Canadian Football

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Podcast Transcript

In 1903, the Ontario Rugby Football Union adopted a set of rules for their sport which were codified by Thrift Burnside, the captain of the University of Toronto football team.

The rules were major changes to the game of rugby and were largely based on the rules created by Walter Camp for use in American football in the 1880s.

However, with those rules, a new game developed that was neither rugby nor American football. 

Learn more about Canadian Football, its origins and how it is played on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


There is a very good chance that many of the non-Canadian listeners to this podcast have no clue there is even a thing known as Canadian Football. 

Of those non-Canadians who are aware there is a thing known as Canadian Football, there is a good chance that they aren’t exactly sure what it is, other than it is sort of similar to American football. 

Canadian Football is one of the many sports that evolved from the early proto game known generically as football, which splintered into a host of games, including Association Football, Rugby Union, Rugby League, and American Football. 

I’ve previously covered the history of those games in a previous episode, so today, I’m going to focus on one of the offshoots from that tree, Canadian Football. 

The origins of a unique Canadian game can be traced back to a pair of matches that took place in 1874 between Harvard and McGill University of Montreal. 

Harvard invited McGill to Boston to play two games of the new sport known as football or rugby. At this point, the games had no formal set of rules, and every team had its own rules. 

The McGill team arrived in Boston a few days early to sightsee and practice. One of the Harvard players went to watch the McGill team play and realized they were playing a very different game and were even using different balls. 

The teams agreed that the first game would be played by Harvard rules and the second game would be played by McGill rules.

The Harvard game was closer to modern-day Association Football or soccer. They used a round ball, and it was mostly kicking. The McGill game used an oblong ball and involved picking up the ball and running. It was closer to what we know as rugby.

This was the first formal football game in North America, and the differences between the teams in terms of rules, unbeknownst to them at the time, became the basis for two completely different games in each country.

The Canadian game was called rugby, but there were some very big differences from what most people know as rugby today. In fact, the Canadian game was known as rugby for years after it ceased being rugby.

The big advance in the Canadian game took place in 1903. 

There had been changes to the rules over the years, but they were codified for the first time in 1903 by the Ontario Rugby Football Union. The rules were named the Burnside Rules after the captain of the University of Toronto Football Team, Thrift Burnside.

The Burnside Rules established many of the rules that came to define the Canadian game, including rules that still are in effect today. Many of these rule changes were based on the American rules that had been previously established by Walter Camp. 

More on those rules in the bit. 

In 1909, the Canadian Rugby Union established a championship. The prize was a cup donated by Albert Grey, the 4th Earl Grey, the Governor General of Canada, who was the King’s representative in the country.  

The annual championship became known as the Grey Cup. 

Initially, the Grey Cup was for amateur teams. The first Grey Cup was held on December 4, 1909, between the University of Toronto Varsity Blues and the Parkdale Canoe Club. The University of Toronto team won 26-6 in front of 3,800 spectators.

The Toronto Varsity Blues won the first three Grey Cups and refused to hand the cup over in 1912 when the Hamilton Alerts defeated the Toronto Argonauts 11–4. They wouldn’t give the cup back until they were beaten on the field, which happened in 1914. 

In 1907, several of the best teams in Ontario and Quebec formed the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union, which became known as the Big Four. They were the Hamilton Tigers, Toronto Argonauts, Montreal Football Club, and the Ottawa Rough Riders. 

The Grey Cup was originally only contended for by clubs in the Eastern Provinces, but eventually, clubs from Western provinces were allowed to compete in the 1920s.

The best teams eventually became more professional, which widened the gap between them and the amateur clubs. The last university club withdrew in 1933, and in 1954, the Ontario Rugby Football Union, the last purely amateur union competing, withdrew from the competition.

In 1956, the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union and the Western Interprovincial Football Union merged to form the Canadian Football Council, which was a member of the Canadian Rugby Union. 

Finally, in 1958, the Canadian Football Council left the Canadian Rugby Union to form the Canadian Football League or CFL. This was the final removal of the term rugby, a term which Canadian football had long since moved away from. 

As part of the CFL’s formation, they assumed control over the Grey Cup and made it an exclusively professional competition. 

The CFL was split into eastern and western conferences that never played each other outside of the Grey Cup until 1981. 

The CFL was an exclusively Canadian affair until the 1990s, when they attempted an ill-fated expansion into the United States. From 1993 to 1995, they added the Sacramento Gold Miners, Las Vegas Posse, Baltimore Stallions, and Shreveport Pirates. For the 1995 campaign, they added two more teams, the Birmingham Barracudas and Memphis Mad Dogs. 

The Baltimore Stallions were actually a runner-up in the Grey Cup in 1994 and won in 1995, meaning that the franchise was in two championship games in the only two years they existed, winning one of them. That makes them one of the most successful franchises of any type in sports history.

It also means that an American team has won the Grey Cup more recently than a Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup.  

