Canadian Sports Rivalries – Ottawa Vs Toronto  


April 16th, 2022. The NHL’s regular season is reaching its conclusion, and before the Toronto Maple Leafs can begin their postseason, they have to come up against their provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senators.

While these two have only been playing against each other for thirty years, Ottawa – the nation’s capital, and Toronto – Canada’s biggest city, have a sports rivalry that spans multiple teams and is traced as far back as the 1800s, making it one of the oldest rivalries in North America. So before we begin the latest chapter of these two teams fighting it out on the ice, let’s take a deep dive into the history of Toronto and Ottawa, The Battle of Ontario.

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While the Ottawa Senators we know today began play in 1992, the Senators’ name in Ottawa has a long history, stretching back to 1883, and were a founding member of the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association (ECAHA), hockey’s first-ever professional league in 1905. They were hockey’s powerhouse team in those years, winning the Stanley Cup in 1903 and making it to the final again in 1904.

In 1904, they came up against the Toronto Marlboros in a Stanley Cup challenge series. Despite Toronto taking a 3-1 lead in the first game, Ottawa came roaring back to win the game 6-3 and followed it up with an 11-2 win, in game two to knock Toronto out, en route to a second Stanley Cup win. Ottawa was the undisputed team of early 20th century Hockey, winning the Stanley Cup seven times between 1903 and 1911.

Group picture of the 1905 Ottawa “Silver Seven”, Stanley Cup champions

By 1912, Ottawa was playing in the National Hockey Association (NHA), a precursor to the NHL. They were joined in the NHA by two teams from Toronto, the Blueshirts and the Tecumsehs. The Tecumsehs and Blueshirts wouldn’t have much staying-power, but come to the formation of the National Hockey League in 1917, the Toronto Arenas were now facing off against the Senators.

The Arenas made the playoff’s that season and would go on to win the Stanley Cup, the first cup won by a team from Toronto. The following season, Ottawa and Toronto squared off in the last two games of the 1918-19 season, with a place in the playoffs for Toronto on the line. Ottawa, however, would dash Toronto’s hopes with two wins to close out the season and end Toronto’s season. Toronto (now known as the Toronto St. Patricks) would have a better head-to-head against the Sens in 1919/20, but Ottawa would go on to finish first in the NHL and beat the Seattle Metropolitans in the Stanley Cup final to lift their eighth championship.

The following season would see Toronto and Ottawa be the class of the NHL, setting up an NHL championship series between the two for the right to compete in the Stanley Cup Final. The teams finished an even 4-4 against each other in regular-season head to heads, but Ottawa completely dominated the series with a 5-0 win and a 2-0 win on their way to another Stanley Cup win. The two continued to dominate the league in 1921/22 and once again squared off in the playoffs. Ottawa finished above Toronto in the regular season, but in game one Corbett Denneny scored the game-winning goal to separate the two rivals in a back and forth 5-4 win for Toronto. In contrast, the second game was a much more defensive affair, the game finished 0-0 which meant the St.Patricks were NHL champions, and once again won the Stanley Cup. The late 1910’s/early 1920s dominance of the Ontario teams was cemented with another Ottawa Stanley Cup win, meaning that from 1918-1923, Toronto and Ottawa combined for five out of a possible six Stanley Cup championships, Ontario was the home of hockeys two best teams.

By 1924, the league began to diversify to now include American teams and was up to six members, teams from Montreal now sat atop the NHL summit with the Montreal Canadiens and Maroons emerging to combine for three consecutive Stanley Cups. Two significant events happened for the Ontario rivals in 1927. Firstly, the Toronto St. Patricks were renamed the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the most recognizable names in North American sports to this day. Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital, Ottawa dominated matchups against Toronto finishing with a 5-0-1 record against the Leafs as they stormed to the top of the NHL Canadian division and went onto the Stanley Cup Final where Ottawa faced the American division champions, the Boston Bruins. In a tight affair that featured two draws, Ottawa won the four-game series 2-0 to lift their eleventh, and final Stanley Cup. Ottawa was once again the class of the Canadian division in the 1927/28 regular season but were eliminated early in the playoffs.

