scored in his career, in the Rangers’ locker room in New York.

Rod Gilbert was Hall of Fame right wing who starred for the New York Rangers and helped Canada win the 1972 Summit Series. His No. 7 jersey became the first number ever to be retired by the Rangers when it was raised to Madison Square Garden rafters on Oct. 14, 1979.

Read more about Gilbert.
Watch Sportsnet’s video obituary for Gilbert.

Tony Esposito, 78. A pioneering Hall of Fame goaltender, his style, charisma and heart endeared him to hockey fans.

Pictured in-game on Jan. 25, 1970, Chicago Blackhawks goalie Tony Esposito moves behind the net to stop the puck for a teammate against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Chicago.

Tony Esposito, the pioneering Hall of Fame goaltender who played almost his entire 16-year career with the Chicago Blackhawks, was an innovator, being among the first to use the butterfly style. The Blackhawks retired Esposito’s No. 35 on Nov. 20, 1988.

Read more about Esposito.
Watch Sportsnet’s video obituary for Esposito.


Dolores Claman, 94. The woman behind the catchy tune that used to introduce CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcasts.

Claman never expected the song, often called Canada’s second anthem, to become as successful as it did and said it wasn’t until at least 10 years after the tune’s debut that she really realized its popularity.

Dolores Claman was born in Vancouver and grew up with an opera singer for a mother. She had graduated from high school by 16 and later trained as a concert pianist at the Juilliard School in New York.

At Juilliard, she decided she would rather be a composer and developed a love of jazz, beginning the path that would lead her to write one of the most recognizable songs in Canadian broadcast history.

Read more about Claman.

Matiss Kivlenieks, 24. Remembered as a friend and a hero, his death on the Fourth of July from an errant fireworks mortar blast sent a lasting shock through the hockey world.

Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks, shown during the second period of a game in New York.

Matiss Kivlenieks’ death came on the eve of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in Montreal, where the Tampa Bay Lightning had a chance to clinch the championship against the Canadiens on Monday night.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Kivlenieks’ “love for life and passion for the game will be deeply missed by all those who have been fortunate to have him as a teammate and a friend.”

Read more about Kivlenieks.
Watch the Blue Jackets’ ceremony honouring Kivlenieks.


Rene Robert, 72. Acquired by the Sabres in 1972, he went on to round out one of the most productive lines in NHL history.

Rene-Robert Rene Robert beats Don Lever to the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1977.

A member of the Buffalo Sabres’ famed “French Connection Line,” Rene Robert played right wing alongside left wing Rick Martin and Hockey Hall of Fame center Gilbert Perreault on a line that earned its nickname because all three players were from Quebec.

The Sabres have memorialized the line by erecting a statue of the three players that stands in a plaza outside their arena.

Read more about Robert.


Mark Eaton, 64. Known as the NBA’s shot-blocking king whose career happened almost by accident, he went on to be a restaurateur and motivational speaker in his retirement.

Mark Eaton, right, puts a hook shot up and over the outstretched hand of Ralph Sampson during an game at the Summit in Houston.

Standing at seven-foot-four, Mark Eaton was an all-star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year and his on-court journey started with a bizarre cosmic coincidence.

He was working as an auto mechanic in 1977 when a community college basketball coach persuaded him to enrol. From there, he went to UCLA, and his legendary stint with the Jazz followed.

Read more about Eaton.


Terrence Clarke, 19. An NBA Draft prospect at Kentucky, remembered not just for his potential but as “a beautiful kid, someone who owned the room with his personality, smile and joy.”

Terrence Clarke brings the ball up during the second half Kentucky’s game against Kansas in Indianapolis.

From Boston, Terrence Clarke started Kentucky’s first six games and was one of its top scorers, highlighted by a career-best 22 points in a loss to Georgia Tech.

He went on to enter the NBA draft after playing in just eight games last season because of a right leg injury, and was honoured by the league with a ceremonial posthumous selection.

Read more about Clarke.


Stan Albeck, 89. The longtime NBA coach whose career saw him helm San Antonio, Cleveland, New Jersey and Chicago.

In this 1974 photo, Wilt Chamberlain, right, coach of the San Diego Conquistadors, and assistant coach Stan Albeck, middle, watch in the opening minutes of the team’s basketball game.

“Coach Albeck wasn’t just important to the Spurs, he was what I call a lifer,” current Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “People like myself don’t come close to loving the game as he did, and his whole family did. They participated in so many ways and followed him so many places.

“He would come to games, he would talk to players, talk to us as coaches. He always had a smile for us, a suggestion or two — because he’s a coach… He is somebody we always respected and he brought a bright light to wherever he was.”

Read more about Albeck.

Bobby Plager, 78. One of the original, and most resonant, figures in the St. Louis Blues’ franchise history.

Bob Plager waves to fans while speaking during a ceremony to retire his number before an NHL hockey game between the Blues and the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017.

An original Blue, Bobby Plager moved over from the New York Rangers when the NHL expanded in 1967-68.

He played 11 seasons for St. Louis — teaming for a stretch with brothers Barclay and Bill — and later worked for the organization in a variety of roles. He coached the team for 11 games in 1992.

Read more about Plager.

