Celebrating a century of sports in Montréal
Montréal is a sports fan’s paradise. Every year, Montréal’s packed calendar of professional and amateur sports draws international crowds to a vast range of high-calibre competitive events, such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada and Rogers Cup tennis, as well as games featuring the Montréal Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact. The following celebrates a century of spectator sports in the city, a “best of” selection of highlights, unforgettable victories and ground-breaking achievements by Montréal’s many sports greats.
The hockey gods smile on MTL
It only makes sense to start with the most storied franchise in hockey history, the Montréal Canadiens (or “Habs,” from the French habitants), an “Original Six” team with an unrivalled 24 season-winning Stanley Cup victories, their first coming during the 1915-’16 season. All but two of these wins happened on their hallowed former home ice, the Montréal Forum, where legends like Jean Béliveau, Dickie Moore, Maurice Richard, Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante helped the Habs win a record five straight Cups from 1956-’60. It was also at the Forum that, on June 9, 1993, the Guy Carbonneau-led Habs triumphed over the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of a wild Stanley Cup final that saw the city erupt (almost literally). It still stands as the last Stanley Cup won by a Canadian team.
A towering achievement
The 1976 Summer Olympics changed the face of Montréal, and the iconic Olympic Stadium and its one-of-a-kind, 165-metre, 45-degree angle tower (the tallest inclined tower in the world) continue to hold a dominant place on the city skyline. The 1976 Olympics, opened by Queen Elizabeth II, were the first Olympic Games to be held in Canada. It was here that 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci stunned the world, becoming the first-ever athlete to score a perfect 10 at the Olympics, recording seven 10.00 scores and taking home three gold medals.
Things went swimmingly
Following the Olympics, the next major multi-sport competitive event that Montréal would host would be the 2005 FINA World Aquatics Championships from July 16 to 31 in Parc Jean-Drapeau’s Aquatic Complex on Île Sainte-Hélène, making Montréal the first city in North America to hold the championships. It was here where, with a monumental performance in front of a hometown crowd, Montréal diving sensation Alexandre Despatie claimed the gold medals in both the 1-metre and 3-metre springboard.
All eyes on the prize
The Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada regularly attracts up to 300,000 top-tier racing fans each year, and is the single largest annual sporting event in the city. In fact, the 2005 edition of the Grand Prix was the most-watched Formula 1 race in the world, and the third most-watched sporting event in the world behind only Super Bowl XXXIX and the UEFA Champions League soccer final. An infamous feature of Montréal’s F1 track, the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, is the final corner, known as the “Wall of Champions,” which regularly ruins the day of the sport’s best drivers. In the 1999 Grand Prix alone, Montréal’s Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill all finished their race in the wall (which bore the slogan Bienvenue au Québec — Welcome to Québec — on it).
A monster of a sports fest
Named for the mythical part jackrabbit/part antelope creature of lore, JACKALOPE — Canada’s largest action sports festival — draws tens of thousands of adrenaline junkies to the Esplanade of the Olympic Park every year for international-calibre competitions in several sports including skateboarding, BASE jumping, rock climbing and fixed gear cycling. It outdid itself in 2017 with an appearance by “The Birdman” himself, skateboard legend Tony Hawk, who performed a 45-minute demo on a custom-built, 14-foot-high half-pipe.
For the love of pigskin
Montréal’s enduring love affair with football is exemplified by the Montréal Alouettes, the city’s Canadian Football League (CFL) professional team. The Als, as they are known, have seven season-winning Grey Cups to their credit, six of which came in two especially memorable decade-long campaigns in the 1970s and 2000s. Their 1977 home-field win at the Olympic Stadium drew a Grey Cup-record 68,318 fans after a season that drew an average 59,595 fans per home game, records that still stand to this day. The 2000s saw the team bring home three Grey Cups, and is known as the Anthony Calvillo era. The still much-loved, retired quarterback remains the CFL record-holder for career passing yards.
A beautiful game
Montréal’s popular Major League Soccer team, the Montréal Impact, played a historic season in 2016, going to the Eastern Conference final for the first time in the club’s history. Though they eventually lost to rivals Toronto FC in a high-scoring, nail-biting, two-game home and away series, over 61,000 Impact fans packed the Olympic Stadium on November 22 for the first part of the contest (which the Impact won 3-2), consolidating soccer’s place on the city’s sports stage.
A hit with baseball fans
Though Montrealers may have lost their beloved Montréal Expos (for now), they’ve never lost their love of the game of baseball, which has deep roots in the city. It was in Montréal that baseball’s colour barrier was broken when, on October 3, 1945, the city’s Triple-A ball team, the Montréal Royals, signed Jackie Robinson to play for what turned out to be a historic 1946 season, winning the Little World Series that year (the much-adored Robinson was mobbed by fans all the way to the train station as he left afterward). For their part, the Montréal Expos (named for the Expo 67 World Fair) hit their peak in 1994 and had league-leading 74-40 record when a players’ union strike cut the season short, cancelling the playoffs. For reasons financial and management-related, the team never recovered, eventually moving to Washington in 2005. Hope for their return, however, springs eternal.
Court is in session
The annual Rogers Cup tennis tournament is one of the most anticipated events on the city’s pro-sports calendar each year (attendance has topped 200,000), and is the third-oldest tournament in all of tennis behind only Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Tennis great Monica Seles won two of her four straight Rogers Cup wins (1995-’98) in Montréal (1996 and 1998) during her astonishing comeback following a two-year hiatus after being stabbed on court by a spectator during a match against Steffi Graf in Hamburg in 1993.
Rockin’ and rollin’
Bearing names like New Skids on the Block and Les Sexpos, the teams of the ridiculously entertaining Montréal Roller Derby League are the first non-American Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) members in their history, having joined in 2009 after being founded in 2006. Auspiciously, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association Championships will be held outside the United States for the very first time when the Montréal Roller Derby League plays host to the competition at Claude Robillard Sports Complex this year from November 15 to 17.
Jamie O’Meara, blogger
Jamie O'Meara is Editor-in-Chief at C2 Montréal and the former Editor-in-Chief of alt-weekly newspaper HOUR Magazine.