The very first game of modern football was played between Harvard and McGill in 1874. The rules evolved throughout the game.
Football, hockey and basketball
McGill is a place where people come to hone their intellects and exchange ideas. But hard work needn’t come at the expense of hard play—and McGillians certainly like to exercise more than just their minds. In addition to being home to exceptional student teams, and alma mater to many star athletes and coaches, McGill has also played a key role in the creation of three pillars of sport.
The world's first football game
The very first modern football games were played in Cambridge, Massachusetts on May 14 and 15, 1874*, between McGill University and a squad from Harvard. This “foot-ball” diversion, as Harvard’s Magenta newspaper called it, was still in its infancy, and the rules evolved even as the match progressed. In fact, the Harvard squad so enjoyed the Canadian innovations (running with the ball, downs and tackling) that they introduced them into a match with Yale the following year—and thus, college football took root in America. Although the Redmen and the Crimson no longer butt helmets on the gridiron, the McGill/Harvard rivalry lives on in an annual rugby match for the Peter Covo Memorial Cup, founded in 1974 in honour of the legendary McGill rugby coach and professor. Harvard may have won that first football game (3-0) back in 1874, but McGill leads the Covo series, having won 17 of 30 games.
Writing the rules of hockey
McGill is arguably the birthplace of hockey—although Kingston, Halifax, Dartmouth and perhaps Windsor have also laid claim to that title, depending upon how hockey is defined. But one thing is certain: McGillians certainly had a hand in shaping the sport as it’s played today. The first game of organized indoor hockey took place on March 3, 1875, at the Victoria Skating Rink in downtown Montreal. Civil engineer James Creighton, BCL1880, organized the game, and many of the players who took part were McGill students. The world’s first official hockey team, the McGill Hockey Club, made its debut two years later and some of the players—Richard F. Smith, BSc1883, W. F. Robertson, BSc1880, and W. L. Murray—helped refine the rules, including the introduction of a rubber puck, carved out of a lacrosse ball. In 1911, Frank Patrick, BA1908, and his brother Lester (he dropped out of McGill to play professionally) created the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, which rivaled the National Hockey Association (soon to be the National Hockey League), thanks in large part to the Patricks’ innovations: Canada’s first artificial ice hockey rinks, penalty shots, numbered jerseys, “on-the-fly” line changes, assists and the blue line. The Patrick brothers sold their league (and its rules) to the NHL in 1926, and both men were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
James Naismith, BA1887, would probably have difficulty imagining how popular basketball is today—let alone wrap his head around LeBron James's salary. While working at a Massachusetts YMCA in 1891, the McGill grad was ordered to invent an “athletic distraction” for rowdy kids trapped indoors by the harsh winter. His boss gave him two weeks. Wanting to make a game “fair for all players and free of rough play,” and noting that athletes tend to get battered close to where the scoring take place, Naismith placed his goal high out of reach: to score, players had to throw a soccer ball into a peach basket suspended 10 feet in the air. Naismith never had the pleasure of lacing up a pair of Jordans, but he did see his humble creation become an Olympic sport.
*Edited May 14, 2021