If you ask someone what the national sport of Canada is, nine times out of ten they are going to say hockey. They aren’t wrong, but they aren’t completely right either. In fact, Canada has two national sports. Our winter national sport is hockey, but our summer national sport is lacrosse.
Without lacrosse, it is likely we may never have had hockey and lacrosse has played a role in Canada’s history going back long before Europeans ever arrived.
Lacrosse can trace its roots to the Indigenous people but the game they played was much larger and more intense than the game we see today. This also makes lacrosse one of the oldest, if not the oldest team sport in North America. The first documented description of lacrosse by a European was in 1637. At the time, the game was called baggataway and it was played with two teams of 100 to 1,000 men on a field that was half a kilometre to three kilometres long. Several Indigenous groups played the game including the Mohawk and Ojibwe, and the name for the game varied heavily with some names being little war, little brother of war and bump hips. For the Indigenous people, the game was a gift from the creator, and it was played in the name of the creator as well.
Prior to a game, the rules would be decided on the day before. Some of the common rules for the game included that there were no out-of-bounds and the ball could not touch anyone’s hands. Usually goals were rocks or trees and the game would last from sunrise to sunset. As the game evolved, poles were used as the goal. When polls were used, a mark was placed about chest high. When the ball hit above that mark, one point was awarded. If it hit below, nothing was awarded. If the ball hit well above the halfway mark, then two points were awarded. At the top of the pole was something found a large figure of a sacred animal and if it was hit by the ball, that was three points. Most games typically reached 20 points and the audience usually kept score.
Balls were made of wood, or deerskin that had been stuffed with hair. Most balls were no more than three inches in diameter. As for the sticks players used, these were usually giant spoons with no netting initially but eventually netting would evolve. Sticks were bent and usually measured two to five feet and featured carvings to aid the players in the game. Lacrosse sticks were no simple item to many and it was not unusual for players to request that they be buried with their stick beside them.
Pregame rituals were always held and very similar to the Indigenous rituals related to war. Players would paint their bodies and there were strict rules of what a player could eat before the game. The night before any game, players would take part in a special dance and wear ceremonial outfits.
As players walked up to the field where the game would be played, they would have to conduct several rituals including going to the water and dunking their sticks in. A shaman would also give a spiritual talk to the players.
Before the game could be played, players would then have to place a wager. Anything could be part of the wager, from a knife to something more important. At the end of each quarter of the game, items would be awarded to the winner of that quarter.
The game would typically begin with a ball being tossed in the air and the two sides rushing towards it. A mob of players would typically swarm the ball and it was believed passing thee ball was thought of as a trick and it was cowardly to dodge an opponent.
Once the game was over, a ceremonial dance would take place and a feast would be held.
Lacrosse was not just a game to the Indigenous people. It was something much more. One of its biggest benefits was that it helped to settle inter-tribal disputes and likely helped to keep the Six Nations of the Iroquois alliance together as a result. Lacrosse was also played as a way to train young warriors, and also for religious purposes.
In the 1630s, Jesuit missionaries arrived in the Saint Lawrence Valley and saw the game for the first time. They quickly condemned it because of the betting involved and what they perceived to be the violent nature of the game. They were also against the religious aspects related to the game.
The Indigenous did not call the game lacrosse, that name likely came from the French and the name for field hockey, which was le jeu de la crosse, rather than the shape of the stick, which resembled a Bishop’s cross, used by the Indigenous, as many are led to believe.
While Jesuit missionaries did not like the game, many early colonists certainly did and betting with Europeans quickly became common when games were held. By 1740, French colonists were starting to take up the game.
The Indigenous saw the interest in lacrosse among the Europeans and would sometimes use that to their advantage. In 1763, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawas would hold a match outside Fort Mackinac and invite soldiers from the fort outside to watch the game, which he said was being held in honour of the king’s birthday. When the soldiers came out, the Ottawa players began to move the game closer and closer to the fort entrance until they could run inside and take over the fort.
In 1834, Indigenous people would demonstrate lacrosse in Montreal and interest began to grow in the game. Within 20 years, modern lacrosse was born.
In 1842, the Montreal Olympic Athletic Club would form, becoming what is believed to be the first lacrosse club in history. It would be another 26 years before another country had a lacrosse team, when the United States launched the Mohawk Lacrosse Club in 1868.
In 1856, William George Beers, who had founded the Montreal Lacrosse Club a decade earlier, coded rules in place to create modern lacrosse. Beers was a staunch patriot of Canada, even before it was a country, and he saw the game of lacrosse as something as a symbolic sport through which Canadian nationalism could be grown. In 1869, as the popularity of lacrosse had grown heavily, he would write.
“If the Republic of Greece is indebted to the Olympic Games. If England has cause to bless the name of cricket, so may Canada be proud of lacrosse. It has raised a young manhood throughout the Dominion to active, healthy exercise. It has originated a popular feeling in favour of physical exercise, and has, perhaps, done more than anything else to invoke a sentiment of patriotism among young men in Canada.”
