The game is six degrees of Canadian history. Take two seemingly unrelated pieces of Canadian culture and connect the dots through various people, places and events to discover how they’re distantly — or maybe not so distantly — related. Along the way we visit the quizzical and curious, the tragic and comic, and everything in between.
On 15 April 1947, Jackie Robinson played in his debut game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues in the modern era. Prior to that point, professional baseball in the United States was segregated, with African Americans playing in the Negro leagues. When Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier in 1947, he entered American history books. What many baseball fans may not realize, however, is that Robinson was embraced by Canadian fans one year earlier as a member of the Montreal Royals, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Canadian women have participated in every Olympic Winter Games since their inception in 1924. The first Canadian woman to medal at the Games was figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, who won gold in 1948. Her success was followed by gold medals in such sports as alpine skiing (e.g., Anne Heggtveit in 1960 and Nancy Greene in 1968), speed skating (e.g., Catriona Le May Doan in 1998 and 2002 and Cindy Klassen in 2006), biathlon (Myriam Bédard 1994), and hockey (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014). Canadian women have also excelled in Olympic sports such as bobsled, snowboarding, short track speed skating, freestyle skiing, and curling. Since the 1948 Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Canadian women have won 88 Olympic medals, including 33 gold medals.
Ross Rebagliati, snowboarder, businessman (born 14 July 1971 in Vancouver, BC). Rebagliati won the first ever Olympic gold medal in snowboarding at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano. However, soon after his victory, the International Olympic Committee announced that he had tested positive for marijuana and would be stripped of his medal. Within a week, the decision had been overturned by the Court of Arbitration in Sport and his medal reinstated. In 2013, Rebagliati founded Ross’ Gold, a medical marijuana business. The company promotes the medical and recreational use of marijuana for athletes.
Mark Lee McMorris, Canadian snowboarder (born 9 December 1993 in Regina, Saskatchewan). McMorris competes in both big air and slopestyle snowboarding. He won the bronze medal for Canada in men’s slopestyle at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi and the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, as well as silver in men’s slopestyle at the 2013 FIS Snowboarding World Championships. He has also won multiple gold medals on the World Cup circuit and at the Winter X Games, Dew Tour and the Burton US Open Snowboarding Championships.
Dennis Lloyd (Denny) Morrison, speed skater (born 8 September 1985 in Chetwynd, BC). A four-time Olympic medalist in speed skating, Morrison won gold for Canada in the men’s team pursuit at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, with Mathieu Giroux and Lucas Makowsky. He also won silver in the men’s team pursuit at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin and two individual medals at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi: silver in the 1000m and bronze in the 1500m. Morrison has also won 11 career medals, including 2 gold medals, at the World Single Distances Speed Skating Championships and 57 career World Cup medals, including 16 gold medals, as of March 2018.
Alexandre Bilodeau, skier (born 8 September 1987 in Montréal, QC). Moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau was the first Canadian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal on home soil, when he won gold in moguls at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. He successfully defended his gold medal at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.
Danielle Goyette, hockey player, coach (born 30 January 1966 in Saint-Nazaire d'Acton, QC). Goyette was a member of the Canadian women’s national hockey team from 1991 to 2008. In 172 international matches, she won eight world championships, twenty gold medals, and four silver medals. She is a member of the Quebec Sports Hall of Fame, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame. Goyette was named to the Order of Hockey in Canada in 2018.
Mikaël Kingsbury, freestyle skier (born 24 July 1992 in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, QC). Kingsbury won the silver medal in men’s moguls at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi and the gold medal in moguls at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang. In International Ski Federation (FIS) World Cup competition, he has won six Crystal Globes as the overall champion of freestyle skiing (2012–2017) and the World Cup moguls title for seven straight years (2012–18). As of 16 January 2018, he had won a record 48 World Cup gold medals and 69 medals overall in moguls competition. Kingsbury has also won seven medals at the world championships.
Dr. James Naismith, physical educator, author, inventor, chaplain, physician (born 6 November 1861 in Almonte, Ontario; died 28 November 1939 in Lawrence, Kansas). Naismith is best known as the inventor of the sport of basketball. He established the basketball program at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he worked and lived for 41 years until his death on 28 November 1939. Naismith was posthumously inducted to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and in 1959 became the first member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. His original hand-written rules for the sport of basketball were sold at auction for $4.3 million, a sports memorabilia record.
