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Canadian Sports

Whether they’re in it for the competition, teamwork, or fitness, sports have long been a favourite pastime of Canadians — whether watching or playing. Though hockey and football remain the country’s most clichéd and famous, virtually every major organized sport has its share of Canadian fans, and the nation is home to a vast array of professional teams, leagues and players just waiting to be cheered or booed.

Hockey in Canada

Stereotypical though it may be, there’s no escaping the fact that Canadians really love their hockey. Forged in the early 19th century but popularized and structured as a professional sport in the 1910s, hockey has held an outsized role in Canadian culture ever since. To many, particularly those in the eastern part of the country, hockey has a heavily romanticized image as a rough-and-tumble game Canadians have played for generations on frozen lakes in the long winter months, and a sport whose ancient rules, loyalties and traditions can be passed down to teach important lessons about community, sportsmanship, teamwork and athleticism.

Playing organized hockey as a young kid is a rite of passage in many Canadian communities, though rising costs of equipment, travel and league fees — not to mention time investment for early morning training sessions and back-and-forth rink commutes — have increasingly made it a mostly upper-middle class pursuit. Far more Canadians interact with the game solely at a professional level, as fans and attendees of games organized by the National Hockey League (NHL).

Despite its name, the NHL consists of 31 teams in both Canada and the United States, though Canadian-born players have remain the league’s largest demographic. Since 1893, the NHL’s most coveted prize has been the Stanley Cup, a once-a-year trophy awarded after a lengthy league-wide tournament, and named after the Lord Stanley (1841-1908), a former Canadian governor general.

The Seven Canadian NHL Teams

Montreal Canadiens
(est. 1917)

The oldest team in the NHL, Montreal fans are passionate about their history, particularly the decades between 1953 and 1979 in which the Canadiens brought home the Cup nearly every year. Since then, League reforms have limited Montreal’s ability to exclusively hog French-Canadian talent, and the team’s dominance has steadily eroded.
Last Cup: 1993
Last Final: 1993

Toronto Maple Leafs (est. 1917)

The fact that Canada’s biggest city is home to a notoriously unsuccessful hockey team is one of Canada’s great ironies, and a source of joy to Toronto-bashers across the country. Like Montrealers, Toronto fans have a strong culture of history and destiny, and the two teams have an epic rivalry that stretches back to the earliest days of the NHL.
Last Cup: 1967
Last Final: 1967

Vancouver Canucks
(est. 1970)

Now best known for spawning a vicious, city-destroying riot following their 2011 Stanley Cup defeat, Vancouver has been dubbed the “Toronto of the West” for its fans’ disproportionate arrogance-to-success ratio. Aside from a brief period in the 1990s, the team’s first three decades of existence were generally weak.
Last Cup: Never
Last Final: 2011

Edmonton Oilers (est. 1979)

Edmonton was the team that gave the world superstar centre Wayne Gretzky (b. 1961), and under his leadership, the Oilers won the Cup five out of seven times during the 1984-1990 period — then predictably declined following his departure.
Last Cup: 1990
Last Final: 2006

Calgary Flames (est. 1980)

Formerly the Atlanta Flames (1972-1980), Calgary quickly rose to be one of the top teams in the league during the 1980s, a rather glorious time for hockey in Alberta. Like the Oilers, they also faced decline in the 1990s, but made a surprising appearance in the 2004 finals.
Last Cup: 1989
Last Final: 2004

Ottawa Senators (est. 1917 or 1991)

Ottawa is a “revived” franchise, the original Senators having played from 1917 to 1934 before being traded away. Resurrected from scratch in 1991, the “Sens” have long struggled to create a vibrant fan culture in a region dominated by Toronto and Montreal.
Last Cup: Never
Last Final: 2007

Winnipeg Jets (est. 1972 or 2011)

Jets history is a bit complicated. From 1972 to 1996, the team was based in Winnipeg, before being sold to Phoenix, where they now play as the Coyotes. In 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers were bought and relocated to Winnipeg where they were promptly renamed the “Jets” to feign continuity.
Last Cup: Never
Last Final: Never

Quebec City Nordiques
(1979-1995)

Along with the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec City Nordiques proved unprofitable and had to be sold, but unlike the other two franchises they were never revived later on. In 1995 the Nordiques were sold to Denver and became the Avalanche.
Never won the Cup and never made it to a Final.

