This story is over 5 years old.


The Panda Game: When Canadian College Football Is a Big Deal

For the most part, people in Ottawa care about university football for precisely one afternoon each year. It's for the Panda Game, an annual football matchup between rival schools.
Photo by Andrew Forbes

Generally speaking, university football is played in Canada without most of us really noticing. There aren't stadiums with the capacity to hold 100,000-plus fans, there are few marching bands, no all-day tailgate parties, and little of the pageantry and tradition that characterizes US college football. Alumni do not line up to donate tens of thousands of dollars to have new luxury suites built, or training facilities named in their honour. Players aren't tenaciously recruited, handed full scholarships, or paid surreptitiously. If the designation "student-athlete" is meant to imply that a balance be struck, and if we accept that often that balance leans heavily toward the athlete end of things for American college sports, then these Canadian players are typically students first, athletes secondarily.


The mostly unknown players perform in front of small crowds, with little TV coverage, until the Vanier Cup happens right around the same time as the Grey Cup. It's televised nationally, a champion is crowned, and then we all go back to forgetting about Canadian university football.

READ MORE: Matt Dunigan Revisits the CFL's Failed Birmingham Barracudas Franchise

For the most part, people in Ottawa care about university football for precisely one afternoon each year. First staged in 1955, The Panda Game is an annual contest between the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees (the old and established school; the Garnet and Grey have been playing football since 1881) and the Carleton Ravens (upstarts, founded in 1945; used to be labeled "Last Chance U," and, full disclosure, the author's alma mater), both located in Canada's capital. The winner is awarded a trophy in the shape of a panda (it was originally a stuffed animal) named Pedro.

They played the 47th Panda Game last weekend. It was, as it has always been, a chance for the respective schools' supporters to show enthusiasm for their educational institutions, cheering on the football teams as costumed proxies. These are not, by and large, big football fans. They are young people in search of something about which to scream. They are looking for a party. They are looking for a drink.

The event itself is not the drunken mess it used to be, which is evidence mainly of a society in which the fun-suckers have triumphed, and the police are everywhere. Faces are still painted, team colours worn, and beer consumed, but it lacks the terrifying edge that the old unhinged bacchanalia frequently inspired. Mostly now it's a chance for the schools' student bodies to sit opposite one another and tell each other to fuck off.


"Fuck you, Carleton U," shout the Ottawa students.

"Fuck you, Ottawa U," shout the Carleton kids.

It's also a chance to make clever signs, like this one:

The old games had a well-earned reputation for shenanigans, mascot kidnappings, and public drinking. Things reached their rowdy apex in 1987, when exuberant Ravens fans forced the collapse of a railing at Lansdowne Park, allowing dozens to fall 16 feet to the concrete below. Bones were broken, concussions were sustained, and one woman went into a coma (she lived, thankfully). Tradition is tradition, though, and the 1988 game went ahead as scheduled. The only thing that could stop the Panda Game, in fact, was money—too little of it forced the mothballing of the Carleton football program after the 1998 season. The team was resurrected three years ago, and so was the Panda Game.

This second incarnation of the rivalry is in danger of becoming known for great football games more than for the inebriated antics which surround it (consider that the average undergrad was a toddler when the last of the original set of games was contested). Ottawa won the first of these, but last year's Panda Game saw Carleton take custody of Pedro via a last-second Hail Mary. At its conclusion, Ravens supporters rushed the field.

Better than 17,000 people showed up to this year's game, the largest crowd to attend a CIS football game in 2015, perhaps hoping for more such magic. More likely, though, they were just looking for a party. They had a few beers and huddled together against the cold to half-watch a strange, sloppy, exhilarating pinball game.


READ MORE: Do the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders Have the Best Fans in Sports?

Carleton went up by ten early. The CU contingent, occupying the north end stands, were happy. "Fuck you, Ottawa U," they said.

In the second quarter, the Gee-Gees scored 30 points, and the south side stands replied, "Fuck you, Carleton U."

At halftime, a man kicked a 30-yard field goal to win himself a month of free pizza. Everyone cheered that. Then the announcer told them the concession stands had stopped selling beer at the end of the first half. Nobody cheered that.

At the end of regulation the score was tied at 38. In overtime, Carleton was given the ball first, on their opponents' 35. They scored.

"Fuck you, Ottawa U," said the north side.

The Gee-Gees were handed the ball at the same spot, and they countered with a TD. Game tied again.

"Fuck you, Carleton U," said the south.

Ottawa took the ball to start the second overtime, but were stopped. Carleton had last crack, and it drove deep into Ottawa territory. Then kicker Mike Domagala cleanly parted the uprights, Final: 48-45, Carleton.

Perhaps ten thousand Ravens supporters rushed from the stands, meeting at midfield, where they cheered and danced and hugged. They were atoms in random constellation until, eventually, they organized. "Fuck you, Ottawa U," they cried.

Done caring, the Ottawa fans just shrugged, and moved on to the afterparties.

All photos by Andrew Forbes