Sporting Ways on Railways

Before the GTR

Before the 1850’s, Canadians pursued a variety of strenuous activities, not the structured organized sports of today. For example, hockey was played in many different ways throughout Eastern Canada. There were no set rules for “hockey” and when two teams or two villages played each other, usually the first game ran according to one team’s rules while the second game followed the rules of the other team.

However, with the building of the huge Grand Trunk Railway, hockey teams were able to compete over a wider area. McGill University played in three different leagues in Quebec, Ontario, and the United States. The “McGill rules” of 1877 limiting numbers of players and the time played became established because several leagues became familiar with these rules. Railways led to a standardization of sports and games but ended many local versions of these games and activities.

Before the 1850’s, it is very difficult to say what sports were common at the time. We must remember that most Canadians lived in rural areas and did hard physical work so that playing games mainly for “exercise” was left to the small number of young people in universities. Games such as baseball, soccer, rugby, and cricket were not standardized in Canada or in Britain and the United States until the last half of the 19th century. Curling seems to have been the most widespread winter game in Canada. Indeed, the Royal Montreal Curling Club is, in fact, the oldest sporting club in North America.
Most Canadians lived near water, and rowing was immensely popular while canoeing was curiously not quite so popular. Snowshoeing, skating, and tobogganing, not skiing, were the winter pastimes. The rich raced horses and rode in sleighs in winter. Horse racing and foot racing dominated summer sporting activities.

Impact of the GTR

The completion of the Grand Trunk Railway in the 1860’s transformed what Canadians played, how they played, and where they played. Games such as hockey, lacrosse, baseball, Canadian and American football, boxing, soccer, rugby, and cricket were gradually processed into standardized activities played by the same number of players, length of time, rules, and surface area. While we often think of soccer, rugby, and cricket as being “British”, Canadians in fact played these games long before the British standardized them. Montreal’s Westmount Rugby Club (1871), for example, is older than many of the British rugby clubs. As regards baseball, this too was played, especially in southern Ontario, before the game became standardized in New York and became regarded as “American”.

Curiously, the biggest Canadian contribution to standardization at the international level was probably in track and field activities. The early Caledonian Games, now called “The Highland Games”, were well attended from the 1840’s in many parts of Canada. Many events from the Canadian Highland games were adopted by universities such as McGill and Toronto in their Athletics programs. Oxford and Cambridge Universities only began their track and field competitions in the 1860’s. In addition, these Caledonian Games had gate-paying crowds and awarded large prizes often in the form of silver or gold plates that were usually sold by the athletes. These lucrative Canadian Caledonian Games developed Canadian athletes into strong competitors abroad but are now more or less forgotten. Canadian coaches and athletes groomed in the Caledonian Games influenced the United States and British track and field competitions. For instance, Montreal’s George Goldie, a Caledonian Games champion, became the first university athletics instructor in the United States, and initiated track and field activities at Princeton. Goldie was said in the New York Times to have invented the pole vault in the United States. However, the pole vault was certainly an event in Canada’s Caledonian Games. In turn, Princeton and the other “Ivy League” universities spread the new track and field events across the United States. The best known instance of the Canadian influence over summer sports in the United States was the McGill-Harvard Football game when Harvard took McGill Rugby Football ideas such as an oval shaped ball to start American Football. The Victoria Railway Bridge across the St. Lawrence River made it feasible for university teams in Montreal and Boston to play each other.

Canadians standardized the global rules for hockey and lacrosse (supposedly declared our “National Game” in the 1850’s). Canadian football was accepted abroad by foreign clubs while Naismith of McGill invented basketball in the United States. Canadians at Oxford and Cambridge played each other in the 1880’s, and 1890’s to start what now is in fact the world’s oldest hockey club rivalry. Canadians also introduced lacrosse to Europe.

Canadian clubs accepted the English rules for soccer, rugby, boxing and cricket, Scottish rules for golf and curling and American rules for baseball. Canada’s colder climate explains why Canada, much more than Scotland, popularized curling in the wider world. Foreign countries accepted Canadian rules for hockey, lacrosse, and many track and field events. Railway travel in late 19th century Canada, Britain, and the United States shaped most of the sports and games we now play. Consequently, Canada is as much a sporting nation as are Britain and the United States.

The rise of a five and a half day week after 1900 allowed people to attend Saturday afternoon events. The emergence of “gate paying” spectators had an immense influence on sports. The ability of railways to carry teams, and electric street cars to carry fans changed sporting events forever. The rise of the National Hockey League in Canada, the Football (soccer) Association in England, and the National Football League in the United States reflected the ability of mass transit to carry sporting teams quickly and efficiently throughout a wide area. Consequently, leagues of clubs playing standardized sports grew because railways carried both spectators and athletes for long distances quickly and cheaply. Professionalization of the players increased as the number of gate -paying spectators grew.

By the early 1900’s, railways, newspapers, the electric telegraph, cheap postal service, and a shorter working week gradually transformed increasingly professionalized sport into entertainment. Millions “followed” highly publicized events such as “World Championship” boxing matches via newspapers fed by the electric telegraph. The railway, trans-Atlantic steamboat, and the media made it possible to have “world games” such as the Olympics, “followed” by millions in several continents. A globalized sporting world began long before radio, television, and the aeroplane cemented us into an international sporting unit.

Impact of the CPR

The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway meant that Canada became a nationwide sporting area. People could now travel throughout the country for sporting events. For example, this meant that occasions such as the Stanley Cup could involve all Canadian hockey teams. The very first Stanley Cup was played in 1893 and won by a Montreal team. However, in 1896 a team from Western Canada, the Winnipeg Victorias defeated the Montreal Victorias to win the Cup. Perhaps the most epic journey to take part in the Stanley Cup was in 1895. A hockey team from Dawson City travelled by dogsled, steamboat, and railway to compete in Ottawa.

Railways helped to make Canada’s sportsmen and women into international competitors. In 1890, Louis Rubenstein became the first world figure skating champion by travelling to Russia. Canadians travelled to the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece. Railways had enabled Canadians throughout the country to represent us abroad.

Many leagues existed for many sports at the turn of the century. Curling, golf, lacrosse, and other sports had national championships. Ice hockey was played for the first time at the Antwerp Olympics in Belgium where Canada won its first of many gold medals at this sport. Perhaps the most important development after WWI (1914-18) was in 1924 when the National Hockey League expanded into the United States, again using the rail network as a basis for the teams.