Its February 18th, 2022, and the 8-0 Ottawa Gee-Gees basketball team are heading into a crucial match-up with their city rivals, the Carleton Ravens, who are also 8-0. This game will go a long way to determining who will be atop the OUA East division in the 2022 U Sports Basketball season. But this game is more than just a battle for seeding, in the world of Canadian collegiate sports, perhaps there is no rivalry that is as competitive and celebrated as the rivalry between the two Ottawa-based universities. The Gee-Gees and Ravens don’t like each other, and both sides have a long history in both football and basketball to show for it.
The University of Ottawa is the older of the two institutions. It was founded in 1848 as the College of Bytown (the name of the city at the time) and it would be renamed the College of Ottawa by 1861. Just five years later, the college was granted university status and thus became the University of Ottawa by 1866. Fifteen years later, when Canadian Football was in its infancy, the University of Ottawa was one of the first institutions in Canada to put a team together. As their colours were garnet and grey, their nickname became the Ottawa GG’s and it eventually evolved in the official Ottawa Gee-Gees name we know today.
The Gee-Gees were successful in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they won eight Québec Rugby Football Union (QRFU) championships titles between 1894 and 1904. Three years later, the Gee-Gees won their first Yates Cup, the trophy that is awarded to the best collegiate team in Ontario. The success from this era couldn’t be sustained, but despite that, the team remained popular within the city.
In 1954, the team moved from their home, Varsity Oval into the bigger and more centrally located Frank Clair Stadium (also known as Lansdowne Park) which was also the home of the professional Ottawa Rough Riders CFL team. The following season in 1955, Lansdowne Park would be the venue for a Gee-Gees game like no other, against their cross-city rivals, the Carleton Ravens.
The University of Carleton is a much younger institution than the University of Ottawa. While the University of Ottawa predates the Canadian Confederation, Carleton was founded in 1942 as an evening college for returning world war two veterans. Just ten years later, Carleton was granted University status, making the University of Carleton nearly ninety years younger than Ottawa University.
Carleton wasted no time establishing a sports presence, however. In 1945, Carleton played its first organized football game, and by 1948, they were being referred to as the Carleton Ravens, which coincided with their all-black raven-like uniform. While the Gee-Gees were very successful in their early years, the Ravens on the other hand struggled. The Ravens were hindered by low university enrolment, which had a domino effect of both under-funding and a smaller talent pool to select players from. The lowest ebb was when the team didn’t take part in the 1951 season, although thankfully the program was revived in 1952. The fortunes of the Ravens were starting to turn around in 1953 and 1954, and when they were due to play Ottawa in 1955, the Ravens had an air of confidence about them.
Ahead of the Gee-Gees against Ravens game in 1955, Brian McNulty, an associate editor of the University of Ottawa student newspaper, The Fulcrum visited a local jeweller called Jack Snow. McNulty was looking to spark up the rivalry between his school and Carleton and convinced Snow to donate a stuffed panda to be used as Ottawa’s mascot ahead of the game. The Panda, who was named Pedro was then put on display in Jack Snow’s shop and was soon reported to be stolen by students of Carleton, from that point, the matchup between Ottawa and Carleton was named the Panda Game, with the team that wins taking home the ‘trophy’ of Pedro the Panda.
Carleton won the first Panda Game in a low-scoring 14-7 game and followed it up with another win in 1956. Such was the jubilation around Carleton, Pedro the panda even ran for Carleton School President, much to the irritation of the Ottawa students. In the 1957 Panda Game, Ottawa came storming back to win the Panda Game 44-0, the most lopsided victory in Gee-Gees vs Ravens history. The Gee-Gees would hold on to Pedro for seven seasons and the Gee-Gees savoured every moment of it, touring Pedro around Canada and even taking him to Europe and then allegedly even as far as Peru. Carleton won Pedro back in 1964 after winning 40-33 in a high-scoring affair and as the sixties went on, the Panda Game was becoming more and more about just the game.
