An American's Guide to Canada: Sport

Here are some good places to find out general information about sports in Canada:

Hockey

The first thing that comes to most Americans' minds when they hear "Canada" and "sports" in the same sentence is hockey. Well, I'm afraid I'd be lying if I said that this country isn't full of crazed hockey fans who spend the entire winter glued to their televisions, who can hum the theme to CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" in their sleep, who spent their childhoods hitting pucks and balls with sticks.

All the hockey stereotypes are true. Whenever the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup, there are riots in the streets of the city. Maurice "Rocket" Richard, who played for the Canadiens and whose suspension in 1955 led to (what else?) street riots in Montréal, is the hero of a little boy depicted in the famous animated short film "The Sweater." Mention the word "hockey mom" and you'll immediately conjure up images of chain-smoking women in the bleachers screaming "Kill the ref!" when a penalty is called on one of their sons. Curt Harnett, bronze medalist in sprint cycling in the '96 summer Olympics, originally took up cycling to keep his legs in shape for the hockey season. And just about every Canadian who's old enough remembers where he or she was when the Canadian national team beat the Russians in 1972.

Hockey is everywhere. It permeates the whole culture. To understand Canada, you should know at least a little bit about its national obsession. Here are some Canadian hockey links:

Molson Hockey Night in Canada, mentioned above, is hosted by Ron McLean and Don Cherry (aka "Grapes"). Ron McLean is a professional, smooth, smart sportscaster who makes terrible puns as often as he can. Cherry is a loud-mouthed, nationalistic redneck who lives for the fights -- he publishes a series of videos called "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Hockey," showing some of his favorite body checks and clock cleanings. He dresses flamboyantly, wearing high collars and loud ties. He might be offensive except that McLean is a perfect foil for him. Their midgame commentary, "Coach's Corner," is hilarious.

A hockey-related game you might not have heard of is ringette, popular among girls and women. The Women's Ringette page has lots of information about the history, rules, and current status of this sport.

Canadian football

The Canadian Football League (CFL) plays a game that at first glance looks like American football, but has some important differences. The CFL regulation-sized ball is bigger, the field is longer and wider, the end zone is deeper, the field goal posts are at the front of the end zone instead of at the back, there are twelve players on each team instead of eleven, and there are three downs instead of four. These differences mean that Canadian football has a lot more passing instead of rushing, and the Canadian games tend to be a lot more fast-paced.

The CFL tried to expand into the States over the past couple of years, but all the expansion teams folded at the end of the '95-'96 season. Here's the league as it stands now:

  • Calgary Stampeders
  • Edmonton Eskimos
  • Saskatchewan Roughriders
  • BC Lions
  • Winnipeg Blue Bombers
  • Toronto Argonauts
  • Hamilton Tiger-Cats
  • Montreal Alouettes
The annual championship game is called the Grey Cup, which a visitor notes is "the oldest professionally competed-for trophy in North America."

Curling

Curling is a team sport that involves one person's sliding round forty-pound pieces of granite ("rocks") down a length of ice toward a set of rings while two of the other people on the team sweep the ice in front of the rock to influence its direction. The object is to see who has the most rocks closest to the center ring at the end of an "end." It incorporates elements of bowling and pool. Many, many Canadians, especially rural ones, spend their winters at curling clubs (when they're not watching hockey). You can learn more about it at the Canadian Curling Association and SLAM! Curling. It's fun.

Lacrosse

Lacrosse is Canada's other national sport (besides hockey, which was added as an official national support only recently). Lacrosse, if you're not familiar with it, is a team sport similar to field hockey, but the sticks have nets on the ends and the ball is carried and thrown through the air. Invented by Native North Americans, it's fast and exciting to watch. The Canadian Lacrosse Association has information about teams and games, and e-Lacrosse offers lots of how-tos and news about the game.

Figure skating

Canada has long been known for its figure skaters. The Canadian Figure Skating Association has its own Web site that lists Canada's world champions, including Kurt Browning (men's world champion four times) and Elvis Stojko (three times so far). Browning is the first man to complete a quadruple jump in world competition.

Josée Chouinard is Canada's most prominent female figure skater. Three-time Canadian champion, she's competed in two Winter Olympic Games, in 1992 and 1994, finishing ninth both times. Although she is immensely talented and graceful, her nerves seem to have prevented her from winning an Olympic medal, and she has said she will not compete there again. The Josée Chouinard page has some more information about her.

Baseball

Canada has two teams in Major League Baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos. You probably know that the Blue Jays won the World Series twice in a row, in 1992 and 1993; they've been rather lackluster since. I can't think of much else to say about baseball in Canada, other than that the Canadians were thrilled to beat the Americans at their own game.

Random Canadian baseball fact: Babe Ruth hit his first home run in Toronto, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a triple-A team.

