The University of Alberta Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics is one of Canada's premier intercollegiate programs. U of A competes in U SPORTS, and is home to 22 teams and over 500 Student-Athletes. The U of A competes in the sports of Basketball, Cross-Country, Curling, Football, Ice Hockey, Rugby, Soccer, Swimming, Tennis, Track & Field, Volleyball, and Wrestling.
To create a student-athlete-centered, coach-driven and administratively supported university sport environment that will facilitate the academic, athletic and personal development of young women and men. This is accomplished by providing internationally recognized high performance sport competition, high performance coaching, resources and a progressive approach to the on-going development of university sport in Canada.
The beginnings of sport at the University of Alberta stretch all the way back to the start of the university itself, 1908. In fact, it could be suggested that Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics, as it is today, can trace its roots back to October 13, 1908, when, during an early Senate meeting, the university’s colours –Evergreen and Gold – were unanimously approved for the school’s identity. Over the ensuing 100-plus years, the phrase “Green and Gold” is unquestionably part of the fabric of excellence at the U of A, as well as the City of Edmonton.
The founding stones of athletics were put in place by the first intake of students in 1908. From the outset, organized sport and competition in the new university fell under the governance of the Athletic Society. In keeping with the prevalent ideas about the importance of amateurism in sport, the Senate passed a disciplinary ruling limiting participation in university sport to only bona-fide University of Alberta students.* Within two years, the Athletic Society, comprised of students and members of academic faculty, had organized basketball, rugby football (the precursor to Canadian football as we know it) and ice hockey teams. Competitions were soon underway as well. The very first “Varsity Ice Hockey” team (which was the name of the program until the 1930s) was formed the fall of 1908. The Varsity team joined teams from Alberta College, Edmonton High School and Strathcona High School to form the Twin City Intercollegiate Hockey League. In their inaugural season, the U of A, uncharacteristically, finished the season 0-6. And while hockey arenas were at a premium then, both Edmonton High School and Strathcona High School had covered arenas where a majority of the games were played. When the U of A did host games, they were played on a boarded outdoor surface on the McKernan Lake, just south of the present campus. The U of A got its own indoor rink in 1927.
Athletics at the U of A has always needed a spokesperson and a leader. W.H. Alexander, or Dr. Alexander, one of the U of A’s first four professors, was a staunch supporter of sport, and served as as a member of the Athletic Society. He also introduced rugby football to the students in the fall of 1908. The U of A’s first rugby football field was located adjacent to a CPR station just south of Whyte Avenue. Because the game only required a flat field and basic equipment, and had basic rules, it was the first on-campus sport to feature competition against another city. The inaugural game was played on October 22, 1910 against the Calgary Western Canada College.
Basketball was already a rapidly growing sport for men and women by the time the U of A came into existence. Of course the U of A had no facilities, certainly no indoor gymnasium, at that time to house the teams, but undeterred, the university arranged for its men’s and women’s basketball teams to play games at the Alberta College south gymnasium. President Henry Marshall Tory, the first President of the U of A, set about building a facility for basketball, and within months the Athabasca Hall Gymnasium were constructed on River Lot 5 in 1912.
In 1911, the U of A entered the world of intercollegiate competition when the Varsity Ice Hockey team, the forerunner of the Golden Bears, traveled to Saskatoon. In a fashion more in line with their dominant history, the U of A Varsity Ice Hockey team won 16-0 over the University of Saskatchewan.
By the end of the 1913-14 academic session, the U of A was home to eight athletic clubs that made up a total of 15 teams: rugby football, basketball, ice hockey, soccer, track and field, boxing/wrestling, tennis, swimming and baseball. Women competed in basketball, ice hockey, swimming, tennis and track and field.
Following World War I, a period in which athletics was temporarily suspended, the Western Canadian Inter-Collegiate Athletic Union (WCIAU) was formed. The WCIAU was initially comprised of universities from Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, while UBC was added shortly after.
The moniker “Golden Bears” was adopted in 1935 when the U of A Varsity football team, changed their name to “Golden Bears” under the guidance of head coach Jake Jamieson. By the start of the 1936-37 season, the men’s basketball team also adopted the “Golden Bears” handle, and the rest of the teams soon followed suit.
Athletics at the U of A was once again suspended, this time due to World War II, and during this time the Department of National Defence actually commandeered Varsity Arena and converted it into a drill hall.
In the fall of 1945, upon the conclusion of World War II, WCIAU competition resumed, and it is at this time that the U of A’s women’s intercollegiate teams took the name of “Pandas”.
The legend that is Clare Drake began in the 1950s. Clare was invited to coach the Golden Bears hockey team in 1955-56, only one year after he had been a player with the program. Although he only acted as a fill-in coach in 1955-56, while head coach Don Smith was on leave, Clare became a fixture behind the bench by 1958. It was then his march to Canadian hockey legend began. In his 28 years as head coach of the Golden Bears, he amassed an astonishing record of 697-296-37 (.695 winning percentage), and won six national championships as coach, as well as 17 conference titles. He also celebrated a national championship as a player in 1954. His 697 wins remains Canadian university hockey record as of 2014. Varsity Arena was renamed in his honour in 1990, following his retirement.
