NEWS
07/24/2011 04:54 EDT | Updated 09/20/2011 05:12 EDT

Sports In Canada: The Games We Play

It turns out that Canada’s national sport is older than people think.

Further research, says Randy Radonich, shows it dates to the 1600s, and players used two sticks – one in each hand.

No, Radonich is not talking about hockey. He is talking about Canada’s other national sport – lacrosse.

“We’re known as the summer sport, and that’s what we’re designated as,” says Radonich, chairman of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame based in New Westminster, B.C.

According to parliamentary decree, he notes, hockey is the official winter sport while lacrosse (the indoor “box” version played on rinks when the ice is taken out) holds the honour in warmer months. Times have changed though. While senior semi-pro (officially amateur) circuits contend for the Mann Cup in warmer months, the National Lacrosse League season spans winter months.

Story continues after the slideshow.

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Radonich is looking forward to the day when the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame moves from its spot in a community centre on a quiet street in New Westminster, B.C., to a new location in the city’s downtown in 2013.

Based on lacrosse’s rich history, it’s hard to refute its No. 2 ranking. For Canadians of a certain vintage, the two sports’ No. 1 and No. 2 rankings have always been thus. But there’s no shortage of current and former athletes who believe that their sport deserves to be No. 2.

Their contrasting comments raise an interesting question: How do you define a national sport?

SOCCER RULES, SAYS DEROSARIO

Dwayne DeRosario, a Scarborough, Ont., native who serves as star midfielder with D.C. United of Major League Soccer, believes the beautiful game deserves No. 1 honours, because more kids play youth soccer than minor hockey. But Vancouver Whitecaps assistant coach Colin Miller, who emigrated to Vancouver from Scotland at the age of 10 and also played and coached with Canada’s senior men’s team, defines a national sport differently.

“A national sport is participation and success at club and national-team level,” says Miller. “That’s how I would gauge it – because that’s how it’s gauged all over the world.”

Accordingly, he says Canadian soccer needs to show improvement on the world stage – and polish its profile domestically.

Since the collapse of the North American Soccer League in the early 1980s, many Canadian soccer prospects have fallen through the cracks because they did not have an established pro league in which to play. Various circuits, including the Canadian Soccer League struggled for survival and did not offer a chance to earn a decent living, so players headed elsewhere.

Miller, 47, was one of them. Draft by the NASL’s at the age of 17, he returned to his native Scotland to play. Fortunately, he had that option, but many others did not have a league to aspire to. Not surprisingly, Canada’s senior men’s squad has failed to reach the World Cup since 1986, when Miller was a member of the squad.

But with the expansion Whitecaps playing their first MLS season and the Montreal Impact slated to begin play there next season, more Canadian kids coming through youth and provincial programs now have a realistic chance of a pro career in Canada.

“Now, you’re starting to see players become really interested in the MLS, because they could, potentially, make a living out of it,” says Miller. “With the greatest respect to some of the various leagues that some of the Canadian teams have played in and, in fact, I coached in last year in USL Division 1, it didn’t get the recognition that it deserved. It wasn’t a high-profile league. But now, all of a sudden, there’s players coming into the MLS. There’s big-money players in the MLS and the exposure throughout North America is fantastic.”

The more success the Canadian franchises have, the more media exposure they’ll get. But national team success is still required for soccer to be No. 2 in Canada.

“It’s a vicious circle,” says Miller. “If there’s no success at the national-team level, then people don’t see it at the national-team level. Other teams survive on their national teams doing well. Personally, I would love to see players hungry to play. In my opinion, I think (the hunger) has been lacking over the last few years. So I’d like to see us get back to playing the way we did when we were playing (in the World Cup), which wasn’t that long ago. Playing for the jersey rather than trying to get a first-class seat, or something like that, in the airplane. Coming back and making a commitment to better the game.”

Whitecaps midfielder Terry Dunfield, a Vancouver native who spent the past 13 seasons playing in England, said Canada should be proud of the high number of minor soccer registrations. But soccer’s ranking among national sports has not changed much since he went overseas. The time has come, he says, for the country to produce more elite players who can compete internationally.

“We’ll start to put ourselves on the map – the soccer map, anyway – a little bit more,” says Dunfield. “The best way to do that is to try to do well in the Gold Cup or qualify for a World Cup or have more and more Canadians play in the top leagues in the world as well.”

BUONO: NO NEED TO RANK

If you believe Canada’s unique brand of three-down football deserves to be No. 2, you are not alone. But B.C. Lions general manager and coach Wally Buono is not among your clan. The Canadian Football League legend says fans should not have to compare hockey and football’s popularity to each other.

“I wanted to be a hockey player,” he confesses. “I’ve loved hockey since I was yay-high and I’ve loved football since I was yay-high. If I’m going to support one, I’m going to support the other. I don’t have to make a choice. I don’t want to make a choice (about who’s No. 1 or No. 2).”

Buono says that, as a Canadian, he was proud of the Vancouver Canucks as they took the Boston Bruins to seven games in the Stanley Cup finals. But there is no need to rank either sport.

The CFL is just part of Canada’s cultural fabric.

“The CFL is Canadian, and it’s been Canadian for 99 years,” says Buono, who grew up in Montreal and played for the Alouettes before he became a coach. “As much as it’s had its ups and downs, it’s part of the Canadian culture. When I was in Quebec, it united the province. East, West, they had tremendous rivalries, but it always united the country. It is a Canadian icon. It is. It’s a Canadian tradition, and a lot of people get their back up against the wall when people start to talk (negatively) about it. There’s a tremendous amount of passion and a tremendous amount of loyalty.”

Can the same be said for basketball, a sport invented by Canadian James Naismith?

CLUB SYSTEM KEY, SAYS HANSEN

Lars Hansen, who won a National Basketball Association title with the Seattle Supersonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) in 1979, played for Canada and excelled in Europe, says the game is still struggling to gain a foothold in this country – “which is a bloody shame.”

“The landscape hasn’t changed,” says Hansen, a Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame member. “What’s the answer? Club system. We certainly have the facilities for it.”

The 56-year-old Coquitlam, B.C., native now runs a youth basketball development program and coaches a high school team when he isn’t working as a painter. (He’s in demand to do ceilings because of his six-foot-10 frame.) He calls for a “cradle-to-the-grave” system like the ones he thrived under in Spain and Italy, where clubs develop players from the youth ranks right up to the pros.

For many Canadians youngsters, “the dream dies” after they finish high school.

“There’s just nothing for them,” he says. “It’s just a bitter wasteland.”

Hansen, who first played for Canada at age 17 in Mainland China, calls basketball “the game of diplomacy.” He says opening the doors to more young immigrant players, who have no place to play in their homelands but dream big, will also help the national men’s team re-live the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s, when it ranked among the world’s top 10.

“People don’t realize: We beat the Yugoslavians. We beat the Russians. We beat Cuba, which was a very good team, on a regular basis,” he recalls.

Now, Canada loses in international competition to Angola, Iran and other also-rans. Canada has not qualified for the Olympics since 2000 and Phoenix Suns superstar Steve Nash has refused to play for the team.

“We send these countries financial aid, but we can’t get to the Olympics and they can,” says Hansen.”

Food for thought as you try to figure out which national sport ranks No. 2 behind hockey.

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