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Salmonbellies vs. The World: The Story of the Most Famous Team in Lacrosse & Their Greatest Rivals

By W.B. MacDonald

Review By Eric Sager

August 8, 2014

BC Studies no. 186 Summer 2015  | p. 167-68

In this well-researched, beautifully illustrated book W.B. MacDonald tells the story of the Salmonbellies from their founding to the present, and he does much more. He traces the evolution of lacrosse in the province, beginning with the migrants from eastern Canada who brought the sport to Victoria, Vancouver, and New Westminster in the 1880s. Lacrosse was then a recent adaptation of the ancient Aboriginal game. MacDonald does not linger over the origins of the sport, but proceeds quickly to his chronicle of the players, the key games in Salmonbellies history, and the remarkable record of success by New Westminster teams.

A genial and well-informed raconteur, MacDonald has trolled through the newspapers to find a wealth of detail about players, games, and leagues. While at times the detail threatens to overwhelm the narrative, both general readers and academic historians can learn much from MacDonald’s stories and images. The sport was created, here as in Montreal, by a commercial and professional middle class: engineers, insurance agents, real estate agents, civil servants, accountants, and teachers. These gentlemen with their trim mustaches argued over the choice of umpire before playing on rough fields surrounded by stumps. At first they played a game of uncertain duration and flexible rules, and at the conclusion of hostilities they gathered at the Colonial Hotel for an evening of speeches and dinner. Even before working-class men began to play, the sport was violent and games were interrupted by the evacuation of the wounded and sometimes by the intervention of police. At times MacDonald’s story reads like a commentary on a boxing match. Does Newsy Lalonde, who played both lacrosse and hockey, hold the record for number of teeth knocked out of opponents? Many spectators quit watching because “the slaughter was more than they could stand” (7).  For the historian interested in violence in sport, there is plenty of evidence here.

Other well-known themes in the history of sport appear, including the influence of railways, gambling, telegraphy, and the media. There is plenty of evidence on the long-running conflict between the amateur code and professionalism (in lacrosse amateurism was the early winner, when the professional league collapsed in 1924). Team sports always evolve, and the evolution of lacrosse can be tracked through the many rule changes that MacDonald records. Although there is no thorough analysis of the end of field lacrosse and the triumph of box lacrosse in the early 1930s, nevertheless the key influence of capitalist owners can be detected. The owners wanted a summer sport that could fill their expensive arenas when ice hockey was not being played, and so lacrosse moved indoors.

Historians of gender may be disappointed, and the reader will learn nothing about the rise of women’s lacrosse in the province. The well-chosen illustrations tell us, however, that women were spectators from the beginning, and in 1922 feminine respectability did not prevent umbrella-wielding ladies from participating in the on-field riot at Queen’s Park. Lacrosse was relatively popular a century ago (10,000 spectators at Brockton Point in 1901!), and we are left to wonder why this fast-paced, very Canadian sport was overtaken by other team sports across the twentieth century. Such questions should not discourage prospective readers, for this book is a welcome gift to lovers of sport history.

Salmonbellies vs. The World: The Story of the Most Famous Team in Lacrosse & Their Greatest Rivals
W.B. MacDonald
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2013. 240 pp. $34.95 cloth