Among the many things that 2021 stood for, it was the year live sports returned in full effect.
After COVID hit the world in March of 2020, canceling major sporting events and causing professional sports leagues to create “bubbles” in order to carry out their seasons, this year was much more normal. Better than normal, actually, as Canadians were at the forefront of this sporting resurgence, with men and women in individual and team sports having success across the board(er), extending Canada’s influence within the world of sports.
From the Tokyo Olympics to the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship to the U.S. Open to the return of professional sports leagues in full-capacity stadiums throughout the country—however shortlived that was—2021 had something for everyone. Here are the top 15 sports moments Canada has to be proud of in 2021.
15. Auston Matthews Wins Rocket Richard Trophy
In a shortened 2020-21 NHL season, in an all-Canadian division, Auston Matthews shined. The Toronto Maple Leafs forward scored a league-leading 41 goals, earning him Rocket Richard Trophy honours. Every time he stepped on the ice, he impacted the game with his playmaking abilities. Despite the Leafs failing to get out of the first round in the playoffs, Matthews’ season will go down as one of the best for a forward in franchise history.
14. Robbie Ray Wins American League Cy Young Award
When the Toronto Blue Jays traded for Robbie Ray and signed him to a one-year, $8-million deal in 2020, even they couldn’t have imagined him being this good.
From the depths of a 6.62-ERA, 17.9-per-cent-walk-rate 2020 season in Arizona, Ray led the Blue Jays to a 91-71 record as their season-long ace, posing a 2.84 ERA and 1.045 WHIP with 248 strikeouts in 193.1 innings across 32 starts, all tops on the AL. While the Jays missed out on the wildcard by 1.0 game, Ray had himself a season for the ages, collecting 29 of 30 first-place votes and definitively beating New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole for the AL Cy Young award.
13. Andre De Grasse Follows Through on Hype and Wins Gold in 200m
After winning the bronze medal in the men’s 100 metres, Andre De Grasse was looking to build on that performance in the 200 metre race. The 200 is De Grasse’s preference, where he won silver at the 2016 Rio Games, losing to none other than Usain Bolt. Facing against American rival Noah Lyles, De Grasse surged to personal best time, winning Olympic gold in the men’s 200 metres. His conversation with his family over Zoom will live on as the Canadian etched his name among golden Olympic athletes.
12. Dalano Banton Becomes First Canadian Drafted by the Toronto Raptors
So many of us sports fans cheer for teams simply because they are located in our hometown, so you can only imagine how Rexdale’s Dalano Banton felt when he heard the Toronto Raptors call his name as the 46th overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
“I want to continue to build not just Rexdale, but Toronto as a whole,” Dalano told us earlier this year. “I feel like I represent the whole city. I’m big on taking where I’m from with pride. I accept who I am and I love where I come from.”
Banton became the first Canadian to ever be drafted by the Raptors in their 26-year existence, and to make his first NBA season even more special, the 22-year-old has played his way into the Raptors rotation.
11. Montreal Canadiens Make it to Stanley Cup Finals in Underdog Run
A Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993. That team was the Montreal Canadiens. 28 years later, the Habs returned to the Stanley Cup Finals, embarking on an unpredictable, surprising run. After being down 3-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Canadiens won three straight games to take the series in seven against their archrival. In the next round, Montreal swept the Winnipeg Jets before a duel with the Vegas Golden Knights in the conference final. Artturi Lehkonen’s overtime goal in Game 6 sent the Canadiens to the Finals. Despite Montreal losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, they captivated Canadian hockey fans, becoming the first team from the Great White North to reach the final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2011.
10. Masai Ujiri Signs Long-Term Deal as President and Vice-Chairman of the Toronto Raptors
It almost didn’t happen. The man in charge of turning around the Toronto Raptors and building the team that brought the city its first-ever NBA Championship 2019—not to mention one of the best executives in all of sports—almost left the franchise after Rogers Communications’ Edward Rogers disrespected him by claiming he wasn’t worth the money being offered.
Fortunately, Larry Tanenbaum, governor of the Raptors, overruled Rogers and signed Ujiri to a long-term deal worth $15 million per year, keeping Ujiri in Toronto for the foreseeable future and allowing him to continue building the Raptors into a championship organization on and off the court.
9. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Wins Hank Aaron Award and Finishes Runner-Up for American League MVP
At just 22 years old, Vladimir Guererro Jr. is the future of Toronto Blue Jays baseball. And on Nov. 9, he won his first major award, the Hank Aaron Award, as the best offensive performer in the American League.
The Dominican Republic native and son of former Major Leaguer Vladimir Guererro Sr. had the best season of his young career in 2021, batting .311 with a league-tying 48 home runs and 111 RBIs in 161 appearances for the Blue Jays. Guerrero became the youngest player to ever win the Hank Aaron award and the fourth Blue Jays player to receive it. He also finished as the runner-up for the AL MVP behind two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani and ahead of teammate Marcus Semien.
