Sports Rivalries


There is no room for rationale. Pride is on the line every single time. Their histories are embedded in tradition, an observance passed down from generation to generation. Their scales vary from countries to individuals, but the fervour never decreases. They are deal-breakers, debate-starters, blood-boilers. They incite an unparalleled passion in people. They are sports rivalries.

Every four years the curtains open on the world stage of winter sports. Athletes who have been working their entire lives have a few moments to show off their talents. All this pressure has led to some incredible and intense match-ups. As soon as the Canadian hockey players touch down in Olympic Land, we all don our red and white proudly. While all the games are important and fun to watch, there’s a different level of breath-holding when our neighbours to south take the ice. Canada vs. USA: it’s as ubiquitous as tequila in Mexico. International hockey competitions cause Canadians to celebrate in the streets, give their employees the afternoon off to watch the game, and open bars at 7:00 am so they can drink as gold is won. Molson Canadian, official sponsor of everything hockey in Canada, put into words how every Canuck feels when these two countries face-off:

Molson Canadian faces off against Budweiser over Olympic ads. Image from:

Taking things down a level, we have the classic team rivalries. Across the pond, in the English Premier League of soccer, the biggest opposing forces are Manchester United and Liverpool. The teams have played each other nearly 200 times since the 19th century, with United slightly edging out Liverpool in wins. The rivalry dates back to when the two cities were industrial competitors, which then bled into the realm of soccer. Not necessarily the most logical of reasons in 2015, but again, logic doesn’t really play a part in athletic competition. What is interesting about the friction between these teams is that they have never really been legitimate adversaries at one time. Liverpool dominated from the mid-70s to the early 90s, while Manchester United has excelled since. Today they remain fierce rivals and their fans make sure to carry that torch all over the world. Their next match takes place on March 22 2015.

Another rivalry, sometimes argued to be one of the most intense in sports, is between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. It started in 1919, when the owner of the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in order to finance a Broadway musical.  This became known as the “Curse of the Bambino,” because the Red Sox went into an 86-year slump, while the Yankees became synonymous with baseball success. Since it involves two of America’s biggest cities, it is only fitting that the feud looms large off the diamond as well. It has infiltrated politics: former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani tried diplomacy by showing support for the Red Sox, but was met with hostility by being labelled a traitor. It has spilled over into other sports: the NFL’s New England Patriots vs. New York Giants/Jets; the NBA’s New York Knicks vs. Boston Celtics; and the NHL’s Boston Bruins have shown tremendous support for their hometown Red Sox (see one of goalie Tuukka Rask’s helmets below). The Yankees and Red Sox will play in Boston May 1-3 2015.

One of Tuukka Rask’s helmets, showing support for the Red Sox. Image from:

Torontonians are all aware of the Leafs’ rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens…and the Ottawa Senators…and the Detroit Red Wings. The contention with the Red Wings goes back to the Original Six era and has continued today in the Atlantic Division. They faced-off in Michigan for the 2014 Winter Classic, where the friction was tangible (I know since I was there). Victory was sweet when the Leafs won in a cliffhanger shootout.

The rivalry with Ottawa has been labelled the Battle of Ontario and has a rough history. One of the more infamous incidents occurred when Daniel Alfredsson of the Senators mocked Leafs’ captain Mats Sundin’s stick-throwing. It is safe to say that whenever Alfredsson had the puck, there were boos aplenty (this continued when he went to Detroit of all places).

No rivalry with the Toronto Maple Leafs will ever outweigh that of the one with the Montreal Canadiens. When the two teams meet, the antagonism is so intense (both on and off the ice) that they may as well be playing for the Cup. For the past six seasons the Leafs and Habs have faced-off in the season opener because it is that much more exciting. While there isn’t a single incident that fuelled the fire, the contention could be linked back to the English-French conflict. This was reinforced in The Hockey Sweater, a short story published in 1985 by Roch Carrier. It is about a young Quebec boy whose mother accidentally orders a Leafs jersey instead of a beloved Canadiens one. It doesn’t get more bona fide than when a sports rivalry is put into a children’s book. The feud continues this month when they play in Montreal on February 14 and 28.

The Hockey Sweater, published in 1985 by Roch Carrier. Image from:
The Hockey Sweater, published in 1985 by Roch Carrier. Image from:

At the bottom of the funnel we have rivalries between individual athletes. One of the most notorious in sporting history is what happened with figure skaters Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. In 1994, Kerrigan was attacked to the point that she had to withdraw from an upcoming competition that Harding went on to win. It later came out that the attacker was a friend of Harding’s then-husband, so immediate speculation was that Harding was behind the whole thing. Kerrigan recovered and went on to win silver in that year’s Olympics, while Harding ended up in 8th. Both lives were never the same and Harding maintains to this day that she had no prior knowledge of the assault. ESPN aired a documentary last year called The Price of Gold, which tried to show a more complete story of Harding’s life. The fact that there is still interest in this incident 20 years later proves just how much of an impact it had on the skating world.

Some other rivalries between individual athletes include tennis champions Pete Sampras vs. Andre Agassi; Monica Seles vs. Steffi Graf; and Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal. In golf there was Arnold Palmer against Jack Nicklaus, and in more recent times it has been Tiger Woods against Phil Mickelson. And of course there was the contention between boxers Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier. Their journey from friends to foes is notorious in the sporting world and resulted in three epic fights.

These sports rivalries are difficult for outsiders to comprehend. Those in the thick of it understand that there is no coming back. Leaf fans would rather leave Canada than support the Habs; a Steffi Graf fan stabbed Monica Seles to show allegiance; and a New Yorker was pulled from his car and beaten in Massachusetts for being a suspected Yankees fan. While these are all extreme examples, sports rivalries are very real and very serious. After all, according to former Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner: “Sports is like a war without the killing.”

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