Football | The Canadian Encyclopedia



For many years, the term football described the practice of kicking an object, usually a round ball, and directing it into a designated goal area.
Russ Jackson, football player
Jackson was the premier Canadian-born quarterback ever to play in the CFL (courtesy Canada's Sports Hall of Fame).


For many years, the term football described the practice of kicking an object, usually a round ball, and directing it into a designated goal area. It was not until 1823, a traditional myth says, that William Webb Ellis, a student at the British public school of Rugby, picked up the ball and ran, contrary to the game's conventions. Others naturally took after him to bring him down. A code of rules evolved and the "Rugby game" was taken and played wherever the school's graduates were placed. Thus did RUGBY make its way to Canada, brought by the various immigrants, civil servants, clergy and military personnel who had a Rugby educational background.

By the 1870s a hybrid form of the Rugby game was being played in Montréal among the garrison personnel, citizens and McGill University. In 1874, McGill was invited to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to play a game of "football" with Harvard. It was only upon arrival that the McGill team found that Harvard played a version of the kicking (soccer) game. To solve the dilemma, 2 games were played, each under the other's rules, and thus was the McGill version introduced into the US. Harvard took immediately to the new game and sent to England for the current rugby rules. Within a year of their receipt, Harvard had persuaded other eastern US teams (known as the Ivy League) to adopt the game.

Although rugby featured spontaneity of play, the Americans soon made the style of play more organized and subject to planning and design. For example, where rugby called for the ball to be put into play by a scrum, with possession going to whoever won the ball from the scrum, the Americans introduced a "snap back" system and a certain number of attempts to gain a set amount of yardage or give up possession. The continual evolution and development of the American game served to influence the Canadian, more so as British influence waned in Canada.

The Canadian Game

The present sport of Canadian football closely resembles the American, with some significant differences: the Canadian playing field is much larger (9 m longer, 6 m wider and with end zones 13 m deeper); the Canadian game allows 12 players per side, compared to 11 in the US, and allows much more movement of players before the ball is put into play; only 3 downs, compared to 4 in the US, are allowed for the offensive team to make 10 yards and retain control of the ball; the team receiving a punt must run it back - there is no option to call the ball dead by a "fair catch"; any member of the offensive backfield may be in motion prior to the snap of the ball.

Other minor differences exist, eg, there is a 1-yard restraining area between offensive and defensive lines. Partisans of the Canadian version claim it is more exciting and unpredictable than American football.


Gradually, the prestige associated with the CRU's Dominion title led to more uniformity in rules. The GREY CUP game, first played in 1909, symbolized henceforth the Canadian championship. The first game was played between University of Toronto, representing the CIRFU, and the Toronto Parkdale Canoe Club (ORFU); U of T won 26-6.

Western teams competed for the trophy for the first time in 1921. The game between the EDMONTON ESKIMOS and the TORONTO ARGONAUTS was won by Toronto 23-0. Nevertheless, there was no question that the best football was being played by the university teams during the early years of the Grey Cup. Under Harry Griffith, who was classified as an "honorary coach" (in those days a paid professional coach was not acceptable in a sporting milieu governed by the rules and conventions of amateur sport), and with players such as Smirle "Big Train" Lawson and Hughie Gall, consecutive titles (1909, 1910 and 1911) were won by the U of T team. McGill, coached by Frank Shaughnessy, whose hiring as a "professional coach," the first for such a purpose, created much controversy, was perhaps the best team from 1912 to 1919, but they refused to take time from their studies to pursue the Grey Cup.

During 1922, 1923 and 1924, Queen's won 3 consecutive Grey Cups led by Harry "Red" Batstone and Frank "Pep" Leadley. An indication of the strength of the Queen's team coached by Bill Hughes was evident in the score of the 1923 game. Queen's defeated the WCRFU Regina Roughriders (see SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS) by a score of 54-0!

From 1925 on, the Intercollegiate Union gave way to the stronger city-based teams and unions. Football began to attract large numbers of spectators and teams sought ways to make the game more pleasing to the public. Clubs set out to attract proficient players, and amateurism lost its control. In 1931, when the forward pass was approved for all Canadian leagues (it had long been part of the US game), the Montréal Amateur Athletic Association (see MONTREAL ALOUETTES), known as the "Winged Wheelers," imported Warren Stevens from Syracuse University to play quarterback.

