Manitoba's finest athletes

PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:03 AM ET

It’s a golden age for Manitoba athletes, and we’re not just talking about the Olympics.

Jonathan Toews in hockey, Israel Idonije in football, Olympic medal winners Jon Montgomery, Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen — this is quite likely the most star-studded era in Manitoba sports history.

Which got us to wondering: who are our best athletes of all time?

According to Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame director Rick Brownlee, any discussion of that sort has to start with Hughes, the two-sport star who’s done something nobody else on the planet can boast.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Hughes is the only athlete in the world to win more than one medal in both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.

“Clara will probably go down in history, male or female, as the greatest one we’ve ever had,” Brownlee said. “It’s not a matter of, ‘Is Clara Hughes going to be in the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame?’ It’s a matter of, ‘When?’ And she’s in the business of still continuing to write her story.”

The redhead with the gazelle’s legs and the humanitarian’s heart has two bronze medals in cycling (1996) and four in speed skating, including a gold in Turin (’06) and bronze in her final race in Vancouver, earlier this year.

Check that: her final race on blades.

At 38, Hughes has made the switch yet again, announcing plans to get on her bike and pedal toward the London Summer Games of 2012.

That Hughes isn’t a slam-dunk as Manitoba’s greatest of all time is a testament to the calibre of competitors who’ve emerged from the Keystone Province.

Long before Hughes came along, Sylvia Burka did the two-sport thing, becoming a household name in Europe by twice winning the world speed skating championship, then later setting a world record in the 1,000-metres on her bike.

The most dominant single season of all time probably came courtesy of Klassen, whose 2005-06 campaign, which included five medals in Turin, will likely never be matched.

The pride of North Kildonan and first Manitoban to win individual Olympic gold, Klassen may have put this entire “who’s the greatest” argument on ice in Vancouver had she stayed healthy, but knee problems left her a shadow of her former self.

“Cindy Klassen will go down in history as the greatest Olympic performance,” Brownlee said. “Because I don’t see anyone topping that Torino five-medal tour.”

Over at the hockey rink, another low-key yet brutally focused Winnipegger is making an argument that he should be included in the conversation as the best non-goalie this land has produced.

But as phenomenal as Toews has been, the pride of St. Vital still has a ways to go, says our historian.

“Not everybody cared for Bobby Clarke’s style of play, but in his era he was the best player going,” Brownlee said, pointing to the Flin Flon native’s three Hart Trophies, two first-all star team nods, two Stanley Cups and key roles in two major international events, the ’72 Summit Series and the ’76 Canada Cup.

“If you’re looking for a parallel, that’s the bar, Mr. Toews.”

Considering Toews is just 22, he may do it.

It’s safe to say the bar in hockey goaltending was set by Terry Sawchuk, whose record of 103 career shutouts in the 1950s and ’60s stood up until last season, when Martin Brodeur broke it.

In football, the bar is being set as we speak.

Idonije, born in Nigeria but raised in Brandon, is the only Manitoban to make an impact in the NFL, this season co-leading the Chicago Bears in quarterback sacks while becoming a starting defensive end for one of the NFL’s top defences.

Want to talk baseball, look no further than Anola’s Corey Koskie, who carved out an eight-year major league career, something nobody else from here has done.

The local who’s taken basketball the furthest is Todd MacCulloch, the Shaftesbury High School giant who toiled under NBA backboards for four seasons before foot problems forced him to retire.

Comparing modern-era heroes to the stars of the past is an inexact science, however.

As Brownlee points out, turning pro wasn’t the financial be-all and end-all, back in the day.

“If you were a chartered accountant or something like that, you’d make more money doing that than if you were a professional hockey player,” Brownlee said. “Why would you give that up?”

For example, back in the ’50s Carl Ridd received a tryout with the NBA’s Milwaukee Hawks, but stayed home to pursue a career in theology, instead.

Even our relatively cash-starved Olympians have it better than their predecessors, with monthly stipends and sponsorships that make it much easier to put their lives on hold for a decade while they pursue their dreams.

Circumstances, or just plain bad luck, have also conspired against some of our all-time best.

Take volleyball player Garth Pischke, an athletic marvel who earned a position on Canada’s Olympic team as a high-school walk-on in 1976.

“He not only made the team but was a significant factor on that 1976 team that finished just out of the medals,” Brownlee said. “And then the 1980 boycott of the Olympics happened, which would have been the peak of Garth’s career.”

In other pursuits, George Knudson undoubtedly rules the links, Ken Watson the curling ice and Montgomery, Russell’s rowdy redhead, the skeleton track.

But where does each fit in, or do they, among our best athletes, ever?

We’ve made the call, but we’d love to hear from you if you disagree.

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca


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