Balancing dreams on the 49th parallel
By Ian Ross
While American athletes have laid down a super highway to professional sport, Canadians have been struggling behind with only detours and back roads to guide their way.
With a population base representing 1/10 the size of our partners to the south, Canada's track record consistently displays not even one per cent of professional Canadian athletes in basketball, football or baseball. Although Canuck athletes are sick and tired of being bullied out of the professional playground, they are finding a lacklustre developmental system as a major roadblock to their future professional plans.
"I give a lot of credit for my success to my late father," senior Greg Newton of the NCAA's Duke Blue Devils basketball team said.
"He took me all over the States to basketball camps because there simply was not much competition for me at my age level in Ontario."
Newton, a native of Niagara Falls, Ont., led the highly-ranked Blue Devils in rebounds and blocked shots during the 1996-97 regular season. After receiving high accolades in elementary school, Newton received his first recruiting letter from Duke in Grade 9 and was quickly plucked from the Canadian talent pool, as American schools showered him with promises that could never be fulfilled within Canada's borders.
Steve Nash, a highly-touted rookie guard for the NBA's Phoenix Suns and all-time assist leader for California's Santa Clara University, believes aspiring Canadian athletes must currently rely on raw talent and skill to survive until stronger coaching and competition is acquired most often found south of the border.
"I didn't get to play against as many good players in high school [in Canada] as the rest of the players on Santa Clara, so they were more prepared," Nash said.
"I was determined to overcome that and I did with a lot of hard work and dedication."
Ironically, it can be argued that Nash and Newton's departures directly added to the void of Canadian competition and may have indirectly prevented other athletes from developing their skills to a higher level.
"There is a cultural explanation to Canada's situation which surrounds the history and development of this country," said Darwin Semotiuk, chair of Western's Intercollegiate Athletics.
Semotiuk went on to cite the historical influences of British and American ideologies as the main contributors to Canada's development. He said he felt Americans are much more serious and less recreational about sport, while the British are the complete opposite.
"They are both big influences, but clearly the biggest tug is currently coming from below the 49th [parallel]," Semotiuk concluded.
With this shift to a more Americanized approach to sport, the defection of athletes such as Nash and Newton is sounding an alarm for evolutionary change in the Canadian approach. Nash feels that Canada needs to establish a system to keep Canadians in the country as long as possible.
One of Canada's most renowned professional athletes, Ferguson Jenkins of Chatham, Ont., was another individual who left home at an early age to pursue a professional career in the United States. Over 19 seasons in Major League Baseball, Jenkins compiled a pitching record of 284-226 with 3192 strikeouts establishing himself as an all-time great Chicago Cub and the only Canadian to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Jenkins recognizes the historical lack of competition in Canada and suggests that some of the responsibility of turning around this long-standing trend should fall on Canada's new professional teams.
"If a region gets a pro franchise, they should go around the area promoting the sport and seeing if the ability is out there," Jenkins said.
"Local role models are an important part of getting kids to dedicate themselves to a sport. When I was young it was players like Rocket Richard that captivated our attention. Today you have Joe Carter as a local role model, which promotes baseball within the area."
While professional teams such as the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies and MLB's Toronto Blue Jays have taken steps to promote a more competitive and professional view of sport to Canada's youth, Nash also feels that leaps must still be taken to keep this growing interest and involvement of Canada's youth within the northern boundaries. He feels the direct effect of developing a more mature and competitive Canadian environment would increase the number of potential professional athletes Canada could showcase to the world.
Tim Tindale, a former Western Mustang and current starting fullback for the National Football League's Buffalo Bills, is a rare breed. Although he was offered several scholarships to play at American colleges, he chose to stay in Canada for his university career. Even with the Canadian Football League struggling to hold Canadian quotas, he recognizes his luxury to have been able to bust onto the American scene.
With the heightening Canadian interest in professional sports, Tindale draws an interesting parallel between football and hockey, Canada's sporting trademark.
"If Canadians want football to succeed in this country they should develop programs that are similar to what hockey has in Canada."
While the probability of constructing a developmental system similar to the well-established Canadian Junior Hockey League is not likely, Newton, is building on Tindale's idea. He's creating a developmental system similar to the American structure, in which universities use athletic scholarships and scouts to enlist the services of promising athletes, to create a higher level of competition. As it stands now, Canadian universities are only allowed to grant academic scholarships to students.
"I think it's unfortunate that Canadian schools can't give athletic scholarships, it would definitely keep a lot of us in Canada," Newton commented.
According to Semotiuk, Canadian universities have considered this option, but the question of a money source remains unanswered after decades of debate.
"It is clear that there are only two sources of revenue that could bring scholarships to Canadian schools," Semotiuk said. "It would be either the corporate sector or individual contributions, neither of which I see happening any time soon."
"It's hard to give athletic scholarships if that athletic program isn't generating enough revenue to pay for the scholarships," Nash is quick to point out.
"The athletic programs in Canada aren't able to generate enough of this revenue because the interest is different due to tradition and alumni support that is found in the States."
With scholarships not currently feasible and few other options to keep Canadian athletes in the great white north, Canada's young talent could continue to struggle in a vastly American market. Unless a system naturally evolves or is put into place with strict measures, Canadians may never feel the power of athletic patriotism from being honoured by a professional sport, as Jenkins felt on his induction day.
"To be there with people waving Canadian flags and hearing them play the national anthem, Oh Canada, for me was an incredible day in my life."