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The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and York University Lions take play in an OUA football game at York University in Toronto, September 28, 2013. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)
The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and York University Lions take play in an OUA football game at York University in Toronto, September 28, 2013. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)

Ontario University Athletics

With Ravens back on the girdiron, Panda Game emerges from hibernation Add to ...

Brien Benoit will be there to relive the moments when eligibility rules were non-existent and he was able to enjoy a nine-year collegiate football career playing for the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees while putting himself through medical school.

So too will Brian Doyle, who played for the Carleton Ravens and still has vivid memories of squaring off against those darned Benoit brothers – Brien, Pierre and Paul – who for a couple of seasons all teamed together on the same Gee-Gees unit.

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Doyle, who would go on to become a successful author, still refers to Brien Benoit, who became a well-known Ottawa neurosurgeon, as “the brain guy.”

Some rivalries die harder than others and Saturday, on the campus of U of O, a group of old jocks, all of them in their 70s, will attempt to breathe some life into a once-cherished tradition that has been buried for 15 years.

The annual Panda Game, pitting the football Gee-Gees against their crosstown rivals Carleton, will mark its return at the new Gee-Gees Field.

The rivalry was put on ice after the 1998 season, when Carleton axed its football program as a cost-cutting measure. The program, now funded by private benefactors, has staged a comeback this year in Ontario University Athletics and the Panda has been brought out of hibernation.

To help mark the return of the event, about 20 participants from the original Panda Game, first contested in 1955, will be on hand for a special pregame ceremony.

“Those were the days,” Benoit mused recently over the phone from Ottawa. The former tight end is now 77 and enjoying retirement from the Ottawa Hospital. “The Panda Game was, for the people in Ottawa, the students in Ottawa, more important than the Grey Cup.

“It was a strong rivalry because if you lost then you had to put up with all this crap from the other school for the next year. So it was very important to win.”

Benoit has been asked to kick the ceremonial opening kickoff, but there’s some debate which members of the Carleton alumni will agree to line up to receive the ball.

“It’s only fair that if one of the Benoits [is] going to kick off I should be able to put my best receiver to receive the kick,” said Jim Steen, who played what was then-known as middle guard on the defence for the Ravens in 1955. “I’ll have to check whose knees aren’t so arthritic that they can still move.”

Ottawa holds the decided upper hand in Panda contests, a 31-13 margin in wins. But the annual event was always more than just a football game according to Bruce MacGregor, an unofficial Panda historian who played in the game four times as a slotback for the Ravens from 1965 through 1968.

“It was always such a good football game,” MacGregor said. “Regardless of who was the better team, the other team, just on adrenalin, would always make it a good game. I played on some teams in the ’60s that, on paper, we had no business matching up with Ottawa U. But we made a real good close game of it just because we were so psyched.

“The other thing was, it was such a crazy, colourful horror show that a lot of people went just to see what would come next. Let’s face it, a lot of people will watch train wrecks.”

Carleton and Ottawa have been playing football against one another since after the Second World War. But it wasn’t until 1955, when a Ottawa student looking to add some spice to the contest decided to offer up a stuffed toy panda as spoils to the winner, that it really started to grow.

Named Pedro, a legend was born and the game slowly started to develop into a fierce rivalry that was embraced by the students from both campuses, whose alcohol-fuelled antics in the stands often overshadowed the action on the field.

The Panda Game evolved into one of the most widely attended university football clashes of the year in Canada, attracting upwards of 15,000 people to old Lansdowne Park in the 1970s. As the game grew in popularity so, too, did the rowdiness of the fans, who used the occasion to party hearty.

“I remember being driven out of bounds one time and just jumped on by about a dozen drunks,” MacGregor recalled. “I was trying to get back on the field where it was safer.”

There was one occasion during the 1977 game where students unleashed greased pigs onto the field at halftime. The stunt resulted in charges being laid by the Ottawa Humane Society.

Fights in the stands were common, as were water-filled balloons or condoms (likely both) that were catapulted from one side of the stands to the other.

John Thompson, a linebacker and a guard who played for four years from 1960 through 1963 for the Gee-Gees, recalls how the Carleton supporters used to goad the Ottawa players for attending a bilingual English-French institution.

“The insults would fly across the field from the stands,” Thompson recalled.

In the 1963 game, won 41-21 by Ottawa, Carleton fans were accused of yelling “dirty frogs” whenever the Gee-Gees would score. At halftime, a group of students stomped on the Fleurdelisé on the field before setting it on fire.

A serious incident occurred in 1987, when a railing at the stadium gave way under a crush of spectators, causing about 30 students to fall from the stands. One woman broke her neck and spent 20 days in a coma.

First-year Ottawa head coach Jamie Barresi is a former Gee-Gees quarterback who played in the program from 1976 to 1979. He has voiced his displeasure at events that has transpired at Panda Games in the past, and he hopes things will be different this time around.

“I think the culture has really changed,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s the case and, hopefully, the universities themselves will also take some ownership over this. I’ve spoken my mind on this several times about it so I’m trying to play my role in it.

“I want a big crowd there, I want people to come out and cheer and enjoy a game.”

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