Canadian Sports

As an outdoorsy people with a strong love of competition, teamwork and (occasionally) fitness, sports have long served as one of Canada’s favourite pastimes — both watching and playing alike. Though hockey and football remain the country’s most cliched 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 obsessively cheered or booed.

Ice Hockey

Paul Henderson

Canada is a nation of so many hockey myths and legends one could author a whole other guide about them (and many have). The last-minute, tie-breaking goal of Paul Henderson (b. 1943) in the Canadian-Soviet "Summit Series" of 1972 is probably the only game that has achieved true "where were you when" style status, however.

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 early 20th, hockey has dominated the Canadian psyche 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 sportsmanship, teamwork and athleticism.

Playing organized hockey as a young kid is a rite of passage in many Canadian communities, although the costs associated with the equipment, travel and league fees — not to mention the early morning training sessions and endless back-and-forth rink commutes — have increasingly made it into a decidedly upper-middle class pursuit. Far more Canadians will interact with the game solely at the professional level, which is to say as fans and attendees of games organized by the National Hockey League (NHL), undoubtedly the most dominant sports organization in the country.

Despite its name, the NHL actually consists of 30 teams in both Canada and the United States, though Canadian-born players have long remained 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

While not every major Canadian city has a team of its own, seven do, each of which is at the centre of its own distinctive hockey subculture.

Montreal Canadiens Montreal Canadiens (established 1910)

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 Toronto Maple Leafs (established 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 much 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 Vancouver Canucks (established 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, though the 2000s have proven to be fairly fruitful so far.

  • Last Cup: Never Last Final: 2011
Edmonton Oilers Edmonton Oilers (established 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. Since their most recent cup loss in 2005, the team has entered a “rebuilding” phase of lowered expectations.

  • Last Cup: 1990 Last Final: 2005
Calgary Flames Calgary Flames (established 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 Ottawa Senators (established 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. After a terrible start, the team had some success in the early 2000s, but soon declined back.

  • Last Cup: Never Last Final: 2006
Winnipeg Jets Winnipeg Jets (established 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. Then in 2011, Winnipeg won control of the Atlanta Thrashers, where they were promptly renamed the “Jets” in order to feign continuity. This early in their history, it’s obviously premature to make any sorts of guesses as to what their eventual reputation will be.

  • Last Cup: Never Last Final: Never

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. For overseas readers, it should be noted that when Canadians speak of “football,” they are referring to the rugby-inspired game sometimes known as “American Football” or “Gridiron” and not the kicking-based game North Americans call soccer, discussed below.

Warren Moon

Probably among the most legendary CFL players, Warren Moon (b. 1956) was an American-born quarterback who was recruited by the Edmonton Eskimos in 1978 and helped them win five consecutive Grey Cups. He later moved back to the U.S. and played for four different NFL teams between 1984 and 2000.

Though many Canadians actively follow the National Football League (NFL) and its Super Bowl playoffs, there are actually no Canadian teams in it, 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 that Canadians have to compete in a different league all their own: the Canadian Football League, or 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 a large number of other, subtler differences as well. In practical terms, however, the differences aren’t particularly difficult to grasp, and somewhat ironically, Canadian football is actually heavily Americanized, in the sense that it’s often used as a training ground for U.S. athletes 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 and the Montreal Alouettes. Once a year, two teams will duke it out for the 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.

Lacrosse

A popular urban legend (spread mostly by lacrosse players themselves) is that lacrosse is actually Canada’s “official” national sport, and hockey a mere jealous wannabe. In reality, the Parliament of Canada gave both sports co-equal status in 1994, declaring that hockey was Canada’s official “winter sport” while lacrosse was its official sport of summer. Regardless, this is still a high honour for a game that remains largely unknown outside of North America, and whose roots date back to precolonial times.

Gary and Paul Gait

The two greatest Canadian lacrosse players of all time are said to be Gary and Paul Gait (b. 1967), two twin brothers who played for Syracuse University where they set a number of national records. Both are revered as elder statesmen of the sport that doesn't tend to produce a lot of celebrities.

Originally an aboriginal game used to keep native warriors in fighting shape, lacrosse was appropriated by French settlers in the mid-1800s, who named the sport “La Crosse” in recognition of its vaguely crucifix-shaped playing sticks (French-Canadians saw religious analogies everywhere in those days). Broadly similar to hockey or soccer, the sport is played by two teams of 10 who each 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 involving much 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 from both the U.S. and Canada. 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).