As of today, there are nine teams in the CFL. The eastern division consists of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Montreal Alouettes, the Ottawa Redblacks, and the Toronto Argonauts.

The western division consists of the BC Lions, the Calgary Stampeders, the Edmonton Elks, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

About half of all CFL players are Americans who played college football in the United States. However, there is a quota for native Canadian players.

So, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Canadian Football, what exactly is it that makes it different from American football?

At first glance, the games look the same. The fields look similar, and there are players wearing helmets and wearing pads; there are goal posts, and the ball is a similar shape. 

However, if you look closely, you will find some profound differences. 

The first difference is the field. A Canadian football field is much larger than an American football field. The Canadian field is 110 yards long and 65 yards wide, as opposed to an American field that is 100 yards long and 53 ? yards wide. 

The actual playing field isn’t the whole story. American football fields have end zones that are 10 yards deep. Canadian football fields have an end zone that is 20 yards deep.

The size of the field has always been different between Canadian and American football. The Canadian field was closer in size to a rugby field.

Because of the field size, most stadiums in the United States couldn’t actually host a CFL game on a regulation-size field if they wanted to.

The goalposts on a Canadian field are at the goal line, whereas on an American field, they are at the back of the endzone. 

American football was that game that changed their goalposts. The NFL used to have goalposts like the CFL, but they moved them back in 1974.

Another big difference is that Canadian football has 12 players on a side versus 11 on American teams. This change was part of the original Burnside Rules, which changed the team side from 16 to 12. 

Because of the larger field and the extra player, you seldom see tight ends in the CFL. They will normally just put in another wide receiver. There is nothing against having a tight end, but it is how the strategy for the game has evolved differently.

The other thing that really makes the game more pass-oriented is that there are only three downs instead of four.  This was actually the way the American game was played in the late 19th century as well, but they added a fourth down. 

The addition of a fourth down has been debated in the CFL for several years, but so far, they have stuck with the three-down system. 

There are also differences in how the game clock is managed. The CFL only allows two timeouts per game, whereas the NFL allows three per half. Likewise, the play clock in the NFL is 40 seconds, whereas in the CFL, it is 20 seconds. 

In addition to a bigger field, another difference between the CFL and the NFL is how far the offense and defense are apart from each other at the line of scrimmage. 

In the NFL, each side has to be the width of the football apart from each other at the line of scrimmage, or about 11 inches. However, in the CFL, each side has to be one yard apart from the other at the scrimmage line.

This makes it easier for receivers to get downfield, which also encourages the passing game. 

In Canadian Football, any offensive player not at the line of scrimmage can move freely so long as they remain behind the line of scrimmage. In American football, all offensive players have to be set before the snap starts the play.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the American and the Canadian game has to do with kicking and unique scoring opportunities. 

Canadian Football has a unique method of scoring known as a single or a rouge. It is literally a way to score one point that doesn’t exist in any variant of American Football. 

A single can be scored whenever a ball is legally kicked into the opponent’s endzone and not returned out of the endzone. This can happen on a kickoff, a missed field goal, or a punt. 

A single point might not seem like a big deal, but it can be a huge strategic element of the game. 

On one hand, games can be won by a single point. On the other hand, CFL games are higher scoring on average than NFL games. If the kicking team scores a single, then the receiving team will still get possession of the ball at their 40-yard line. 

It might be wise to concede the point to avoid a safety, which would transfer possession, as well as to get better field position. 

As I mentioned, the single rule also comes into effect on missed field goals. Lets say that a game is tied and there only seconds on the clock. A team attempts a long field goal to win the game. 

Under the single rule, they could miss the field goal and still possibly win the game if the other team doesn’t get the ball out of the endzone.

Not surprisingly, there are no fair catches in the CFL.

The lowest-scoring game in CFL history was a 1–0 victory by the Montreal Alouettes over the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1966.

There is another rule that is unique to Canadian football and also has some unique implications. 

In Canadian football, you can do what is known as an “open-field kick.” Basically, you can punt the ball from anywhere on the field at any time. This isn’t very common because it entails a lot of risk, but it is in the rules. 

These rules can act in conjunction in rare occasions to create some very bizarre plays. 

In the semi-finals of the 1972 Grey Cup, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers were playing the Saskatchewan Roughriders. At the end of the game, the score is 24-24, and Saskatchewan attempts a game-winning 32-yard field goal on the last play of the game.

Saskatchewan kicks and misses the field goal as the ball goes wide right. Unless Winnipeg gets the ball out of the endzone, Saskatchewan will score a single and win the game. 

Winnipeg grabs the ball and puts it out of the endzone. Saskatchewan then gets the ball and puts it back into the endzone, where another Winnipeg player is waiting, grabs the ball, and punts it back out of the end zone. 

There ended up being a penalty on the play. Saskatchewan got to rekick and made the field goal, this time winning the game. 

Canadian and American football superficially look alike, but once you scratch the surface you’ll see that games, despite their common origin, are very different.