I was watching some men’s Olympic basketball the other night and saw a rousing match between Serbia and Croatia. The two bitter foes duked it out, in a back and forth affair. The game saw #6 ranked Serbia narrowly defeat #12 Croatia 86-83. Many of the players had been alive for the fracture of the former Yugoslavia and lived though the chaos of the early nineties - some were not. Some of these players, now on opposing teams, spent large parts of their lives as countrymen. This made me wonder, what if politics hadn’t got in the way?
So here is a list of a three parallel universe, “what if?” sports rosters.
1. What if the Yugoslavians had been able to settle their differences and remained a united country? What would their international basketball team look like?
From 1991-2001 the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a drawn out civil war that involved widespread ethnic cleansing and ultimately led to the country splintering into seven independent states. These new countries range in size from less than a million to 7 million people. But if they stayed united they’d be a nation of roughly 22 million people. The seven united countries would currently have 15 NBA players, surpassing Canada’s 12, for the most international players in 2015-16.
Croatia has four NBA players; Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia each have three; while Bosnia and Herzegovina has two.
Yugoslavia’s roster could look something like this:
C- Nikola Vucevic (ORL) MONTENEGRO -18.2 PPG
PF - Mirza Teletovic (MIL) BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA – 12.2 PPG
PF- Nikola Mirotec (CHI) MONTENEGRO – 11.8 PPG
SG/SF - Bojan Bogdanovic (BRK) CROATIA – 11.2 PPG
PG/SG - Goran Dragic MIA SLOVENIA – 14.1 PPG
Obviously they would have to work out their small forward and/or shooting guard situation but these are their top five scorers last season. This may not seem all that flashy but when compared with the World’s #2, Spain’s top five:
C- Marc Gasol (MEM) -16.6 PPG
PF- Pau Gasol (SAS) - 16.5 PPG
PF Nikola Mirotec (CHI) – 11.8 PPG *
PG- Ricky Rubio (MIN) - 10.1 PPG
SG-Jose Calderon (LAL) - 7.6 PPG
*Mirotec was born in and spent his childhood in Montenegro but has Spanish citizenship. He recently represented Spain in Rio. But in this parallel universe we’ll assume that Mirotec would not turn down the chance to play for the powerhouse Yugoslavs.
If Mirotec decided to play for Yugoslavia, they would probably fly past Spain on the international ranking. When you consider that there were only 100 international players in the NBA in 2015-16, Yugoslavia’s 15 would be quite impressive.
So would Yugoslavia staying together have improved their international basketball team? Absolutely! International basketball always seems to be about which club has the best chance to upset the American Dream Team. On paper the US should never lose on the world stage, but lesser teams from time to time shock the Yanks. The Yugoslavs would be a team that America, and the world, would always have to take seriously.
2. What if the US Civil War had been won by the South?: A look at a divided house and its affect on USA baseball.
Well we could do this with any sport but since we just looked at basketball and because football is not really an international sport, baseball might be the most interesting. First, I will be basing this on the premise that the Confederacy would have remained the 11 states that seceded during the Civil War, the United States will get the rest. Also, I will assume 151 years later that the Confederacy would have abolished slavery, thus making African-American athletes eligible for the team.
UNION (USA) CONFEDERACY
C- Kyle Schwarber OH C- Buster Posey GA
1B- Paul Goldschmidt DE 1B- Anthony Rizzo FL
2B- Ian Kinsler AZ 2B- Daniel Murphy FL
SS- Brandon Crawford CA SS- Ian Desmond FL
3B- Nolan Arenando CA 3B- Josh Donaldson FL
OF- Kris Bryant NV OF- Mookie Betts TN
OF- Mike Trout NJ OF- Lorenzo Cain GA
OF- Ryan Braun CA OF- Andrew McCutchen FL
DH- Giancarlo Stanton CA DH- Manny Machado FL
SP- Max Scherzer MO SP- Clayton Kershaw TX
SP- Jake Arrieta MO SP- Chris Sale FL
SP- Mike Fulmer OK SP- Madison Bumgarner NC
RP- Zach Britton CA RP- Andre Miller FL
RP- Dellin Betances NY RP- Wade Davis FL
RP- Mark Melacon CO RP- Craig Kimbrel AL
Even with team USA split down the Mason-Dixon line, these would still be the best two clubs on the international stage. But what’s interesting is that the Confederacy may be able to sport an even better team, with their 11 states, than the US, with their 39 states. With Florida and Texas being such hot spots for baseball, the South would have more than enough depth to compete with the World’s best, including the North.
Surely the universe in which the South won the war, not all things would be the same. Would the MLB exist? If so, would it have US and Confederate teams? How would the South have evolved on its own? But this is supposed to be a light, fun piece, so we won’t go there.
But could you imagine that World Baseball Classic matchup? It would get FIESTY! Imagine the United States versus the Confederate States for gold, in the 2020 Summer Games.
So would this breakup negatively impact Team US? Yes. But only in the sense that the Confederate States would give them a competitor that on paper could challenge them for #1.
3. What if Quebec had successfully won the 1995 Sovereignty Referendum and separated from Canada? How would Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team look?
Canada in hockey is much like the United States in baseball. They are both powerhouses that produce the majority of big league talent in their respective sports. But what would happen if Canada had lost its second most populous province, a province that accounts for nearly a quarter of the country’s population?
Although the separatist movement has cooled since ’95 there still remains a strong secessionist voice, represented by the Parti Quebecois, provincially, and the Bloc Quebecois, federally. In 2006, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe proposed that Quebec have its own Olympic team (much like England, Wales, North Ireland and Scotland do in soccer). The idea was quickly shot down but it made us all wonder, would Team Canada be crippled by the departure of our francophone brethren?
