Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

Royal and Viceregal Sporting Heritage


by Garry Toffoli


When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was presented with her own Team Canada hockey jersey by the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, at a dinner in Toronto on 5 July, 2010, the Prime Minister referred to the Queen as “Canada’s most valuable player”.  It was an appropriate description of Her Majesty, but the sports analogy was particularly apt since she has shared in a tradition that her ancestors and the Sovereign’s representatives have maintained throughout Canada’s history. The Queen has attended hockey, football and lacrosse games in Canada. She watched the Calgary Stampede twice, opened the 1976 Montreal Olympics and closed the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton (1978) and Victoria (1994). But it is not a tradition of simply performing the official requirements at sporting events; rather, it is a tradition of involvement and personal interest in the development of sports in this country.

A brief look at some of the sporting bodies and events that still exist in this Dominion gives evidence of the legacy that has been handed down from the Crown and its representatives. The variety of sports and diversity of their locations enhances that legacy.

For facilities there are King George V Field for soccer in St John’s, Parc Victoria for baseball in Quebec City, Lansdowne Park for football and soccer in Ottawa, Commonwealth Stadium for football, soccer and athletics in Edmonton and Royal Athletic Park in Victoria, to name but a few.

The awards for excellence that have been donated by Governors-General are multitudinous. Lord Minto donated a cup for the national champions of Canada’s summer national game, lacrosse; Lady Byng’s Trophy honours the most sportsmanlike player in the National Hockey League; Canada’s team golfers compete for the Willingdon Cup; the Viscount Alexander Trophy is awarded to the outstanding junior competitor in any amateur sports event; and the Vanier Cup is for the intercollegiate football champion of Canada.

To the list can be added organisations such as the Minto Skating Club of Ottawa, founded by the Governor-General, which has produced such world-class skaters as Barbara Ann Scott; the Royal Canadian Golf Association or the Royal Canadian Yacht Club; and events such as the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto, the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in St Catharines and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup for equestrian show jumping in Calgary.

Participants Not Spectators

The Royal Family and Canada’s governors have not been content simply to encourage as mere spectators, laudable as that may be. They have taken to sports with a passion. The Royal Family’s love of horses is, of course, well known. Her Majesty has always taken a personal interest in her racing stable and is considered an excellent judge of horses. The Duke of Edinburgh has always had a passion for polo and cricket, both of which he competed in with great skill when younger.  They are interests which the Prince of Wales shares with his father. Princess Anne, the Princess Royal’s skill in equestrian sports was attested to by her participation in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Her daughter Zara Phillips Tindall, has continued the family tradition and won an equestrian silver medal at the 2012 London Oympics. Prince Andrew is an accomplished skier and golfer, and took up white-water canoeing during his residence at school in Canada. Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry of Wales are both excellent skiers, polo players and motorcyclists. Their cousin, Peter Phillips, excelled at rugby.

King George VI was interested in shooting and golf, and his brother, King Edward VIII, shared his enthusiasm for golf and was well-known for his skill and daring as a steeplechase rider as Prince of Wales, until a serious fall prompted his father to put an end to it. King George V’s two sporting loves were shooting and yachting, and in both he was a master. He was reputed to be one of the four best shots in Britain during his life.

The sporting interests of Canada’s Governor-Generals would be too numerous more than to touch upon, but a lasting record can be found at Government House itself. It has always been a centre of sporting activity in Ottawa, and boasted a skating rink, a curling rink, a cricket pitch, a toboggan slide, tennis courts and other sports facilities.

Lord Dufferin can pehaps be credited with beginning the tradition of personal involvement in sports on the part of Canada’s governors. He himself was interested and skilled in yachting, curling, cricketing, skating, tobogganing and numerous other activities. His interest resulted in the construction of many of the facilities at Government House and set a pattern for future development. Since Dufferin’s time, the governors have each had their sporting preferences, which they have engaged in and encouraged: from Lord Stanley’s fondness for cricket and Lord Aberdeen’s for curling to Lord Grey’s preference for rugby and Roland Michener’s encouragement of jogging and physical fitness. The present Governor-General, David Johnston, is known for his skill as a hockey player and an equestrian and also enjoys running and cycling.

Perhaps the most important role that the Royal Family and the Sovereign’s representatives have played is in developing national competitions and associations for various sports in Canada. In a country as vast and diverse as Canada, shared interests and organisations, outside of those that are political, need to be nurtured. It is through these shared institutions that feelings of belonging to a common whole are developed. These institutions are also necessary to project an image of Canada to the world, an image which Canadians can recognise as their own and can be proud of. In this endeavour, our Royal Family and the governors have often been the initiators.