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 within the sporting world, and NLL playoffs rarely capture the public’s (or media’s) attention the way NHL, CFL or NFL games routinely do.

Curling

Sandra Schmirler

Sandra Schmirler (1963-2000) was dubbed "the Queen of Curling" for her string of high-profile victories in the 1990s, including winning the first-ever curling gold medal in the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Another sport of ancient tradition but only minor popularity, curling was first brought to Canada by Scottish settlers 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 tournaments now being organized through 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 quite fond of corporate sponsorships.) International contests are relatively limited, 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 40s, 50s or beyond. It’s also one of the few 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

Christine Sinclair

Canada's female soccer players have been markedly more successful than their male counterparts. Christine Sinclair (b. 1983) in particular is recognized as being one of the world's best female athletes, and helped lead Canada into three Women's World Cup tournaments.

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. Regardless, the sport does have a modest following in Canada, and there are some signs that interest has been steadily growing in recent years.

A lot of Canadian children will 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 cultural tradition in nations like England and France, or recent immigrants who maintain lingering loyalties to their team back home. Since Canada has never had a particularly competitive FIFA team and has only once qualified for the World Cup (in 1986), the most passionate soccer fans in Canada are pretty much forced to look beyond their borders for a team to support.

The late 2000s saw two significant victories for domestic fans, however, when Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps officially became the first two Canadian teams to participate in Major League Soccer (MLS), the leading American professional soccer league. Time will tell if either team will prove popular enough to inspire other cities to follow suit.

Baseball

Jose Bautista

The future of the Toronto Blue Jays is said to rest heavily on Jose Bautista (b. 1980), their current golden-boy hitter from the Dominican Republic.

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. Until recently, 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.

The Expos (founded 1969) and the Jays (founded 1977) represented efforts to expand the MLB into Canada, and both teams had a reasonably successful first few decades. In 1992 and again in 1993, Toronto became the first (and to date, only) Canadian team to ever win the 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 grade school. Young Canadians who are interested in playing baseball and need a glove or other baseball equipment can find them online. Softball, which is very similar but not identical to baseball, enjoys comparable popularity in community centres and corporate weekend retreats across the land.

Basketball

Steve Nash

Though he has never played for a Canadian team, Victoria-born Steve Nash (b. 1974), who plays point guard for the Phoenix Suns, is easily Canada's biggest basketball star.

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 fairly unsuccessful expansion team perhaps best known for starting the career of Vince Carter (b. 1977). A short-lived Vancouver team, the Grizzlies (1995-2001), was even less successful, and quickly traded to Memphis, where they remain to this day. This relative unpopularity is sometimes attributed to Canada’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 frequently take credit for inventing. James Naismith (1861-1939), an Ontario-born physical education teacher and Presbyterian evangelist, helped establish basketball’s modern rules in 1891 during the great “indoor sports” craze of the late Victorian era.

The Rest

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.

Georges St. Pierre

Ultimate Fighting has come to enjoy considerable popularity in Canada in recent years, in large part due to the successes of French-Canadian star fighter, Georges St. Pierre (b. 1981), who has definitely done a lot to dispel the "polite Canadian" stereotype.

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 entertainment industries, and every year thousands of tourists 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 have some degree of mainstream popularity in modern Canada include golfvolleyball, tennis, rugbyboxing, swimming, wrestling, track and field, rowing, mountain climbing, cycling and bowling. Most major Canadian cities will have some manner of organized league for all of them.

Canada and the Olympics

Montreal Olympics

The iconic architecture of Montreal's Olympic Stadium continues to tower over the city four decades after the 1976 games.

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 tournament. This is a fairly predictable outcome for a nation which specializes so heavily in winter sports, and has resulted in the Winter Olympics being 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 wallowing, in some form or another, in the consequences of both.

Links About Canadian Sports:

Quick Facts:

  • Canada's two most popular professional sports are hockey and football.
  • The seven Canadian teams in the National Hockey League all have incredibly loyal fans and strong brand identities.
  • Lacrosse and curling are two highly iconic Canadian sports, but have only limited public appeal.
  • Almost every major sport is enjoyed in Canada to some degree, and the country is home to dozens of amateur leagues and athletes.