It sure as heck doesn’t feel like it right now, but 2021 saw our local sports scene take some steps towards normalcy.
To quickly summarize: fans returned to the stands, high school and university athletes finally got to compete again, and the CFL made its return after a cancelled 2020 season.
Unfortunately, thanks to Omicron, this year isn’t ending on a high note. In fact, it’s starting to feel like déjà vu all over again. But that doesn’t mean 2021 is a year to forget.
An annual tradition that was established in 2020, the Free Press sports department has ranked Manitoba’s Top 10 Sports Moments of the Year. Everyone in the department made a top 10 list, with each top choice receiving 10 points, second-ranked moment earning nine points, etc. The points from everyone’s ballots were then calculated to decide the official top 10.
10.Jill Fast makes history
Jill Fast became the first female head coach in the Winnipeg High School Football League.
Fast took over the varsity team at Portage Collegiate Institute in June for Donald Burrell, a defensive back with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the early ’80s who went on to help out on the team’s coaching staff for several years.
A longtime linebacker for the Winnipeg Wolfpack in the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, Fast started coaching at PCI in 2014. Fast guided the Portage Trojans to third place in the Westman Division in 2021. "It’s nice to be a role model and hopefully inspire other women and girls by either playing football or getting involved in coaching," Fast told the Free Press this summer." I know there are lots out there that are. If I can help inspire more, then that’s great."
9. Jets trade Laine
It’s hard to fathom one of the best goal scorers this town has ever seen was traded at the ripe age of 22.
But that’s exactly what happened in January when the Winnipeg Jets sent star forward Patrik Laine, as well as centre Jack Roslovic, to the Columbus Blue Jackets for centre Pierre-Luc Dubois and a third-round draft choice.
The writing was on the wall as all three players had requested trades.
"Just going to leave it behind me and take all the great memories I had with this team and my teammates with me and move on," Laine said at the time.
"I just think maybe that it wasn’t the right fit for me and the team. They have a lot of depth and a lot of great players, so I think it was just the team’s time and my time to move on. They’ve got a hell of a player in return, too. He’ll be a good player for the Jets. But I think it was just time for us to move on."
8. Goldeyes return home
A second straight summer without Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball at Shaw Park would’ve been a tough pill to swallow.
The pandemic forced the Fish to play the 2020 campaign out of Fargo and the first half of the 2021 season in Jackson, Tenn.
Thankfully, after a season and a half as a travelling team, the Goldeyes made their triumphant return to their downtown Winnipeg ballpark on Aug. 3 and got to close out the summer with 20 ball games at home.
"Being on the road for two years was tough. We had a great group of guys, but being back here, you can’t beat it. The fans, the electricity in the stadium, it’s phenomenal," said first baseman Kyle Martin, who broke the league’s single-season RBI record with 104 this summer.
Players and coaches had to be fully vaccinated in order to cross the border. Visiting teams with low vaccination rates had to find replacement players, often Winnipeg ballplayers, to fill out their rosters. It also caused some headaches for the Goldeyes as they had to bid adieu to their unvaxxed hitting coach, Kash Beauchamp, as well as several important players.
The Goldeyes finished the year 50-49 to miss the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. But none of that seems to really matter as getting this franchise back in front of its fans was arguably sweeter than a postseason berth.
7. Small AAA school grabs AAAA volleyball crown
Westgate Collegiate, a private school with only 200 students, took down the Vincent Massey Trojans earlier this month to win the MHSAA varsity boys AAAA provincial volleyball crown.
The Wings, who opted to play at the AAAA level despite the school’s small size, went a perfect 30-0 this season under the tutelage of head coach Maiya Westwood. It’s the first AAAA provincial title for the program since 1978. "It’s just a bunch of great guys. Everybody just wants to go out, try their hardest, have fun and everybody performed super-well and we won it," said Westgate setter Sammy Ludwig, the tournament’s MVP, after the championship match.
The 6-4 Ludwig is heading to the University of Manitoba this fall to play for the Bisons who are coached by his father, Arnd ‘Lupo’ Ludwig.
6. Bisons reach Hardy Cup final despite tumultuous season
The Manitoba Bisons faced a lot of adversity this season.
It started with their leader, fifth-year quarterback Des Catellier, suffering a season-ending injury in the first game of the season. But football and injuries were quickly put into perspective a few days later when receivers coach Scott Naujoks died. He was only 29. His two younger brothers, Brendan and Riley, play for the Herd.