The team's success in winning the Grey Cup sparked a more intense search for American talent, especially by western teams, to augment the players on whom they could draw with their smaller population base. The WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS' general manager, Joe Ryan, was able to sign 9 Americans for the 1935 season for $7500. The move paid off handsomely as Winnipeg defeated the Hamilton Tigers (see HAMILTON TIGER-CATS) 18-12, the first Grey Cup victory for a western team. It also heightened the conflict between the CRU and the leagues competing for the Grey Cup.

The CRU was interested in maintaining at least a façade of amateurism, while the leagues wanted to field the best teams possible. The friction would continue until 1956 when the CRU was controlled by the leagues representing the 9 strongest teams in Canada. An ORFU team from Sarnia had gained similar success because of sponsorship by an oil firm. The "Imperials," as they were known, were able to augment local talent with players such as "Bummer" Stirling, Norm Perry and the giant Orm Beach. They were the 1934 and 1936 Grey Cup champions.

In an effort to stem the influx of American "imports," the CRU sought to impose a residence rule. It soon became obvious, however, that the member clubs and leagues were not as adamant. The Grey Cup was gaining prestige and acceptance with the public. With the end of WWII and the resumption of the various leagues, the 1946 CRU meeting stipulated that each team could play with 5 American imports. Some teams, notably the Toronto Argonauts, preferred to play with an all-Canadian lineup. The Argos did so until 1950 and in the process won 3 consecutive Grey Cup championships under coach Teddy Morris (1945, 1946 and 1947).

The 1948 Grey Cup game, won by the CALGARY STAMPEDERS 12-7 over the OTTAWA ROUGH RIDERS, was a catalyst in several ways. To be sure, the excitement generated by the westerners turned the final into a national celebration. But just as importantly for the development of football, the 1948 game marked an escalation in the quality of player attracted to play in Canada. Previously, many clubs got much of their import talent from among those with American college football experience. The American Football Conference's disbanding meant that many players would be available to the Canadian game.

It soon became obvious that the smaller centres of the ORFU (Toronto Balmy Beach, Kitchener, Sarnia and Brantford) could not compete. In fact, they seemed to be a hindrance to the Western Interprovincial Football Union (1936) and the eastern teams, known as the "Big Four." The 1954 game between Edmonton and Kitchener (actually a "farm team" for the Eskimos) represented the last time the ORFU was scheduled into the Grey Cup play-downs. By 1956, the Canadian Football Council was formed, becoming the CANADIAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE in 1958.

The Professional Team

The professional league was now in charge of its own operations and proceeded to modify the game according to its perceived needs. The CRU remained in existence but was effectively controlled by the CFL. In 1966 the CRU turned the trusteeship of the Grey Cup over to the CFL and changed its name to the Canadian Amateur Football Association. Since 1966 the CAFA has concerned itself with the game as played outside the CFL and educational institutions. It organizes national championships as well as recreational "touch" leagues, an expanding area for those who wish to enjoy the throwing, kicking, running and catching aspects of the game.

The CFL, in the meantime, increased rosters, allowed unlimited blocking, introduced a "taxi squad" - officially known as the "reserve list," and made up of players who can practise in order to play in emergency situations - and allowed 15 imports. In addition, prior to the 1987 season, the Montreal Alouettes suspended operations indefinitely. To compensate, the CFL shifted the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to the eastern conference. A controversial regulation known as "the designated import rule" permitted 2 imports designated as quarterbacks to play at any time, and effectively curtailed the development of Canadians at this position after its passage in 1970. This was subsequently changed in February 1986 to allow each team 3 quarterbacks, although to date this has not resulted in any Canadian quarterbacks.

Since most head coaches and general managers of the 8 CFL teams have been Americans, it is natural that graduates of the American colleges are sought for the critical quarterback position, rather than Canadians with potential who need time to develop. Indeed, since the CFL teams are controlled by Americans, it is not surprising that there is pressure to make Canadian football more akin to the American game because it is the style of play most familiar to the coaches and many players. Because of this some critics say that the football played in the CFL is becoming less and less an expression of Canadian culture. The admittance of American franchises (Sacramento, Las Vegas, Baltimore) to the league in the early 1990s deepened these criticisms. The failure of the American franchises and rebirth of the Montreal Alouettes, however, helped to refocus the league on its Canadian roots.

Canadian Football Chronology


The first account of a game of rugby football played in Canada, between English officers and civilians from McGill University.


In Ottawa on September 16 a game was played between the Rough Riders and the Senators.


The Montreal Football Club was established.


Rules of a hybrid game of English rugby devised by McGill were first used in the US in a game at Boston between McGill and Harvard. On May 14, Harvard won 3-0 using Harvard rules. The next day the teams tied 0-0 while playing Canadian rules.Toronto Argonauts were formed.