As the 1960s went on, both sets of students would carry out raids on the opposing campus in order to capture and bring Pedro home. Soon, the build-up to Panda Game was known as “Hate Week”. It was becoming more common for toilet paper raids, stinking out common rooms and in one case, a Carleton student was ambushed by Ottawa students, and forcefully painted in Gee-Gees colours. In 1965, a non-aggression pact was signed between Ottawa and Carleton, but despite this, the rivalry wouldn’t cool down.
The hate week became synonymous with vandalism and brawls, and by 1967 the very future of the Panda Game was being called into doubt. In an effort to combat this, the organizers of the Panda Game attempted to rebrand Hate Week as Love Week to coincide with the hippy movement of the late 1960s across North America.
In 1969, the Ravens had won the latest edition of the Panda game by a tight 21-20 margin, but the Gee-Gees had dominated the series in its first fifteen years, leading the series 11-4. The 1968 peace effort wasn’t to last, in 1970 some Ottawa student broke into Lansdowne Park. Lansdowne Park was the permanent host venue for the game, and the two teams would rotate on a yearly basis who would be the home team. So when the Ottawa students vandalized and damaged the Lansdowne field and toilets, it was the ‘home team’ Carleton Ravens who were given the repair bill, adding to their misery after Ottawa won the 1970 Panda Game 29-20.
As the 1970s went on, The Ottawa Gee-Gees would enter somewhat of a golden age for their football program. In 1970, Ottawa made their first-ever Vanier Cup final, the national championship game in Canadian collegiate football. They lost the final 38-11 to Manitoba, but would soon reload under new leadership. Don Gilbert took over as head coach in 1971, and the former Buffalo Bills quarterback soon used his fame to attract star recruits from both sides of the border, helping to make the 1975 Ottawa Gee-Gees one of the best Canadian college teams of all time.
Ottawa would win the 1975 Panda Game by a convincing 55-22 scoreline over Carleton. They then followed this up by winning their first Yates Cup since 1907, and after winning the Churchill Bowl (national semi-final) they were once again ready for another crack at the Vanier Cup. In a low-scoring affair, the Gee-Gees defeated the Calgary Dinos 14-7, becoming the first team in Canadian college history to go an entire season unbeaten as they won the Vanier Cup for the first time.
Twenty-one players from the 1975 Gee-Gees team would go on to be drafted in the CFL, and those players would feature in a combined twenty-three Grey Cups and win twelve Grey Cup championships, cementing the dominance of the 1975 team. But while Ottawa had national superiority, that didn’t stop the pranks from both sides.
The 1970s featured incidents like homemade slingshots being used to hurl water balloons across from one stand to another, and in 1977, Ottawa students released five pigs onto the field from a box marked “Carleton Pork Chops” which irked the Ottawa Humane Society into pressing charges against the responsible Ottawa students. The late comedian Norm Macdonald, who attended Carleton even told a story where he once attempted to throw a mustard dispenser onto the field during a Panda Game, only for it to spray the fans in front of him with mustard instead. During the 1970s, the Gee-Gees won seven matchups compared to the Ravens three. But in the 1980s, the rivalry would take a dramatic and shocking turn.
After the 1979 Panda Game which Ottawa won 28-16, Pedro the Panda was retired and was placed in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, he was replaced with a brand new copper replica trophy.
If the 1970s was the Gee-Gee decade, the 1980s would be the Ravens’ time to shine. From 1983 to 1985, the Ravens would win three successive Panda Games for the first time in team history, and they weren’t done there. The 1985 Ravens stormed to the playoffs and made the Dunsmore Cup final, the Quebec equivalent to the Yates Cup which Carleton and Ottawa were eligible to compete for at the time, in-fact Ottawa had even won the Dunsmore Cup themselves in 1980. Carleton won their first-ever trophy with a 46-21 win over the Concordia Stingers in the 1985 Dunsmore Cup game, and despite losing to Calgary in the national semi-final, it was still the best season in team history.