Canadian Football

Next to hockey, football reigns supreme in the Canadian sports world. Similarly competitive, fast-paced and aggressive — and with playoff seasons that often dovetail conveniently — the two sports have considerable overlap in terms of appeal. It should be noted that when Canadians speak of “football,” they are referring to the rugby-inspired game sometimes known as “American Football” and not the kicking-based game North Americans call soccer, discussed below.

Though Canadian football fans actively follow the National Football League (NFL) and its teams’ quest for the league’s ultimate prize, the Super Bowl, there are no Canadian teams in the NFL, making it the only major professional sport in which Canada and the United States are not integrated into a single league. This is due to the fact that the rules of so-called Canadian Football are slightly different than its American counterpart, meaning Canadian football teams have to compete in a different league all their own: the Canadian Football League (CFL).

The distinctions between NFL and CFL football mainly have to do with the size of the field (Canada’s is larger) and the amount of downs, or plays (America has more), though there are various other subtle differences as well. In practical terms, however, the differences aren’t particularly difficult to grasp, and the CFL is often used as a training ground for American players who will one day migrate to the NFL.

As a purely Canadian league, the CFL is relatively small, with teams in just eight cities or provinces: the B.C. Lions, the Edmonton Eskimos, the Calgary Stampeders, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Hamilton Ti-Cats, the Toronto Argonauts, the Ottawa Redblacks, and the Montreal Alouettes. Once a year, two teams will duke it out for Canadian Football’s highest prize, the Grey Cup, a gift of former governor-general Earl Grey (1851-1917) which has been awarded annually since 1909. Every year, the Grey Cup and Super Bowl finals are usually the single-most watched events on Canadian television.

A 2008 CFL game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Edmonton Eskimos.
Scott Prokop

Lacrosse

Originally an aboriginal game used to keep Indian warriors in fighting shape, the uniquely North American sport of lacrosse was appropriated by pious French settlers in the mid-1800s, who named it “La Crosse” in recognition of its vaguely crucifix-shaped playing sticks. Broadly similar to hockey or soccer, the sport is played by two teams of 10 who try to score on each other’s net by pitching a small rubber ball across an indoor or outdoor field using scoop-like netted sticks. Like football or rugby, it’s also a fairly rough-and-tumble game associated with body-checking and broken bones.

The first professional lacrosse association was founded in 1867, and its legacy continues today in the form of the National Lacrosse League (NLL), which features nine pro teams, four of which are Canadian. In eastern Canada, the sport is also quite popular at the university level, and most of the region’s biggest universities battle it out in their own league, the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association (CUFLA). A similar, less violent version of the game known as intercross is popular with kids.

While undoubtedly rich in history, lacrosse has long struggled to achieve the sort of mainstream fame and fortune of other professional sports in Canada. Its fans are probably best described as a proud but small subculture, and NLL playoffs rarely capture the public’s (or media’s) attention the way NHL, CFL or NFL games do.

Baseball in Canada

The great American pastime has achieved only limited success in Canada, and baseball’s popularity is mostly concentrated in Ontario, where the country’s only Major League Baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays play. From 1969 to 2004 there was a second Canadian MLB team as well, the Montreal Expos, but in 2004 they were sold to Washington, D.C., where they now play as the Nationals.

In 1992 and again in 1993, Toronto became the first (and to date, only) Canadian team to ever win the MLB’s World Series tournament, but fortunes declined shortly after due to a combination of trades, injuries and strikes, as well as perennial financial and management problems.

Outside of the professional league, however, baseball remains a popular amateur sport in many parts of Canada, particularly among young Canadians who often learn it in schoolSoftball, which is similar but not identical to baseball, enjoys comparable popularity among adults, and its common for many large companies to have an amateur softball team to foster team-building and camaraderie among employees.

Curling

Another sport of ancient tradition but only minor popularity, curling was first brought to Canada by Scottish immigrants in the late 18th century, and today thrives mostly on the Canadian prairies. Played indoors on a long, frozen rink, the game is a shuffleboard-esque exercise in which competing teams try to slide large, heavy rocks (known as stones) into the centre of a painted target, or house, using special ice-polishing brooms.

