Most Canadians are sports mad – so much so that they have two national sports: ice hockey in winter and lacrosse in summer. But it’s the former that’s the real national obsession; in 2004, CBC’s “Greatest Canadian” top ten included two retired hockey players: Don Cherry (best known for his irascible sports commentary) and Wayne Gretzky (aka “The Great One”), regarded as the best player of all time and afforded god-like status in Canada. Dropping in on a hockey game can give visitors an unforgettable insight into a city and its people.
With players hurtling around and the puck clocking speeds of over 160kph, ice hockey would be a high-adrenaline sport even without its relaxed attitude to combat on the rink (as an old Canadian adage has it: “I went to see a fight and an ice-hockey game broke out”). The National Hockey League (w nhl.com) currently consists of thirty teams, seven of which are from Canada and the remainder from the US (though Canadians usually make up over half the players in the league). Each team plays over eighty games a season, which lasts from October to May. Tickets start at around $50 for ordinary games, rise to well over $200 for play-offs and nearly always need to be bought in advance. The Montréal Canadiens are the most successful team in the league, with 24 Stanley Cup championships, and were the last Canadian winners, back in 1993 (though the Vancouver Canucks were runners up in 2011). Regardless of who makes it to the final, don’t expect to get much done the night of a Stanley Cup match – most of Canada shuts down to watch the games.
Professional Canadian football (similar to the American variety) – played under the aegis of the Canadian Football League (w cfl.ca) – is largely overshadowed by the National Football League in the US, chiefly because the best home-grown talent moves south in search of better money while NFL castoffs move north to fill the ranks. The two countries’ games vary slightly – Canada’s uses a longer, wider field, has fewer “downs” and uses bigger balls – but the Canadian version is faster-paced, higher-scoring and more exciting. The season lasts from June to November, each team playing a match a week. The play-offs at the end of the season culminate with the hotly contested Grey Cup. Tickets are fairly easy to buy online and start at around $45.
The Toronto Blue Jays are the only Canadian team in North America’s Major League Baseball (w mlb.com). Even if you don’t understand the rules, visiting a game can be a pleasant day out, drinking beer and eating burgers and popcorn in the sun, among a friendly, family-oriented crowd. There are over eighty home games each season, played from April to late September, with play-offs continuing through October. Blue Jays tickets can be hard to come by so it might be worth watching one of the minor league teams, which play in most major cities including Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg.
Basketball was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts by Canadian Dr James A. Naismith in 1891, but since then Canadian interest has been fairly low with teams coming and going and national leagues foundering. Canada does have one team – the Toronto Raptors – in the US National Basketball Association (w nba.com). Despite making the play-offs in 2007 and 2008, the team has yet to win a major championship. The season lasts from November to April and tickets cost from $20 to well over $200.
Canada has three teams in the National Lacrosse League, or NLL (w nll.com) – the Toronto Rock (who won in 2011), the Calgary Roughnecks and the Edmonton Rush (runner-up in 2012). This is the indoor version of the game and (perhaps because its level of speed and activity matches that of ice hockey) all three teams draw good crowds. Tickets aren’t hard to get in any of the three cities, with the cheapest ranging from $20–30.
Professional Canadian rodeo tournaments are as big as their US counterparts, and just as much fun. If you’re looking for an alternative to big-league professional sports, this is a good option – and something you’re not likely to see matched if coming from Europe. Rodeos generally take place in the western provinces (Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan), and are organized by the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association (t 403 250 7440, w rodeocanada.com). The season starts in March and ends in November. Prices can be as low as $10 in some venues, rising to well over $100 for the finals.