The University of Michigan played a game against U of T.


The Quebec Rugby Football Union was formed-the first league in Canada. On October 21 the Canadian Rugby Football Union was founded.


On January 4 the Ontario Rugby Football Union was formed. Toronto Argos defeated Ottawa 9-7 in the first championship game.


The first championship game played between the QRFU and the ORFU resulted in a 30-0 victory for Montreal.


The ORFU seceded from the CRFU, which then ceased to function.


Canadian Rugby Union formed.


First CRU championship game played at Toronto; Osgoode Hall defeated Montreal.


Length of game changed to two 40-minute halves. Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan and Strathcona played the first series of scheduled games on the Prairies.


On November 24 the Canadian Intercollegiate Rugby Football Union was organized in Kingston, Ontario.


First intercollegiate game-McGill vs U of T.


Games to consist of four 15-minute quarters.


Value of try (touchdown) increased from 4 to 5 points.


The ORFU reduced teams to 12 men per side; adopted the snapback system of putting the ball into play; required offensive team to make 10 yards on 3 downs.


Specifications laid down for size of football: 11 inches long, 23 inches in circumference and 13 ¾ ounces in weight. Field goals devalued from 5 to 4 points.


The interprovincial Rugby Football Union formed with Hamilton Tigers, Toronto Argonauts, Ottawa Rough Riders and Montreal.


Calgary Tigers formed. Field goals devalued from 4 to 3 points.


Lord Earl Grey, the governor general of Canada, donated a trophy for the football championship of Canada. The first game was played in Toronto on December 4; U of T defeated Parkdale 26-6 before 3807 fans.


Regina Roughriders formed.


Western Canada Rugby Football Union.


Edmonton Eskimos, first Western team to play in a Grey Cup game, lost to Toronto Argonauts 23-0.


McGill coach Frank Shaughnessy introduced the "huddle" to Canadian football.


CRU adopts limited use of forward pass.


CRU approved the forward pass for all leagues.


First time a Western team won the Grey Cup. Winnipeg defeated the Hamilton Tigers.


Teams were restricted to a maximum of 5 imports. The Western Interprovincial Football Union formed. College teams stopped competing for the Grey Cup.


Calgary Bronks change name to Stampeders.


Montreal Alouettes organized. Regina Roughriders change to Saskatchewan Roughriders.


Hamilton Tigers rejoin the IRFU ("Big Four"). Calgary Stampeders introduce pageantry to Grey Cup game.


Edmonton Eskimos rejoin WIFU.


Hamilton Tigers and Hamilton Wildcats amalgamate to form Hamilton Tiger-Cats.


First Grey Cup game carried live on TV.


Billy Vessels wins first Schenley Award.


BC Lions join WIFU.


Value of a TD increased from 5 to 6 points.


IRFU ("Big Four") changed name to Eastern Football Conference.


WIFU changed name to Western Football Conference. Partial interlocking schedule introduced between conferences.


Grey Cup Game stopped by fog; final 9 minutes and 29 seconds played the next day.


Canadian Football Players Assocation organized.


Unlimited blocking on rushing plays is legalized.


Artificial turf installed in Vancouver's Empire Stadium.


Canadian Football Hall of Fame opens in Hamilton.


Eastern Conference adopts 16-game schedule.


First Grey Cup final held on the Prairies, in Calgary. Two-point convert introduced.


Complete interlocking schedule introduced.


Montreal Concordes replace troubled Alouettes. Edmonton extends record to 5 consecutive Grey Cup victories.


First Grey Cup game played indoors at BC Place in Vancouver.


Montreal Alouettes fold.


Schedule expanded to 18 games for all teams.


Schenley relinquishes sponsorship of League Awards.


League adopts $3 000 000 salary cap for all teams.


GMC Truck sponsors League Awards. Community ownership group in Ottawa disbands and League takes over operation of club.


League expands into the US with the admission of the Sacramento Gold Miners.


Admission of teams in Baltimore, Shreveport and Las Vegas.


Franchises awarded to Memphis and Birmingham. Baltimore wins the Grey Cup. All the other American expansion teams fold.


The Baltimore Stallions are relocated to Montréal reviving the Alouettes. League institutes salary cap.


Football is played at most Canadian universities and its acceptance at high schools has given it advantages over other team sports, such as baseball. There is some regional variation in the rules among Canadian leagues, but the scoring is the same: 6 points for a touchdown (for carrying the ball across the opponent's goal line or catching the ball in the opponent's end zone), 3 for a field goal (placement kick between the goalposts), 2 for a safety touch (tackling a ballcarrier who by his own momentum has entered his own end zone), 1 for a conversion of the touchdown (some leagues allow for 2) and a single point when the ball is kicked through the end zone and out of play or when the ball is downed in the end zone after a punt (formerly called a "rouge") or a missed field goal. These points for kicking are unique to Canadian football.