While they, unfortunately, lost the 1986 Dunsmore Cup, the Ravens could at least have pride in that they defeated the Gee-Gees in the playoff semi-final, avenging their 1986 30-29 Panda Game loss earlier on in the year. The Ravens again won the Panda Game in 1987, making it five consecutive seasons with a win over Ottawa, but the win in 1987 was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
During halftime at the 1987 Panda Game, Carleton fans were standing on the edges of the grandstand preparing to jump onto the field, but as the crowds continued to grow, the railing at the north end gave way, causing thirty fans to suddenly fall onto the concrete below. While no one was thankfully killed, many were injured, with reports of broken bones, concussions, and a female student was even reported to have suffered a broken neck and was induced in a coma for twenty days. By this point, the game’s reputation was that of just a drunken mess, with spectators reportedly throwing objects such as water balloons on the field while those injured were being taken care of. Once again, the future of the Panda Game was thrown into serious doubt.
For the 1988 Panda Game, precautions were taken. The Ottawa police took a heavy-handed approach to the game and tickets were limited. Attendance dropped from 20,000 fans in 1987 to just 3,000 the following year, incurring financial losses for both universities as the security officers just about outnumbered the fans in attendance. This would, unfortunately, lead to somewhat of the beginning of the end to the Panda Game. During the 1990s, the Gee-Gees dominated the Panda Game, winning all but one matchup and winning the Dunsmore Cup twice in 1995, and in 1996.
The Ravens meanwhile failed to field a competitive team, compiling a winning record just once in the decade. Then, in 1998, after a restructuring of the Carleton Department of Physical Recreation and Athletics, the decision was made to cancel the Carleton Ravens football team as it was no longer financially viable. In front of just 1,000 fans at Carleton’s Keith Harris Stadium, Ottawa won what was the last ever Panda Game 59-17, bringing an end to an era in Ottawa. After 1998, the Gee-Gees lead the series 31-13. Ottawa would go on to win another Vanier Cup in 2000 against the Regina Rams, but when it came to their rivalry with Carleton, a new battlefront was required.
In 2007, the Ottawa Gee-Gees and Carleton Ravens basketball teams faced off in what be the inaugural Capital Hoops Classic. While traditionally Ottawa had the stronger football program, basketball was Ravens territory. From the 2000/01 to the 2005/06 season, the Ravens had won consecutive Ontario University Athletics (OUA) East titles, had been crowned as Wilson Cup (Ontario champions) three times, and most impressively, had won the W.P. McGee Trophy (national championship) four years in a row from 2003-2007. But as impressive as their resume was, the Gee-Gees upset the Ravens in front of 9,730 fans at Scotiabank Place, better known today as Canadian Tire Centre.
While Ottawa didn’t have the same prowess as Carleton, they were a competitive basketball program. From the 2009/10-2013/14 seasons, Ottawa finished second to Carleton in the OUA East in all but one season. But they would take a significant step in 2013/14, winning their first Wilson Cup since 1993. Ottawa would even qualify for their first-ever national championship final, but against their forever rival Ravens, they were defeated 79-67 as Carleton took home the W.P McGee trophy.
Ottawa would continue to improve, pipping the Ravens to win their first-ever division title in 2014/15 and again made the national championship. Once again they were up against the Ravens, and once again the Ravens won, this time by a crushing 93-46 margin. Ottawa got revenge in the following season’s Capital Hoops Classic. After eight consecutive Ravens wins over the Gee-Gees, Ottawa won the 2016 edition 78-72, and again finished first in the division. But the Ravens continued to win when it counted, they were again national champions in 2016 and, in fact, have won the W. P. McGee Trophy fifteen times between 2003 and 2020.
While they continue to be competitive and even won another Capital Hoops Classic in 2020, the Gee-Gees have yet to win a national championship of their own. The sides are fierce competitors on the basketball court giving the rivalry a different flavour, and by the early 2010s, there was even some good news on the horizon for a return to the rivalry on the football field.
By the late 2000s, talks were beginning within Carleton over the possibility of reviving the football program. The Old Crows society, a Carleton Ravens football alumni group, alongside the Lansdowne Live group were able to raise five million dollars required to revive the team and the Ravens returned to the football field in 2013 after a fifteen-year absence. At this time, Lansdowne Park was going under extensive renovation so the 2013 Panda Game was to be played at Ottawa’s new home, Gee-Gees Field. To celebrate the return of the game, a new Pedro trophy was created. The two teams would now be competing for an Aluminium incarnation of Pedro, retiring the old Bronze trophy in the process.
