As Sunday’s noon ET kickoff approaches on the day of the Panda Game, the excitement only begins to swell along the Rideau Canal’s shores.
Like several U Sports schools and early season homecoming matchups, the annual Panda Game brings out the season’s largest crowd, with two student bodies beaming with pride for their respective teams.
The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and Carleton University Ravens will play the 54th edition of the Panda Game, a one-game trophy matchup played nearly every year since 1955, outside of the 15-year gap where Carleton cut its football program from 1998 to 2013. The game will be streamed live on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.
What started as a small contest over a stuffed panda donated by students has grown into a banner event for Canadian university sport, attracting and expected crowd of 24,000-plus fans to Ottawa’s TD Place Stadium.
“It’s become such an icon for Ottawa, not just both universities. What it does for school spirit and pride is astounding,” Ottawa head coach Marcell Bellefeuille told CBC Sports.
“Students wearing their gear, getting loud and excited about their schools, that sense of belonging is special for the students, not just the athletes. You can’t even qualify or quantify what it means.”
Over the years, Ottawa has built a sizeable 36-17 advantage on Carleton.
While the game has brought much to celebrate for both schools, it hasn’t been without its problems, including the disaster in 1987 that injured dozens of students, and other crowd issues on the way.
Despite challenges, the Panda Game has prevailed, with organizers learning lessons each year to orchestrate an event that regularly draws the biggest crowd on the U Sports calendar, outdoing other significant games.
“With the Panda Game comes a lot of pre and post-Panda activities; it’s a time for celebration, students want to gather, they want to have fun, they want to party, and we’ve learned a lot over the years, especially since bringing the game to TD Place in 2014,” Jennifer Brenning, Carleton’s Director of Athletics and Recreation told CBC Sports.
“Students come in groups; they don’t make this decision alone, and they’re not going to pick up and buy a ticket alone. They want to know that a lot of people are going and that they’re not the only ones, so you need to create that group environment, and that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
WATCH | Fans rush the field to celebrate 2022 Panda Game:
For several years, the Panda Game has had leadership from the two schools and student groups, as well as the municipal government, local police, and medical services. Still, the event gives a sense of grandeur to the rivalry, something Ottawa has become known for.
Outside of Panda Game, the Carleton-Ottawa rivalry also powers the highest-attended basketball game in Canada, outside of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. That tilt, Capital Hoops, inspired the re-invigorated Panda Game and the move to the larger stadium in 2014, allowing the two schools to play in front of a mammoth crowd for football and a nearly 10,000-person crowd for basketball. Hockey also draws significant numbers for the Colonel By Classic.
“I think being great ambassadors for these types of rivalries can bring further interest,” Carleton head coach Corey Grant told CBC Sports. “Then we just keep building on that and putting a great product on the playing surface that people will come out and enjoy.”
The Gee-Gees and Ravens paint a blueprint of a thriving local rivalry and how Canadian university sport could harness that energy into larger crowds.
“There are lots of university cities with two universities or close proximity that could try to build that kind of rivalry like we’ve been able to here,” Brenning said. “We find it challenging too because we have Panda Game, but we’re still looking at having to attract crowds for the rest of the season.”
Tight race on the field
While winning the Panda Game and the aptly named Pedro the Panda Trophy is always a critical point in the season, the game bears added weight this year with both the Gee-Gees and Ravens sitting at 2-2 to start the year.
The Gee-Gees have won the last four Panda Games, dating back to 2017, and were the likely favourites heading into the season before their recent losses.
“When you win Panda Game, it’s electric; it’s huge because everyone floods the field and everyone who doesn’t always follow the football team cares a ton,” fifth-year Gee-Gees kicker Campbell Fair told CBC Sports. “There’s more noise from the outside and more pressure, but when you get out there, it all goes away.”
Fair scored a pair of conversions and a 41-yard field goal in last week’s loss to Western. Meanwhile, Carleton quarterback Tristan Lefebvre completed 27 of 41 pass attempts for 329 yards, four touchdowns and only one interception.
“There’s nothing like it in U Sports,” and probably in Canadian university sports, the atmosphere that’s between the two schools and the whole stadium in the lead-up to the game.
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Around the U Sports world:
The men’s hockey season began in Ontario University Athletics with the Nipissing University Lakers defeating the University of Guelph Gryphons 2-1. The Canada West season starts on Friday.
University of British Columbia Okanagan striker Stefanie Young became the national scoring leader in women’s soccer, scoring three goals against the University of Lethbridge, her third hat-trick in five games. She has 12 goals in nine matches.
The Calgary Dinos vaulted up to the top spot of the Canada West field hockey standings after UBC forfeited their two matchups from earlier in the season due to playing an ineligible player. Calgary improved to 2-0-2, while UBC dropped to 1-3.
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