Elgin Baylor, 86. An 11-time NBA All-Star with the Los Angeles Lakers, who played a major role in revolutionizing basketball from a ground-bound sport into an aerial show.

Elgin Baylor scores on a fast break past Golden State Warriors at San Francisco Civic Auditorium in San Francisco in October 1965.

Lakers Governor Jeanie Buss praised Baylor as “THE superstar of his era,” adding that his many accolades speak to that.

His second career as a personnel executive with the Los Angeles Clippers was much less successful. He worked for the Clippers from 1986 until 2008, when he left the team with acrimony and an unsuccessful lawsuit against owner Donald Sterling and the NBA claiming age and race discrimination.

Read more about Baylor.

Rheal Cormier, 53. A sixth-round pick, he went on to be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

Rheal Cormier pitches during Team Canad’s win over China in preliminary action at the Beijing Olympics.

“Rheal was one of the most vibrant people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing,” Jim Thome, a former teammate of Cormier’s in Philadelphia and friend, said. “He loved baseball, but he always put his family first.

“(Cormier) was the kind of guy who would do anything for you and I’m lucky to have called him my friend for many years. Our time spent together in Philadelphia as teammates was unforgettable. He will be greatly missed but never forgotten.”

Read more about Cormier.

Walter Gretzky, 82. The ultimate Canadian hockey dad who taught and nurtured The Great One.

“For my sister and my three brothers, Dad was our captain — he guided, protected and led our family every day, every step of the way,” Wayne Gretzky wrote. “For me, he was the reason I fell in love with the game of hockey.”

To speak of hockey in Canada, perhaps anywhere, is to speak of the Gretzkys.

The First Family of On-ice Greatness means more to the game than simply records and numbers. The statistical dominance, the historic amassing of trophies — no one represents that aspect of the sport better than its most prolific scorer, Wayne Gretzky.

But the heart of the game, what it looks like not under the bright lights of NHL arenas but in the dimmer glow of community rinks dotted throughout the country, that calls to mind the memory of another with that surname: Walter Gretzky, hockey’s most beloved hockey dad.

Read the rest of Sonny Sachdeva’s obituary: Walter Gretzky embodied the heart, spirit of Canadian community hockey.
Watch Stephen Brunt’s essay on the life and lasting legacy of Walter Gretzky.
Look back on how the hockey community remembered one of its most beloved figures.


Ralph Backstrom, 83. A longtime forward who helped the Canadiens capture the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons on three different occasions.
Ralph Backstrom was a six-time Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens, college coach and founder of a minor-league team.

A native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Backstrom also was a coach at the University of Denver. He led the Pioneers to the NCAA Final Four in 1986.

Read more about Backstrom.

Leon Spinks Jr., 67. An Olympic gold medallist who then shocked the boxing world by beating Muhammad Ali to win the heavyweight title.

Leon Spinks celebrates as his entourage holds him aloft after his 15-round split decision victory over world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas.

A lovable heavyweight with a drinking problem, Spinks beat Ali by decision in a 15-round fight in 1978 to win the title. He was unranked at the time, and picked as an opponent because Ali was looking for an easy fight.

He got anything but that, with an unorthodox Spinks swarming over Ali throughout the fight on his way to a stunning win by split decision

Read more about Spinks.


Hank Aaron, 86. Atlanta Braves legend, Baseball’s Home Run King, and someone who transcended either title.

Atlanta Braves icon Hank Aaron smiles during a press conference at Atlanta Stadium on April 8, 1974.

Hank Aaron, who stands as one of the sport’s most cherished and storied players, was famously given the nickname Hammerin’ Hank for his ability to consistently make hard contact. But the lessons he left behind extended much further than just the ballpark.

Read David Singh’s full obituary: Hank Aaron’s talent, courage built a bridge for future Black stars.

Don Sutton, 75. A Hall of Fame pitcher who was a stalwart of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ rotation.

don-suttonDon Sutton of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 48th All-Star Game in New York.

Known for his durability, Sutton never missed a turn in the rotation in 756 big league starts. That, coupled with his mastery of changing speeds and pitch location, led to his stable success of earning 10 or more wins in every year he played except 1983 and 1988.

Read more about Sutton.

Tommy Lasorda, 93. The fiery Hall of Fame manager who guided the Los Angeles Dodgers to two World Series titles.

Tommy Lasorda during a spring training baseball workout in Phoenix, Feb. 28, 2012.

Lasorda often proclaimed, “I bleed Dodger blue” and he kept a bronze plaque on his desk reading: “Dodger Stadium was his address, but every ballpark was his home.”

He worked as a player, scout, manager and front office executive with the Dodgers dating to their roots in Brooklyn. He compiled a 1,599-1,439 record, won World Series titles in 1981 and ’88, four National League pennants and eight division titles while serving as Dodgers manager from 1977-96.

Read more about Lasorda.

Paul Westphal, 70. A key part of one of the most riveting games in NBA history.

Paul Westphal speaks at the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in Springfield, Mass.

A five-time All-Star guard, Westphal played in the NBA from 1972-84.

After winning a championship with the Celtics, he made the finals in 1976 with Phoenix. Game 5 of that series, a triple-overtime thriller, is often called “the greatest game ever played.”

Read more about Westphal.

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