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), founded in Montréal in 1917, 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 (there are nine) playing a match a week. The play-offs at the end of the season culminate with the hotly contested Grey Cup – Edmonton Eskimos have won the most titles (ten). Tickets are fairly easy to buy online and start at around $43.
The Toronto Blue Jays (World Series champions in 1992 and 1993) 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 (starting at $50), so buy them in advance via the website.
Basketball was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts by Canadian sports coach 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 2014 and 2015, the team has yet to win a major championship. The season lasts from November to April and tickets cost from $8 (standing room only) to well over $1000 for VIP areas.
Canada has four teams in the National Lacrosse League, or NLL (w nll.com) – the Toronto Rock (who won in 2011), the Calgary Roughnecks (winners 2009), the Saskatchewan Rush (in Saskatoon) and Vancouver Stealth. This is the indoor version of the game and (perhaps because its level of speed and activity matches that of ice hockey) all four draw good crowds. Tickets aren’t hard to get in any of the four cities, with the cheapest ranging from $20–30.
Canada has three teams in the Major Soccer League, or MLS (w mlssoccer.com) – Toronto FC, Montréal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps FC. The season runs March to October and the sport is gaining in popularity in Canada, with especially lively crowds in Vancouver and a roster of mainly US and (older) foreign players (ex-Chelsea and Ivory Coast superstar Didier Drogba played for Montréal 2014–2016). Tickets aren’t hard to get in any of the four cities, with the cheapest ranging $20–30.
Women’s professional sports
Women’s professional sports in Canada have so far lagged behind the US, with one predictable exception – ice hockey. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CHWL; w cwhl.ca) is currently a five-team league, including Brampton Thunder, Calgary Inferno, Canadiennes de Montréal and Toronto Furies (Boston, USA, is the fifth member). League attendance is usually low, but the play-offs and finals can attract decent crowds. Though Canada’s national soccer team is pretty good, there are as yet no Canadian sides in the National Women’s Soccer League (there are several Canadian teams in the lower level W-League and Women’s Premier Soccer League).
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.