The REAL ‘We the North’

From a grade school primer reader, All Sails Set, a sketch from the story about Canada’s winningest basketball team.

Over the weekend, I read with moderate interest about the latest woes facing the Toronto Raptors pro basketball team. All week long, the Raptors’ brain trust was grappling with the news that Kyle Lowry’s wrist surgery might put the Raptors’ all-star point guard on the shelf for the rest of the season. Here’s now the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur put the loss of Lowry:

“It’s like a team losing both its brain and the biggest part of its heart.”

It’s about two years ago now, as the Toronto Raptors franchise entered its 20th season, that the team’s marketing director, David Freeman, reviewed a pitch from the artistic agency, Sid Lee. He shared it with Raptors’ president Tim Leiweke and general manager Masai Ujiri. They were smitten by it. It rebranded the team, the only NBA team outside the United States (and often marginalized because of that) with a new look, a new attitude and a new slogan.

“We are a territory all our own,” the slogan read. “If it makes us outsiders, we’re in. We the North!” And in taking up that slogan, the Raptors proclaimed themselves to be “Canada’s basketball team.”

1938 Edmonton Grads – Percy Page (middle back row) and Noel MacDonald (back row second from right). Courtesy Grads 25th anniversary booklet.

Well, I beg to differ. And here’s where some awareness of history beyond our years sometimes pays off, not to mention the fact that March 8 was International Women’s Day. But in truth, Canada’s first famous international basketball team came into being just over a hundred years ago. The story goes that on a day in Edmonton in 1914, two men flipped a coin. J. Percy Page and Ernest E. Hyde had just become teachers at McDougall Commercial High School in the city. Neither man felt particularly capable of teaching physical education to 60 girls in the school.

Page lost the toss, and so set about the task of teaching the young women at the school how to play basketball on a cinder court. In their first season, Page and his novice team won every game they played, taking the Richardson Trophy, symbolic of supremacy among all Edmonton school girls’ teams.

The following year, 1915, they took the provincial championship. And when those girls graduated, they asked Page if they could continue playing. The Commercial Graduates’ Basketball Team was born. It was June 15, 1915. Back in the 1980s I interviewed Betty Bowen, a member of the legendary team.

“Unlike today, we always held the ball two-handed,” she said. “We used short, soft passes, bounce passes until they became second nature to us. We shot from the field or passed to teammates breaking for the basket.”

The “Edmonton Grads,” as they became known, continued for 25 years. In a quarter century of playing around the country, they never lost a Canadian championship. In four Olympiads, they played 27 demonstration games and never lost. Of 522 games they played, they only lost 20. But of all their competitions, perhaps the most memorable was against their arch rivals – the Tulsa Stenos women’s team – in 1936 for the North American championship. The series came down to five games played in the Edmonton Arena in front of 5,000 rabid fans.

Edmonton won the first game 53-49. Two nights later Tulsa won by the exact same score. The third game went to the Grads. In the fourth game, Tulsa took control. Pundits thought if the Stenos could take game four, they would take the fifth tie-breaker. Slowly, steadily the Grads chipped away at Tulsa’s lead.

I turn now to short-story writer, Ken McConnell’s description of the final seconds of the game published in the grade school primer All Sails Set:

“Captain Noel MacDonald of the Grads picked up the ball under her own basket. The timekeeper was already reaching for the whistle (to end the game). With a Tulsa guard directly in front of her, Noel dashed for the basket. It was a heave of something like 40 feet.

“The ball had barely left her hands when the timekeeper’s whistle sounded to end the game. Noel dropped to the floor in a dead faint, the shot having been started, the ball was still in play.

“Thousands of spectators jumped to their feet as the ball arched beautifully, dropped toward the basket, and fell through it – for as clean a goal as ever was scored. Final score – 43-40. The Grads had done it again! Still champions of the world!”

On the anniversary of International Women’s Day this week, Historica Canada released a new Heritage Minute feature about the Grads.

Unfortunately, the Edmonton Grads never had either the revenues or the corporate infrastructure around them to generate the kind of luxury or attention that NBA teams do. But the last time I looked Canada’s basketball team – the Toronto Raptors – had accumulated nearly 750 wins in their 20 years of playing, but that’s versus nearly 950 losses. Even if the new “We the North” Raptors win an NBA championship someday, they will never own the 95-per-cent-plus winning record that the original “We the North” team, the Edmonton Grads, stacked up. And that was over 80 years ago.

One comment:

  1. I just want to say thank you for this article. I came across it while searching for the grads now that they’re finally being inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. My grandma Betty Bowen actually played for the Grads, so I’m always thankful when I see someone who knows who they are.

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