There are three events in particular whose existence is owed to the Crown and which have become national treasures, taking their respective sports beyond the interest of the mere few and enriching Canadian life and culture with their competition, colour and promotion of excellence. These three events are the Stanley Cup of hockey, the Grey Cup of football and the Queen’s Plate of thoroughbred horseracing. Without denigrating others, it is fair to say that they are generally accepted as the premier sporting events in Canada. A consideration of the Crown’s role in their emergence may serve as a description of the Crown’s role in other sports, on, perhaps, a smaller scale.

Rideau Rebels

I have for some time been thinking it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup, which could be held from year to year by the leading hockey club in Canada. There does not appear to be any outward or visible sign of the championship at present, and considering the interest that the hockey matches now elicit, and the importance of having the games played under generally recognised rules, I am willing to give a cup that shall be annually held by the winning club.

“I am willing to give a cup.” With those words by Baron Stanley of Preston, Canada’s sixth Governor-General, and his gift of ten guineas to create it, was born a trophy that has become famous not only from Victoria to St John’s, as His Excellency may have hoped, but from Los Angeles to Stockholm and on to Moscow.

Lord Stanley had been a voice of authority in horseracing, cricket and soccer in England prior to coming to Canada in 1888 as Governor-General. He soon found a new love in the Canadian game of hockey and, together with his sons, played a major role in the development of the game. A large outdoor hockey rink was built at Rideau Hall and a team was formed consisting of his two sons, Algernon and Arthur, and four members of the Governor-General’s staff. They nicknamed themselves the “Rideau Rebels” and played games against other local teams in Ottawa. After one game in 1890 against a team of Parliamentarians, the two teams formed a composite group and invaded Toronto, spreading the popularity of the game.

It was Arthur Stanley who discussed with J.A. Barron of Stratford and M.P. Harry Ward ways of encouraging the growth of the game, and, in the autumn of 1890, founded the Ontario Hockey Association, still a prominent governing body of amateur hockey in the province in the 21st Century. Without the enthusiasm and belief in hockey’s future shown by Lord Stanley and his sons, it might never have emerged as Canada’s winter national game.

It was to be Lord Stanley’s lasting regret that his time in office ended and he returned to England before the first Lord Stanley Cup game was played. He was never to see a game played for the championship he wad worked so hard to make a reality. His efforts, however, were recognised by his inclusion in the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builder category.

Royalty On Ice

When Her Majesty dropped the puck to start a Vancouver Canucks hockey game on 7 October, 2002, during her Golden Jubilee tour of British Columbia, the iconic Canadian moment was not the Royal Family’s first experience of hockey. The Royal Family were introduced to hockey about the same time as their Canadian subjects. In 1895, after the Stanleys had returned to England, a game of hockey was played on the frozen lake on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. One side included the five Stanley brothers and Lord Annally. Their opponents represented the Palace. Two of the members of the team were the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) and the Duke of York (George V). Prince Andrew, Duke of York, played hockey while a student at Lakefield College in Ontario in 1976-77, and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge tried his hand at road hockey in Yellowknife in 2011.

Also, in the Palace, or perhaps in Windsor Castle, one of the treasured mementoes of Canadian hockey history may be found. The Queen watched her first hockey game in Canada in 1951 at the old Montreal Forum. It was on her tour as Princess Elizabeth.  She met Maurice “Rocket” Richard of the Montreal Canadiens and followed his career with interest.  On 6 February of the following year she became Queen and later that year, on 8 November, Rocket Richard became the then all-time leading scorer in National Hockey League history, with his 325th goal. The puck with which he scored the goal was gold-plated and sent to Her Majesty as a gift.  On Her Majesty’s 1959 royal tour of Canada, Richard and his wife, Lucille, were invited to Rideau Hall for the state dinner and presented to the Queen once again.

Lord Stanley was not the only one to leave his name to hockey. Edward, Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) presented a trophy in 1924 for the championship of the National Hockey League and which was first awarded to Montreal. Since the N.H.L. became the only league to compete for the Stanley Cup in 1927, the Prince of Wales Trophy has been awarded for a variety of subordinate league achievements over the years.  It is currently awarded to the playoff champions of the Eastern Conference of the league.

