Soccer’s History at the Head of the Lake

March 2017

A lot of the buzz around town these days has to do with a sport that has enjoyed a long and storied past in our community. Whether it is news reports about local players making a name for themselves at all levels of the game, teams having to scramble to find a place to play after the collapse of one of their main indoor facilities, or the push to develop a multi-million dollar complex, the sport of soccer is definitely a hot topic, and for good reason.

The multitude of athletes, of all ages and abilities, that take to the soccer pitch during the summer and winter months in Thunder Bay, are carrying on a strong tradition that dates back over 130 years.

Football, as it was referred to locally in those early days, was amongst one of the first sports to be reported on in our local papers with a match held in 1886 between teams made up of members of the Port Arthur Rifles and civilians making it into The Weekly Sentinel. By the 1890s both Fort William and Port Arthur boasted their own Football Clubs and matches were played on fields located on Simpson Street and in the vicinity of Court and Tupper Streets.

By 1899 teams from our city had joined the Western Canada Football Association and the growth of the sport was strengthened even more with the formation of the New Ontario Football Association. By 1907 a local seven team league was established which included such groups as the Sons of England, Celtics, Thistles, The United Britannia’s, and the Young Men’s Association.

Holidays were also special times to celebrate the sport, with Labour Day being amongst the most popular. In September of 1909 it was reported that one of the largest crowds to have ever witnessed a sporting event turned up at the Britt’s grounds on May Street to watch the International Football Match which featured selected players representing their homelands of England and Scotland, a tradition which continued for many more years.

Another popular tradition in soccer circles in those early years saw our local champions travelling to compete for the Western Canadian title and challenge for the much coveted People’s Shield, emblematic at that time as the Canadian championship.

In July of 1912, the Fort William CPR Soccer-Football club made the trip to Winnipeg where they competed against 13 other teams, advancing to the finals against Lethbridge, blanking their competitors 3-0 to claim the title. Upon their return to home the conquering heroes were greeted by thousands of cheering fans, and honoured with a parade and a civic banquet, a fitting tribute for the first team to ever win a national sports title for the Lakehead.
The year 1912 also saw the formation of the Dominion of Canada Football Association and the introduction of the Connaught Cup as the new trophy to be competed for to symbolize the soccer-football champions of Canada. This marked another important milestone in Thunder Bay’s sports history. The decision was made that since our city had established itself as a centre of soccer-football excellence it should host the very first Connaught Cup championship event. The tournament began on September 1st, 1913, at the Arena Park field and featured teams from Fort William, Winnipeg, Lachine and Toronto with the Norwood Wanderers of Winnipeg emerging victorious in front of a reported 3,000 fans. Over the years many local teams challenged for the Connaught Cup; however, none were able to return as national champions.

If the popularity of a sport can be measured by the trophies that are presented in its honour then there is no doubt that soccer-football held a special place in our early sports history. In 1909 Alf Cooper of Cooper and Company Real Estate donated a large ornate silver trophy to be competed for in a series of soccer-football matches. The cup was named the Charity Cup given that a percentage of the gate receipts of each game were to be given to McKellar Hospital. The first game of the series was held on July 8th, 1909 with over $30 collected for the hospital, a tidy sum during those early days. The Graham Cup, which is even larger in size, was donated by Fort William Mayor George Graham in 1913 to be presented to the champions of New Ontario, a geographic area from White River to the Manitoba border. Both trophies were retired in the 1990s and are on display at the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame where they stand as symbols of soccer excellence bearing the names of such teams as C.P.R., Fort William Great War Vets, Grain Exchange, Brent Park, Royal Canadian Legion, United, Polonia, Italia and Juventus.

Following World War I, which had a very negative impact on the local soccer scene, the Great War Veterans’ Association, which had formed a local branch in 1917, started a soccer league. Regaining its popularity somewhat during the 1920s and 30s, the sport saw a real resurgence following World War II and has maintained a permanent spot in our sports scene ever since, thanks in part to such groups as the Thunder Bay Senior Soccer Association that provided a great deal of the activity for local soccer enthusiasts.

In 1968 came the establishment of one of the longest running, and most well attended soccer tournaments hosted in Thunder Bay, the Labatt’s International Soccer Tournament which became a Labour Day weekend tradition. At its height upwards of 30 teams participated in the highly competitive event which grew to offer nearly $10,000 in prize money and attracted in excess of 1,000 players and fans from across mid-Canada, southern Ontario and the upper United States, with a women’s division added in 1987.

While women and youth had taken to the pitch dating as far back as the 1920s, the 1980s saw a more organized form of the game emerging with the formation of the Molson’s Women’s Soccer League in 1981 and local high schools introducing more structured soccer programs for boys and girls. The 1990s saw the game taken indoors with the 1994 opening of the Soccer Plex which allowed for year round soccer activity. Since 2000 the Thunder Bay Chill has provided local soccer fans access to a professional team that brought home the 2008 USL Premier Development League title. In addition to offering access to highly competitive soccer, the club has also provided great recreational opportunities with an emphasis on youth development programs.

Organizations such as Soccer Northwest Ontario, the Lakehead Express, Premier Soccer League, the Thunder Bay Men’s and Women’s Soccer Clubs and the multitude of youth teams that take to such community fields as North End, Current River and Carrick Park, are all playing their part in carrying on the beautiful game’s rich and proud history at the head of the lakes.

Diane Imrie is the Executive Director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. She can be reached at

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