Baptist Fundamentalists and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Early Twentieth Century

By Taylor Murray

Canadians love hockey.1 It is practically part of our national image, right up there with maple syrup and the beaver. One of the most popular (and, perhaps, equally reviled) hockey teams in the country is the Toronto Maple Leafs, which dates its history back to 1917.2 They played first in the Garden District of downtown Toronto before relocating a few blocks north to the famous Maple Leaf Gardens on the corner of Carlton and Church Street in 1931. Another major Toronto landmark was located close to both locations: Jarvis Street Baptist Church, where the fundamentalist leader, T. T. Shields, was pastor from 1910 to 1955.

Having spent a lot of time with Shields through my research, this overlap in years has sometimes led me to contemplate a simple question: What did he think of Toronto’s obsession with hockey?

Toronto Arenas, 1917-1918

Shields’ opposition to “worldly amusements” (e.g., theatre, movies, dancing) was well-documented, but sports occupied a different place in the fundamentalist ethos. Far from being a waste of time, many fundamentalists endorsed them. Perry F. Rockwood, the Nova Scotia-based fundamentalist radio preacher, enjoyed baseball games until he died (though he only listened to the radio broadcast since he believed television was evil). Indeed, fundamentalists didn’t oppose sports, per se, they simply opposed all the bad habits that came along with them; gambling, drinking, and skipping church, to name a few.

Shields shared this concern about bad habits. On one occasion, he noted, “I don’t go to sporting events . . . I should like to, sometimes, if only they would keep them clean . . . and not bet on them.”3 Likewise, he cautioned against the kind of conduct it provoked from its fans. The night after the Maple Leafs defeated the Boston Bruins 6-2 en route to their ninth Stanley Cup in 1951, he proclaimed:

I saw people last night by the thousands round about this place, men sounding their horns and crowding others off the street. The worst crowd come to a hockey match to be found anywhere! They behave as though one had no right on the highway. They seem to think that every other man’s car is the puck, and they are already in the game. How fond and proud he is of his achievement—knocking a bit of rubber about.4

As with many other fundamentalists, for Shields, purity of lifestyle was critical, and sports (including hockey) could enculturate harmful behaviours in the life of the believer.

Left: T. T. Shields (1873-1955); Right: Maple Leaf Gardens, c. 1930s

Even though Shields didn’t go to hockey games, the sport occasionally furnished his sermons with versatile illustrations. Commenting on the “mortality and corruptibility” of the human experience, for example, he pointed toward an event at Maple Leaf Gardens the previous night. He noted that “The athlete . . . does not know, nor stops to consider that the evanescent notoriety of his prowess, which he fondly calls fame, will last but a year or two.”5 At the same time, not all comparisons to hockey in Shields’ sermons were unfavourable. In another sermon, while discussing the concept of finding rest, he spoke positively about athletes and how believers can “rejoice in the achievement of another.” He noted:

We shall see it here in the winter time, when these streets are lined, and there are fifteen or so thousands of people watching a hockey match. Knocking a piece of rubber across the ice! Watching some men who have learned to be skilled in a game, do what others cannot do, and when a good move is made to have thousands breaking loose and cheering and clapping! Why? They are finding delight vicariously, delight in the achievement of another.6

In any case, Shields’ use of hockey suggests that it was a familiar and relatable theme for his congregants, which indicates that although he didn’t attend games, members of Jarvis Street probably did.

Vic Lynn, Gus Mortson, Ted Kennedy and Bud Poile (1946-1947)

Through his preaching career, Shields found other uses for hockey. When commenting on the claim that the modernists’ fancy buildings and large crowds represented God’s blessing, he sarcastically added: “as for the hockey matches in the arena, they must enjoy the divine favour in a very special degree!”7 He also pointed toward the commitment of hockey fans as a challenge for how committed Christians should be to the cause of Christ. On one occasion, when raising money for the Toronto Baptist Seminary, he wrote:

Coming to the office this (Wednesday) night we saw literally thousands of people making their way to the Arena Gardens . . . to witness a hockey match or something of the sort . . . surely we ought to be equally enthusiastic about the work of training men and women intellectually and spiritually for the great work of preaching the gospel at home and abroad.8

Similarly, in promoting a special edition of his newspaper, The Gospel Witness, he noted: “You pay three or four dollars a ticket for a hockey match, but this is far better than any hockey match.”9

So, what does this brief survey tell us about how Shields felt about hockey? Admittedly, it’s not exhaustive or definitive—but a few points still stand out. It appears that he didn’t necessarily take issue with the sport itself or with people watching it; he did, however, caution against ways it could lead to damaging behaviours. Not only that, but it’s clear that he understood that using it as a sermon illustration provided a way to speak in the vernacular to the sports fans who were listening. And I think even Shields would agree that Maple Leafs fans need Jesus, too.

* * *

Taylor Murray, PhD, is Instructor of Christian History and Creative Producer of Distributed Learning at Tyndale University in Toronto. He is a Member at Large with the Canadian Baptist Historical Society. (He is also a Leafs fan!)


  1. I write this blog with the full awareness of just how stereotypically Canadian it is. Sorry.
  2. The team was originally the Toronto Arenas (1917–1919) and then the Toronto St. Patricks (1919–1927) before being named the Maple Leafs in 1927.
  3. T. Shields, “The Secret of Rest,” The Gospel Witness, 30 October 1947, 12.
  4. T. Shields, “The Word of the Lord Endureth For Ever,” The Gospel Witness, 1 March 1951, 4.
  5. T. Shields, “The Word of the Lord Endureth For Ever,” The Gospel Witness, 1 March 1951, 4.
  6. T. Shields, “The Secret of Rest,” The Gospel Witness, 30 October 1947, 12
  7. “The Menace of Religious Tokenism,” The Gospel Witness, 21 May 1931, 5.
  8. “The Feast of Ingathering at the Year’s End,” The Gospel Witness, 3 March 1932, 12.
  9. T. Shields, “Is Rev. Perry F. Rockwood, Truro, NS, a Hero of the Faith or a ‘Fundamentalist’ Fanatic?” The Gospel Witness, 13 March 1947, 7.

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