City should mark lacrosse meeting
Kingston City Hall was site of inaugural session of National Association of La Crosse in 1867
Kingston’s long, rich history is peppered with all sorts of “firsts.” It also finds reflection in its many heritage homes, imposing government buildings, plaques, statues and, of course, on the tube every Saturday night during Coach’s Corner. Now we can add one more first to that list of distinctions — and make no mistake, Ol’ Highcollar, a.k.a. Donald S. Cherry, is as distinct as it gets.
Yet this isn’t a story about Wolfe Island’s famous seasonal resident, but rather about a pivotal meeting that took place at City Hall in the early autumn of 1867. This was just months after our own Johnny A. Macdonald and the other Daddies of Confederation tied the country together. That Kingston meeting, which drew sports-minded gentlemen from Montreal, Toronto, London, and parts in between, marked the inaugural session of the National Association of La Crosse (NAL) — the first national sport governing organization on this side of the Atlantic.
When you think about it, that’s no small potatoes, distinction wise. Kingston already bills itself as the birthplace of organized hockey, a boast contested and routinely scoffed at by inhabitants of Windsor, N.S., who believe the first bodychecks and breakaways occurred on nearby Long Pond. For sake of argument, let’s say the first contest occurred here, square puck, funny sticks and all. Now comes evidence that Canada’s first capital city also served as the launching pad for organized lacrosse. That gives locals unprecedented bragging rights to the organized origins of both of the country’s national sports. (In 1994, the House of Commons decreed hockey to be the national winter sport and lacrosse to be our national summer sport — which was invented and played by Aboriginal people long before there was even a Canada.)
Both national pastimes kickstarted in the Limestone quarter? That’s akin to rock ‘n’ roll Cleveland finding out it’s also the home of jazz; like baseball-batty Cooperstown discovering that basketball pioneer Jimmy Naismith first put up bottomless peach baskets in their quaint village; Liverpool learning it’s the birthplace of the Rolling Stones, too.
It’s also a story of determination, drive, detailed research, palpable passion for sport and — at least for the time being — bitter disappointment.
Ed Grenda cops to the latter feeling. Last summer the noted local sports historian and longtime community volunteer headed a sport-conscious consortium proposing to have a plaque erected inside City Hall to commemorate the 1867 meeting at which the NAL was founded. The city’s Commemorative Policy Committee reviewed the proposal and subsequently rejected it. The committee instead suggested alternative venues for a plaque such as a Kingston Remembers interpretive panel to be located in City Park near where lacrosse was regularly played in the mid-19th century. Or a temporary exhibit on local lacrosse history in one of City Hall’s niche displays, or in the new gallery to be developed in the Market Wing.
The rejection left 78-year-old Grenda stunned, but not speechless. Months later he’s still cheesed and prone to sounding off on the topic.
“Here we have Kingston being instrumental in the development of both our national sports — a significant achievement in itself — and the city doesn’t give a toss about it. It’s disgusting,” Grenda fumed as quietly as possible over a Sunday morning coffee in a midtown eatery. “There are plenty of cities that would kill for the distinction of having played an integral role in the organization of both of Canada’s designated national sports. Not here, though.
“For a city that thrives on, and supposedly strives to honour, its history, to completely ignore this proposal is a shame, a real shame.”
Paul Robertson, the city curator who sat on the Commemorative Committee and authored the rejection response, said that while no one “denied the significance of the event ... it was just one meeting, the (lacrosse) headquarters were still in Montreal, and there was really no other connection to Kingston, other than the fact there were a few teams operating in the area.”
At any rate, he said City Hall is done adorning the interior with plaques and such. In fact, the curator and cohorts have been stripping the walls of old pictures, photos, and certificates over the past few years. “A concerted effort,” Robertson wrote, “to remove much of the clutter from City Hall.”
Still, Grenda felt his proposal was given short shrift.
