When football fever had Sarnia in its grip

Sarnians were mad about football in the 1930s, when the hometown Imperials were an Ontario powerhouse. This photo from a 1934 training camp shows, from left, Ken Fraser, Norm Geary, Harry Smith (?), Bob “Rocky” Parsaca and Gord “Pat” Paterson. Glen C. Phillips, Sarnia: A Picture History of the Imperial City

Phil Egan

With two Grey Cups to its credit, Sarnia has a long football tradition. The Imperials began playing in the Ontario Rugby Football Union in 1928 and had almost instant success, finishing first in its division and winning the ORFU final ten of the next twelve years.

The city was still recovering from its first big winter storm of the season on Friday, Nov. 18, 1932. A howling northwest gale had arrived two days earlier, bringing six inches of snow.

By Friday, however, the sun shone in a clear blue sky and the temperature warmed, to the vast relief of Sarnia sports fans. They’d been praying for better weather. The following day, the ORFU Champion Sarnia Imperials would face the Big Four Champion Hamilton Tigers in the Eastern Canada Rugby semi-final.

A special train was organized to take fans to Hamilton on Saturday, leaving at 9:30 a.m. from the rail station then located at the foot of Cromwell Street. Return fare was $3.25 for adults, $1.65 for children to age eleven. The train home would depart at 9 p.m.

Tickets had been on sale all week at the Imperial timekeeper’s office at Athletic Park and the uptown office of the Canadian National Railway. A special section was reserved for Sarnia fans at the game.

For those who stayed home in those days before television, the Sarnia Canadian Observer promised a special Sports Final Edition to hit the streets by 6 p.m. A leased telegraph service was arranged so Observer staff writers at the game could transmit a “play-by-play” account for breathless fans at home. Newsstands in town would carry the special edition at the usual price of three cents, with the regular edition still available at 2 p.m.

Football was a little different back in 1932. Touchdowns counted only five points, passing was rare, and kicking was a bigger part of the game.

In the end, Sarnia was disappointed that late autumn day, with the 5-1 “Imps” falling 15-11 to the 5-1 Tigers. But the glory years still lay ahead.

The Sarnia Imperials would go on the following year to play in the Grey Cup against the Toronto Argonauts, and would win their first Grey Cup in 1934 against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, making running back and future Sarnia mayor Norm Perry a national star.