In 1976 the best professional hockey players of Canada met the best professionals and amateurs from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, the United States and Finland in the first Canada Cup Tournament. The tournament was opened by the Governor-General, Jules Leger. Subsequent tournaments were held in 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1991. When the tournament, and its trophy, was replaced by the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, the Canada Cup trophy was presented to Rideau Hall, where it remains as a fitting reminder of the house’s place in hockey history. Lord Stanley and the “Rideau Rebels” would have approved.

National Institution

If hockey is Canada’s national passion, football is a close second. The symbol of football supremacy in Canada, the Lord Grey Cup, is even more of a national institution than the Stanley Cup.

Lord Grey was greatly interested in rugby football and, as his predecessor had done, he decided to offer a cup in 1909 to be given annually to the best football club in Canada. Unfortunately, he too left Canada without ever seeing a game played for the cup bearing his name. However, the legacy he left behind has been tremendous.

The Grey Cup has become a national institution for three main reasons. With the brief exception of a failed Canadian Football League expansion to the United States in the early 1990s, the Grey Cup has remained a Canadian championship as originally intended (though now for professional rather than amateur teams), pitting East against West in friendly rivalry for one day every year. It is a single game, rather than a series, which allows the festival atmosphere that accompanies it and concentrates the excitement of the game into one day, winner take all. Finally, Canada’s Governors-General since Lord Grey have maintained the viceregal interest. In many years the Queen’s representative has attended the championship.

It may be derided as the “Grand National Drunk”, or praised as a boost to local tourism, but ever since 1948 when Calgarians taught Torontonians about flapjacks and stetsons and horses climbing steps into a hotel lobby, the Grey Cup has emerged as Canada’s national holiday, regardless of Dominion Day / Canada Day’s official position.

However, no sport, or institution even, should be taken too seriously. Football, great Canadian game that it is (and it is Canadian; Canadians introduced it to the Americans, not vice-versa), has its unusual aspects. Why an offensive lineman, whose responsibility is blocking, should be called a tackle is unclear.

The Prince of Wales noted this in 1970, when attending the All-Star game in Ottawa. He was very much interested in the sport but naturally perplexed by it. When one team captain, who was an offensive tackle, was introduced to him, the Prince asked, “You tackle players then?” The captain explained that he did not, and described his actual role as a blocker.

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Anne, the Princess Royal have also watched football games in Canada, Princess Anne attending the Vanier Cup in 1979.  The first for the Queen and Duke was in 1951. The one hundredth Grey Cup in 2012 (there was no competition for four years, 1916-1919, during and immediately after World War I) coincided with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  Her Majesty therefore sent a message to those attending the historic game,

It is with great pleasure that I extend my sincere best wishes to all Canadians as they prepare to mark the 100th Grey Cup – a trophy first donated by Earl Grey in 1909 who served with distinction and pride as Governor-General of Canada from 1904 to 1911.

I note with some interest that, on the same weekend that the championship game of the Canadian Football League is being played in Toronto, the city will also play host to the Canadian inter-university sport football contest. The winning team will be the recipient of the Vanier Cup, which is named after another distinguished Governor-General – Major-General Georges Vanier. In this way, the link between the Canadian Crown and Canadian football is particularly meaningful – especially in this year when the 100th Grey Cup coincides with my Diamond Jubilee as Queen of Canada. 

I wish all teams, players and fans a most enjoyable weekend.

Royal Pageantry

The most spectacular of all sporting events in Canada is without doubt the horse race that bears the Sovereign’s personal patronage – the Queen’s Plate (the King’s Plate from 1901 through 1951). It is the oldest continuously run race in North America, and has preserved a style and dignity that is too often missing in today’s world.

One wonders whether Queen Victoria could visualise the future when, in 1860, she granted her name, a plate and fifty guineas as a prize to a horse race to be held on her birthday and run at the small provincial city of Toronto in Canada West. Now it is held on a Saturday late in June or early in July, a date that allows more time for the contesting horses to develop and train in Canada’s short racing season. The venue is the magnificent Woodbine Park situated in Etobicoke, in the northwest end of the metropolis that is modern Toronto.

