Canada is a relatively young country, existing as a separate national and political entity only since 1867. As a result, its sporting traditions are relatively young as well. Most of the professional teams and leagues in Canada developed only in the last 30 years or so. However, athletes playing their respective sports for money dates back to the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Canada has six National Hockey League (NHL) teams, eight Canadian Football League (CFL) clubs, two Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs, and one National Basketball Association (NBA) team. There are also smaller professional soccer and lacrosse leagues in Canada. It is estimated that professional sports and leagues throughout the country contribute over $600 million in value to the country’s economy, and account for over 23,000 jobs.
Of the professional sports, hockey has the longest history and the greatest cultural influence on Canadians. The NHL has been in existence since 1917; however, organized professional and amateur leagues existed in Canada long before then. Many small-town teams competed for local or provincial championships, and had a strong influence on those Canadians who had little access to, or knowledge of, big-city teams in Toronto or Montreal. In fact, it was not until NHL games were broadcast on the Canadian national radio “Hockey Night in Canada” radio broadcasts that many Canadians had experienced an NHL game. Indeed, despite the fact that the NHL was considered Canada’s most prestigious league, it was not until the advent of television in the 1950s that most Canadians had even seen an NHL game.
Today, all professional sport in Canada is in one way or another affected by the more powerful American leagues. In the sports of baseball and basketball, Canada has no professional leagues of its own. Instead, Canadian teams play in the American-dominated leagues. These leagues require a large concentrated audience in order to generate revenues for the team and, in turn, the league in general. As a result, the major team franchises exist in the large urban centres: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Even between those cities, the teams are not evenly spread. Probably the most famous teams in the American-dominated leagues are both Toronto teams: the “Blue Jays” in Major League Baseball and the “Raptors” in the National Basketball Association.
Many Canadians worry that the American dominance of professional sport is a threat to Canadian independence. As an important component of national culture, sport reflects and reinforces the norms and values of Canada. However, the most sought-after and visible teams in Canada are ones in American-dominated leagues. Even the National Hockey League-once considered a secure Canadian sports icon-has its corporate offices in New York. Debates about the threat of American-dominated professional sport to Canadian sovereignty will undoubtedly continue in the future.