Ottawa would win the 2013 Panda Game 35-10, and in 2014, the game made a triumphant return to the newly renovated Lansdowne Park, now known as TD Place Stadium. The 2014 game was going well for Ottawa, they had a 31-27 lead and had Carleton pinned back at their own five-yard line with just twenty-five seconds on the clock. Quarterback Nick Gorgichuk got his team around midfield with just five seconds left, the Ravens then subbed him out for Jesse Mills, who had a stronger arm that would be needed for the Hail Mary attempt. Mills hurled the ball downfield and when Gee-Gees defender Randy Williams got a touch on it around the fifteen-yard line, the game looked over. But before the ball could reach the ground, Ravens receiver Nathaniel Behar scooped the ball and ran it in unopposed for an improbable game-winning touchdown. Before the extra point could be taken, thousands of Carleton fans stormed the field to celebrate their first Panda Game win since 1994. Such was the pandemonium and celebration on the field, the extra point was never attempted, leaving the game technically not completed still to this day.
Panda Game fever was well and truly back in Ottawa. The games were fun, and the stands were filling up. In 2015, 17,596 were in attendance at TD Place Stadium, to watch what was both the first Panda Game to go to overtime, and the highest-scoring game in the history of the fixture, and Carleton did just enough to win the game 48-45. Interest continued to grow, and by 2016, the game was a sell-out, with 23,329 fans packed in to watch Carleton win their third successive Panda Game.
After the growing pains of being a new program, the Ravens finished the season 6-2, good enough to make the OUA Football playoffs, their opponents, the also 6-2 Ottawa Gee-Gees. The 2016 OUA playoff quarter-final between the two city rivals ended in a 45-9 win for Carleton, giving the Ravens their first postseason win in thirty years. They tightened their dominance in the fixture even more with another Panda Game win in 2017, the Ravens had won five games in a row against the Gee-Gees, by far the best run in team history.
The 2018 Panda Game was the 50th game in the series, and it attracted another large crowd at TD Place Stadium as well the commonplace partying from students beforehand. The Gee-Gees snapped a five-game losing streak with a 38-27 win, sparking a rush of Ottawa fans onto the field at the final whistle, the rushing of the field was fast becoming a new tradition for fans of the winning team to do. In 2019, a record 24,600 crowd came out to TD Place Stadium for the game. In 2014, the crowd was less than half of what it was for the 2019 edition, showing just how quickly Panda fever had recaptured Ottawa. The Gee-Gees came out on top with a win 32-10 win. Although for the first time ever, Carleton held the better head-to-head record in a decade spell, winning four of seven matchups in the 2010s.
In 2021, the Panda Game was played after a pandemic-related year off in 2020. Ottawa made it three wins in a row, with a tight 19-17 win. The return of the Ravens has been a welcomed addition to the U Sports landscape, and it’s constantly the highest collegiate crowd in Canadian football and is commonly televised as well. The Panda Game is full of lore and tradition, Pedro the Panda has been discussed in the Canadian House of Commons, on Hockey Night in Canada and has even been chauffeured into Lansdowne Park inside an armoured truck. He was also once parachuted into the stadium.
No week captures the imagination and school rivalry feeling like Panda week, and with the now recent inclusion of the Capital Hoops Classic, the rivalry is now also fought out on the basketball court too. The University of Ottawa and Carleton University have successful sports programs. Ottawa has an edge on the football field with a 35–17 record in the Panda Game and has two Vanier Cups, but Carelton can point to their dominant basketball team with their fifteen W.P. McGee Trophies and 11-3 record in the Capital Hoops Classic.
While the trophies are nice, for many fans the biggest game every year is the one against the cross-city rival. In the 2022 Capital Hoops Classic, the Ravens won the game 71-58 against the Gee-Gees, giving them the bragging rights for now, but come the fall and football season, the rivalry will be as feisty as ever when the forever rivals continue their forever rivalry over a Panda.
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