Golden age of local soccer — years between the two world wars

by Bruce Cherney 

While most Canadians are glued to their television sets to view the Stanley Cup final, especially since the Edmonton Oilers are representing this nation’s hopes, the rest of the world is focussed on the World Cup in Berlin, Germany, which started this week.

The annual NHL championship is hard pressured to even register as an afterthought in the minds of the legions of soccer — a North American word; the rest of the world knows it  as football — fans across the globe. The World Cup is known in every country outside North America as the world’s greatest single sporting event.

Germany, which last hosted the World Cup in 1974, has been in the midst of a lengthy economic downturn and hopes a revival in its fortunes will result from hosting the 30-day every-four-years extravaganza. The nation has good reason to anticipate that the World Cup will be an economic gold mine since tens of thousands of fans from around the world will make the pilgrimage to 12 German stadiums to rabidly cheer on their favourite side. 

And, the television audience for what is called the “beautiful game” will be in the billions — the accumulative total over the 62 matches is expected to be over five billion in 200 countries where the telecasts are live. While over three-million Canadians tuned into the Grey Cup in November  last year and 95-million viewers world-wide watched this year’s Super Bowl, it is expected that the TV audience for the World Cup final will be over 300 million. 

In Brazil, it is believed that 90 per cent of all TVs will be turned to the World Cup when that nation plays its games. Expect something similar to happen in the other 31 countries whose teams are in the World Cup — the U.S. will be the exception, since like in Canada, soccer has yet to take off in popularity.

Meanwhile, World Cup fever will occur in Canada, but on a significantly diminished scale. For the most part, soccer remains the favoured sport among immigrants to this country and their Canadian-born children, who often watch World Cup matches at their local clubs, making a party out of the occasion.

Following the Mexico City World Cup in 1986 and Canada’s strong performance against some of the world’s best teams, it was expected that soccer would have gained a significant boost. That simply didn’t happen. The collapse of the major professional league across North America — it featured such international stars as Pele — and Canada’s failure to again appear in the World Cup have put soccer again on the backburner.

While soccer is exceedingly popular among this nation’s youth, including the high school level — it is the fastest growing sport for youngsters — it still hasn’t caught on among adults in a hockey-mad country.

Yet, there was a time when soccer was popular, especially in Manitoba ...

British troops and settlers brought versions of soccer and rugby to Canada  in the 18th century. While soccer had an early following, a uniquely Canadian version of rugby eventually surpassed soccer as the favourite sport among the university crowd. 

Over two days in May 1874, a friendly match was held between Montreal’s McGill University and Boston’s Harvard University. On the first day, Canadian football was played and on the second day regular soccer. While the soccer match ended with Harvard winning 3-0, Canadian football was deemed to be a superior game despite ending in a 0-0 draw. 

From that point on, Canadians and  Americans were focussed on the development of their own unique brands of North American football at the expense of soccer. 

Still, soccer didn’t disappear from the  landscape. Immigrants to Canada from  the British Isles retained their love of the  game and when other nations also became soccer mad, arrivals from these countries formed their own clubs and organizations. Italians, Scots, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Greeks, Germans, English, Irish, etc., all formed clubs in Winnipeg. 

By 1896, the Manitoba Football Association (later called the Manitoba Soccer Association) was formed to promote and govern soccer in the province. 

Manitoba was in the forefront of soccer organization in Canada and the first meeting of the Dominion Football Association (later Canadian Soccer Association) was held in Winnipeg in 1912. 

The Norwood Wanderers won the first two national championships held in 1913 and 1914. The Winnipeg Scottish followed with a national championship a year later. United Weston won championships in 1924 and 1926. 

Now in the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum from this period is Sam Davidson, who was born in 1886 in Balleymena, Northern Ireland. He came to live in Winnipeg in the early years of the 20th century and supported local soccer as a referee. 

John Easton, the president of the DFA, journeyed to Winnipeg seeking Davidson out as the secretary of the association. Davidson quit his job as a journeyman plumber and ran the association out of offices under the wooden stands of Carruthers Park. 

Thus Winnipeg and Carruthers Park were the home of the Canadian championships for years to follow with only occasional appearances in Toronto or Vancouver. 

Between the First and Second World wars, Davidson promoted the game, leading teams on cross-country tours. 

This period is termed the “Golden Age” of Manitoba soccer by Frank Jankac, a local historian. 

He said that during the period between the wars, crowds of 8,000 to 12,000 could be expected to attend games at Carruthers Park in the city’s North End. 

