THE HISTORY OF CANADIAN FOOTBALL

In this off-season I was going through my archives and found this well-written article which should be read by all Canadian football fans (not sure where it's from?)

The CFL's roots stretch back more than 150 years

By Murray Greig

The game that would become known as "Canadian football" - and radically influence development of the sport south of the border - was unofficially born when the McGill University rugby team accepted a challenge from Harvard University in 1874.

The lineage of Canadian football can be traced back to pre-industrial England, where variations of rugby evolved into a "kick-and-carry" game that was transported across the Atlantic by soldiers posted to the garrisons in Upper Canada.

There is some evidence to suggest primitive football games with fundamental rules were played in Canada as early as the mid-1840s, but it wasn't until the late 1860s that formal organization of the sport was introduced. The first two Canadian football clubs - Montreal and Britannia - were formed in Montreal in 1868. They played regular games against each other and the garrison teams, and quickly gained a popular following. By 1870, the game had spread to Quebec City, Ottawa and Toronto, but Montreal remained the focal point and it was there that the first codified rules were implemented.

With the departure of the British troops in 1872, Montreal's football teams further refined the sport, based on their own interpretation of English rugby. In 1874, the McGill University football team launched a decade-long competitive association with clubs in Ontario and the U.S., leading to an historic visit to Harvard University in the fall of that year. The Americans were astounded to see the victorious Canadians running with the ball in their hands and passing it laterally, rather than just kicking. Harvard subsequently adopted "Canadian football" for a showdown with Yale in 1876 - a match that today is recognized as America's first real football game.

Harvard continued to refine the McGill rules - most notably by introducing the forward pass in 1906 - and by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, made-in-Canada football was rivaling baseball as the No. 1 spectator sport in the United States.

In Canada, meanwhile, the game continued to take on a distinctly "northern" structure. In 1873 the Toronto Argonauts Football Club was founded as an offshoot of the Argonaut Rowing Club, with the double-blue colours of Oxford and Cambridge to identify players on the new team. In 1883, the oldest organized sports league in North America was formed when the Ontario Rugby Football Union was incorporated, and with it a new scoring system. The English system of scoring trys and goals now changed to games decided by total points. Trys were replaced by "touchdowns" worth four points, goals from the field ("field goals") worth six, "safety touches" worth two, and "rouges" worth a single point. Within a year the rival Quebec Rugby Football Union was launched and the seeds of what would become a national association of clubs were sown.

The 20th century ushered in substantive changes in the foundation of the sport, both socially and geographically. Football began to take root in the Prairies with the formation of the Western Canada Football Union in 1911, while in the east, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton and Montreal steadily established themselves as hotbeds of the game.

All the teams were loosely affiliated under the umbrella of the Canadian Intercollegiate Rugby Football Union, but as professionalism began to creep into the game, the organizational structure became fragmented.

In 1907 the Canadian Amateur Athletic Union expelled the Toronto Argonauts and Montreal Winged Warriors from the CIRFU for paying their players - a move that put the sport irrevocably on the road to full professionalism. Huge crowds, major newspaper coverage and the inauguration of the Grey Cup as a national championship trophy in 1909 only hastened that transformation, which officially started when Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and Montreal struck out on their own in the Interprovincial Rugby Union, which became known as "The Big Four."

In 1921, the West was granted admittance to the Canadian Rugby Union, and East versus West Grey Cup competition began. While the three existing eastern unions (CIRFU, Big Four and ORFU) followed an alternating playoff structure to determine the eastern representative for the national championship, the West did not always compete - even though the Prairie clubs were having the most impact on shaping what would eventually become the modern Canadian Football League.

The most startling change to take place out West came in 1929 when a Calgary backfielder named Jerry Seiberling - the league's first influential American import - threw a 12-yard pass in a game against Edmonton. It marked the introduction of the forward pass to Canadian football, meaning the days of two-runs-and-a-kick were essentially over. Calgary won that historic game by a score of 33-0, and in 1931, after much agitation from the pass-happy western clubs, the forward throw became permanently entrenched in Canadian football rules.

Seiberling's innovation also opened the eyes of teams throughout the Dominion to the possibility of actively recruiting American imports and throughout the 1930s players like Curt Schave (Regina) and Greg Kabat and Fritzie Hanson (Winnipeg) would establish themselves as the Canadian game's first bonafide superstars. Hanson, one of Winnipeg's eight imports, captured international headlines for his effort in the 1935 Grey Cup game, when he ran for over 300 yards against Hamilton to bring the Cup to the West for the first time.

Hanson's heroics were a stark indication that the days of homegrown talent dominating Canadian football were numbered. In 1936 the eastern clubs succeeded in putting through a rule that barred from the Grey Cup any player who had not resided in Canada for at least one full year. Regina, the western representative that year, had a dozen U.S. players, and rather than comply with the new rule, the club defaulted the championship game.

The last hurrah for an all-Canadian contingent came in 1937, when the Argonauts scored an unlikely 30-7 victory over Winnipeg. Roy "Red" Storey came off the bench in the fourth quarter and, in arguably the greatest individual Grey Cup performance in history, he ran through the Blue Bombers for 190 yards and three touchdowns in the final 15 minutes.

In the years immediately following the Second World War, American imports were pouring into Canadian football so quickly and with so many skills that in 1948 only two native born players - Joe Krol of Toronto and Tony Golab of Ottawa - were named to the Canadian Press "All Canada" squad. The 1950s saw even the unique terminology replaced by more familiar Americanisms. Gone were the Canadian "snaps" and "middles," in favour of "centres" and "tackles." Touchdowns were increased from five points to the U.S. standard six, and an NFL-style rule permitting blocking all over the field was introduced.

By the time the modern Canadian Football League was officially formed on Jan. 17, 1958, the game that was invented in Canada had become a hybrid of the distinctive styles played on opposite sides of the 49th parallel - yet to this day it remains a unique testament to the innovation and foresight of the men who first thought of tinkering with traditional English rugby more than 150 years ago.

They deserve our thanks for creating a game that, year after year, continues to capture the imagination of Canadians from coast to coast.

I'd love for CBC to do a movie of sorts based on some major aspect in Canadian football history, the McGill-Harvard matches maybe or the first time the west won the GC, and centre around some characters. It would be great to see this happen. Don't mind my tax dollars going to produce something like this.

I shudder at the thought of the CBC being allowed to create a documentary on the CFL.

With their record of trashing Canadian icons, (see Billy Bishop, Dieppe,etc.) the resulting show could put the league back a few decades.

No thanks! Leave the future of the CFL in the hands of the fans.

Not really a documentary but rather an actual movie. Whoever does it is fine, independent film maker but not sure how much money would be in this. CBC seems like the logical choice, an Anne of Green Gables type of thing.

Especially with the Montreal angle, a movie (or vignette?) would be a shoe-in for federal grants and cultural dollars. Who knew Mtl was the birthplace of football?

It is a great story and could be a good hook for a dramatic feature movie.

What a great article. Thanks for posting it! What I found really interesting was the early point system, awarding 4 points for a 'touchdown' and 6 points for a field goal. I always knew the Canadian game put more emphasis on the kicking game, but never realised to what extent.

I disagree, the CBC has made some fine docudramas!

Ever see the Arrow?

An excellent article. It was interesting to see how long the rouge has actually been around. It definitely is a part of the CFL.

Thanks for posting this. :smiley: