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The History of McGill Athletics

Published: 19 December 2003

By Tom Thompson & Earl Zukerman

Sports in Montreal started as a feature of community activities for entertainment or competition. It was natural that sports became an important part of the community activity in winter with variations of hockey and in summer with rudimentary rugby, soccer, and the early version of the game of baseball. McGill students participated informally in many of these activities in the late 1840's and early 1850's.

In the 1870s, McGill students played a prominent role in the founding of football and hockey.

Basketball was invented by McGill graduate James Naismith in 1891.

After graduating, other famous names with ties to McGill's intercollegiate sports like Molson, Birks, Redpath, Notman, Pitfield, Rothschild, Cleghorn, Chippindale and Tilden, among others, went on to become household names in the business community.

McGill's gift to the world isn't only from the playing fields. The university list also includes one prime minister and six Nobel prize winners among the many who have studied or taught at this hallowed institute of learning.


In the 1860's the McGill students took advantage of the Montreal Gym Club and began regular exercise programs called "physical jerks". This became more of a McGill project when Frederick Barnjum established gym classes three times a week in 1880. When it was no longer possible for Barnjum to continue his classes, James Naismith, a young McGill graduate and a dedicated athlete, took over as director of physical training for McGill in 1889.

Concurrently, the students formalized their annual athletics competitions by establishing the McGill University Athletics Association in 1884. This was the first student athletics association in Canada.

Two years later, following the admission of women students at McGill in 1884, women developed their own McGill tennis and sports activities. When the Royal Victoria College was opened in 1900 they started the RVC Athletics Club.

In this way McGill women "never walked very warily" in the pursuit of athletics. In 1888 the Faculty of Arts passed a resolution "that if a number of women students being willing to form a class in gymnastics on the same terms of payment as the men, the Faculty will recommend to the governors that the necessary arrangements be made". Students paid the costs of their enthusiasm for sports.


Athletics was a formal part of McGill life from 1860. McGill's students took part in the first organized game of ice hockey in 1875, established and modified the first codified ice hockey rules a number of times between 1873 and 1886, formed the first organized hockey team in 1877, were instrumental in the organization of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada in 1886 and its major re-draft of hockey rules and played Harvard in the first North American style football game in 1874.

Also, James Naismith, a notable McGill athlete in gymnastics and rugby-football, became the first director of physical training at McGill. In 1891, he invented the game of basketball, which was first played on the McGill campus in 1893.

The annual McGill University Athletics Association competition became the highlight of the school year.


Throughout the university's history, men and women of vision have worked hard to ensure that athletics thrived at McGill.

One outstanding student athlete and leader, who who had won many trophies for McGill, was Captain Percival Molson. He took initiatives as a governor of McGill and played a key role in the construction of a football facility, then known as McGill Graduates' Stadium, which was initially opened in 1914 and built on Macdonald Park, which had been donated in 1911 by Sir William C. Macdonald. That parcel of land was bordered by an area bounded on the south by Pine Avenue, on the west by University Street, and to the north and east by Mount Royal.

(Over the years McGill did sell some of that property which more recently caused a problem for the development of the new Sports Centre in 1985-86).

The Stadium sat dormant through the war and Molson, who was decorated as a hero in World War I, was killed in action in 1917. In his will was a generous bequest of $75,000 for the Stadium, which was completed and re-dedicated in his memory in 1919.

Macdonald paid for the completion of Molson Stadium and Percy Erskine Nobbs, a professor of design in the school of architecture at the time, designed the stadium and its fieldhouse.

In 1939, a new era of athletics was ushered in when the Sir Arthur Currie Memorial Gymnasium-Armoury was constructed on the north side of Pine Avenue, just east of University Street. Sir Arthur Currie, for whom the gym was named, had been a highly-decorated general in World War I, after which he became principal of McGill from 1920 to 1933, the year of his death.

The new gymnasium became the appropriate home to the offices of the Department of Physical Education as well as Intercollegiate Athletics, Intramurals and Student Services programs.

Also, McGill played an important role with the Candian armed forces and the Currie Gym was linked with the physical training headquarters for Canadian Officers Training program.

The Gymnasium was paid for in part by a posthumous donation from Lord Strathcona, a long-standing benefactor of McGill, and in part by the Graduate Society which had been raising money and planning for years for this facility. In 1935, the Society held a competition for the best gym design among architectural graduates of McGill; the winner was commissioned to build the Gymnasium. Work on this brick structure was advanced rapidly with the onset of World War II in 1939.

Due to its function and the limited funds at the time, no ornamentation was to be found throughout the structure and the swimming pool was not started. The gym ceiling is supported by trusses so that no pillars disturb the floor space.

In 1947, the gym was extended and the swimming pool and the Memorial Hall were installed. The marble-floored Hall contains paintings of McGill's history and a wall of the names of all the graduates who gave their lives in the two World Wars. In 1994, an indoor track and tennis courts were added to the east end of the Gymnasium complex by the firm of Werlman and Guy.


The success of sports at McGill has resulted from the combined and concurrent efforts of many who developed physical training for women, teacher education, compulsory sports, intercollegiate leagues, and other variations on the need for a balanced sports program for students at the university.

The success of Coach 'Shag' Shaughnessy -- who in 1912 became the first professional college coach in Canada -- and others involved in the sports programs, led to a formal, organized Athletics Department when Major D. Stuart Forbes, an architect, was appointed the first Athletics Manager in 1923. The McGill Athletics Board was established in 1924 to provide guidance to an increasingly active program and to coordinate the role of McGill athletes in the Montreal community.

The director of women's physical education in 1939-40 paved the way for a more active program of teaching, teacher education, and direct sports programs on an intercollegiate basis for women. The entire program with few exceptions was funded by the success of gate receipts for major sports events, and pay as you go, sports clubs.


In 1947, Vic Obeck took over the headcoaching reigns of the football Redmen after a successful head football coaching stint at Columbia University. He was appointed Director of Athletics at McGill in 1949 and with his skill in promotion oversaw the construction of the south stands at Molson Stadium. He also enlarged the north-side stands, and established his own sports television program in 1953, which he promoted from the Sir Arthur Currie Gymnasium. His conflict of interest as General Manager of the Montreal Alouettes football club necessitated an administrative change at McGill in 1954.

Harry Griffiths was appointed director of athletics in 1955 and had to deal with the increasing influence of television and professional sports on all areas of athletics including McGill's, own athletics facilities. Although these were shared at times by the Alouettes which was a new source of funding, the university embarked on a fledgling athletic fee to cover costs from declining McGill gate receipts.

In 1956, J.W. McConnell, a tremendous benefactor of the University, donated McConnell Winter Stadium just northeast of the Gymnasium. This structure, built by McDougall, Fleming, and Smith, has an arched roof so that the entire interior can be used for stands and a hockey rink.

The School of Physical Education moved from the downtown McGill campus to the suburban Macdonald College campus and back downtown. After it was came under the domain of the Faculty of Education, a number of other changes occurred among students within the university. Sports became less of a focus for spectators and more of an emphasis was placed on participation.

The traditional student leadership is sports organization and decision-making was in sharp contrast to other areas of McGill such as the Senate, Board of Governors, etc. Demand for change seemed the order of the day.

The crunch came in 1970 when the Quebec government had begun its pressure on McGill and deficit financing started at the university. The University's Board of Governors cancelled funding to intercollegiate sports to save $300,000 in the strapped university budget.

The response of the university community was a vigorous defence of intercollegiate sports by the Martlet Foundation, graduate volunteers, donors, and many students. The result was increased formalized athletic fees combined with donations and an agreement with McGill to keep athletics going and to reintroduce intercollegiate sports and to remove required sports training.


In December 1976, Robert Dubeau was appointed Director of Athletics, working alongside Harry Griffiths who officially retired in February, 1977.

The assistant Director of Athletics was Gladys Bean, the previous Director of Women's Athletics. In 1977 the men's and women's athletics boards were combined to become known as the McGill Athletics Board.

At the same time, membership in the Student's Athletics Council covered men and women students. This was true of other areas including the swimming, diving and track & field teams, among others, together with a natural evolution of athletics back to "the pay as you go" arrangement of the years prior to 1949. This was balanced by a payment for use of athletics facilities for academic purposes.


In the Spring of 1982, with the initiative of the Students' Athletics Council, a group of students guided a referendum question which was unanimously approved by the students of McGill, confirming a plan to contribute a specified fee each term for 10 years towards the redevelopment of the McGill Sports Complex.

Such an initiative had never before been seen across Canada and it reflected the perseverance and determination of students to upgrade the out-of-date athletics facilities at McGill and recognize the trend back to personal fitness for all. Their initiative helped to launch the McGill Advancement Campaign a year later, which took on the task of matching and exceeding the gifts by students to have a combined total of $10 million towards the proposed new athletics centre.

Over the intervening years, after overcoming some political problems in the neighbourhood, and the inadequate strategy with which McGill administration pursued the project, a prolonged delay was finally overcome in order that construction could begin in 1991.


The new sports complex took on an even greater momentum and the construction went well beyond the $10 million that students originally projected in 1982 and it was decided to complete the facilities in various phases as more funding became available. In 1992, construction covering Phase 2 began an odyssey towards a $32 million dollar project. In 1994, the Fieldhouse and its indoor track was completed.

The McGill Sports Centre now houses the Seagram's Sports Science Centre, the Sports Medicine Clinic, the Cleghorn Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment Lab, the Weider Varsity Weight room, the Winsor Varsity Clinic, the Tomlinson Fieldhouse, the Lorne Webster Squash Courts, and a McGill Fitness Centre.

This latter project was made possible through a third referendum in 1997 which saw McGill students once again take the initiative towards completion of this significant project to enhance fitness and personal development.

The McGill budget constraints, combined with the growing number of varsity teams (currently at 46), increasingly pressured the Department of Athletics to initiate budgetary measures, such as designating the varity teams into Tier 1 versus Tier 2 sports, for purposes of funding and complementary resources.

In 1998 with the appointment of a Manager of Marketing and Promotions the activities of sports information and communication was expanded to reinforce the good work of all the coaching, instructional, and recreation staff to emphasize the wide diversity of programs in the Department of Athletics. The new age of sports at McGill is beginning to resemble the early days of sports whereby basic costs of programs were covered by participants and gate receipts.

The McGill Athletics Department continues to be an oasis for many in a challenging and hectic academic program. Students continue to use the facilities for exams and Tomlinson Hall has become one of the most attractive reception areas in the university. The indoor track is one of the best in the country and the final phase of improvements for the McGill Sports Centre is anticipated when fundraising projects is completed.

In 1996, the department introduced a McGill Sports Hall of Fame, located in Tomlinson Hall, which has become an outstanding setting to showcase the exceptional record of athletics achievements over more than a century of time.

In 2005, the department introduced a McGill


- 1851 Montreal Y.M.C.A. offered programs to McGill men. Soldiers Stationed in Montreal. Community Competition and Entertainment. Play Fields Established; Official and Unofficial. International 'Y' movement promoted gymnastics
- Montreal Gym Club, 1850, 1860-61 "physical jerks" for McGill Students "pay as you go"

- 1863 Exercise classes for McGill men at the Y.

- 1873 a group of McGill undergraduates won the James Gordon Bennett challenge cup for a two mile race in Springfield, Massachusetts. The win over teams from Harvard, Amherst, Cornell, Princeton and Yale aroused so much interest on campus, back in Montreal, that officials decided to organize a "Field Day". The event became an annual staple, pitting the faculties of Arts, Sciences and Medicine against each other.

- 1874, McGill and Harvard play first North American style football game on May 13, 1874

- 1875, McGill students took part in first organized hockey game (March 3 at Victoria Skating Rink)

- 1877, McGill students formed first organized ice hockey team and codify first hockey rules. McGill defeats Montreal Victorias 1-0 in their first official game, played on January 31, 1877.

- 1880 Frederick S. Barnjum, gave classes 3 times a week at a rented McGill gym located at 19 University Street. A. McLaren from Oxford helped with the sports.

- 1881, McGill students posed for first hockey team photo

- 1883, McGill students won first hockey championship (Birks Winter Carnival Cup). James Naismith (BA 1887) won Wicksteed gold medal, awarded to the University's most outstanding athlete in the senior class

- 1884 McGill University Athletics Association, first such organization in Canada, was established to organize annual athletics competition. Women students admitted to McGill University.

- 1886, McGill students among founding members of first organized hockey league (CAHA) and play instrumental role in re-drafting of codified rules. Women's Tennis and Skating begins at McGill.

- 1889, Naismith appointed director of physical training at McGill.

- 1890, R. Tait McKenzie (BA 1889, MD 1892, LLD 1921) appointed first Medical Director of Physical Training

- 1891, James Naismith invents rules to basketball in Springfield, Mass.

- 1894, interfaculty basketball played at McGill

- 1886, Women's Tennis and Skating begins

- 1896, Women's hockey club formed

- 1898, Soccer, or "Association football", as it was known, made its first recorded appearance at McGill, when the team played exhibition games and participated in local summer leagues such as the Montreal City and District League. In the early years, the roster included mostly medical students because the medicine was the only faculty in session during the summer months

- 1899, McGill track & field team is founded

- 1900 McGill adopts new school colours of red and white, replacing previous chocolate and gules-coloured uniforms. R.V.C. Athletic Club, first exercise programs for women, established under guidance of Miss Holmstrum and Miss Lichtenstein

- 1902, the Canadian Intercollegiate Hockey Union, the first intercollegiate hockey league, was formed with McGill, Toronto and Queen's as the founding members.

- 1904, McGill met and defeated Queen's in the first-ever Canadian intercollegiate basketball game in Kingston, Ont., on February 6, 1904.

- 1905, Intercollegiate soccer play began. McGill teamed up for a single round-robin tournament with Queen's and the University of Toronto.

- 1906, Ethel Mary Cartwright at R.V.C., Director of Sports and Physical training for Women, started credit courses for Teachers. Cartwright was appointed as the first coordinator in Canada for sports and physical training for Women (First in Canada).

- 1909 compulsory Physical Training courses for women (another Canadian first); afternoon classes for teachers. Intercollegiate gate receipts helped to cover costs of athletics.

- 1911 parcel of land known as Macdonald Park (bordered by Pine Avenue, University Street, and Mount Royal Ave.) was donated by Sir William Macdonald, one of the University's most charitable friends. At one time, the Law family house and the Molson estate, named Piedmont, were located here.

- 1912 Dr. A. S. Lamb, appointed Director of Physical Education, Health, Intercollegiates and Intramural Sports, a post he held for 37 years.
- Frank "Shag" Shaughnessy becomes first "professional" college coach in Canada and leads team to win first of back-to-back Yates Cup championships.

- 1913 C.O.T.C. established at McGill pre War. A group of McGill graduates, led by Percival Molson, a former football, hockey and track star at McGill around the turn of the century, formed a committee to build a football stadium on land donated by Sir William Macdonald. Molson, a governor, was named chairman of the Stadium committee. The cost of levelling the ground for the field and surrounding track was offset by selling rock from the excavation. The university loaned the committee, chaired by Molson, $75,000 to build the 8,000 seat concrete grandstand which rises in 38 tiers on the north side of the field. It was estimated that the income from gate receipts would be sufficient to pay off this loan over a period of years. During the course of construction a large number of graduates made individual pledges to cover the iterest on the loan. Percy Erskine Nobbs, a Professor of Design in the School of Architecture at the time, designed the stadium and its fieldhouse. The stadium today is unchanged, except that its stands are much higher than was originally intended. They partially block the view from Douglas Hall, a residence to the north of the stadium.

- 1914, Montreal General Hospital and McGill School of Physical Education offered a combined "Remedial" Program which gained importance in the war. The Canadian Officers Training Corps (C.O.T.C.) was established at McGill.

- 1917 Percival Molson received the Military Cross for gallantry and distinguished conduct and was killed in action on July 5, 1917 in Avion, France. He left a $75,000 bequest for the Stadium, which discharged theinitial financial obligation from the graduates

- 1919 Graduates Stadium re-dedicated at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium. McGill Football Team wins Yates Cup championship. McGill School of Physical Education established under Faculty of Medicine

- 1921 McGill hosts Syracuse in football game where first forward pass is attempted in Canada by quarterback Boo Anderson. Physical Education graduates officially become part of the McGill Convocation.

- 1923 Athletics Board established and was chaired by Principal Sir Arthur Currie. Major D. Stuart Forbes appointed athletics manager and F. Van Wagner appointed head basketball coach

- 1926 Hay Finlay, first male graduate of the McGill School of Physical Education, joined Athletics Department staff.

- 1927 Miss J. S. Herriott replaced E. Mary Cartwright

- 1929 nickname "Red men" (i.e. two separate words) was first used at McGill in reference to their red uniforms. Over the next few years, they formally adopted the nickname "Redmen".

- 1931 After 10 years of lobbying from Frank Shaughnessy, the forward pass is formally adopted by the Canadian Rugby Football Union.

- 1939 Iveagh Munro, appointed Director, Women's Physical Education. Sir Arthur Currie Memorial Gymnasium Armourary opened. The Gymnasium was paid for in part by a posthumous donation from Lord Strathcona, a long-standing benefactor of McGill, and in part by the Graduate Society which had been raising money and planning for years for this facility. Lord and Lady Strathcona made gifts of $118,992 for the armoury-drill hall and the Graduates' Society having raised $195, 628 in a campaign to build the gymnasium. Work on this brick structure was advanced rapidly with the onset of World War II in 1939. Due to its function and the limited funds at the time, no ornamentation was to be found throughout the structure and the swimming pool was not started. The gym ceiling is supported by trusses so that no pillars disturb the floor space.

- 1946 Dawson College for post war veterans at St-Johns. E. M. Orlick, Director of Sports at Dawson

- 1947 The Currie Gym was extended and the swimming pool and the Memorial Hall were initiated. The marble-floored Hall contains paintings of McGill's history and a wall of the names of all the graduates who gave their lives in the two World Wars.
- Vic Obeck, head football coach from New York University, was appointed new McGill football coach. J. B. Kirkpatrick appointed Director, School of Physical Education. Women's Athletics Board established.

- 1948 Vic Obeck initiated and oversaw construction of south-side stands for molson Stadium.

- 1949 Vic Obeck appointed Director of Athletics; B. Kirkpatrick named Director of the School of P.E. Women's Athletics Board; established separate from the McGill Athletics Board.

- 1950 War Memorial swimming pool (six lanes, 25 yards) was officially opened on December 9, 1950 in memory of the McGill men and women who gave their lives during World Wars I and II. The cost was $727, 249 and again it was borne by subscriptions from members of the Graduates' Society.

- 1953 TV in Montreal, Vic Obeck sports program televised from McGill University

- 1955 Harry E. Griffiths appointed Director of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation and Iveagh Munro appointed Director, School of Physical Education for teachers. A sports fee established for all students. Gate receipts dropping!

- 1956, Official opening of McConnell Winter Stadium on Nov. 30, 1956 by Chancellor B.C. Gardner. This structure, built by McDougall, Fleming, and Smith, has an arched roof so that the entire interior can be used for stands and a hockey rink. This building, along with the gym and stadium, continues to satisfy the students' need for recreation and activity. The arena was built at a cost of more than $500,000, financed entirely by senior governor J.W. McConnell. Douglas W. Ambridge, president of the Graduates' Society, dropped the puck at the ceremonial faceoff before a sold-out crowd of 1,159 spectators that saw Toronto defeat McGill 4-2.

- 1958 Professor Winona Wood appointed Director, Department of Physical Education, Institute of Education at Macdonald/McGill.

- 1959, the Weston Pool opened.

