Broadway Drill Hall circa 1910

By Vic Pruden, July 2005 

BASKETBALL, the game first invented by Canadian-born James Naismith in 1891, was quickly adopted by Manitobans. The first known men's basketball game in the province was played in 1900, at Winnipeg’s Broadway Drill Hall, at Broadway and Osborne. The final score was 4-1.

The players were members of the 90th Regiment (Winnipeg Rifles). In 1901, a military league was formed; sergeants were referees, the baskets were called goals, and the 5 positions were 2 forwards, 2 backs, and 1 goalie. The Crowe Trophy was awarded to the winning team. By 1903, the YMCA had formed a Monday night basketball league of 4 teams. Each team had 5 players, and there were no substitutes. All games were played at the Central "Y" gym. The fact that there was only room for one basketball court led to marathon basketball evenings. In order to get all the games played within 4 hours, the play was continuous. Each game was divided into 15-minute halves. At the end of the first half, the second game started, while the players of the first game rested, and so on. Because there were no substitutes, injured players were expected to stay in the game.

In 1909, the Red Cross Trophy, donated by the Dyson Co., was presented to the winner of the first provincial championship. Located in the Exchange District, the Dyson building had a huge Maltese red cross painted on one exterior wall, hence the name of the trophy. As the "Y" league expanded in 1911 to 24 teams, a Sunday school boys' league of 18 teams was formed, with games played in church basements. No longer did players have to join the "Y" to play team basketball.

During the years of WWI, most senior players exchanged their "sneakers" for army boots. However, junior basketball continued. By 1919, senior men's basketball was back and thriving.

The Women's Game: During the 1920s, girls began playing basketball in church basements and on school playgrounds. By 1927, the CGIT (Canadian Girls in Training) of the United Church formed a league for girls between 13 and 17 years, using church and mission basements for games. Initially, the girls' game involved 2 teams of 6 players: 2 centres or "rovers" who could go anywhere on the court, 2 forwards restricted to the frontcourt, and 2 guards who could neither leave the backcourt nor shoot. Players could only dribble once. Then they had to pass or shoot; there was a jump ball after each score. During a jump ball, players had to hold their left hand behind their back (as in the boys' game). In 1928, the girls began using boys' rules, freeing the players to move over the entire court. By the early 1930s, women's basketball was well-established, with 5 organized leagues, involving approximately 750 players.

Firsts: Among the many good women's teams over the years, there were some that clearly dominated play at the provincial level, such as the Flin Flon Legionettes and the St. Vital Grads. A few teams, however, achieved honours beyond MB's borders. In 1936, the Olympias was the first MB senior women's team to win a Western Canadian championship. In 1972, the Lady Wesmen of the University of Winnipeg, in their first year of competition, was the first MB women's team to win a Canadian title, the junior championship. The team also set the precedent of dropping the "ettes" from university team names such as the "Wesmenettes" and the "Bisonettes." In 1983, Team Manitoba, an all-star team, was the first women's team from MB to win a Canadian senior championship.

Senior Men: In the 1920s and 1930s, the Winnipeg Toilers dominated the senior league. St. Andrews also dominated from the mid-1930s through the 1940s. However, the Toilers were the first MB team to win national championships. It was not until 1954 that another MB senior team would win a national title.

In the 1949-50 season, the U of M Bisons defeated the mighty Paulins to win the provincial senior men's championship. The next year, the graduates of that team formed the Varsity Grads, which won the provincial championship in 1951, 1952, and 1953. It was only when the top players of the Varsity Grads donned the uniforms of the "Big Red Train" that the Paulins once again dominated the senior league, winning the Canadian championship in 1954, and representing Canada at the world championships in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, placing 5th. From then on, most of the players in the Winnipeg men's and women's senior leagues
were graduates of a local university.