From that point on, Ottawa began to struggle, from 1929 to 1934, the team failed to make the playoffs, finished last in the Canadian division four seasons out of five, and even suspended operations for a season in 1931/32. In contrast, the Maple Leafs were cup contenders almost every year and were a strong outfit in the early 1930s. Whilst Ottawa was unable to field a team in 1931/32, the Leafs made it all the way to the cup final against the New York Rangers and won their third Stanley Cup championship with a 3-0 series win. The new status quo of the rivalry was summed up perfectly in 1932/33, when the Leafs finished top of the division, and won all six games they played that season against the Ottawa Senators. Ottawa’s downturn in success was largely down to financial problems. Ottawa was by far the smallest city with an NHL team at the time, their population was just 110,00 in 1931, far smaller than Toronto’s 856,955. The league’s expansion into American markets such as New York and Chicago meant that travel costs for Ottawa were much higher than they once were when only Canadian teams played in the NHL, and the fan interest for Sens games vs American teams wasn’t high. Ottawa was forced to sell their best players to keep afloat, which had very detrimental effects on the on-ice product.

Toronto Maple Leafs – Stanley Cup Champions – 1932

Things got so bad that the team started playing ”home” games in the States in order to get higher revenue returns, this strategy would only lead to an inevitable conclusion, in 1934, the Ottawa Senators relocated to St Louis Missouri, to become the St Louis Eagles. The Eagles played just one season, they would finish last in the Canadian division and once again fail to beat Toronto. In 1935, the Eagles officially folded, bringing an end to the franchise. While the rivalry fizzled out with Ottawa’s financial issues, at its peak the early rivalry between Ottawa and Toronto was central to professional Hockey’s early days. Ottawa and Toronto combined for fourteen Stanley Cups from 1903 to 1932 and were a dominant force in the late 1910s and early 1920s. While professional Hockey was no longer a place for Ottawa and Toronto to battle it out, the two cities would be able to continue The Battle of Ontario on a different field.

In the world of Canadian football, Ottawa and Toronto both have histories that go as far back as the 1800s. Firstly there are the Toronto Argonauts, Canada’s oldest professional team which was formed in 1873. Not far behind them was the Ottawa Football Club in 1876, which was later renamed the Ottawa Rough Riders. Both teams were founding members of the Ontario Rugby Football Union (ORFU) and even met in the playoffs in the first-ever ORFU championship game in 1883, with the Argos coming out as 9-7 winners over Ottawa. The two teams would again meet to decide the winner of the ORFU in 1900, this time it would be the Rough Riders who would come out on top 20-12. It would be a while though before the two teams would meet again in the playoffs, this time in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IRFU) a precursor to the CFL’s East division.

Toronto Argos vs. Ottawa Rough Riders circa 1924

They met in the 1936 IRFU final and despite losing both regular-season matchups against Toronto, Ottawa won both playoff matches to advance to the Grey Cup final. The late thirties and early forties were marquee time in the Battle of Ontario, from 1936 to 1941 the two sides met in the playoffs every single year. Toronto won the next two playoff matchups in 1937 and 38, and both times they followed up their wins against the Riders with Grey Cup success. As two-time current Grey Cup champions, Toronto was confident going into their 1939 IRFU final against Ottawa, but the Riders dominated the series to win by a combined score of 39-6 over two games. They lost the Grey Cup that year, but in 1940 they again defeated Toronto to advance to the Grey Cup. Their opponent would be another Toronto-based team, the Toronto Balmy Beach Beachers of the ORFU marking just the second time Toronto and Ottawa-based sides would meet in the Grey Cup after Ottawa defeated the Toronto Varsity Blues in 1926. Again, Ottawa would have the better of Toronto in the Grey Cup as the Riders won the cup 2 games to 0. The final playoff match between the two sides in this period was a close-run affair in 1941. Both sides finished the regular season with identical records at the top of the division, the playoffs series between the two was decided by just one point, with the Riders edging it 18-17. In the five playoff games between the two at this time, Ottawa held a 3-2 advantage in the 1936-41 playoffs matches, but Toronto won two Grey Cups as opposed to Ottawa’s one.

After World War Two, both teams would once again meet in the IRFU final. Again, the two sides were very difficult to separate as they both finished the season 5-1, Toronto got the better of Ottawa winning the two-game series 33 points to 18. The Argos would go on to win three consecutive Grey Cups from 1945 to 1947, including another playoff win over the Rough Riders in 1947. Ottawa would get revenge in the 1949 season, in the four regular-season matchups between the sides that season, the Rough Riders swept the Argonauts for the first time in a season featuring four matchups. The following year would be the first of three consecutive Grey Cups won by the two Ontario sides. While there weren’t any playoff ties, Ottawa won the cup in 1951, and either side of Toronto wins in 1950 and 1952. In fifteen years, from 1937 to 1952, Ottawa and Toronto combined for nine Grey Cup titles, twelve Grey Cup appearances and eleven IRFU division titles. The ride to the Grey Cup often ran through Ontario’s two biggest cities.