“A lot of the players came from the United Kingdom,” Jankac said, “and this was a time when professional leagues were being formed in the U.K. So when they came over here, you were recreating the atmosphere in the U.K.” 

He said for much of this period, soccer was actually more important than hockey, especially among the immigrant groups that also had a soccer tradition such as those from German, Holland and Poland. 

Soccer was so popular that special trams were put into service bringing working-class fans from the industrial areas of the city to Carruthers Park, Jankac added. 

He said it was a tense period in the social dynamic of the city but soccer seemed to be relatively immune from the clash between classes and ethnicity. 

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 had pitted workers against the ruling elite of the city. And, the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia brought on a fear that there was an alien menace comprised of immigrants from eastern Europe ready to tear asunder society’s fabric. 

The soccer pitch wasn’t confined to immigrant talent. Jankac said “Buzz” Horn was probably the best homegrown player ever developed. He started out playing with the St. John’s Tech School, advanced to the senior ranks and then went on before the start of the Second World War to play and work with the Dome Mines team in Quebec. 

Whenever he could, Horn came back to Winnipeg to help out with local soccer. 

In the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression, soccer players could make a lot  of money playing for industrial teams. 

Unfortunately, Horn died at sea during the Second World War. 

When the Second World War erupted, Davidson joined the Canadian Army. Without its greatest promoter, Carruthers Park was abandoned and sold for taxes and demolished, ending a soccer era in this province. 

Upon returning from the war, Davidson joined George Anderson in rejuvenating local soccer. 

Anderson, another inductee in the Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum, came to Canada in 1909 from Strichen (Fraserburg), Aberdeenshire, Scotland where he had been born on June 23, 1890. 

At first, he settled in Souris, Manitoba, where he was an apprentice printer for the Souris Plan Dealer. Two years later, he was in Winnipeg playing for Winnipeg Britannia in the Winnipeg and District League and the Winnipeg Free Press in the Printers League. 

With the declaration of war in 1914, Anderson was running a small weekly in Melville, Saskatchewan. He enlisted and served with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and was wounded twice. When he returned to Winnipeg in 1919, he became involved with minor soccer administration and then with senior leagues, becoming a member of the executive of the Manitoba Soccer Association in 1939. 

Soccer play was suspended for the duration of Second World War, starting in 1940. In July, Anderson was instrumental in convening a meeting of all former officials and provincial associations from across the nation which led to the re-organization of the Dominion of Canadian Soccer Association. He was appointed the secretary of the national association in 1950, also assuming the position of treasurer in 1956. He held this dual position until his resignation in 1968. 

While with the association, he organized tours featuring some of the world’s top teams, including bringing the Moscow Locomotive to Canada in 1956 and then sending a Canadian team to Russia. 

He was also involved in preparing Canada’s entry in 1957 into the World Cup, the preliminary rounds for the Olympics in 1967 and the Pan Am Games of 1967 held in Winnipeg (Winnipeg again hosted soccer in the Pan Am Games in 1999). In 1967, Canada made it to the semi-finals only to lose to Mexico which went on to win the gold medal over Bermuda. 

At the age of 82, Anderson led 20 young soccer players on a tour of Europe in August 1972. 

Davidson died on November 4, 1965 and Anderson died on May 30, 1985, both in Winnipeg. 

Another Winnipeg inductee into the Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum in Vaughan, Ontario is Winnipeg-born Doug McMahon, a star with the United Weston team and later with the famous Wolverhampton Wanderers, nicknamed the Wolves, of the English First Division. He was inducted to the hall of fame in 2002. 

McMahon received his early soccer instruction from his father, Sandy, a referee in Winnipeg. 

The Wolves offered McMahon an extended trial in August 1938 and he was later signed by the team, which was considered one of the best in the game. His debut was on January 1, 1939 against Blackpool. He wasn’t a regular starter on the Wolves which won the FA Cup of that year, but that summer on a tour with the club, he scored twice against a Danish squad in Copenhagen. 

McMahon remained with the team for the 1939-40 season, but the war meant a suspension of regular competition and he went on to play with a Midlands team. 

He then enlisted with the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and served as a telegrapher onboard HMCS Camrose on Atlantic convoy duty. 

After the war, his soccer career included a prolific stint with the Carsteel team in Montreal which he led to the Canadian championship in 1948. In the National Soccer League that year, he scored a record 70 goals. Later in his career, he coached the Montreal Sparta of  the National Soccer League. He died in  April 1997.