Ontario: The Early Years
Perhaps it was appropriate that in Ontario, the first game of soccer, as we know it today, was played in Toronto between teams representing the Carlton Cricket Club and the Toronto Lacrosse Club. The game was played in 1876, when cricket and lacrosse, along with baseball, dominated Canadian team sports in the summer. It was played on Parliament Street in Toronto, under the laws formed in 1863 in London, England. But the transition from the hybrid forms of football played in Ontario prior to that day and the game we play today was not immediate, and many years passed before Ontario soccer joined the mainstream.
One year after the game played in the Queen City, the first national soccer association, outside of the British Isles, was formed. It was known as the Dominion Football Association. Unfortunately, it was short-lived and had faded away by the time 1881 rolled around. But before then, something far more significant had happened. The Western Football Association was formed in Berlin (now Kitchener) in 1880. “Football”? Yes, the official name for soccer is Association Football, and in the early years, and at least up until World War Two, it was known as that in Canada. Soccer is a colloquialism formed from the second syllable of the word “association.”
The Western Football Association was founded by the great David Forsyth, one of the most influential men in the history of Canadian sport. It operated in all the towns and villages west of Berlin, places you rarely, if ever, hear of today in connection with soccer. But the WFA thrived in the summer months, and was to a certain extent based in schools. One of these was Forsyth’s Berlin High School. Another was just south of Berlin in Galt, where “Tassie’s School,” Galt Collegiate Institute, took to the game like a duck to water. West of Berlin, it was the same with Seaforth Collegiate Institute, and similarly in Clinton and further south in Woodstock and Ingersoll. But small towns also embraced the game, places like Listowel, Brussels, Milverton, Mildmay, Ayr, Plattsville, Aylmer and Atwood.
Aylmer staged the first international soccer game played in Canada in 1888, with Canada playing the United States, and later that same year, a team made up of players from the WFA toured Britain with great success. However, before that time, the WFA had established a relationship with the American Football Association south of the border, and in 1885 and 1886, a team representing the WFA travelled to New Jersey to play. That in turn brought teams from the U.S. to Ontario, and those teams played in Berlin, Galt, Toronto and Seaforth. Later, teams from as far west as Detroit joined the WFA, and the WFA clubs travelled to Chicago and St. Louis.
While the WFA functioned west of Toronto, the Central Football Association operated in Toronto and just east of the city, while the Eastern Football Association was centred in Cornwall. All of this activity eventually led to the founding of the Ontario Association Football League in 1901, with David Forsyth as the guiding light. While it was known as the Association Football League (as were most soccer/football organizations formed in Canada in those days), the term “league” had nothing to do with a league as we think of it today. League in this sense referred to groups working together towards a common goal.
The founding of the OAFL saw the emergence of Galt Football Club as one of Canada’s first great teams. Known in some quarters as “The Galt Porridge Eating Invincibles,” Galt (today a part of the City of Cambridge), dominated the Ontario Cup in 1901, 1902 and 1903, and then won an Olympic Gold Medal at the 1904 Olympic Games held in St. Louis, Missouri.
But one year later, when the Pilgrims, the first English touring team, came to Canada, something rarely mentioned before came to light. Canadian Rules. It seems that over time, teams in Ontario had begun playing to a somewhat different set of rules to those in use elsewhere, at least in Britain. These rules (or to give them their correct name – Laws), permitted more violent play than the laws in use in Britain — laws that allowed for hacking at players’ legs and tripping, while it was quite alright to jump on the back of the player with the ball. The Pilgrims objected. Controversy ensued, but the games seem to have been played at least partly under Canadian Rules. While the Pilgrims were beaten by the Berlin Rangers 2–1, it was the game against Galt that really mattered, a game billed as being “For the Championship of the World.” Played at beautiful Dickson Park on the banks of the Grand River, the game attracted over 3000 spectators and ended in a 3–3 tie.
Four years later saw the beginning of the end for Canadian Rules as a Scot named Tom Robertson fought for and formed the Toronto and District League playing British rules in opposition to the Toronto League, playing Canadian rules. Eventually Robertson prevailed, and the two organizations joined forces. Robertson then went on to become the secretary of the Toronto and District League and then of the Ontario Football Association and finally to help found the Dominion of Canada Football Association, today’s Canadian Soccer Association, in 1912. But soon after that, the clouds of war cast a dark shadow over all of Canada, and led to the deaths of almost an entire generation of young Canadians, many of them soccer players.
( courtesy of, Canadiansoccerhistory.com)
Football is an important theme in the novel, Flowers of the Forest. The theme centres around Pte. Farquhar McLennan’s prodigious football skill. I used a little writer’s license, having him play his games at Ulster Stadium, which wasn’t built until years later. His skill was noticed by others, particularly, a certain Lt. Colonel in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. We will learn more about him later. Stay tuned.