In 1958, the IRFU merged with the Western Interprovincial Football Union to form the Canadian Football League (CFL) we know today. By this point, the balance of power had shifted towards Montreal and Hamilton, who combined to win the East for seven consecutive seasons, keeping the Argonauts and Rough Riders out of the Grey Cup during this time. The turn of the decade saw Ottawa and Toronto again reign supreme in the East as they were the two clear best teams in 1960, putting the two teams once again on a collision course for an East Final match between the two. The Argos won the division in the regular season, but the Riders won the series 2-0 to record their first playoff win over the Argos since 1941 which they then followed up with a win in the Grey Cup. Toronto would get revenge in 1961 against Ottawa in the East Semi-Final, but overall the Ottawa Rough Riders were much more successful in the sixties than the Toronto Argonauts were. Franchise legends like Russ Jackson and Ron Stewart propelled Ottawa to seven consecutive East Final appearances, three consecutive playoff wins over Toronto in 1967, 68 and 69, three Grey Cup appearances and two more Grey Cup championships in 1968 and 1969. Ottawa’s three Grey Cups in the sixties were tied with most in the league won in the decade alongside Hamilton, and were the most Grey Cups ever won by Ottawa in a decade span, in contrast, the 1960s marked the first time Toronto had failed to win a Grey Cup in a decade span.

The early seventies saw an upturn in fortune for the Argos, in 1970 they finished above Ottawa in the regular season for the first time since 1960 and then made their first Grey Cup in nineteen years the following season in 1971. Unfortunately, they fell just short to Calgary in the final, making it twenty years since Toronto where last CFL champion. Ottawa in contrast made the Grey Cup again in 1973, their fourth appearance in just eight years. They defeated Edmonton 22-18 in the final to put Ottawa back on the CFL summit. Heading into the 1976 Grey Cup final between Ottawa and Saskatchewan, it appeared that not much was going to change from the 1960s pecking order. While Ottawa was going for yet another championship, Toronto had finished last in the division for three consecutive years from 1974 to 1976. Ottawa won the 1976 Grey Cup thanks to a last-minute touchdown from Tom Clements to tight end Tony Gabriel in a play that has been immortalized as “the catch”. It was the Ottawa Rough Riders’ ninth Grey Cup, just one behind Toronto’s haul often and you would’ve been forgiven for thinking they would overtake Toronto’s Grey Cup total sooner rather than later.

Jerry “Soupy” Campbell, Ottawa – Linebacker – 1968-75

In 1977, the two sides met in the East Semi-Final, while Ottawa finished just 8-8 that year, it was still better than the Argo’s 6-10 record and the Riders also held a 2-1 head to head record over the Argos, Ottawa would end Toronto’s season in the playoffs again, the fifth time in six playoffs matches that Ottawa had defeated Toronto. The good times couldn’t last forever, however. Ottawa finished the 1979 season with an 8-6-2 record, this would be the last time in Rough Riders history that the team would record a winning record. The two sides would meet in the playoffs in the 1982 East Division final, the first time the two had met at this stage since 1969 and it was Toronto’s first East Final appearance since 1971. This was different from the matchups in the sixties and seventies, the Toronto Argonauts blew the Rough Riders apart in a 44-7 beatdown. Toronto had beaten Ottawa in the playoffs for the first time since 1961 and although they lost the 1982 Grey Cup, it was a true pendulum swinging moment. Toronto again made the final in 1983, and they finally made it to the top of the CFL summit with an 18-17 win over BC, their first Grey Cup championship in thirty-one years. Toronto would enjoy success in the eighties not seen since the early fifties, they won five division titles, made three Grey Cup appearances and won one Grey Cup championship. Ottawa in contrast, finished last in the division five times, made just one Grey Cup in 1981 (they had a 5-11 record that year), finished no better than 8-8 and finished a franchise-worst 2-16 in 1988. If the sixties and seventies belonged to Ottawa, the eighties were well and truly Toronto’s decade.