It is believed that due to its popularity, in 1869, it was named the national game of the Province of Canada but no official government records exist of this but it is cited in books on Canada’s history, newspaper accounts and more. In Scribner’s Monthly, dated May-October 1877, it is stated, “The game of lacrosse, which was adopted as the national game of Canada on the 1st of July 1859, the first Dominion Day. The game of lacrosse was granted this status in the 1800s, not merely because of its popularity or economics, but because it has made significant and lasting contributions to the history and development of this nation, its people, and the sport community.”
In 1867, the Canadian Lacrosse Association would be formed, spearheaded by Beers, and became, to this day, the governing body of lacrosse in Canada. This would make it the first governing body of sport in Canadian history. The club was formed on the motto of “Our Country and Our Game”. By the end of the year, there were 80 clubs operating across the country. That same year, the first tour of the sport would be held overseas when Captain W.B. Johnson organized a tour of England.
In 1876, a second tour was held and Queen Victoria would witness an exhibition game of the new form of lacrosse and stated that it was a very pretty game to watch. With this seeming endorsement of the game, many English girls’ schools began to adopt the game.
By this point, the game was quickly growing. Montreal boasted 11 teams, while seven operated in Toronto. Clubs were also found in Ottawa, Hamilton and Quebec City, while 100 other clubs operated out of various towns in Ontario and Quebec. By the spring of 1883, clubs were popping up in Edmonton, and by 1889, clubs were registered in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and British Columbia. The last future province to join the lacrosse club would be Saskatchewan, when it formed its first clubs in 1893.
Games by this point were drawing huge crowds with 5,000 to 10,000 people attending matches in the 1880s. Lacrosse was also a leader in innovation. In August of 1880, the first night games were played under electric light at the Shamrock Lacrosse Field. As well, during breaks in the game, track and field events would be held.
By 1883, the third tour of England was held and the sport was being used as a way to get people interested in coming to Canada. A touring team, which consisted of several Iroquois players, visited Scotland and while there, handed out promotional literature about the benefits of moving to Canada.
In 1892, Frank Gall would write an account of a game that he had watched between two Indigenous groups at the Keokuk Falls.
“When the game started, it was wonderful to see. How the braves handled the ball with their handmade clubs, but when the first fellow got the ball some player hit him over the head with a club, peeling the skin until it hung over his ear. As soon as a player was knocked out, the squaws would carry him off the field, to a pool of water nearby where they would wash his wounds and restore to consciousness, if possible.”
In 1901, Lord Minto, the Governor General of Canada, donated a silver cup to be used as the senior amateur championship. The Minto Cup, used to this day, is one of the biggest prizes in lacrosse.
The game had grown enough that by 1904, it was an Olympic sport, and would be played in the Summer Olympics in 1908 as well before it was dropped as an official sport. In 1904, Canada would field two teams, while the United States would field one. The Shamrock Lacrosse Team would take the gold medal for Canada, while the St. Louis Amateur Athletic Association took silver. Another team from Canada, made up of Mohawks, would take bronze. In 1908, only Great Britain and Canada fielded a team for lacrosse at the Olympics. Canada would take. That Canadian team would also field two notable hockey players. Clarence McKerrow had won two Stanley Cups with the Montreal Hockey Club in 1895 and 1902, while Tommy Gorman would go on to help form the National Hockey League in 1917. Becoming manager of the Ottawa Senators, he would help lead them to three Stanley Cups, followed by four more Stanley Cups with three more teams.
In 1910, a Montreal team travelled all the way to New Westminster to challenge for the championship of Canada. The game was a huge event, with 15,000 coming out to watch, despite New Westminster only having a population of 12,000 at the time. That same year, Sir Donald Mann, the architect of the Canadian Northern Railway, donated a gold cup that would be awarded to the national senior champion.
Several future Hall of Fame hockey players were taking up the sport by this point including Cyclone Taylor and Newsy Lalonde. Taylor was making $2,000 a year while Lalonde was making $3,000 a year, equivalent to $36,000 and $54,000 a year today. Most players made $100 a year, while stars usually brought in $1,000 a year.
In 1928, 1932 and 1948 it was a demonstration event at the Summer Olympics. In 1928, the United States, Canada and Great Britain participated, each taking one win in a round robin. In 1932, it was Canada and the United States, with the Americans winning two games to one. In the final time lacrosse appeared at the Olympics, Canada did not participate.
In 1967, the World Lacrosse Championship would be created, being held every four to five years. Out of 13 total championships, Canada has won three gold, six silver and four bronze. The Women’s Lacrosse World Cup would be created in 1982, being held every three to four years. Canada has won two silvers and two bronze at the event.
In 1994, through the National Sport Act, Lacrosse would be named as Canada’s National Summer Sport, while hockey would be named our National Winter Sport.
Information comes from World Lacrosse.Sport, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, TheCultureTrip.com, The Iroquois Nationals, the Canadian Lacrosse Association and CBC.