8. Fred VanVleet Breaks Raptors’ Franchise Record by Scoring 54 Points in a Game
The 2020-21 season was a grim one in Raptors-land, but for one special night on February 6th, 2021 in Orlando, Florida, Fred VanVleet made history.
The Raptors point guard went off against the Orlando Magic, scoring a franchise-record 54 points. VanVleet hit a career-high 11 three-pointers and shot 17-23 from the field, ultimately breaking DeMar DeRozan’s previous Raptors’ record of 52 points from New Years Day 2018. VanVleet has only carried that momentum forward into 2021-22, where he is currently having the best season of his career and leading the Raptors in both points and assists.
7. Connor McDavid Scores 100 points in Just 53 Games, Setting New Record
Auston Matthews may be one of the most prolific goal scorers in the NHL. But when it comes to a complete player—night in, night out—no one tops Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid. Against teams from Canada in the Scotia North Division, McDavid soared, reaching new heights as a player. Not only did he set up his line mates for assists, but McDavid racked up a plethora of highlight reel goals. At season’s end, McDavid recorded 100 points in 53 games. It was the fastest any player had reached 100 points in a single season since 1995-96. It earned McDavid his second Hart Memorial Trophy for the league’s most valuable player, another accomplishment to a historic career.
6. Canada Defeats U.S. in OT to Strike Gold at Women's Hockey World Championship
5. Leylah Fernandez Makes History by Advancing to U.S. Open Final at 19
Montreal-born Leylah Fernandez entered the 2021 U.S. Open ranked 73rd in the world, but it didn’t look like it. The 19-year-old defeated a murderers’ row of top-ranked players and former U.S. Open champions including tennis sensation Naomi Osaka, No. 5 ranked Elina Svitolina, and No. 2 ranked Aryna Sabalenk, making her the youngest player to beat two players ranked in the WTA’s top five at the same major since Serena Williams in 1999 and just the second Canadian woman ever to reach the U.S. Open final after Bianca Andreescu won it all in 2019.
Unfortunately, Fernandez lost to 18-year-old Emma Raducanu of Great Britain in the final (who was actually born in Toronto before moving to England at the age of two), but not before sending the message that Canada is a tennis country, too.
4. Damian Warner Becomes the “Greatest Athlete in the World”
3. Alphonso Davies Scores Breathtaking Goal to Keep Canada's World Cup Hopes Alive
The Canadian men’s soccer team is still a ways away from qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, but thanks to Alphonzo Davies’ unbelievable goal against Panama at BMO Field in October—a goal that would spur a 4-1 comeback victory—they currently sit at No. 1 in CONCACAF qualifying, ahead of powerhouses U.S.A. and Mexico.
It was a goal for the ages, with Canada’s 2020 Lou Marsh winner reaching a top-speed of 37.1 kilometers per hour as he chased down the ball before it went out of bounds, dribbled it into the penalty box, cut back to his left foot and paced the ball into the near corner for an unsavable goal; one that could very well end up propelling Canada to its first World Cup berth since 1986 if things continue on the right track for their remaining six qualifying games.
2. Penny Oleksiak Becomes the Most Decorated Canadian Olympian of All Time
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Penny Oleksiak became a star. Four Olympic medals, one of them gold; the phrase “Lucky Penny” didn’t just describe a Canadian coin. It referred to a rising star in Canadian swimming.
At the Tokyo Olympics, a year delayed due to the global pandemic, there were questions about whether Oleksiak could regain that dominance. She was candid about how challenging it was the last four years, dealing with the fame of being a high-profile Olympic athlete. The pandemic allowed her to refocus and find that motivation to once again shine on the Olympic stage.
Oleksiak won three medals in Tokyo, two bronze and a silver. It was the bronze 4x100m medley that made Oleksiak the most decorated Canadian Olympian of all time, surpassing Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen. Given her success in Tokyo, Oleksiak is hungry to follow it up in Paris 2024, extending her dominance in the pool.
1. Canada Women’s Soccer Team Wins First-Ever Gold Medal at Tokyo Olympics
Soccer is far and away the most popular sport in the world, played everywhere with an open field and a round object to kick, so it’s an incredible accomplishment that the Canadian women’s soccer team won their first ever gold medal in the biggest competition in women’s soccer: The Olympic Games.
The Canadian women finally reached the mountaintop in Tokyo after winning consecutive bronze medals in London 2012 and Rio 2016. Led by captain Christine Sinclair and new coach Bev Priestman, the Canadians went 1-0-2 in the group stage before defeating Brazil in penalties in the quarterfinal, holding onto for a 1-0 win against Team U.S.A. in the semifinal, and beating Team Sweden in penalties in the final, with 20-year-old Vancouver native Julia Grosso scoring the golden goal in what would turn out to be the best Canadian sports moment of 2021.