Between 1915 and 1940, the Edmonton Commercial Graduates women’s basketball team, led by head coach Percy Page, barnstormed their way across the continent and through Europe to become a sporting and cultural phenomenon.
In 522 official games played, the Grads won 502 matches – a staggering winning percentage of 96.2%. During this period of unprecedented success, they walked a thin line off-the-court between adhering to traditional codes of women’s behavior and shaping perceptions of what femininity would look like in the new century. Sporting competition at the time was traditionally viewed as a means of defining masculinity, but the Grads would forever alter that notion.
Coinciding with the Grads' emergence on the court was a cultural shift in the workplace. Women were becoming increasingly independent with newfound opportunities provided during the First World War as jobs in manufacturing, education and nursing were being made available.
The Edmonton Grads became the embodiment of this dynamic change and provided Canada with a symbol of ‘the new woman.’ Their sense of professionalism and their undeniably feminine code of conduct became a model for respectable women and served as a significant step-forward from long-established norms of femininity.
They dressed and acted like ‘ladies’ – refraining from smoking, drinking, and chewing gum, and left the team once married (all manners considered appropriate for respectable women); at the same time, their playing basketball, travelling extensively, and ‘hardening’ their bodies were all deemed ‘mannish’ behavior.
Dr. James Naismith himself called the Grads "the finest basketball team that ever stepped out on a floor," and they proved it through their play. Winning as many as 147 games in a row, the Grads were seen as invincible by their fans. They were idolized in Edmonton and claimed as national heroes by their followers. They won the provincial championship 23 times in 24 tries, won all 21 times they competed for the Western Canadian Championship, and they never lost a series in the Canadian Championships.
In Canadian-American competition for the Underwood International Trophy, the Grads never lost. When they played men’s teams, they won seven of the nine games, and though women’s basketball wasn’t an official Olympic sport the Grads attended four Olympics and won all 27 games they played.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Grads’ home Edmonton Arena was repurposed by the Royal Canadian Air Force and the team was disbanded after years of triumphs and titles. Beyond the 38 members that played for the squad, Edmonton’s grads left behind a lasting legacy as champions both on- and off-the-court. They will forever be remembered for helping modernize outdated perceptions of gender and, of course, for their untouchable play on the hardwood.
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