Professional curling has been around since the founding of various gentlemen’s curling clubs in the late Victorian era, with nationwide curling tournaments now organized through Curling Canada (previously known as the Canadian Curling Association). Teams battle each other in a multitude of different provincial and national tournaments, with the highest being either the Tim Hortons® Brier for men or the Scotties® Tournament of Hearts for women. (Curling is fond of corporate sponsorships.) International contests are relatively limited, as the sport is quite obscure in most countries, and curling has only been a medal sport at the Winter Olympics since 1998.

The comparatively slow pace and strategic emphasis of curling has made it a popular sport with Canadians of all ages, and many amateur curling leagues continue to feature players into their 50s, 60s, or beyond. It’s also one of the few Canadian sports in which men and women routinely play together in mixed teams. For these same reasons, however, curling has never exactly been a smash hit on television, and Canada’s most passionate curling fans are generally curlers themselves.

Soccer in Canada

Soccer has never caught on in North America the way it has almost everywhere else in the world, and no one seems to know exactly why. Perhaps there’s just too much competition from other sports. Regardless, soccer does have a modest following in Canada, and there are signs that interest has been steadily growing in recent years.

A lot of Canadian children grow up playing soccer at school or on amateur teams, but interest generally trails off during the teen years, as attention is transferred to more “adult” professional sports like hockey, football or baseball. To a considerable degree, those who remain interested are frequently Europhiles who are attracted to the sport’s rich tradition in nations like England and France, or recent immigrants who maintain loyalties to their team back home. Since Canada has never had a particularly competitive team in the professional international soccer league — known as FIFA — and has only qualified for their World Cup tournament once (in 1986), the most passionate soccer fans in Canada are forced to look beyond their borders for a team to cheer.

That said, interest in North American soccer has steadily grown over the last two decades, with three Canadian teams — Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps, and the Montreal Impact joining Major League Soccer (MLS), the leading American professional soccer league, between 2007 and 2014. As these teams rack  up victories and become better-known in their cities Canadian interest in soccer is likely to rise.

Basketball in Canada

Basketball’s Canadian fate has been broadly similar to that of baseball, in the sense of being a major American sport that has faced difficulty making inroads north of the border. The country’s only team in the otherwise entirely American-dominated National Basketball Association (NBA) is the Toronto Raptors, a not terribly successful expansion team perhaps best known for starting the career of future NBA All-Star Vince Carter (b. 1977). A short-lived Vancouver team, the Grizzlies (1995-2001), was even less successful, and was quickly relocated to Memphis, where they remain to this day. The relative unpopularity of basketball in Canada is sometimes attributed to the country’s lack of a large African-American population, a demographic that has traditionally provided some of the sport’s most ardent fans in the United States.

It’s an ironic fate for a sport Canadians like to take credit for inventing. Dr. James Naismith (1861-1939), an Ontario-born physical education teacher and Presbyterian minister, helped establish basketball’s modern rules in 1891 during the great “indoor sports” craze of the late Victorian era.

Other Sports in Canada

It’s hard to find a sport that’s not played at least somewhere in Canada, and almost all of them have their own uniquely Canadian heroes — though their profiles may be decidedly lower than some of the folks mentioned above.

Skating has long been both a casual pastime and competitive sport in Canada, and the two most decorated Canadian Olympians of all time, Clara Hughes (b. 1972) and Cindy Klassen (b. 1979), are both speed skaters.

Skiing, of both the cross-country and downhill variety, is one of Canada’s major tourism industries, and every year thousands of foreign visitors join locals to participate in the long Canadian ski season, which usually lasts from November to April. The rocky mountain provinces of British Columbia and Alberta are home to some of the world’s largest and most glamorous ski resorts, with a few smaller-scale ones in Quebec as well.

Other sports that enjoy some degree of mainstream popularity in modern Canada include golf, volleyball, tennis, rugby, boxing, swimming, wrestling, track and field, rowing, mountain climbing, cycling and bowling. Most large Canadian cities will have some manner of organized league for all of them.

Canada and the Olympics

Canada is a vastly uneven country when it comes to the Olympic Games, winning huge during the winter games but lagging quite far behind in the summer ones. This is a fairly predictable outcome for a nation which specializes so heavily in winter sports, and as a result the winter Olympics are generally a much more patriotic and exciting time for the country as a whole.

Three times in Olympic history have the games featured a Canadian host city: Montreal (summer, 1976), Calgary (winter, 1988) and Vancouver (winter, 2010). As is so often the case with the Olympics, all three cities experienced both glory and controversy during the course of their hosting duties, and all are still experiencing, in some form or another, in the consequences of both.