Canada has seen several sport dynasties. There have been the Montreal Canadiens of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s of course. There was the Toronto Argonauts of 1945 to 1952 and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of 1958 to 1962, along with the Edmonton Eskimos. Perhaps it is something to do with Edmonton, but whatever it is there is one team that dominated its sport more than any other in Canadian history.
This is the story of the Edmonton Grads.
The Grads dominated women’s basketball to an extent it is almost impossible to believe. Between 1922 and 1940, the team played in 412 games and won 392 of them, with only 20 losses. That is an unbelievable winning percentage of 95.1 per cent. To put that in perspective, the best modern Major League Baseball winning percentage in a season were the 2001 Seattle Mariners with 71.6 per cent. The Montreal Canadiens of 1976-77 won 82.5 per cent of their games, while the Golden State Warriors of 2015-16 won 89 per cent of their games. Looking at the entire history of a sports franchise in the big Four North American sports, the best winning percentage is 61.7 per cent. None come close to the dominance of The Grads.
The inventor of basketball himself, Dr. James Naismith, would say that the Grads were:
“The finest basketball team that ever stepped out on a floor.
Let’s get to the birth of the Grads first, before we go into their impact on sports in Canada.
Things begin in 1912 when a man named John Percy Page moved from Ontario to Edmonton and began to organize commercial classes at local high schools. He would soon be teaching commercial classes at McDougall High School and it was there he decided to organize a basketball team for the school. His assistant coach took on the coaching of the boys’ team, and Page coached the girls.
A little about Page. He had been born in 1887 and was born in Rochester, New York. The family moved to Bronte, Ontario in 1890 and he would attend Hamilton Collegiate Institute, Ontario Normal School and then Queen’s University. He would receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from the university. In 1906, he was teaching in New Brunswick and married Maude Roche in 1910. Two years later, he moved to Edmonton. One amazing thing about Page was that he had only a basic knowledge of basketball, itself a relatively new sport, but he would study the sport and learn how to coach it.
The Grads started training twice per week but with no gym at the school, they were outside on an outdoor court training.
In 1914, the team began to compete against other teams, winning the local high school tournament in the city. A sign of things to come.
In 1915, team members would graduate from McDougall High School, but they wanted to keep playing the sport. They would decide to establish the Commercial Graduates Basketball Club, also known as the Commercial Graduates, which eventually became The Grads. Page continued to coach that team and the team members were mostly made up of students from the high school and its graduates. Years before minor league systems became the norm in sports, Page began his own form of the system when he would recruit new players by having promising students join The Gradettes, the secondary team, and the best of the team being called up to The Grads, when a spot was available.
The year the team became The Grads, they would defeat basketball teams across the province and become provincial champions. They would remain as the provincial champions, despite being challenged several times, for the next several years. By 1917, they were so good that no team in the province even tried to challenge them for the provincial title.
Their run as provincial champions would end briefly when the University of Alberta Varsity team challenged The Grads and won the game by two points on April 27, 1919. By November, The Grads challenged the U of A team and won their title back. In April 1920, the U of A challenged The Grads again but this time lost. Unhappy with the loss, the U of A team demanded an immediate rematch, wanting to waive the usual three-month waiting period, claiming that someone on the team younger than high school age had played. Another game was played, and The Grads lost their title to the U of A.
In 1922, the team would win their first Canadian basketball championship, the first of many as we will see. Playing against the London Shamrocks, they were captained by Eleanor Mountifield, and they would cruise to victory and begin their dominance, while also seeing their fame increase.
In 1923, the first International Underwood Trophy Tournament was held, with teams from Canada and the United States competing. The Grads would take on the Cleveland Favorite-Knits and defeat them in a two-game score of 55-33, becoming the first Underwood Trophy winners.
Page was known to tell his team that they must play basketball, think basketball, and dream basketball. They would practice from September to June, twice a week, usually on Mondays and Thursdays from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The Grads and The Gradettes would practice together and the team specialized in the short passing game.
Page would say to his team, “you’re ladies first and basketball players second and if you can’t win playing a clean game, you don’t deserve to win.”
