Louie Villanueva/the Gauntlet

Canada’s highest sporting honour

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The best kept cultural secret in Calgary may not be an art gallery, microbrewery or theatre company. It may be a place where you can take a punch from Lennox Lewis. 

Opened in 2011, the Canada’s Sport Hall of Fame’s sheer magnitude and sophistication are impressive. The regular exhibits are striking, beautifully lit and tastefully arranged containing some the most diverse collection of Canadian sport artifacts from an actual Formula One car driven by Jacques Villeneuve to Calgary ’88 silver medalist Elizabeth Manley’s skating outfit.

The CSHOF is opening a new interactive exhibit on Jan. 15 titled “The Perfect Match: Sport vs. Science” that will feature booths that explore the overlapping areas between sports and science. This exhibit is a traveling exhibit and was built by the museum of nature and science in Sherbrooke, QC. The CSHOF is the first location to receive the exhibit in Canada. 

“The exhibit features 10 different areas where you can learn more about how science has developed and changed each different sport,” said Janice Smith, director of exhibits for the CSHOF. 

The booths in the regular collection are — on their own — one of most interesting attractions in the museum. The interactive exhibits are cutting edge and sharply designed. They include catching a pitch from Canadian Major League pitcher Jeff Francis, learning how to swim laps while conserving energy or racing against 14-time Paralympic gold medalist Chantal Petitclerc. Aside from the fact that these exhibits are entertaining, they also connect younger Canadians to athletes and sports they might not get to otherwise experience, perhaps piquing their interest in new sports. 

The history of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame dates back to 1947 and Harry Price, the chairman of the sports committee for the Canadian National Exhibition. Price endeavoured to collect materials from all over the country to create a place where Canada’s sporting history could be preserved. In 1955, it was decided that the Stanley barracks on the cne grounds in Toronto would be the site of the first hall of fame. Two years later, the Hockey Hall of Fame was born and shared the same barracks as the cshof. However, in 1993, the HHOF moved to its current location in downtown Toronto, forcing the cshof into storage in the barracks. This disgraceful resting place was home for the CSHOF until 2008 when the board of directors decided to reinvigorate the hall and move it to a new home. 

Honoured CSHOF member and 1964 Olympic gold medalist Dr. Roger Jackson provided the motivation to create a bidding process for the hall. There were nine formal bids to acquire the hall, but Calgary won the bid and the hall opened at Winsport’s Canada Olympic Park on July 1, 2011. 

“Calgary’s bid was successful for a number of important reasons,” said president and CEO of the CSHOF Mario Siciliano.“There was a lot of interest from the Alberta government and the City of Calgary, tremendous support from the corporate community and this location at Winsport was a really unique idea.”

The guiding principle of the museum goes far beyond simply creating a space for people to spend an enjoyable afternoon. Though there are 2,000 artifacts on display to the public at any time, the CSHOF’s vast archives and libraries hold over 95,000 artifacts from every point in Canadian sporting history. 

“We call that collection the library of limitless lessons, it is not just a store room of microfilm. You just need to know what to ask it,” said Siciliano. 

An athlete needs more than athletic accolades to gain acceptance into the CSHOF. The process is rigorous and involves a panel of judges from all over the country who scrutinize athletes’ entire sporting career and personal values, not simply the resume of their accomplishments. 

“You need to demonstrate the values that are so important to our country and fundamentally change our culture,” said Siciliano “That’s what makes this the highest honour in the country.” 

Siciliano also expanded on this idea by explaining that the honoured members’ experiences and values can be used as inspiration for those at any level of sport or even those outside of sport completely. The motto chosen by the CSHOF is “Inspiring Canadians in Sport and Life” and Siciliano believes that this statement exemplifies the ethos of the museum itself.

What may surprise some who visit the museum is the inclusion of athletes who are not Canadian. For example, Anthony Calvillo’s jersey hangs in the CSHOF despite him being born in Los Angeles and Joe Carter’s 1993 walk-off World Series winning home run is featured in a film shown in the hall. This is another example of the hall attempting to expand their vision of what contributes to Canadian sport. 

The thought is that Carter’s home run or Calvillo’s CFL career are inextricably linked to Canadian sport even though the athletes are not Canadian born. Canadian sport is not the exclusive domain of athletes; defining moments in Canadian sport are also pivotal moments in Canadian history. “The idea is that you have to have contributed to Canadian sport,” said Bridget Cox, communications manager of the CSHOF. “You don’t have to be Canadian to have changed the face of Canadian culture or history.” 

Canada has a long history of athletic excellence from individuals born in other countries, many of whom are featured in the CHOF’s exhibits, including sprinters Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin, wrestling gold-medalist Daniel Igali and heavyweight boxer Lennox Lewis. In many ways, the hall’s inclusiveness of athletes who were born all over the world exemplifies the kind of diversity that is reflected in the country as well. 

Through its exhibits, archives and honoured members, the CSHOF is truly a place that reflects the very best of Canadian sport as well as the very best of Canada, you just need to know what to ask it.