Angela James, hockey player (born 22 December 1964 in Toronto, ON). Known as "the Wayne Gretzky of women's hockey," Angela James was a pioneering and dominant force in women's hockey during the 1980s and 1990s. James led the Canadian women’s hockey team to four world championships (1990, 1992, 1994, and 1997). She was also one of the first three women to be inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame. When James was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (in Toronto) in 2010, she was one of the first two women, the first openly gay player, and the second black athlete to ever be inducted.
Simon Whitfield, triathlete (born 16 May 1975 in Kingston, ON). Simon Whitfield is a four-time Olympian and Canada's first-ever Olympic gold medalist in triathlon. Whitfield won gold at the 2000 Olympic Summer Games in Sydney, the first year that the triathlon was an Olympic event. Although he did not medal at the 2004 Games in Athens, he sprinted to a silver medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing. Whitfield was the Canadian flag-bearer at the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London but crashed during the bicycle portion of the triathlon and was forced to pull out of the event. Whitfield has also amassed a total of 12 World Cup wins in addition to his gold and silver Olympic medals. He retired from competition in 2013 and was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
Lanny King McDonald, hockey player (right wing), hockey executive, humanitarian (born 16 February 1953 in Hanna, Alberta). Known for his talent, dedication and generosity — and his moustache — Lanny McDonald has thrilled hockey fans in Toronto, Calgary and across Canada since he first started playing in the National Hockey League. He began his NHL career in the 1970s with the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing alongside such stars as captain Darryl Sittler. However, McDonald is probably best remembered as captain of the Calgary Flames, with whom he won the Stanley Cup in 1989. He is also known for his charitable activity, particularly his lengthy involvement with the Special Olympics. He has received many honours, including the NHL’s King Clancy Memorial Trophy (1988) in recognition of his leadership and his humanitarian contributions. He is also a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame (1992), the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame (1993) and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (2017).
Montgomery (Bud) Wilson, figure skater (born 20 August 1909 in Toronto, ON; died 15 November 1964 in Lincoln, Massachusetts). Wilson was the first Canadian to place in the top three in the ISU World Figure Skating Championships when he finished second in 1932. He also won the Olympic bronze medal that year, becoming the first Canadian (and the first North American male) to win an Olympic medal in figure skating.
Harry Winston Jerome, OC, track and field athlete, consultant, teacher (born 30 September 1940 in Prince Albert, SK; died 7 December 1982 in Vancouver, BC). Three-time Olympian Harry Jerome won the bronze medal in the 100 m race at the 1964 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan. He also won gold medals at the 1966 Commonwealth Games and the 1967 Pan American Games. Jerome broke the Canadian record in the 220-yard dash when he was only 18 years old and set or equalled world records in the 60-yard indoor dash, the 100-yard dash, the 100 m sprint and the 440-yard relay. Following his retirement from competition, he promoted amateur and youth sport through national and provincial programs. Jerome also advocated for better support of Canadian athletes and for greater representation of ethnic minorities on Canadian television and advertising. He was the recipient of numerous honours and awards, including the Order of Canada.
Barbara Howard, athlete, educator (born 8 May 1920 in Vancouver, BC; died 26 January 2017 in Vancouver). Barbara Howard is believed to be the first Black female athlete to represent Canada in international competition. At only 17 years old, she broke the British Empire record for the 100-yard dash, qualifying to represent Canada at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. At the Games, she finished sixth in the 100-yard race but won silver and bronze medals as part of the 440-yard and 660-yard relay teams. Howard never competed in the Olympic Games, which were cancelled in 1940 and 1944 because of the Second World War. In 1941, she became the first member of a visible minority to be hired by the Vancouver School Board. She had a 43-year career in education, including 14 years as a physical education teacher, before retiring in 1984.
Sam Langford, boxer (born 4 March 1886 in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia; died 12 January 1956 in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Langford was a professional boxer who competed across multiple weight classes during his 24-year career. A well-rounded boxer with fierce punching power, Langford often found success against much larger opponents and garnered praise as a fearless competitor. Despite an impressive winning record and praise from icons of the sport, Langford faced racial barriers that prevented him from competing for a title during an era when White champion boxers didn’t want to be seen losing to Black opponents. Though he was crowned heavyweight champion of England, Australia, Canada and Mexico, Langford is considered one of the best fighters never to win a title in the United States. Langford lost his vision during a fight later in his career, which ultimately forced his retirement. He was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955, one year before his death. Langford’s professional record varies depending on the source — with the most comprehensive listing 214-46-44 with 138 knockouts. Some historians contend that Langford may have fought in over 600 matches.