Modern hockey was born in Quebec, as the first indoor game was played in Montreal in 1885; It is the province that has the most decorated and victorious hockey club in NHL history (the Montreal Canadians) and has churned out elite players such as Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur and Ray Bourque. So one would assume that removing Quebec from the Canadian equation would be a mighty blow to Canada’s international standing.
Well let’s look at the last three Olympic Canadian Men’s teams and the Quebecois representative.
2006: G-Martin Brodeur
G- Roberto Luongo
F- Simon Gagné
F- Vincent Lecavalier
F-Martin St Louis
Canada’s two best goalie options and alternate captain Simon Gagne, alongside top-tier forwards made up a solid Quebec representation. But alas, this was not a proud moment for Canadian hockey as this club finished an unimaginable seventh in the Turin Olympics.
2010: G-Martin Brodeur
G- Roberto Luongo
Canada won gold on home ice, in Vancouver, thanks to the phenomenal play of Montreal’s Roberto Luongo. All three goaltenders were Quebecois but the roster would not have been drastically altered.
2014: G- Roberto Luongo
F- Patrice Bergeron
F- Martin St. Louis
Canada defended their Gold title beating Sweden in the finals. But Quebec played little part, as Corey Price took over between the pipes.
The roster that Canada has put out for the 2016 World Cup has only four Quebecois players, goalie Corey Crawford, Vlasic, Bergeron and Claude Giroux. Bergeron was seventh in points by a Canadian in 2015-16, while Giroux was right behind him in eighth. Also worth noting that Canada’s highest scoring defenseman Kris Letang is from Quebec but was off the World Cup roster for some reason.
TEAM CANADA TEAM QUEBEC
G- Braden Holtby WSH G- Corey Crawford CHI
G- Carey Price MTL G- Roberto Luongo FLA
G- Brian Elliot STL * G-Marc-Andre Fleury PIT
D- Brett Burns SJS D- Kris Letang PIT
D- Drew Doughty LAK D- Marc-Edouard Vlasic SJS
D- Duncan Keith CHI D- Francois Beauchemin COL
D- Jake Muzzin LAK D- David Savard CBJ
D- Alex Pietrangelo STL D- Marco Scandella MIN
D- Shea Weber MTL D- Alex Biega VAN
D- PK Subban NSH * D- Jason Demers FLA
F- Jamie Benn DAL F- Patrice Bergeron BOS
F- Jeff Carter LAK F- Claude Giroux PHI
F- Sidney Crosby PIT F- Paul Stastny COL
F- Matt Duchene COL F- Derick Brassard OTT
F- Ryan Getzlaf ANA F- Jonathan Huberdeau FLA
F- Brad Marchand BOS F- Anthony Duclair ARZ
F- Tyler Seguin DAL F- Mike Ribeiro NSH
F- Steven Stamkos TBL F- PA Parenteau NYI
F- John Tavares NYI F- Alex Tanguay ARZ
F-Joe Thorton SJS F- Jason Pominville MIN
F- Jonathan Toews CHI F- Mathieu Perrault SJS
F- Taylor Hall NJD * F- Antoine Vermette ARZ
F- Corey Perry ANA * F- Vincent Lecavalier Retired
In May, Sportsnet published an article on the 14 Biggest Snubs from the World Cup rosters. Taylor Hall, Corey Perry and PK Subban were all on it and could reasonable replace Bergeron, Giroux and Vlasic on the roster. Brian Elliot could step in as the team’s third-stringer. Elliot had the best Goals Against Average and Save Percentage among any Canadian in 2015-16 and would serve well as a backup option.
Quebec would also be able to sport a respectful team with a roster full of NHL talent, but this team would probably be more of a middle-of-the-pack. Team Quebec would lack the depth of teams such as Canada, USA, Russia and Sweden, but would matchup nicely with middle-tier clubs like the Czech Republic, Finland and Slovakia.
So how would a successful referendum in 1995 have affected Canada’s international hockey ranking?
It would appear as if Canada would win the breakup (at least in hockey terms). The remaining nine provinces could still manage, on paper, to make up the best team in the world whereas Quebec would see a mighty drop off in its international standing.
During the Olympic games we see great national unity all in the name of sport. Countries compete on the international stage with grace and respect, in a way that we could only dream of in the real life. During the games we don’t focus on our differences. A medalist is not a Quebecker or Ontarian, not an Anglophone or a francophone but a Canadian. A medalist may be a proud Southerner but when they win, they win it for the red, white and blue of America, not for the Confederacy.
Unfortunately, the Olympics are only two-weeks every two years. But imagine if your country had its medal count split in two (or seven)? The former Yugoslavia would have 23 medals from the Rio Games (which would be ninth highest in the world) but now Croatia has the highest single amount with only ten. In these three cases we saw history unfold in three drastically different ways. In the Yugoslavian states we saw a complex and bloody civil war that saw tremendous bloodshed in the name of ethnic nationalism, leading ultimately to the implosion of the state. In America we saw countrymen turn their backs on one another, as thousands died in a war centred on human rights and the freedom of men. But ultimately they remained unified. In Canada, we saw a bitter historical ethnic tension boil to the top and although the referendum was conducted with no bloodshed, Canada was half-a-percentage point away from being permanently splintered along ethnic lines.
As a Canadian I understand the sibling rivalry that exists in a multi-ethnic state and admittedly sometimes get lost in comparing our differences. But sport can be a great unifier, as we all put down our individual identities to play for a nation. Too bad the Olympic spirit doesn’t last.