While the Olympics had not made basketball an official sport, The Grads were invited to the 1924 Summer Olympic Games in Paris. They won every single game, with an average score of 60 to 10. After they won their last game, the team went on holiday through Europe while Page, along with Grads Winnie Martin and Daisy Johnson, attended the International Women’s Sports Federation where Canada was admitted as a member and the Grads were declared as World Basketball Champions.
Now officially World Champions, the team returned home with sponsors and financial support. This would allow Page to get the Edmonton Arena as a home for the team and the team got to work dominating the sport in the country. The Grads would spend the next several years campaigning for the inclusion of basketball as a sport at the Summer Olympics. Their efforts were in vain as the sport was not added into the Games and wouldn’t be for several decades. What was done instead was a tournament that would happen in conjunction with the Olympics, serving as a European Women’s Basketball Tournament and The Grads were invited to defend their world title. They would win every single game, beating teams by as much as 70 points.
Anytime The Grads played, people came out to see them. Sadly, in one game tragedy would strike.
In July 1931, an exhibition game was staged between the Edmonton Grads and the Gradettes at the Exhibition grandstand in Lloydminster. On the day of the game, the grandstand was full and standing room was at a premium as residents waited for the team to arrive. It would take seven hours for the team to arrive due to wet conditions on the road and the game started several hours late. At the same time, an airplane was doing land office business when it struck a power line and crashed, killing the pilot and two local men. The plane crash happened right next to the grandstand and several people rushed over to the crash site. While the tragedy had happened, The Grads still put on their game. George K. Ross of Lloydminster would say of the match:
“It was clearly seen why they were the best in the world. They were masters of their art. It was ability, not luck, that gained them such a worldwide reputation. No doubt, many aspiring basketball players who witnessed this event were inspired to become better players.”
On May 5, 1930, the largest crowd for a basketball game in Canadian history, to that point, came to see The Grads take on the Chicago Taylor Trunks. In total, 6,792 people came to the game in Edmonton.
From 1924 to 1936, they played in tournaments in conjunction with the Olympics, winning four consecutive times, and all 24 matches that they played. Since these games were played in conjunction with the Olympics, there was no medal count added to the Olympic totals.
In 1936, James Naismith wrote a letter to The Grads, saying:
You are not only an inspiration to basketball players throughout the world, but a model of all girls’ teams. Your attitude and success have been a source of gratification to me in illustrating the possibilities of the game in the development of the highest type of womanhood
While this letter was praiseful of The Grads, it also showed the view that many had of women in sports at the time. Some Canadians disapproved of female athletics, despite the growing dominance of Canadian women in sports, such as Bobbie Rosenfeld, who I did an episode on last month, and Ethel Catherwood of the Matchless Six, who I also did another episode on. Naismith commented on them being the “highest type of womanhood” and Page had strict rules on the women always being ladylike off the court reflected some of these outdated views.
When the Second World War broke out, the Royal Canadian Air Force needed the Edmonton Arena, which took away the training space for the team, as well as depriving them of a location to play international teams. In addition, as can be expected, the war in Europe severely disrupted the ability of teams to compete in basketball on the continent and many tournaments and championships were cancelled. Another issue came from the domination of the team over its opponents. No clear rival could be found and with the Grads nearly always winning, attendance was declining.
Even with declining fans, the team was still loved by those who still followed them. One fan was Ernest Edward Cappy Kidd, who was a resident of Calahoo. He attended every game that The Grads played at the Edmonton Arena, except for two games when he was in hospital. When The Grads went to Wainwright to play an exhibition game, he met the team at the station to support them. In 1940, thanks to his years of support, he was given the honour of tossing the ball to open a game between The Grads and a team from the United States.
In May of 1940, after over two decades of championships, The Grads won their last championship before the team disbanded. By this point, the team had defended their title to the Underwood Trophy continuously for 17 years and in their final season, the Underwood International Trophy was given to The Grads as their permanent possession. Of the 120 games they played for the Underwood Trophy, The Grads won 114, losing only six. The team officially disbanded on Oct. 14, 1940.
