Perhaps we should have known that 2017 would be a weird sports year when, even before it started, Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors. A free-agent superstar taking a huge discount to sign with a rival? Who does that?
From there, the hits kept coming. An absurd Super Bowl, Sergio Garcia winning a major, the Oilers making the playoffs, the Maple Leafs making the playoffs, and then two other Toronto teams winning actual championships. And yet the most unexpected stuff might have happened off the field, where the NFL showed major chinks in its armour, and athletes, usually bland and reserved, threw themselves into politics like never before.
Here, then the Year in Sports 2017: Did That Just Happen?
I was pretty much done my Super Bowl column by the time Lady Gaga had finished her halftime performance.
It’s always risky to start writing when an event is far from over, but the Atlanta Falcons were up by 18 points. Matt Ryan was unstoppable, Tom Brady looked confused, and the only question left to settle was Atlanta’s margin of victory. So I wrote how this was the first time in all their Super Bowls that Bill Belichick’s Patriots had been blown off the field. The piece ended by noting that “on this night, the team everyone loves to hate gave them a reason to be happy.”
Sometime in the third quarter, I started writing a New England comeback version, just in case. Plus, I had time to kill. By the time the game ended in a 34-28 win for the Patriots, after all the ridiculous Atlanta mistakes and remarkable New England plays, I was merely grateful that the Falcons didn’t survive in the end. I had a column in which the Patriots lost, and I had one in which they staged a historic comeback. I had no version in which they staged a heroic comeback — and then lost. Kids, always start work on the backup column early.
This whole Year in Review will not be about columns I wrote, but this item will, sort of. It was Wednesday of Masters week, and I had just filed a piece on Dustin Johnson, who came to Augusta with three wins already and whose opponents were saying there was him and there was everyone else. Then Johnson slipped on a staircase at his rental home and hurt his back. Awkward.
Johnson ultimately withdrew, but the tournament didn’t lack for drama. On Sunday, Sergio Garcia packed a microcosm of his career into his final round. He grabbed the lead, then coughed it up and then seized it back with a birdie on 14 and a spectacular eagle on 15. Then, very Sergio-like, he missed short putts on 16 and 18, the latter of which was for the win. His majors curse lived.
But, a last surprise: in the playoff with Justin Rose, it was the Englishman who bogeyed and Garcia finally had his major victory. “It’s been such a long time coming,” said Garcia, 37. He’s got that right.
It wasn’t that long ago that there was a good debate to be had over which Canadian was more likely to win the country’s first singles tennis major title, Milos Raonic or Eugenie Bouchard. All of a sudden, that mantle might have shifted to a kid very few sports fans had even heard of at this time last year.
Denis Shapovalov, gangly teen from the Toronto suburbs who was a junior star but had not played much on the top senior circuit, blew into the summer hard court season and beat three top-10 players, including an in-form Rafael freaking Nadal. He made it to the final in Montreal and through three rounds at the U.S. Open, earning comparisons to a young Nadal and a young Roger Federer (!), while people were still trying to figure out how to say his name. “It’s pretty intimidating on paper, “ he said, encouraging all to go with Shapo, the new nickname. Between that and the signature backwards hat, he won’t sneak up on anyone this season.
Canada’s lone baseball team was expected to be on the fringes of the American League playoff race, but a 1-9 start and an 8-17 April extinguished most of those hopes. The Blue Jays rebounded with a strong May, but the awful start meant they couldn’t afford any more swoons, and they had just enough of them to curb any serious post-season aspirations. The playoff streak, after two decades outside of them, ended at two seasons.
With team management saying it does not intend to embark on a rebuild, the Jays face the difficult task of trying to turn a creaky lineup and some young pitching talent into a competitive roster again. Whatever happens to the Jays on the field in 2018, it is unlikely to start worse.
In the spring of 2016, our country was in crisis. No Canadian teams made the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in more than 50 years. Oh, sure, a team led by Sidney Crosby, who is definitely Canadian, won the Cup, but was there something bigger happening? Was there something keeping Canadian teams from competing? Were we smothering teams with our love? Was it … us?
Turns out, nope. Five Canadian teams were back in the playoffs in 2017, including previous sad sacks in Edmonton and Toronto, now led by two of the best young players in the game. Ottawa went all the way to the conference final. And then Crosby and the Penguins won again. Remind us not to freak out next time Canada has a collective off year.
At least one thing was familiar
There was much change in the Canadian Football League in 2017. New commissioner Randy Ambrosie arrived and won praise for making quick decisions, including ending full contact practices and talking the Hamilton Tiger-Cats out of the bizarre hiring of (deservedly) scandal-plagued former Baylor coach Art Briles.
But the on-field stuff was more of the same: the East was a hot mess, the Calgary Stampeders were the class of the West and, once more, the Stampeders were upset in the Grey Cup, this time by the Toronto Argonauts in snowy Ottawa. The year ended with the Argos purchased by MLSE, which means the future of the franchise is as safe as it has ever been. Ambrosie is on some kind of hot streak.
Go on you Reds
Two weeks after that Argonauts championship, Toronto’s soccer team won another trophy for the city, with Toronto FC winning Canada’s first MLS Cup. The tense 2-0 win at BMO Field, in which Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei looked like he might force the game to extra time all by himself, was broken open by TFC’s Jozy Altidore in the 65th minute, off passes from the team’s other two offensive stars, Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez.
It capped a year in which TFC also won the Canadian club championship and the Supporters’ Shield as the best team in the regular season, for a first-ever MLS treble. “Plan the parade” has long been such a punchline in Toronto that it was weird when it became an actual thing to do.
The kneel-during-anthem protests that Colin Kaepernick had started as a protest against racial injustice last season were all but over as a story this fall, with only a few players still kneeling and Kaepernick out of a job. Then Donald Trump went off on NFL players in a speech and the ensuing flap kicked off a debate about an athlete’s right to speak out that touched the NHL and NBA, with players and coaches in that league blasting the U.S. President at every turn.
The idea of keeping politics and sports in two separate silos died in 2017, a development that won’t please certain fans. It also doesn’t please the NFL, which saw TV ratings drop again, although how much of that can be attributed to anthem protests remains a matter of debate. NFL owners responded to the many problems of recent years by extending the contract of commissioner Roger Goodell and paying him many millions more annually than any of the league’s star players receive.
It was just one more piece of evidence that 2017 was kind of nuts.
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