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The 2018 sports year begins with a bowl (of the college football variety) but the full table setting lies ahead. What courses are being prepared? Let’s look at some of the most challenging stories ahead.
Dents in the shield
In 2017, the National Football League fought Donald Trump and President Trump won. Okay, the American national anthem won. But Trump knew that when players chose the playing of the anthem as a time to air their social justice grievances, the public would side with him in his (politically motivated) patriotism.
It was just one in a series of missteps for the most powerful, popular and successful sports league ever. In addition to the anthem fail, the league was beset by doubts about the integrity of the game and its referees, suspension fights with superstars, franchise transfers, a plague of injuries to marquee players and too much content on too many TV nights.
The league must get right with its fans in 2018, but the re-signing of daft commissioner Roger Goodell is not a sign that anyone within the power structure gets the message.
The terror Olympics
The International Olympic Committee deserves no sympathy at any time, but staging an Olympics a half hour from the insane fiefdom of Kim Jong-Un is a new level of risk taking.
While the airtight security at the sites will likely prevent a ground attack, Seoul is just a half hour from the Korean Demilitarized Zone’s guns and rockets. Kim is sending ominous tweets about the button being on his desk, so good luck with that.
As for the Games themselves, the absence of the National Hockey League players is devastating. While everyone loves figure skating, luge and moguls once every four years, the attraction of Connor McDavid and Alex Ovechkin playing for gold is an everyday thing.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman loves to cancel things the way Trump likes to golf. His reasons for not going are understandable but he also needs a platform to grow his regional sport into a global one.
Further, most of the prime attractions will happen in the middle of the night in North America, rendering them a rumour only to NBC, which lives to broadcast stale programming. The Games the world forgets?
Blue Jay way
After a few years of watching a competitive team, Toronto fans are about to relive the bleak days of losing the spending battle in their division to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The 2018 team will have a crack starting pitching staff, a fine bullpen and a whole lot of challenging contracts in the everyday lineup.
Presuming Josh Donaldson is traded, the offensive load will fall on Justin Smoak, who emerged last year as a power source, and a lot of guys who get injured too much.
Through no fault of his own, manager John Gibbons will find himself getting blamed for the unholy mess left by cost cutting as Rogers Communications prepares to sell the team.
And that’s the real rub. If Rogers does pull the plug, will the next owner be capitalized to compete with New York and Boston, or match nickels with the Tampa Bay Rays? Turbulent prospects ahead.
The shocking competence of the Las Vegas expansion team (abetted by the Vegas ‘flu’) will continue as the talking point of the NHL as it tries to pretend missing the Olympics is just the cost of doing business. Can Gerard Gallant’s team keep it going into a playoff berth?
Who knows, but Bettman will use the Vegas template to sell more $500-million expansion teams and demand big transfer fees for franchises looking to scoot for new money.
On the ice, the continuing incompetence in Edmonton threatens to keep McDavid out of the postseason – a disaster for the league. How long will he want to stay in northern Alberta if the Oilers keep staggering?
That leaves the fun-and-gun Maple Leafs as the poster boys for exciting hockey. A Stanley Cup win for Toronto for the first time since 1967 would be a suitable gift to the memory of Johnny Bower, who died over the holidays.
Hear me, Rory
As the 2017 majors showed, golf has an embarrassment of terrific young players at the top. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Brooks Koepka (to name a few). They also have an old guy named Tiger Woods back, too.
But the man who would be Tiger is the story to follow.
Rory McIlroy was supposed to dominate but he’s instead procrastinated. Injuries, a wandering attention span and the collapse of his putting game have made him an afterthought. In a Ryder Cup year where Europe will need vintage Rory, can he revisit his greatness or will his body and mind let him down?
As a side note, watch to see if Adam Hadwin rediscovers the mojo that made him the talk of the PGA Tour in its early swing last year. He and Mac Hughes, Nick Taylor and Ben Silverman look ready to overtake Graham DeLaet, currently Canada’s top player.
Oh, and does Canada’s Brooke Henderson keep racking up LPGA majors?
Last year was forgettable for Milos Raonic, Canada’s greatest male tennis player ever. Injuries and a perpetual coaching carousel kept him from another major tournament final.
Now he’s got young Canadian Denis Shapovalov breathing down his neck. The teenager vaulted into prominence in midsummer, and while he gives Canada a viable one-two Davis Cup punch, he could either inspire Raonic to greater heights or play with his mind.
Should be great to follow in two weeks at the Australian Open.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.
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