For decades, Canada has been the butt of many an American jokester’s joke, with its rugged outdoor lifestyle, passion for hockey, and ‘always willing to help’ neighborliness proving popular topics for comedy writers from Toronto to New York.
While most of America may still laugh at the idea of a hockey-mad Canada, it is clear that the sport is more popular on the other side of the border. Not only does the National Hockey League (NHL) continue to grow its presence in the country, but so does the Canadian Football League (CFL).
Since the 1980s, the sport has seen a boom in popularity in Canada, largely thanks to the efforts of one man: Wayne Gretzky.
The hockey legend spent most of his adult years in Canada, and became a national icon in the country, known for his exceptional talent and charisma. He was also a master of marketing, using his fame to hawk everything from cars and housewares to beer and jewelry.
While Canada certainly has a proud hockey heritage, it may have been rooted more in popularity than in talent. After all, the sport is said to have originated in the U.S., and was later adopted by Canada as a way to keep fit during the country’s long, cold winter months.
A Hockey-Mad Nation
From its inception, hockey in Canada was a male-dominated sport, played mainly by upper-class individuals in rural areas. It was considered prestigious to be a hockey player and fan in Canada in the early 20th century.
However, that began to change in the 1980s, as women began to take an active interest in the sport, and joined male-only hockey leagues. Today, there are more than 250,000 registered female hockey players in Canada, accounting for 20% of the country’s total hockey population. This is the largest female following in the history of the sport. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most dedicated and enthusiastic fans in the country are the womenfolk.
This phenomenon of a ‘hockey-mad’ nation is not unique to Canada. Across the pond, the U.K. and Scandinavia have seen similar trends as their male-dominated populations have adopted hockey, with women playing an integral role in promoting and expanding the sport.
The Growth Of The NHL
While the earliest evidence of organized hockey in Canada dates back to the 1800s, it was in the 20th century that the sport really took off, largely thanks to efforts of the Men’s Athletic Club, which established dozens of rinks across the country, attracting young men seeking a fresh air activity during the country’s long winters.
The growth of the NHL was similar in the U.S., with the league expanding from four teams in 1917 to 26 by 1924, before settling into its current form of 32 teams. This was largely due to public interest in the sport, which was stoked by the legendary Bobby Orr, who helped transform the game with his bruising style of play. Orr is regarded as one of the greatest hockey players of all time.
The growth of the NHL in Canada was truly phenomenal, with the league expanding from two teams in 1917 to a whopping 18 teams by 1926, and then another 12 teams mere months later. By 1930, there were 72 teams in the league, making it the largest professional sports league in the country at the time.
However, interest in the sport did not solely rest with professional hockey players. Canada’s national sport also saw a great rise in popularity thanks to the efforts of a man named Frank Selvy. Selvy was a successful business executive and amateur hockey player, who co-founded the NHL with Conn Smythe in the hopes of bringing the excitement of professional hockey to the masses. His dream came true when he founded the NHL’s first professional hockey club, the Toronto St. Patricks, in 1917.
The club played its first game on Decoration Day, which is now known as Canadian Thanksgiving, and beat the Montreal Wanderers 4-3. In the words of Frank Selvy himself, the “crowd was as good as any professional ice rink”.
Rocking The Rinks
One of the great things about hockey is its ability to attract people of all ages and backgrounds. Kids and adults can have fun together, with the former often providing an entertaining atmosphere at rinks across Canada.
The story behind the growth of hockey in Canada is truly remarkable, largely due to the work of men and women such as Wayne Gretzky, who dedicated his life to making hockey available to more Canadians, and helped introduce the sport to the masses. The hockey legend also went on to found the Great Canadian Winter Festival, an annual celebration of Canadian winter sports and culture, now known as Winterlude.
Hockey is certainly a great Canadian tradition, and it is clear that the sport will continue to grow, thanks to dedicated fans like you. The only question is: Will America ever get over its prejudices against Canada and its beloved hockey?