I’m going to go into some of the amazing stats of this team. Get ready for some numbers.
During the course of their existence, The Grads had two immense winning streaks of note. One was 147 games long, while another was 78 games long. Several times they played an entire season without losing a single game. While the Underwood International Trophy would be retired for the team, the Grads also saw similar domination in several other championships. In the Western Canadian Finals from 1926 to 1938, the Grads won every single year except for 1931, when no series was played. In one championship game in 1932 against the Vancouver Witches, they won 100 to 45. In all, they won 21 Championship games, with an average score of 52 to 28. They never lost a single Western Finals Game.
In Canadian Championship Games they competed in, the team won every year except for 1929, 1931, 1936 and 1937. In all, they played 31 games in championship finals and won 29, losing only two. They won on an average of 49 to 21.
In 94 Canadian exhibition games that the team played, usually as a way of training for championships and tournaments, The Grads won 94, lost two and won by an average score of 63 to 16. In 18 exhibition games against American teams, they won 15, losing only three.
One of the most amazing facts about the Grads is that only 38 women played on the team, with Margaret MacBurney serving as captain the longest, 182 games. One interesting stat about MacBurney is that she once threw 61 free-throw baskets in a row in 1931.The highest score ever recorded by the Grads was 136 points in a game against the University of Alberta, when that team scored only 16 points. In all, the team travelled 201,000 kilometres to play their games. In one stretch in 1926, they played 10 games in 11 nights in Winnipeg, Chicago, Warren, Cleveland, New York, Toronto, London and back to Toronto. Only seven teams scored more than 50 points against The Grad, while The Grads scored more than 50 points, unusual for the time, 162 times.
The bonds among the teammates was hard to shake though and while members would go on to compete on other teams, The Grads stayed in touch with each other. Every four years, they would hold a reunion and in 1961, The Grads formed an organization to stay in touch and answer questions from the public. The Edmonton Grads Club would continue to hold reunions, while preserving memorabilia and archives, until 1987.
The teams that were formed from The Grads would have great success as well. The Comets and Starlets both featured former players from The Grads and both teams competed for titles at provincial, national and international levels. While none achieved the high success of The Grads, they still showcased Canadian women’s basketball to the world.
After the team disbanded, Page would go on to be elected to the Alberta Legislature, serving until 1959. That year, he would be appointed as the Lt. Governor of Alberta, a position he held until 1966. In 1961, he was made a Knight of Grace of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, and was presented an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree that same year from the University of Alberta. In 1973, he would die from complications brought on by pneumonia. J. Percy Page School in Edmonton is named for him.
The last grad was Kay MacBeth, who died on July 23, 2018 at the age of 96.
Long after the disbandment of the team, the honours continued to flood in. The Canadian Press voted the team as Canada’s Greatest Basketball Team of the first half of the 20th century. In 1976, the team’s success on the court was designated as a National Historic Event and a plaque was dedicated in honour of the team in 1978. The Canada Basketball Hall of Fame inducted the entire team roster in 1983, and a documentary called Shooting Stars was made by the National Film Board in 1987. Edmonton Grads Park was established in Westmount in Edmonton, which includes a permanent display.
In 2010, The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame gave The Grads an honorary plaque. The Edmonton Grads International Classic Tournament was established by Canada Basketball in 2014 and takes place every two years. In 2015, a mural was dedicated to The Grads in Edmonton. In 2017, the team was inducted into the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, and a Heritage Minute was produced about the team.
Lastly, one of the greatest honours of the modern age was bestowed upon The Grads on Nov. 9, 2019 when a Google Doodle was created to celebrate the team.
One could say that The Grads dominated because they competed against women’s teams that were nowhere near as good or as well-trained. Those people would be wrong. The Grads were an extraordinary team that comes together when everything aligns right. For the record, of the nine games The Grads played against men’s teams, they won seven.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, The Edmonton Journal, 75 Years Of Sports and Culture in Lloydminster, Wikipedia, Heavy.com, EPSN, Calahoo Trails, Sitting On Top Of The World, 200 Remarkable Alberta Women,