The Bisons could’ve folded, but they didn’t. They rallied behind first-year quarterback Jackson Tachinski to go 4-2 in the regular season and host their first home playoff game in eight years. They took care of business at IG Field in the Hardy Cup semifinal, stomping the Alberta Golden Bears 43-17. But the Saskatchewan Huskies, the top-ranked team in Canada West, proved to be too much to handle in the final as the Herd lost 45-17 despite opening the game with a 16-0 lead.
5. Paul Maurice steps down
The Paul Maurice era officially came to an end on Dec. 17.
The Winnipeg Jets started Maurice’s ninth season in charge at 13-10-5 before the bench boss stepped away. Maurice, 54, had a 315-223-62 record in his time in Winnipeg, highlighted by a trip to the Western Conference final in 2018. The Jets have only won one playoff series since then.
"This is a good team. I’m a good coach. Sometimes when you take over and you’re starting at the bottom of a mountain, and you’re pushing a rock to the top, you can only get it to a certain place. That’s where I feel like I’m at," Maurice admitted to reporters.
4. Einarson repeats at Canadian Scotties
Kerri Einarson’s fearsome foursome won their second straight Canadian women’s curling championship this year.
Einarson took down Ontario’s Rachel Homan 9-7 in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts final inside the Calgary bubble in February.
It wasn’t as dramatic as the 2020 championship game where Einarson defeated Homan 8-7 on a game-winning draw in the 10th end in front of a packed house in Moose Jaw, Sask.
But that doesn’t take anything away from the 2021 victory that was played in an empty arena.
"It means the absolute world to be able to repeat," Einarson said. "It’s something that is very hard to do."
One month later, Einarson, a Gimli native, paired up with Brad Gushue to win the national mixed-doubles event.
Einarson, third Val Sweeting, second Shannon Birchard, and lead Briane Meilleur ended up losing in the opening round of the playoffs at the Women’s World Curling Championships in Calgary. Einarson and Gushue didn’t fare much better at the mixed doubles worlds in Scotland, as the dynamic duo lost the bronze medal match to Sweden.
3. Jones heading back to the Olympics
Canada’s best women’s curler in history continues to add to her legacy.
St. Vital’s Jennifer Jones knocked off Tracy Fleury, the world’s top-ranked team, 6-5 in an extra end in Saskatoon to win the 2021 Canadian Olympic curling trials on Nov. 28.
Fleury was a perfect 8-0 at the event and held the hammer heading into the 11th end after a crucial miss by Jones in the 10th. But Fleury failed to take advantage and Jones was able to steal a point to book herself, Kaitlyn Lawes, Jocelyn Peterman, Dawn McEwen and Lisa Weagle tickets to the Beijing Olympics in February.
The 47-year-old Jones, who dominated the 2014 Sochi Olympics en route to a gold medal, will become Canada’s oldest female Olympian in any sport and has a chance to be the oldest Winter Olympic medal winner in any sport from any nation.
2. Scott and Team Canada win women’s soccer gold
After winning bronze medals in 2012 London and 2016 Rio, Winnipeg’s Desiree Scott and the Canadian women’s soccer team finally got their hands on Olympic gold.
Tied 1-1 with Sweden in the gold medal match in Tokyo on Aug. 6, the game went to penalty kicks where the Canadians prevailed 3-2.
It’s the first time Canada has won gold in women’s soccer and the accomplishment led to the group being named The Canadian Press’ team of the year.
Scott, a 34-year-old midfielder who used to play for the Manitoba Bisons back in the day, Christine Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt and are the only players that have been a part of the team for all three Olympic medals.
Scott has helped shape the Canadian women’s soccer program into one of the country’s most successful and popular teams, but she thinks she might have more to give.
"I thought after the Olympics I was done but winning that gold medal (and) being away from the game for a year, it really re-ignited the flame for me and being a part of this team (helped me understand) how much I love it, how much of a family we are, how much I still love the sport," said Scott in October.
1. Bombers go back-to-back
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers successfully defended their 2019 championship by beating the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-25 in overtime at Tim Hortons Field to win the 108th Grey Cup on Dec. 12.
With 15 division all-stars, three Most Outstanding player award winners, the coach of the year, the top-ranked defence and offence, and now another Grey Cup ring, the 2021 edition of the Bombers, who went 11-3 in the regular season, will go down in history as one of the best teams in franchise history.
They solidified their status in a roller-coaster of a championship game where they trailed the Ticats 22-10 with nine minutes left before storming back to force overtime. It’s the first time the Bombers have won back-to-back titles since 1961-62.
That 28-year Grey Cup drought feels like forever ago now doesn’t it?
Taylor Allen Reporter
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.