Canada's greatest sports heroes

SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

It's a day of celebration for hosers everywhere, so what better time to tip the old ball cap to the greatest of the Great White North?

It used to be picking the top Canadian sports figures meant dipping our toes into the well of the deep past, when people like Marilyn Bell captured the hearts of Canadians with her swim across Lake Ontario at the tender age of 16.

These days there's no shortage of homegrown heroes, from the ball diamond to the hardwood to the international stage.

And while none of our choices can attract 100,000 people to one place all at once, the way Bell did along the Toronto shoreline in 1954, they'll certainly go down as the most inspirational Canuck athletes of all time.

So stand at attention, raise the Maple Leaf and hoist a Molson to the greatest sports heroes this country has ever produced.

10. RUSS JACKSON

If the measure of an athlete's greatness is in the staying power of their accomplishments, then Jackson remains in a class by himself nearly 40 years after his retirement from the Canadian Football League.

In a league where Canadian quarterbacks rarely get on the field, Jackson became the CFL's best, a three-time most outstanding player winner and triple Grey Cup champion.

Originally signed as a defensive back, the Hamilton native somehow convinced the Ottawa Rough Riders brass to go against the grain and play a Canadian at the most important position on the field.

9. LARRY WALKER

With apologies to the original pioneer, pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, nobody has done more for baseball in Canada than Walker, a native of Maple Ridge, B.C., who gave up hockey to become the best all-around ball player we've produced.

A five-time all-star and six-time Gold Glove Award winner, Walker made Canadian history when he won the National League MVP Award with Colorado in 1997.

Suddenly, Canadian kids everywhere had a hero who didn't wear skates and have a gap-toothed grin.

Kids like Justin Morneau, American League MVP with the Minnesota Twins last season, who credits Walker as his inspiration for getting to the bigs.

8. STEVE NASH

If Walker's impact on the diamonds of Canada are any indication, then look for a new crop of Canadian basketball players in the near future, maybe even with their own trademark hairstyle.

Victoria's Nash made history when he was named the NBA's MVP for the 2004-05 season.

Then he did it again the following year, mind boggling when you consider the state of hoops on both sides of the border.

The Phoenix Suns point guard wears his hoser history with pride, and the fact he's as unselfish and unassuming as athletes get only endears him to the masses.

7. CINDY KLASSEN

You want modest and unassuming? We bring you the poster girl for aw-shucks humility, a former hockey player from Winnipeg who turned what she originally thought was a dorky-looking sport into THE story of the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Klassen became the first Canadian to win five medals at a single Games, and six in a career, with a performance for the ages in Turin, Italy.

Her gold medal in the 1,500 metres had kids in her hometown rushing to their local speed skating clubs. Imagine the impact Klassen could have with a similar performance at the Vancouver Games in 2010.

6. DONOVAN BAILEY

The image of Canadian sport had been battered almost beyond repair by Ben Johnson and his positive drug test at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

So when Bailey won the Games' most prestigious event in Atlanta eight years later, Canadians shed the weight of the world off their shoulders.

The world's fastest man, from Oakville, Ont., became just the second person, after the U.S.'s Carl Lewis, to hold all three major titles in the 100 metres at the same time: the world and Olympic championships and the world record.

Bailey also helped Canada win gold in the 4x100 relay in Atlanta.

5. GEORGE CHUVALO

His fight career alone wouldn't earn Chuvalo a place on our list, although he was the Canadian heavyweight champ, amateur and professional, and twice fought for versions of the world title.

The fact that in 93 pro fights between 1956 and 1979 he wasn't knocked down once -- not even by Muhammad Ali, George Foreman or Joe Frazier -- isn't enough to vault him into our top 10, either.

What raises the Toronto-born Chuvalo to hero status is his ability to overcome more personal tragedy than anybody we know.

Chuvalo's work trying to keep kids away from drugs in the wake of the overdose deaths of two of his sons and the suicide of a third, followed by the suicide of his wife, is the most courageous thing this man has done, in or out of the ring.

4. MAURICE RICHARD

How many athletes spark enough passion to set off riots in the streets? How many have books and movies produced about their lives? How many are given state funerals broadcast live across the country?

So far, one -- the Rocket.

Not only was the Montreal-born Richard the most prolific goal scorer of his era -- the first to score 50 in 50 games, 50 in one season and 500 in his career -- he was also the quintessential, hardworking Canadian, revered by French and English alike for his passion for the game.

The Rocket, who died in May of 2000, has been immortalized not just on film and in print, but along Canada's Walk of Fame and in songs by Jane Siberry and Warren Zevon.

That's good enough for us.

3. PAUL HENDERSON

He didn't have the career of superstars like Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux and will never be considered among the greatest in history, but when it comes to Canadian heroes Henderson ranks near the top.

The product of Kincardine, Ont., is responsible for the single greatest moment in our sports history, as his goal with 34 seconds left in Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series in Moscow brought Canadians to their feet from coast to coast.

Often forgotten is the fact Henderson also scored the game-winners in Games 6 and 7.

But nobody who saw it will ever forget the most important goal of the most important hockey series ever played.

2. WAYNE GRETZKY

He broke or matched 61 NHL records during his career and is widely considered the best hockey player of all time, notwithstanding arguments from the Bobby Orr crowd.

And while Canadians in some corners were annoyed with his whining and by the way his team dominated theirs, No. 99 found a place in even the hardest of hoser hearts after he led Team Canada to Olympic gold as executive director at Salt Lake City in 2002.

Toss in three Canada Cup titles, not to mention his work as the greatest ambassador our national sport has ever seen, and the pride of Brantford, Ont., truly is The Great One.

1. TERRY FOX

Technically, perhaps, the Port Coquitlam, B.C.-raised Fox didn't compete in a sport. The truth is he actually did much more than any hockey, baseball or football player could dream of doing.

Running 26 miles a day is one thing. Running it with an artificial leg virtually every day for 143 days, as Fox did in his Marathon of Hope in 1980 -- for a cause as opposed to a salary, no less -- is another, entirely.

It is, quite simply, the greatest athletic endeavor ever undertaken by a Canadian, with Fox exhibiting all the qualities a hero should have: courage, hope, spirit and an unmatched ability to inspire those around him.

The proof: the Terry Fox Run today takes place in some 60 countries around the world and has raised more than $400 million.


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