The 1950’s were also a period of growth for the U of A. Athletics now included “major sports” of ice hockey, basketball, volleyball, swimming/diving, track and field, as well as the “minor sports” of tennis, golf, badminton, wrestling, curling, skiing and cross country running. Soccer and football returned to the “major sports”, as was the term used then, list by the end of the 1960’s, while women’s ice hockey, women’s soccer and rugby also returned in the following years.
The U of A got new facilities in the 1950’s as well, including a large central gymnasium, a smaller gymnasium, wrestling rooms, dance studios, athletics offices, and change rooms, shower facilities, team rooms, and a student lounge. The new facilities also included a brand new swimming pool thanks to a generous gift from Dr. Francis Winspear. The old Varsity Rink was also demolished to make room for the Jubliee Auditorium.
The U of A began celebrating its excellent student-athletes at an annual event called Colour Night. Originally hosted in the Hotel MacDonald, Colour Night celebrations were divided into two sections: the fine arts awards, and the athletics awards. The event defined the essence of academic and athletic excellence that the U of A has become synonymous with since.
The Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union (CIAU) was formed in 1961, becoming the first national governing body of university sport in Canada. Although U of A teams competed against other university teams from across Canada before 1961, there was no national cohesion or governance. The CIAU changed its name to Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU) in 1978, and then changed again to become Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) in 2001. Under the unification of national competition that came with the creation of the CIAU in 1961, the U of A won their first national championship title in the season of 1963-64 when the Golden Bears hockey team defeated Concordia University 9-1. The Golden Bears hockey team won 13 national championship titles since that first one in 1964, to become the most successful program in the history of Canadian university men’s hockey.
The Western Canadian Inter-Collegiate Athletic Union (WCIAU) was formed in the 1920s, but eventually became known as the Western Intercollegiate Athletic Association (WIAA). In 1971 the WIAA was split into the Canada West Universities Athletic Association (CWUAA), which the conference where the U of A competes, and the Great Plains Athletic Association (GPAA), but by 1988 the GPAA was absorbed into the CWUAA, unifying competition from Manitoba to British Columbia under the banner of Canada West.
To date, the University of Alberta Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics is one of the most comprehensive, wide-ranging, consistent and successful programs in all over Canadian university sport. Golden Bears hockey holds the record for the most national championship wins in Canada with 14, Pandas hockey holds similar distinction with seven national championship titles, and Pandas rugby can also claim to be the most successful in their sport with seven national championship banners. In addition, Pandas volleyball is the second most successful women’s volleyball program, with seven national championships to their credit, including an amazing string of six consecutive between 1995 and 2000. But, the Golden Bears and Pandas programs are not only successes in athletic competition, but also in the classroom. Since the introduction of the Academic All-Canadian program, which honours university students who are achieving an equivalent of 80% of better in their studies, while competing full-time on a university varsity team, in 1990, the U of A has produced the highest total amount of Academic All-Canadians in the country. On top of that, the U of A has also won 657 total national championship titles, which is third highest total in Canadian university sport history. But, it is the combination of leading the Academic All-Canadian numbers, and top three in national championship history, that makes the U of A athletics program so unique. That level and breadth of success is unparalleled in Canadian university of sport.
The 1990’s were a revelatory time for the Golden Bears and Pandas. Not only were the teams successful, but the U of A set in motion decisions that would forever impact Canadian university sport. It was during this time that Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics lifted women’s sport out of the shadows of men’s sport so that it could shine on its own. It began with women’s volleyball. Receiving an increase in funding, as well the program’s first full-time head coach, Pandas volleyball began an incredible streak of success in 1995 when they won their first of six consecutive national championship trophies. It continued when Pandas hockey and Pandas rugby were reinstated as varsity programs, and now both of those programs are, respectively, the most successful programs in their sport in Canadian university sport history. It continued on with the creation of the Pandas wrestling program, at a time when women’s wrestling barely existed on the national team front. The commitment to, and funding of, women’s sport in the 1990’s was a revolution. No other university in Canada was as committed to the advancement of women’s sport as the University of Alberta. And the effort paid immediate dividends as Pandas volleyball, Pandas hockey and Pandas rugby combined to win 18 national championship titles between 1995 and 2007. And success wasn’t limited to the Pandas, all told, the U of A racked up 15 national championship wins from 1990 to 1999.
But, one of the true high points on athletic success came in the 2001-02 season when five U of A teams (Golden Bears basketball, Pandas hockey, Pandas rugby, Pandas soccer and Golden Bears volleyball) won national championship trophies, equaling a Canadian university sport record for most national championship wins in a single season.
The U of A also holds the distinction of being the only Canadian university to win all three “hockey” championships in one season, when Pandas hockey, Pandas field hockey and Golden Bears hockey all triumphed in 2005-06. Adding to the impressive list of accolades is the fact that the U of A is the only school in Canada to have won a national title in all of the CIS sports (basketball, soccer, field hockey, football, ice hockey, curling, wrestling, swimming, volleyball, track and field, cross-country and rugby).
As of 2019, U of A Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics is comprised of roughly more than 500 student-athletes, 22 teams, men’s and women’s and 11 sports. Golden Bears and Pandas athletics is one of the largest and most comprehensive athletics programs in the country. A total of 78 U SPORTS, and 83 national championships have been won by University of Alberta Golden Bears and Pandas student-athletes.