The race is frequently attended by royalty or the Queen’s representative in Canada or Ontario. Members of the Royal Family have been present for eighteen Plates. A reigning Sovereign has attended on five occasions. King George VI was the first, in 1939, and Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, has attended four times, in 1959, 1973, 1993 and 2010.  Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother attended more Plates than any other member of the Royal Family, being present for eight (1939 with the King, 1962, 1965, 1974, 1979, 1981, 1985 and 1989). Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught (son of Queen Victoria) and the Duchess of Connaught attended twice, in 1912 and 1914. The Duke and Duchess of Kent (1975), the Duke and Duchess of York (1987), Princess Margaret (1988) and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent (2002) were the other royals who have attended

The 1973 Plate was characteristic of Plate day when royalty is present. More than forty thousand persons jammed Woodbine, which awaited its grand day under threatening skies. The rains held off, however, and “Queen’s weather” prevailed when Her Majesty arrived.

The surroundings, the participants and the spectators all added to the colour of the day. The crowd’s attire ranged from the traditional top hat and morning-coats for men and summer dresses, hats and white gloves for women, to unisex jeans and T-shirts. The Royal Box had been freshly painted, polished and decked out in bunting.

Everyone’s attention was focused as the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh arrived in front of the grandstand, their open landau accompanied by a Sovereign’s Escort of the Governor General’s Horse Guards, the regimental band providing the music. The Guards were magnificent – men and horses models of discipline and dignity as they passed the Royal Box in review. The sun glistened off their helmets and the pennants on their lances fluttered in the breeze. It was hard not to be moved by such a sight and the crowd responded enthusiastically.

Queen’s Remark

Later, as the race itself approached, the competing horses stepped onto the track to the strains of “The Maple Leaf Forever” as Canada’s Queen looked on. Her Majesty noted with a critical eye that the escort ponies, which originally accompanied jittery horses, but on that day accompanied nearly all the contestants, were unnecessary and cluttered the procession. A result of her remark was that, although the escort ponies continued to be used at future Plates, their riders wore a uniform jacket to smarten up the procession.

After the race was over and Her Majesty presented the trophies to the winning owner, trainer and jockey, the Horse Guards returned. The crowd enthusiastically sang “God Save The Queen” and, as the royal couple departed in their landau, the crowd joined the Honorary Chairman of the Ontario Jockey Club, Mr E.P. Taylor, in “three cheers for Her Majesty”.

The procession left the track and Canada’s most spectacular annual day of pageantry was over. Every year since, eleven times in the presence of the Queen or members of her family, other crowds have gathered to watch other horses run for the fifty guineas. It is a day that has managed to adapt while remaining the same, and, each year, Canada is the richer for it.

Encouraging Youth

One should not think that the Crown has only concerned itself with professional or national championships. It has also recognised the need to promote excellence in young people. A major example of this is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. The Award Scheme was begun in 1956 through the personal interest of Prince Philip, who played an active role in its development and operations for many years as its Chairman in the United Kingdom and its International Chairman.  He remains the Patron of the Award Scheme.

The objectives of the Award Scheme are to encourage young people to grow by competing against themselves rather than against others and to bridge the generation gap by requiring young people to work with an adult in each endeavour. The Award Scheme involves both girls and boys between the ages of 14 and 25, and the activities range from photography, home management and canoeing to community service work. While, therefore, not limited to sports, physical recreation and adventurous journey are two of the four sections of required activities.  The other two are service and skills. Gold, silver and bronze level awards are presented to successful participants.

The Award Scheme spread from Britain to include many countries of the Commonwealth. In Canada almost forty thousand youngsters are now involved at any one time. The Governor-General is Chairman of the Award Scheme in Canada and he and the Lieutenant-Governors often present the awards.

Prince Philip maintained an active role in the Commonwealth aspect of the Award Scheme as well as his role in the United Kingdom. He chaired Commonwealth-wide meetings, and he, or another member of the Royal Family, presented the gold awards whenever possible. The Duke’s international role has been taken over by his son, Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, who has been a trustee of the United Kingdom Award Scheme and the International Foundation since 1988 and Chairman of the International Council of the Award Scheme since 1996. The Earl comes to Canada regularly and includes Duke of Ediburgh’s Award Scheme events in his programme.  Often it is the Scheme itself which brrings the Prince to Canada.

Future Chapters

An article such as this can only touch upon so vast a topic as the Crown’s sporting heritage in Canada. It must be characterised as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes, and even those areas discussed have only been glimpsed. This very limitation speaks to the extent of the influence the Royal Family and the Sovereign’s representatives have exerted on the sporting scene in Canada.

The story is one that can never be completely told because it is a story without an ending. Present and future members of the Royal Family and succeeding governors of Canada and its provinces will in turn add their chapters as their predecessors have done, and Canada will continue to be enriched by their efforts.

Copyright (c) 2013 Garry Toffoli