In Canadian football's formative years, various regional sports governing bodies were responsible for declaring a champion as well as for setting the rules and regulations among member teams. The Québec Rugby Football Union and Canadian Rugby Union were formed in 1882; the Ontario Rugby Football Union in 1883; the Canadian Intercollegiate Rugby Football Union in 1898; and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union in 1907. The Western Canada Rugby Football Union, encompassing unions from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, was formed in 1911. Each union declared a champion, except for the Canadian, which was to provide a "Dominion Championship" arrangement.

Key Players

Although Canadians such as Russ JACKSON have excelled at the quarterback position, most of the key players on CFL teams are American. It could be said that Canadian football is a game played by Americans for a Canadian championship represented by an Englishman's cup. Doug Flutie, an American from Boston College, was the dominant player in the game during the 1990s. The quarterback, who played with the BC Lions, Calgary Stampeders and Toronto Argonauts, was selected as the Most Outstanding Player in the League for 4 consecutive years, 1991-1994, and again in 1996 and 1997. He established and holds most of the League records for a quarterback.

American Expansion

The League's continual quest for an American presence led it to expand to the United States in 1993. Over a 3-year period there were teams from Sacramento, Shreveport, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Memphis, Birmingham and Baltimore admitted to the Canadian Football League. A change in focus was effected from east-west to north-south when the Southern Division (American) and a Northern Division (Canadian) were formed in 1995. The Baltimore CFLers (Colts for Life) represented the East in 1994 and the Southern in 1995, losing to BC in the former and defeating Calgary in the Grey Cup game of 1995.

The experiment was less than successful and after the 1995 season all the American teams disbanded. Baltimore's franchise, doomed once the National Football League in the United States decided to return to the Maryland city, relocated to Montréal, where the Alouette name was resurrected. For one year, 1996, the CFL was composed of its traditional focus and teams. The following year, 1997, the Ottawa Rough Riders ceased operations, leaving the CFL with Montréal, Toronto, Hamilton and Winnipeg in the East; Saskatchewan, Calgary, Edmonton and British Columbia in the West. Six teams continue to be admitted to post-season play, and every team has at one time or another won the Grey Cup since the mid-1950s. Saskatchewan hosted the Grey Cup game for the first time in 1995. The dominant team of the post-war period was the Edmonton Eskimos, who won an unprecedented 5 consecutive Grey Cups between 1978 and 1982.

Intercollegiate Football

Intercollegiate football has developed independently under its own governing body, the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union. The last representative of the CIAU to challenge for the Grey Cup was the 1932 U of T team. Once the CIAU decided to bypass this challenge, regional unions became the focal point of the growing number of universities. In November 1959 the first Canadian college championship game was played at Toronto's Varsity Stadium. The Western Ontario Mustangs defeated the UBC Thunderbirds 33-7 to win the Sir Winston Churchill Trophy, an original sculpture entitled "Onslaught" by R. Tait MCKENZIE.

Not until 1965, however, was the college championship played regularly. That year, Governor General Georges VANIER lent his name to a trophy, the VANIER CUP, to be contested annually. For the first 2 years, the college championship was an invitational event, but in 1967 it was declared the national championship of the CIAU. The Atlantic Bowl and the Western Bowl determine the 2 finalists. The 4 regions eligible are the Western Intercollegiate Football League, the Ontario Universities Athletic Association, the Ontario-Québec Intercollegiate Football Conference and the Atlantic Universities Athletic Association.

In 1982, the Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union (CIAU) assumed responsibility for the national championship, organized a week-long festival around the game and renamed it the Vanier Cup. The game has always been played in Toronto, and the 1997 championship was the ninth to be played at SkyDome. However, diminishing attendance has caused the CIAU to look at alternative sites. During the 33 years of its existence every region has won the coveted trophy: WIFL teams have won 15 times, OUA 9, OQIFC 5, AUAA 4.

The Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum (founded 1962) was housed in its present building in Hamilton in November 1972. It traces the history of Canadian football over the past century and celebrates leading players and builders of the sport. The museum contains a theatre, video monitors, giftshop and exhibits - notably, a series of steel busts of Hall of Famers. The Grey Cup and Schenley Trophy are on permanent display. Members of the Hall of Fame are chosen by a committee composed of reporters and sportscasters (current and retired) along with former players.


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