4 Popular Sports Canadians Helped to Invent

Canadian fingerprints are on many of North America’s biggest sports.

American Football

Football evolved from soccer and rugby, both considerably older games. The first American football game was played on November 6, 1869, between Rutgers and Princeton—you see, the game has always been a collegiate game. But the football played then probably wouldn’t be recognizable to modern sports fans. The teams consisted of 25 players, the ball was round, and you weren’t allowed to pick it up. You could kick or swat at the ball with your hands or feet to advance it, though.

This was the game the Americans brought to McGill in 1874. Harvard played two games against McGill, one using American rules (they called it the “Boston game”) and another using Canadian rules. The Americans ended up preferring the Canadian rules, which had only 11 players on the field, forward passing, tackling, running the ball without being chased by an opponent, and most importantly, an oblong ball instead of a round ball.

Obviously, the game we’re describing still isn’t American football, but it’s a whole lot closer. The Harvard players brought this newfangled oblong ball back with them to the States, and the rest is history.


Lacrosse is one of the oldest team sports in North America, and there’s evidence some version of it has been played since the 11th century. Many First Nations from all over what is now Canada and the United States played a version of the game, including Ojibway, Haudenosaunee, Chickasaw, Muscogee, and Seminole peoples. When settlers first encountered the game in Canada, lacrosse could include anywhere from 100 to 1,000 players, range from half a mile to fully six miles, and could last for days. Players did pregame rituals, painted themselves, and wagered small items on their success, which goes to show that what we think of as modern sports culture is actually pretty old. Interestingly, the French Jesuit missionaries who first saw the game (in the 1630s) didn’t like it at all, as it had betting, was violent, and distracted from church. Other settlers didn’t agree, though, and French settlers were playing the game by the 1740s, laying the groundwork for modern lacrosse.


You’ve seen the heritage minute. Dr. James Naismith, of Almonte, Ontario, was a physical educator, Christian chaplain, and later a medical doctor. After teaching at McGill, he moved to Massachusetts and taught at the International YMCA Training School, now Springfield University. Ordered to create a game athletes could play during cold months when they couldn’t play football outside, Naismith nailed up two peach baskets, wrote the original 13 rules of basketball, and had his students start hustling on the court. Naismith lived long enough to see his sport become an Olympic event in 1936. These days, there’s a statue of him in Almonte. It even has a peach basket.


You knew this was coming. The origin of hockey is murky, no doubt taking inspiration from the many stick-and-ball games found throughout history. For example, the Norse played a stick-and-ball game called knattleikr, the Irish played hurling, the Scots played shinty, and in England, where field hockey originated, they played a game on the frozen Thames at least once. When settlers came to North America, they were no doubt influenced by each other’s stick-and-ball games but also by First Nations sports. For example, the Mi’kmaq played a game called tooadijik, which the settlers would describe as “hurley on the ice.” No doubt shinny was the first hockey played in Canada, but more formal rules were developed in Montreal. The very first game of hockey was played indoors on March 3, 1875, in the Victoria Skating Rink. Players included James Creighton, a lawyer credited with organizing the game, and several McGill students, who seemed to have spent all their time inventing new sports. Within a year, organized games were being played all over Montreal, and by 1877, the first hockey club was founded at, you guessed it, McGill.