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Christine Sinclair changed the trajectory of Canadian sports for the better

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Canada forward Christine Sinclair high fives a young girl as she signs autographs for fans following the friendly international soccer match against Brazil on Oct. 28, in Montreal.Christinne Muschi/The Canadian Press

When Sidney Crosby scored the overtime winner at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, it felt like we could already stop counting votes. Ten years into the 21st century, we’d already got our great Canadian sports moment.

But a couple of years later, an unlikely contender showed up.

Canada was not making much of an impression at the 2012 Olympics in London, which, as it turned out, would be the last great one of those.

A soccer match held a four-hour train ride away from the action did not seem likely to change that story. The Canadian women’s team had not beaten the Americans – who it would have been a stretch to call ‘rivals’ – in more than a decade.

Only a few Canadian spectators bothered making the trip to Manchester from London. They got to be there when a legend was born.

Christine Sinclair was already a known commodity before that semi-final at Old Trafford. She’d been around since she was a teenager, and was about to turn 29. That’s advanced middle age for a soccer forward.

But she was known in the way Canadian athletes who didn’t play hockey could be known at the time. People recognized the name, but it didn’t follow that they paid attention.

That evening, Sinclair demanded some.

She scored three goals of increasing quality against the United States. The last one – a header back across the face of the net as she was falling away – was an all-timer.

Famously, the game’s most important participant was the Norwegian referee. She made two bananas calls, which allowed the Americans to tie it. The U.S. won 4-3 in added-extra time. In terms of quality and incident, it remains the greatest game of women’s soccer yet played.

But great performances in iconic matches at important tournaments don’t translate automatically into Heritage Minutes. You also need an emotional hook to truly embed yourself in the national consciousness.

After the match, while her teammates raged to whoever would listen in the mixed zone, Sinclair emerged late looking oddly composed. Her face was wet from tears, but her expression was blank. She’d come out to start an international blood feud.

“It’s a shame, in a game like that, that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started,” Sinclair said.

There’s your hook.

And just like that, hockey began to recede.

Not disappear, obviously. It’ll be a long while before this country’s sporting résumé leads with anything but the de facto national game.

But until then, Canada was a hockey monoculture. Hockey, hockey, hockey and then whatever we also happened to be good at, at that precise moment. Speed skating or rowing or men’s swimming. Once in a while, a golfer or a basketball player we all admired from a distance had a moment, but it never lasted.

Canada loved all its athletes, but it didn’t get to know the ones who weren’t spanking the Russians or Americans at the best game you can name.

In one long evening, Sinclair changed that calculus. Here was someone willing to carry on the hard work of proving Canada is just as athletically ruthless as we like to imagine ourselves to be, but without the benefit of skates.

Sinclair didn’t need to break ankles as people came over the boards to make an impression. She would break her enemies the most Canadian way possible – with deadpan and a hard stare.

The Olympics did Canadian sport the enormous favour of overreacting. Sinclair was suspended for four games after her comment. In soccer, you might get three games for karate kicking someone in the head as they’re coming out of the shower. But get angry after the whole country’s just been jobbed? No room for that nonsense.

Sinclair’s suspension was delayed until after the bronze-medal game. Canada wasn’t supposed to win that one either, but it did. By the time Sinclair got home, she was a national hero. In that moment, she was as big as any hockey player had ever been. But unlike Olympic stars of the past, that moment stretched on. Her celebrity never dimmed. It’s been a going concern for more than 10 years.

It helped that Sinclair was working in a tradition that stretched back to Phil Esposito yelling about the crowd at the Summit Series. She was telling it straight to a country that likes to hear it that way, and seldom does any more.

Through the usual sporting quirks of greed and stupidity, hockey took a step back soon after Sinclair’s performance in London. Fewer Olympic highlights, more for-profit-tournaments that no one cares about. Crosby’s moment in Vancouver now seems as though it belonged to a different era.

With some imaginative space emptied out, other athletes and other sports poured in to fill the gaps. Basketball, tennis, golf, women’s hockey, men’s soccer – they have all been allowed to occupy the main stage in recent years.

Canada is no longer an ersatz America with one peculiar specialty. Our athletic peers are now countries such as Norway or Australia – nations that punch well over their population weight at a whole bunch of things. Name a sport, and we’ve probably got someone who’s really good at it. That’s so new that we haven’t really adapted to the idea. We’re still surprised when, say, Canada makes a World Cup or wins a medal at the world basketball championships. It may take another generation before we lean out of being plucky participants and lean into being regular front-runners.

When we do, we’ll look back and say Sinclair was in the vanguard of that movement. Not just for what she did on one night, but for completing the mission. It’s only from the distance of right now that you can see how the initial disappointment travelled nearly 10 years and many thousands of kilometres to end up in a championship game in Japan.

By the time the Canadian women’s program finally won Olympic gold in Tokyo, Sinclair wasn’t the player she’d been in London. She was more of a symbol than a goal scorer by that point.

But people who can play the game aren’t that hard to find. People who change games are. And people who rearrange the way we think about how we play those games are as rare as comets. When one passes, you stop to watch it go.

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