Aussie rules has developed rapidly in the country of Canada in the past decade or so, buoyed by a wave of Aussie ex-pats who live and work in the large cities of Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa, among others. There are several leagues currently operating, most notably in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, and British Columbia.
The AFL brought the game to Canada officially in the late 1980s, when exhibition matches were held in both Vancouver and Toronto. In fact, the 1987 Vancouver-based match between Sydney Swans and the Melbourne Demons drew a record crowd of over 32,000 – which, to this day, is the largest crowd ever to see a footy match outside of Australia.
Like in the US, many Canadians were first introduced to Aussie rules during the 80s, when ESPN hosted regional broadcasts of AFL games. The first Canadian league was established in Toronto in May 1989, with two teams, the Toronto Panthers and the Mississauga Mustangs. Four other teams had joined by 1992, and by 1993, the Canadian national team, the Northwind, was born.
Almost immediately, the Northwind experienced success, beating a British representative team in only their second year of existence. In 1995, a cable TV station in Hamilton, Ontario, broadcast a local footy game for the first time, and in 1999, the Canadians played the Americans in the first edition of the 49th Parallel Cup.
The Northwind have competed in every edition of the Australian Football International Cup, starting in 2002. The women’s team, known as the Northern Lights, first played their edition of the 49th Parallel Cup in 2007 and have also competed at the International Cup, starting in 2011.
In 2012, the AFL got even more recognition up north when former Canadian rugby union player Mike Pyke won an AFL premiership with the Sydney Swans. This, perhaps more than anything, signified the birth of Aussie rules in Canada as both a major competitive enterprise and an exciting spectator sport.
At the junior level, there have been organized footy competitions since 2003, when the North Delta Junior Australian Football League was founded in British Columbia. The sport of footy continues to grow in Canada, aided by the AFL’s push to add more development officers and coaches in North America. Today, there are 833 registered senior male players and 212 female players, as well as over 6,400 youngsters in various junior leagues. This makes Aussie rules one of the fastest-growing sports in Canada.
CANADIANS IN THE AFL
- Mike Pyke (played 2009-2015) – A British Columbia native who played numerous sports as a kid, Pyke played professional rugby union in both Canada and in Scotland. After injuries stalled his career, Pyke surprised many when he decided to switch to Aussie rules based on a friend’s recommendation. He caught on as a ruckman with the Sydney Swans and slowly managed to carve out a role for himself, drawing praise from coaches and teammates alike. In 2012, Pyke made history as the first Canadian to win an AFL premiership. Now a dual citizen of Canada and Australia, Pyke retired from the AFL in 2015 and currently works as an investment banker.
- Andrew McGrath (played 2017-present) – Born in Ontario, McGrath moved to Melbourne with his family at the age of five. A long-armed, polished defender, McGrath was drafted as the #1 pick in the 2016 AFL Draft by the Essendon Bombers. As a junior, McGrath played for the Vic Metro squad in under-18 footy while attending Brighton Grammar School. He was also a gifted track and field athlete.
- Scott Fleming (played 2008-present) – A lanky 6’3″ forward, Fleming started playing Aussie rules as a teenager in British Columbia and moved to Queensland in 2008 to pursue his goal. Helped by Canadian footy liaison Greg Everett, Fleming found a place at the Broadbeach Cats, a historic club in the Queensland Australian Football League (QAFL) that has also produced AFL players such as Joel Wilkinson and Dayne Zorko.
- Alberta Australian Football League
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- Edmonton Wombats
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- British Columbia Australian Football League
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- Newfoundland and Labrador Australian Football League
- St John’s Puffins
- North West Pacific Australian Football League
- Burnaby Eagles
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- Vancouver Cougars
- Victoria Lions
- Nova Scotia Australian Football League
- Halifax Dockers
- Sydney Giants
- Ontario Australian Football League
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