“I was insulted,” he said, his dander inching up wards .“I consider the city’ s rejection to be egregiously lame and patently lacking in historical knowledge of early Kingston and the role that sports has played in Kingston shortly after Confederation. The Commemorative Committee consists of city staff with no involvement by the public. It appears that sport is viewed as a pariah endeavour and does not merit serious consideration.
“The inaugural NAL meeting was a significant, innovative, sociocultural undertaking in Canadian and international sports history. Yet, unfortunately we have too many people in Kingston who don’t consider sport as part of sociocultural history. It is!” he thundered. “It’s as much a part as theatre, literature, the arts, etc.”
The people pushing the plaque proposal are no slouches in the fields of lacrosse, sports history, or both. Grenda is a former president of the Kingston Historical Society and onetime chair of the Provincial Sport Organizations Council. In addition to having sat on roughly 30 local committees, he was the first president of the Historical Hockey Series (1980), a founding member of the Kingston Triathlon (1984) and was instrumental in organizing the annual Carr-Harris Cup hockey game (1986). He is also a founding member of the Society for International Hockey Research. Oh, yes, and he played lacrosse back in the day when he was one of Burnaby’s top multi-sport athletes. (Grenda even has his own baseball trivia question: Name two past National and American league batting champions whose fathers Grenda played against in a B.C. semi-pro loop. Answer: Larry Walker and John Olerud.)
The other members of Grenda’s group include lacrosse historian Jim Calder, author of two books on the sport, a former national field lacrosse player, current director of the Canadian Lacrosse Foundation, and coach of the University of Toronto women’s team; Bill Fitsell, internationally known hockey historian, ex Whig-Standard reporter/columnist and past president of the Kingston Historical Society; Rusty Doxtdator, Indigenous Director of the Canadian Lacrosse Association; James Burke, chair of the Canadian Lacrosse Foundation; Stan Cockerton, president of the Ontario Lacrosse Association, past president of the International Lacrosse Federation (New York). That’s a formidable unit indeed, yet one that was pitted against the most feared adversary of all: government policy.
The La Crosse Plaque Project sought to salute the formation of the NAL, which happened in what is now the Loyalist Room a City Hall. The NAL was the first national sport governing organization not only in Canada, but in North America.
Perhaps the Commemorative Committee members were leery of the plaque’s $1,500 price tag. Nope. Cost was never an issue, not with the Canadian Lacrosse Foundation offering to foot the bill for the plaque.
The 52 delegates who visited Kingston on that September day 151 years ago were feted and fed and accorded hospitality usually reserved for visiting dignitaries. This from a Daily British Whig editorial: “Everywhere the La Crosse Convention is meeting with warm support . ... We are satisfied that it will be many a year before as large and enthusiastic a convention is assembled in Canada.”
So just who does one side with in Plaquegate? On one hand there is the city’s policy and its unwavering commitment to spruce up the old edifice that is City Hall. And Robertson is no slouch in his field of expertise, having logged 30 years in the museum business, the last seven as city curator.
On the other hand, we have a significant piece of local sports history brought to light and presented by a man whose forte is dogged research and who, incidentally, has probably done as much as anyone to promote and honour his adopted city’s wonderful past.
Next time you pop in to City Hall, skip up to the second floor and have a look at the mayor’s chain of office. Have a glance at the city’s coat of arms while you’re there. Grenda chaired the committees tasked with redesigning both.
Is Plaquegate a dead issue? Not by a longshot. Grenda said he’s taken the matter directly to some members of city council in hopes of having a motion put forth supporting the plaque project. “If council passes (the motion), the plaque will happen, policy or no policy.”
If one day approved, the plaque is unlikely to be displayed in the room that actually hosted the inaugural NAL meeting. The Loyalist Room has been closed to the public, save for special events, for several years.
Ed Grenda, with a lacrosse stick at the Queen’s Athletics and Recreation Centre on Friday, wants the city to erect a plaque at City Hall to commemorate the forming of the National Association of La Crosse, which took place in Kingston City Hall on Sept. 26, 1867.