Forgotten adversaries

As one rivalry stays strong, two others fall to the wayside

The once-annual “Kill McGill” game and the rivalry that came with it became a thing of the past after Queen’s and McGill moved to separate football conferences.
The once-annual “Kill McGill” game and the rivalry that came with it became a thing of the past after Queen’s and McGill moved to separate football conferences.
Queen’s and McGill met on the gridiron for the first time on Oct.8, 1898. The Redmen prevailed, topping the Gaels 3-2.
Queen’s and McGill met on the gridiron for the first time on Oct.8, 1898. The Redmen prevailed, topping the Gaels 3-2.

Ask around campus who Queen’s biggest rival is and you’re likely to hear a rousing chorus of “Wuck Festern”.

It’s no secret that Western and their sports teams, the Mustangs, rile up a sense of school pride and resentment. The schools share a great deal of similarities, each boasting long traditions of academic and athletic success.

Mix that with proud alumni and current students and it’s easy to see how a natural rivalry has formed.

“I’ve always said that we’re rivals, but we’re not enemies,” said Gaels football head coach Pat Sheahan.

Queen’s tough football season has taken away from the rivalry’s lustre this year. After a 7-1 showing in 2013 that ended with a Yates Cup defeat to the Mustangs, Queen’s lost over 30 players and stumbled to an 0-5 start.

Their third loss of the year was a 43-12 defeat at Western’s hands on Sept. 13.

Despite the Gaels losing in each of the teams’ last three meetings, Sheahan said his team holds a winning record over Western since he came in as head coach in 2000.

“Not a lot of programs can say that,” he said. “Western’s always one of the top teams to beat. There’s some great games when both programs are strong.”

With a new crop of players coming in each year, maintaining a strong program is a challenge in any university sport. Sheahan said that’s part of the reason why the rivals are courteous to one another.

“There’s a great respect between any of the [football] programs in the OUA,” he said. “The recruiting is very, very competitive in Ontario with 11 teams. There’s obviously some animosity between the two programs but there’s still that respect because of the competitiveness.”

The rivalry between Queen’s and Western persists in football and other sports — especially men’s rugby and women’s hockey, where both schools are perennially among Ontario’s best.

That said, a few of Queen’s other traditional rivalries have all but dissolved over the past few decades.

Queen’s hosts the Toronto Varsity Blues on Saturday in a football game that may have been a contest to look forward to in the past — but it’s long been one-sided for the Gaels.

The decline of Toronto’s football program is one of the most intriguing cases in Canadian university sport. National champions in 1993, the Varsity Blues haven’t recorded a winning season since.

“It’s a lost rivalry, and that’s unfortunate,” Sheahan said. “You can’t exactly pinpoint one reason as to why that is. You’d like for them to return to form [as a quality football program].”

Sheahan said the McGill Redmen is another team the football program had a deep history with, but the rivalry has disappeared due to changes in conference alignment.

“Back in the day, you could say those were the top two teams fighting for the Yates Cup and you wouldn’t be wrong,” he said.

The Redmen won three Yates Cups from 1960-70, while Queen’s won five as champions of the Senior Intercollegiate Football League. Afterwards, the pair battled for the Dunsmore Cup as members of the Ontario-Quebec Intercollegiate Football Conference.

McGill and Queen’s stopped facing each other when the Gaels joined the OUA in 2000.

While Queen’s change in football conferences may have all but ended the rivalry on the gridiron, the conflict remains on the ice. The Redmen hockey team still plays in the OUA, opening their season this Friday in Kingston against the Gaels.

Once referred to as “Kill McGill” games, the annual Redmen-Gaels tilts have lost their atmosphere in recent years. While more popular than other Memorial Centre clashes, the games only bring in slightly more than 100 spectators over the last few seasons.

University Historian Duncan McDowall said Queen’s initially developed rivalries with McGill, Western and Toronto by competing against them so frequently.

“You’d generally play them at least twice a year in most sports, with football being the main one for the fall and hockey for the winter,” McDowall said. “Back in the day, there weren’t really a whole lot of universities in Ontario and Quebec — it was really these main four that you’d see competing every year.

“There was a small pool to draw from and you’d have these rivalries ingrained in school culture.”

McDowall likened the atmosphere to the Original Six teams in the NHL. The introduction of more university teams in the 1950s and 1960s, he said, was like the NHL’s 1967 expansion, which doubled the league in size from six teams to 12.

McDowall said busloads of students embarked on organized road trips to Montreal, London and Toronto see the football team play, but interest has faded since, with more focus directed towards other sports and activities.

While the competition remains strong most years in the OUA, McDowall said the most passionate rivalries are a thing of the past.

“It’s diluted these days,” he said. “New rivalries can form with teams if they’ve got a good football team or athletic program. But it’s really not the same as it once was.”

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