In 1990, the Ottawa Rough Riders made the playoffs for the first time since 1985, their opponent in the 1990 East Semi-Final was the Toronto Argonauts. Toronto had swept Ottawa in the 1990 regular season and made it a total sweep with a 34-25 win over the Riders. The 1990 playoff meeting is significant in The Battle of Ontario rivalry, it was the last time in the over 100-year history of the Rough Riders – Argonauts rivalry that the two would meet in the playoffs. Toronto would pick up where they left off in the eighties, stars such as Doug Flutie and Paul Clemons propelled Toronto to three Grey Cups in 1991,96 and 1997, their most Grey Cups won in a decade span since the 1940s. Ottawa, in contrast, made five consecutive East Semi-Finals from 1990 to 1994 but lost every single game making it eight consecutive defeats in the playoffs. This was the least of Ottawa’s problems, just like the Ottawa Senators sixty years prior, financial problems were plaguing the Rough Riders, things got so bad that once again relocation to the States was on the cards, but ultimately it didn’t happen. But in 1996, after 120 years of existence and going 0-3 against Grey Cup champions Toronto that season, the Ottawa Rough Riders officially folded and ceased to exist. Bringing an immediate and unfortunate halt to the Battle of Ontario in the Canadian Football League, but there was light at the end of the tunnel, the two cities has the comfort of a familiar setting to battle it out in.

In 1990, after almost sixty years since Ottawa last had a National Hockey League team, Ottawa was granted an expansion team which went with the name Senators, rekindling memories and honouring the legacy of the original Senators, and bringing back one of the NHL’s oldest rivalries between Ottawa and Toronto. The rivalry however got off to a slow start, as the two teams were kept apart in separate conferences from 1992 to 1998 before finally being placed in the same division. It wouldn’t be long however for the two to meet in the playoffs, in 2000, the two sides finished first and second in the North East Division, setting up a Conference Quarterfinals matchup between the two. Despite being the lower seed, Ottawa had picked up seven out of a possible ten points against Toronto in the regular season, the series was tied at two apiece and it would take overtime to separate the two in game five, with a Steve Thomas goal giving Toronto the series lead going into game six. Toronto went on to win game six and the series, winning the first NHL playoff series between Ottawa and Toronto since 1922. After a seventy-eight-year wait between playoff ties, the two would meet again immediately the following season at the same stage.

15 Apr 2000: Steve Thomas #32 of the Toronto Mapleleafs scores on Tom Barrasso #35 of the Ottawa Senators in the second period of their NHL first-round game at the Air Canada Center in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Again, Ottawa held the upper hand in the regular season, sweeping Toronto in the five games between the two and finishing above them in the standings. However, the Leafs were a different animal come the playoffs, sweeping the Senators 4-0 to once again send them home early. The two sides were really getting to know each other by now, they met in the playoffs for a third consecutive year in 2002, this time in the Conference Semi-Final. This series was the closest one yet, with game two even requiring triple overtime to separate the two. The Sens held a 3-2 series lead going into game six, but the Leafs won a close game six 4-3 to force a game seven. Played in Ottawa, the Leafs stunned the home crowd to win decisively 3-0, ending Ottawa’s season early again for the third year in a row. The two sides took a year off in 2003 but met in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons in the 2004 Conference Quarterfinals. Leafs goaltender Ed Belfour played a big part in the series, recording three shutouts to lead Toronto to three wins as the series went to a game seven again. Ottawa goaltender Patrick Lalime in contrast let two somewhat questionable goals get past him to put Ottawa on the back foot in game seven and force the Ottawa coach Jacques Martin to pull him for his backup goaltender, the damage was done however as Toronto won the game 4-1, their fourth consecutive playoff win over Ottawa.

While the Leafs have dominated the series in the playoffs, the Senators have the distinction of reaching the 2007 Stanley Cup, Ottawa’s first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1927 and despite only existing since 1992 (in their current form), had been to more Stanley Cup finals than the Leafs since 1968. The Sens have won seven playoff series since 2005, in contrast, that 2004 matchup was the last time the Leafs won a playoff series. As of 2022, the Leafs are considered to be one of the league’s best teams with players such as Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner at the forefront. Ottawa in contrast has been languishing near the bottom of the league since 2018, but the fans in the capital are hoping their young core can turn it around. In a regular-season game on February 15th 2021, Toronto took a 5-1 lead against Ottawa with just seconds left in the second period. But the Senators came roaring back to tie the game 5-5. Ottawa won the game 6-5 in overtime, the first time the Sens had won a game after trailing by at least four goals in a game. Since Ottawa returned to the league, Toronto has held an advantage in the overall head-to-head but it’s close, Ottawa holds a better record against the Leafs in the regular season with Toronto holding a 16-8 advantage in the playoffs. While they might not be meeting in the playoffs every year as they did twenty years ago, the National Hockey League is a better place with The Battle of Ontario back.