- 1965 Dr. R. E. Wilkinson, Chairman, Department of Physical Education, Faculty of Education at McGill University (new building addition to Gym)

- 1970 McGill Athletics fee a "book entry" for all students. But budget pressure forced cancellation of Intercollegiate Athletics.

- 1970-71 The Committee for the Coordination of Student Services was established to guide student fee assessment for all student services.

- 1971-72 Redmen swim team becomes first McGill sports team to win CIAU championship

- 1976 Bob Dubeau was appointed director of athletics. Dr. Gladys Bean, Assistant Director of Athletics. Professor Doug Riley, Chairman, Department of Physical Education at McGill.

- 1977 The McGill Athletics Board was reorganized to include representation from men, women, the Martlet Foundation, the Graduates' Society and the McGill Alumni Association. Also, the Student Athletics Council was reconfigured to combine the men's and women's councils.

- 1982 Student Athletics Committee, led by Robert Smith, Dana Reid, Lori Henritzy and Larry Rush, coordinated a referendum campaign to encourage a campus-wide student fee assessment to refurbish the antiquated Currie Gym athletics complex. After numerous delays, the project was finally approved in 1983-84, and over the next decade, students contributed some $4,115,000 through special fees. This was believed to be the first major student support projects in Canada.

- 1982-83 Redmen soccer team wins back-to-back CIAU championships.

- 1983 - McGill Advancement Program Capital Campaign launched with the Athletics Complex goal of $10 million dollars (4 from students 6 million from private support). The MAP Capital Campaign generated $5,126,000 from the Molson Foundation and Molson Family, in addition to $1,526,000 from Seagram's Limited.

- 1987 football Redmen become first Quebec team to win CIAU championship

- 1991 War Memorial swimming pool was gutted and replaced by a new eight-lane, 25-metre Memorial pool with an Omega electronic timing board. The construction of a new pool was the first of a long overdue four-phase project to upgrade the McGill sports facilities.

- 1992, the Students Athletics Council endorsed and earned campus-wide support to continue the athletics referendum fee assessment until 1997 for an additional $2 million.

- 1992-97 the McGill Twenty-First Century Fund campaign raised funds for the Winsor Varsity Clinic, the Webster Squash Courts, Donald Love Competition Hall, Tomlinson Hall, Weider Fitness Centre, the Molson Sports Room, the C.O.T.C. lounge renovations, and additional building funds. During the same period, the Martlet Foundation raised one million dollars to establish a Martlet Members Endowment Fund to promote athletics projects and Martlet Scholarships.

- 1992 Students Athletics Council endorsed and earned campus- wide support to continue the Athletics Referendum fee assessment untill 1997 for an additional $2 million for the sports centre.

- 1993 McGill Campaign launched with new students referendum commitment. The redeveloped swimming pool reopened in the Spring as Phase I of construction.

- 1994 official dedication of indoor track and tennis courts in the east end of the Gymnasium complex by the firm of Werlman and Guy. The Phase II of the Sports Centre almost completed and the new Fieldhouse opened in the Fall with a one-mile race won by McGill track star Linda Thyer. The event and the efforts of the students were recognized with a souvenir publication.
- (Spring) The Seagram Sports Science Centre opened.

- 1995 The new McGill fieldhouse was dedicated in January, 1995, as an extension to the Sir Arthur Currie Gym. The fieldhouse, which measures 100m x 55m, contains a 200-metre, 5-lane banked running track. In addition, there were convertable courts for volleyball, basketball, badminton, tennis, racquetball, squash and indoor soccer, in addition to a dance studio and a weight room. The exterior of the Sports Centre was designed to blend into the mountain and to sympathize with the local architecture. Also, the Sports Medicine Clinic and Tomlinson Hall opened. Donald Love Competition Hall was constructed for basketball, volleyball and other events with spectator capacity raging up to 1,500 seats.

- 1997 Redmen soccer team wins CIAU championship. The Cleghorn Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment Lab opened.

- 1998 completion of the Webster squash and racquetball courts, plus fitness and dance studios, gymnastics and multipurpose rooms, in addition to team meeting rooms, equipment rooms, laundry rooms, storage rooms and locker rooms.

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