By Wes Gilbertson
Quite a few years ago, at a house-party in Ontario while I was missing out on Calgary’s world-famous summer shaker back home, I tried to explain chuckwagon racing to a handful of friends who didn’t even know such a sport existed.
Empty beer cans were arranged as barrels in the imaginary infield.
Empty beer bottles were overturned to represent the wagons.
As I introduced the outriders, I was staring at a bunch of blank faces and it was pretty obvious that all I had accomplished was creating a tidy pile of recyclables for whoever was cleaning up the mess the next morning.
Chuckwagon-racing debuted as a spectator sport at the 1923 Calgary Stampede — the prize purse that year was reportedly a whopping $275, less than some modern cowpokes spend on a night out at Nashville North — and the Rangeland Derby remains a marquee event at the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, even if some folks don’t understand what the heck is happening on the Half Mile of Hell.
Of course, the wagon races are not the only sporting tradition with roots in Calgary. Here are five of our favourites …
Professional wrestling wasn’t invented in Calgary, but some folks would argue it was perfected in the basement of the Hart House in Patterson Heights. Stu Hart was the brains behind the Stampede Wrestling promotion and also trained a who’s who of eventual superstars in what would become known as The Dungeon. The lengthy alumni list includes Superstar Billy Graham, Bad News Brown, British Bulldog, Honky Tonk Man, Chris Jericho, Ken Shamrock and Stu’s own boys, Owen and Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart. Not only did many wrestlers emerge from The Dungeon to draw blood on the biggest stage, but World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) honcho Vince McMahon studied Stampede Wrestling — and even borrowed the idea of ladder matches — as he was building his empire. The Hart House is now a city heritage site.
The Grey Cup has long been nicknamed the Grand National Drunk, and it was a rowdy bunch of Calgarians that first figured out that the annual football final is a terrific excuse to let loose. With the Stampeders on the verge of a perfect campaign in 1948, hundreds of wild westerners travelled by train to the big game in Toronto. The Stamps did, indeed, finish off the first — and still the only — undefeated season in Canadian football history with a 12-7 triumph over the Ottawa Rough Riders, but that’s become a sidebar to what happened off the field during that Grey Cup week. Calgary’s fans marked the occasion with pancake breakfasts and square-dancing street parties. According to legend, one of the Stamps supporters — or maybe it was star end Woody Strode — even climbed onto a horse and waltzed into the marble-floored lobby of the swanky Royal York Hotel.
Sure, the staff at the Royal York probably would have preferred if the pony was hitched outside, but we can play within the rules, too. The Canadian Rugby Union didn’t allow the forward pass until 1929 but the Calgary Altomah-Tigers were the first team to take advantage, with Jerry Seiberling tossing 12-yard strike to outside wing Ralph Losie in a victory over the arch-rival Edmonton Eskimos. Many, years later, during John Hufnagel’s days as the offensive co-ordinator at McMahon Stadium, the current Stampeders boss is credited with dreaming up the so-called six-pack offence. No, that's not a party trick, it’s a dangerous attack that features a half-dozen pass-catchers and a lonely backfield and was an early edition of the spread-style offence that is now popular on both sides of the border.
DOG GETS HIS DAY
Harvey the Hound isn’t known to boast about his own accomplishments — the poor pooch didn’t say much even before Craig MacTavish ripped the tongue right out of his mouth in 2003 — but the Calgary Flames’ star canine did make history as the NHL’s first mascot. Grant Kelba deserves credit for pitching the idea to staff at the Saddledome, asking for one night to prove that Harvey would be a hit with Flames’ fans. He debuted on Feb. 16, 1984, and had plenty to beat his drum about as Lanny McDonald and Paul Reinhart both notched hat-tricks for the hosts in a 10-3 rout of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Harvey has been a fixture ever since, working more than 1,300 home games and countless charity events and other public appearances. Today, nearly every NHL squad employs a mascot.
WINTER GAMES GO LONG
We all remember Eddie the Eagle, the Jamaican bobsledders, Karen Percy’s two trips to the podium and a nailbiting Battle of the Brians, but couch-potatoes everywhere should be thankful for another legacy of the 1988 Calgary Olympics — one you might not even know about. Before our turn with the torch, the Winter Games were no more than a dozen days long. Anxious to provide more primetime programming for TV audiences back home, the schedule in Calgary was stretched to 16 days. Too bad all the action was in standard-def. With more time to fill, the IOC experimented with several demonstration sports at Calgary 1988, including a curling competition at Max Bell Arena. The roaring game was officially added to the Olympic lineup a decade later and Canadians have cleaned up, medalling in both men’s and women’s curling at every Winter Games since then. Rock on.