When it came time to hand out our award for Canada's top male athlete in 2010, it seemed like a no-brainer that Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto would be the recipient.
But hold on. What's this? The suggestion that Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks was, in fact, this country's best of the year?
Yep, somebody had to be the fly in the ointment and Toews happened to be it. Athlete of the year voters -- sports editors from across the QMI/Sun Media chain were polled -- turned out to be divided, primarily between Votto and Toews. So, clearly the winner wasn't as obvious as expected.
Votto wound up topping the polls, making him the inaugural winner of the QMI Agency Canadian male athlete of the year award. Toews was a strong second (but No. 1 in the hearts of some).
Scott Fisher of the Calgary Sun and QMI Agency's Dave Pollard butt heads over who was, in fact, most deserving of this award.
FISHER: There's no question Jonathan Toews is Canada's top athlete. The Chicago Blackhawks/Team Canada superstar is coming off arguably the greatest season in hockey history.
POLLARD: Scott, I'm not sure if that cold Calgary air has frozen your brain but there's only one choice for Canada's top male athlete and it's Joey Votto. There shouldn't even be a hint of argument about it. Votto was voted National League MVP; only two other Canadians have won league MVP awards. Ever. In the storied history of baseball. Doesn't that seem even remotely significant to you?
FISHER: Significant? Sure. But it doesn't hold a candle to the kind of season Toews had. Stanley Cup champion, Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Olympic gold medallist and Olympic Games top forward. It simply doesn't get any better than that. He led Canada to Olympic gold. What has Votto won for this country?
POLLARD: Wow, now Canada's top athlete needs to have won wearing the maple leaf? Talk about moving the goalposts. Listen, had Toews won the Hart Trophy, you might have swayed me. The only two awards he won by himself were the Conn Smythe and Olympic top forward. Winning the Stanley Cup, the Olympics, was pretty impressive stuff but, hey, how many others shared in those two championships? Votto was the best player in the National League, something he effectively accomplished on his own. Teammates didn't hit Votto's 37 homers or drive in 113 runs for him. He didn't have help making a run for the Triple Crown. It was all Votto, bud.
FISHER: The "only two"? No one has ever won those two awards in the same season. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, Votto probably wasn't even the top first basemen in the NL. Albert Pujols had more homers, more RBIs and won the Gold Glove to boot. But I digress. Both Toews and Votto play team sports. The fact everything Toews touched turned to gold points to something beyond stats. He led his teams to championships č something Votto certainly didn't do.
POLLARD: Can't pin the Reds lack of a championship ring on Votto. But it's a shame he couldn't pitch, too, or they might have won. The kid's a winner, end of story. Pujols might have been better but our baseball-writing colleagues clearly felt Votto was more valuable to his team. And he came within one vote of being a unanimous choice. And to boot, he was voted the NL's most valuable player a year after losing his father, which brought on a battle with depression and anxiety-related issues that forced him to go on the disabled list for a time in 2009. I realize baseball doesn't get the same level of exposure outside of Ontario and hockey is king in this country but, sheesh, what more does a guy have to do to convince you Votto is Canada's top athlete?
FISHER: I think you hit the nail on the head right there. Outside of Toronto, baseball is something to leave on in the background until the football game starts. Votto had a great season for all the reasons you've listed, but how many people (country-wide) do you think could pick him out of a lineup? Very few. Toews, on the other hand, is a national hero. Our country's athlete of the year has to be someone we actually recognize.
POLLARD: Scott, methinks you're giving Toews a tad too much credit. He's not exactly Sidney Crosby in terms of recognition. Besides that, popularity doesn't make you the best in anything except, well, a popularity contest. But, see, I think the whole baseball vs. hockey thing strengthens my argument for Votto. Here's a Canadian kid playing a sport dominated by Americans -- and Latin Americans, to be honest -- who has reached the pinnacle of personal success. Canadian baseball players have a tougher time even getting to the bigs than their puck counterparts. Only 21 Canadians were in the majors last season. Only two others besides Votto, Larry Walker and Justin Morneau, have ever won MVP awards. Baseball doesn't have the same infrastructure at the youth league level, at least in comparison to hockey. Votto had to overcome plenty just to make it to The Show, never mind put up the kind of numbers he did in 2010.
FISHER: I don't think it's possible to over-emphasize the kind of season Toews had. He was slated to be Team Canada's extra forward and ended up being the star. He took every important faceoff, led the team in scoring against the best players in the world and delivered Canada the one medal it wanted the most. Talk about performing under pressure. When Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock was asked who his best player was he said "anyone who plays with Toews." He makes everyone around him better. The same can't be said for Votto.
POLLARD: If making others around you better is a prerequisite for winning a national athlete of the year award, it's going to be left vacant more than it gets handed out. I'm not disagreeing that Toews shouldn't at least be mentioned as a candidate. He was terrific in what amounts to two tournaments, the NHL playoffs and the Olympics. But here's something -- if you let the public vote for this award, I'm betting Toews doesn't even beat out Crosby, who became the Paul Henderson of the new millennium when he beat Ryan Miller to give Canada the gold in Vancouver. Votto maintained his performance at an elite level for six months, playing every day in what even casual observers will tell you is a grind of a season. Votto's the man and should be congratulated for his efforts.