The National Hockey League isn’t the only league that’s better with The Battle of Ontario, The Canadian Football League would also bring back a franchise in Ottawa. In 2002, the Ottawa Renegades played their debut season, bringing professional football back to Ottawa for the first time since 1996. They would get off to a rough start, however, even getting swept by the Argos in their first season. Ottawa would get their first win over the Argos since 1994 on July 10th, 2004 with a 34-32 win. However, they would miss the playoffs again whilst Toronto won another Grey Cup. By 2005, an all too similar situation was developing in Ottawa, the Renegades were in financial straights, and 2005 would be the Renegades’ last season. For the third time, Ottawa had lost a major professional sports franchise. There would be light at the end of the tunnel, Ottawa was again awarded a team in 2008, and in 2014 the Ottawa RedBlacks took to the field. Like most expansion teams, the RedBlacks struggled initially, with an 18-17 win over Toronto being one of just two wins all season in 2014.

But 2015 was different, for the first time since 1979 an Ottawa football team had a winning season as they finished 12-6. Despite being swept in the three regular-season games, it was also the first time since 1993 that they would finish above Toronto in the regular season. To cap it off, Ottawa made the Grey Cup for the first time since 1981, although they lost to Edmonton, Ottawa finally had a winning team again. In 2016, Ottawa won the East division, the first time they won back-to-back division titles in forty years and they again made the Grey Cup final, this time against Calgary. Ottawa raced into a 27-7 lead in the third quarter, but Calgary fought back to make the game 33-33 heading into overtime. Quarterback Henry Burris found Ernest Jackson in the endzone to give Ottawa a 39-33 lead in overtime, and after they held Calgary on their final drive, Ottawa was where Grey Cup champions! For the first time since 1976, Ottawa was CFL champions, a run that stretched three franchises and twenty-seven seasons. At the same time, the RedBlacks were the fastest expansion team in North American sports to win a championship since the 1995 Baltimore Stallions!

Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris celebrates his team’s Grey Cup victory over the Calgary Stampeders in November 2016. Burris is retiring after 17 seasons in the CFL, with a brief stop in the NFL as well. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Toronto, who had failed to make the playoffs in 2016 rebounded in 2017 to win the East division. They won two close games against Ottawa 26-25 and 27-24 which proved to be critical as they won the division by just one game. Toronto made it to the Grey Cup that year, and they won a close game against Calgary 27-24 to lift their 17th Grey Cup in Ottawa. (Funnily enough, Ottawa had won the Grey Cup in Toronto the previous year.) When Ottawa reached the Grey Cup in 2018, it marked the first time since the early eighties that the two had combined for three consecutive Grey Cup appearances. In the years since the rivalry has cooled down in terms of Grey Cup contention, 2019 Toronto swept all three games against Ottawa but finished with just four wins that season, one better than Ottawa’s three. Toronto did rebound to win the division, and once again sweep Ottawa in 2021 but their season ended at the East Final. Toronto is hoping they are on the right path to future success in the 2020s, meanwhile, Ottawa will be hoping they can turn their fortunes around sooner rather than later, and once again be challenging for CFL supremacy.

TORONTO, ON – OCTOBER 11: Greg Morris #22 of the Ottawa Redblacks drops the ball as he is hit by Nelkas Kwemo #12 of the Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field on October 11, 2019, in Toronto, Canada. Toronto defeated Ottawa 28-21. (Photo by John E. Sokolowski/Getty Images)

The Battle of Ontario is a rivalry that has had to earn its highlights and flashpoints. Both sets of sides aren’t always competitive at the same time, and there have been considerable gaps at times in matchups between the two in light of financial troubles with Ottawa’s franchises. But the rivalry today is strong on both ice and turf. Together Ottawa and Toronto have a combined twenty-seven Grey Cups, twenty-four Stanley Cups and a history of sports that goes as far back as any other city in North America. On January 1st, 2022, the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Ottawa Senators a resounding 6-0. At this moment, Canada’s biggest city holds the ascendancy in the rivalry, but knowing the nature of this rivalry, hopefully, it won’t be too long before Canada’s Capital is back in CFL and NHL playoff contention, and bringing this special Canadian rivalry to the forefront of our imagination once again.

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