The St. Andrew's Super Saints arrived on the scene in the early 1960s, winning the MB championship in 1964. In the next 13 years, they were provincial champions 12 times and were Canadian champions in 1972, 1975, and 1976. After Nicolett Inn entered the senior league in 1976 season, it took them only 2 seasons to end the domination of the St. Andrew's teams. In 1979, Nicolett defeated the "Saints" to win the provincial championship. They went on to win 4 consecutive provincial championships; they also won Canadian championships in 1979, 1980, and 1982.

In the mid-1950s, high school athletes had to choose between playing for their school or for a club team. Because the schools had the facilities and coaches who were also teachers, club teams found it difficult to attract quality players. Consequently, the club system withered, and high school basketball for both boys and girls flourished, becoming the feeder system for university basketball. Competition to determine Canadian club championships for men and women ended entirely in the late 1980s. This resulted in the death of club basketball at the competitive level.

University: It was not until the 1920s that a team representing the University of Manitoba as a whole had appeared on the basketball scene. From the 1920s until the 1950s, the U of M teams were in and out of
play in the WICAA (Western Inter-Collegiate Athletic Association), in the city leagues (intermediate, senior B, and senior A), and with US teams from North Dakota and Minnesota. During that time, some
university students played for both the university team and a team in the city league. The governing body of athletics at the U of M ended that situation in the late 1940s, by stipulating that a student could play for only 1 team.

MB universities dominated basketball in Canada in the 1980s and the 1990s. The Brandon Bobcats were CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) champions in 1987, 1988, and 1989. The Lady Wesmen from the U of W was CIS champions in 1992, 1993, and 1994. On March 5, 1994, the Lady Wesmen won their 70th game and broke the NA record for consecutive wins by a women's university team. Even more remarkable was the next step: their winning streak extended to 88 wins, which tied the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) record held by the UCLA Bruins men's team. The streak was broken by the Lady Bisons on December 2, 1994, at the U of W, in a packed gym and on national television, by a score of 64-62. The record has not been broken.

Club basketball made a comeback in MB in the fall of 1997. Then the WMBA (Winnipeg Minor Basketball Association), a community-based youth organization, began to offer competitive leagues for 6 - 19-year-olds in Winnipeg. Starting with 40 teams from 8 community clubs, the leagues grew to more than 500 teams from 42 clubs by 2005. National championships made a return too. Each summer, Basketball Manitoba sends teams to national championships in the 15U, 17U and 19U categories for both boys and girls. The 15U and 17U championships started in 2002, and the 19U championship was inaugurated in 2005.

Winnipeg had a brief and quite popular flirtation with professional basketball in the 1990s. The Winnipeg "Thunder" played their home games at the Winnipeg Arena in 1992, 1993, and 1994. The National Basketball League folded mid-way through the 1994 season, to be replaced by the International Basketball League in 1995. The Winnipeg "Cyclone" played at the Winnipeg Convention Centre until 2001, when the league ceased operations.

The WINNIPEG TOILERS dominated basketball in MB from the 1920s into the early 1930s, winning the provincial championship 13 times. The Toilers were also the first MB team to win a Canadian championship, winning the top national prize in 1926, 1927, and 1932. In 1933, a series was arranged with the Tulsa Oilers, the US champions. Billed as the “World's Basketball Championship”, it was to be a home-and-home series, with 2 games in Tulsa and 2 in Winnipeg. Unaccustomed to American rules, the Toilers lost both games in Tulsa, 32-13 and 41-19. Tragically, on the flight back to Winnipeg on March 31, their plane crashed in a wheat field near Neodesha, Kansas. Two of the team's brightest young stars, Mike Shea and Joe Dodds, were killed, and the rest suffered broken bones and shattered dreams. The team never
recovered from this tragedy and disbanded in 1937.

The Toilers' memory is preserved in the Toilers Memorial Park in Fort Garry. The team was formed on October 5th, 1910. On the next day, team members adopted the name "Toilers" to represent the idea of hard work, perseverance, and courage.

For more on the history of basketball in Manitoba, visit the Manitoba Basketball Hall of Fame web site at
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