Basketball

Although basketball was invented by a Canadian, Dr. James A. Naismith, the 1995-1996 season was the first time in recent memory that two Canadian teams played in the (now misnamed) National Basketball Association. These two teams, the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies, did about as well as could be expected for two brand new teams in their first couple of seasons, but they succeeded in their main purpose of getting Torontonians and Vancouverites interested in basketball. The Vancouver team has since been sold and may move to the States, boo. Toronto has gutted the old Postal Delivery Bvilding and turned it into the Air Canada Centre to make a new home for the Raptors, who had been playing in the SkyDome, and the Maple Leafs, who moved from Maple Leaf Gardens.

Athletics

For a long time, Canada's most famous sprinter was Ben Johnson, who held the world and Olympic records for the 100 meter race until he tested positive for steroid use in 1988 after the Seoul Olympics. His positive result and ensuing disgrace badly damaged the reputation of Canada's sprinters until 1996, when a clean Donovan Bailey broke the world record for the 100 meter race at the Atlanta Olympic Games and anchored the 4x100m relay team that beat the American team for the first time ever. Another member of that team was Bruny Surin, himself an accomplished sprinter who has on occasion beaten Bailey. The others were Glenroy Gilbert and Robert Esmie (the one who had his hair trimmed into the words "BLAST OFF" for the race).

Michael Smith was also a prominent Canadian in the 1996 Summer Olympics. Born in Kenora, Ontario, and graduated from the University of Toronto, he ranks among the world's ten best decathletes, but hasn't yet made it into the top three.

In long-distance running, perhaps the best known Canadians are Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo. Fox, who lost his right leg to cancer, learned how to run with a prosthesis and planned to run across Canada in 1980 to raise money for cancer research. He started in St. John's, Newfoundland, dipping his foot into the Atlantic, and, running as much as 26 miles a day, made it to Thunder Bay, Ontario, before he got too sick to continue. He died in 1981. Fox is memorialized by a statue in Thunder Bay as well as by many scholarships, research grants, and annual fund-raising runs.

Fonyo, also a cancer patient and amputee, completed Fox's route in 1985.

In 1987, Rick Hansen, a wheelchair racer, wheeled around the world on his "Man in Motion" tour to raise money for spinal cord research. (Remember the theme to St. Elmo's Fire, by John Parr? It was about Hansen.)

Rowing

Another sport where Canadians do very well is rowing. Silken Laumann is probably Canada's most famous rower. She's won medals in three summer Olympic Games, once rowing double sculls with her sister and twice rowing single sculls. She was expected to take gold in Barcelona in 1992, but six weeks before the games her boat collided with that of another rower and Laumann's leg was broken so badly that some thought she'd never row again. Somehow, though, after intensive physiotherapy, she managed not only to row in the Games but to win the bronze medal.

Derek Porter is Canada's most famous male rower. He's tall and beautiful -- classical features and gorgeous blue eyes -- and a great athlete. He was one of the Canadian men's eight who took gold in a previous Games, and he won silver in single sculls in Atlanta.

Marnie McBean and Kathleen Heddle have won three gold medals in Olympic rowing, in three different events: the women's eight and the straight pair in Barcelona, and the double sculls in Atlanta. They're amazing.

Synchronized swimming

In 1992, when solo synchronized swimming was still an Olympic event, Sylvie Frechette was favored for a gold. A few days before she was to leave for Barcelona, her fiancé committed suicide; then, at the competition, a Brazilian judge made a mistake in recording Frechette's score, and Frechette's gold medal went instead to Kristen Babb-Sprague, an American. (Babb-Sprague's husband, Ed Sprague, is a baseball player; at the time he was playing for the Toronto Blue Jays.) The judging error was not rectified until December, 1993, when Frechette finally received her medal at a ceremony in her native Montréal.

Frechette has shown great dignity and humanity. She returned to synchronized swimming at the 1996 Olympics as a member of the eight-woman Canadian team, which took silver.

Speed skating

Canada's speed skaters, female and male, are some of the best in the world. Catriona LeMay Doan, Susan Auch, Jeremy Wotherspoon, and Kevin Overland all won medals in the 1998 Winter Olympics, and LeMay Doan and Wotherspoon have set world records.

Snowboarding

Of course I have to mention Ross Rebagliati, the Roots poster boy. He won the first-ever gold medal in snowboarding at the 1998 Winter Olympics, and managed to keep it in spite of the reefer madness of the IOC. Congratulations, Ross.

Biathlon

Very few people in Canada had heard of the biathlon, an event consisting of cross-country skiing and target shooting, until Myriam Bedard won three medals (two gold, one bronze) in the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics. (Think about how steadily you'd be able to hold a rifle after a good, hard cross-country ski.) The Winter Sports Foundation has an informative biathlon page.

--Emily Way (emily_@_americansguide.ca)
Last updated December 17, 2000

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