A brief, weird history of the Panda Game

·4 min read
Fans of the Ottawa Gee-Gees get wild in the stands during the 2017 edition of the Panda Game between the University of Ottawa and Carleton. (Gord Weber - image credit)
Fans of the Ottawa Gee-Gees get wild in the stands during the 2017 edition of the Panda Game between the University of Ottawa and Carleton. (Gord Weber - image credit)

A great fall football tradition continues today as the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees take on the Carleton Ravens in the 52nd edition of the Panda Game.

In the lead-up to the big game at TD Place Stadium, students from both campuses have been on a charm offensive, gently notifying neighbours of the likely disruption and organizing cleanup crews to sweep up afterward.

They didn't always play so nice. Here's a look at the weird, wild history of one of the greatest enduring rivalries in Canadian university sport.

Where's Pedro?

It all started with a stuffed toy and an elaborately staged bearnapping.

In 1955, looking to fire up the cross-town rivalry between his school and Carleton, Brian McA'Nulty, associate editor of University of Ottawa student newspaper The Fulcrum, convinced local jeweller Jack Snow to display a stuffed panda named Pedro in his shop window on Sparks Street.

Students from Carleton then "stole" the U of O mascot, setting off a unique tradition that would give the annual fall football showdown between the two universities its name — and its trophy.

uottawa.ca
uottawa.ca

Since then, Pedro has parachuted from the top of Frank Clair Stadium, been buried under (and exhumed from) a soccer pitch, and chauffeured to the Panda Game in an armoured truck. He once had a leg torn off in a tussle between a cheerleader and an over-exuberant fan.

In 1956, Pedro ran for Carleton student council president (and lost). In 1958, after the Gee-Gees walloped the Ravens 25-0, he embarked on a coast-to-coast tour of university campuses before travelling as far away as Europe and, if the stories are to be believed, Peru.

uottawa.ca
uottawa.ca

The original Pedro — torn, tattered and heavily tattooed with the autographs of players from both teams — was finally retired in 1979, when he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. The stuffed bear was replaced by a heavy bronze replica that stood in as the Panda Game trophy until Carleton cancelled its football program in 1998.

When the Panda Game returned in 2013, the bronze Pedro was replaced by a sleek brushed aluminum trophy created by local artist Dale Dunning. That third and latest incarnation of Pedro is the prize that will be handed to the victors of Saturday's game.

uottawa.ca
uottawa.ca

Crossing the line

The back-and-forth tussle over Pedro was all fun and games — until it wasn't.

By the mid-1960s, students from both universities carried out commando-style raids to liberate the bear from their rivals, sometimes leaving serious damage in their wake.

Such was the animus between the two student bodies that the period leading up to the big game became known as Hate Week. It got so serious that by 1967, barely a decade after its inception, the future of the Panda Game was already in jeopardy.

City of Ottawa Archives
City of Ottawa Archives

Organizers tried to inject the rivalry with some late-60s flower power by rebranding it Love Week, but the good vibes didn't last. There were more brawls and break-ins, and before the 1970 game, troublemakers — allegedly from the U of O — vandalized the field and washrooms at Frank Clair Stadium.

The repair bill was sent to Carleton, which had rented the stadium for the game, only adding to the tension.

uottawa.ca
uottawa.ca

Disaster strikes

During the 1987 Panda Game, a railing on the north side stands of Frank Clair Stadium gave way, sending some 30 Ravens fans plummeting about five metres to the concrete below. Many suffered broken bones and concussions. One broke her neck and spent 20 days in a coma.

For many, the incident marked the waning of the great football tradition. That year, 20,000 fans had packed the stands. The following year, only about 3,000 tickets were sold.

In 1998, after losing the Panda Game to the Gee-Gees in front of just 1,000 fans at Carleton's Keith Harris Field, the Ravens suspended their football program and the rivalry fizzled.

WATCH | From the archives: Scenes from the Panda Game

Panda's back, baby

In 2013, Ravens football returned, and so did the historic rivalry. With the exception of 2020, when it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Panda Game has seen crowds continue to grow, culminating in a 24,600-seat sellout in 2019.

Pedro still gets top billing, but now there's a new tradition: rushing the field. It began in earnest in 2014, when a 55-yard Hail Mary pass by Carleton quarterback Jesse Mills found receiver Nate Behar in the game's dying seconds, giving the Ravens a 33-31 victory.

The Carleton fans, as they say, went wild.

A prank that cuts the mustard

You've probably heard about the time someone released a pack of greased pigs onto the field, or the time fans built a giant slingshot to fire water balloons at their rivals in the opposite stands.

Here's late comedian Norm Macdonald telling David Letterman about his own Panda Game prank.

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