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great canadian innovations

Despite its runaway success internationally, Cirque de Soleil stayed rooted in Quebec, opening its headquarters in Montreal in 1997.Matt Beard

If those beyond our borders think we're joyless, it's only because the Canadians behind many great contributions to sports and entertainment aren't often remembered for their national identity. Though immortalized in a Heritage Minute, no one outside Canada acknowledges that James Naismith from Almonte, Ont., invented basketball. A whopping 100 million copies of games in the Assassin's Creed franchise have been sold, but how many gamers – even Canadian ones – know that the video game was created by Quebecker Patrice Désilets? In 1993, The New York Times explored the phenomenon of the United States' comedy scene being infiltrated by Canadians mistaken as locals (Lorne Michaels, Dan Aykroyd and Mike Myers among them) in a lengthy piece headlined The Most Entertaining Americans? Canadians.

Here are three stories of Canadian innovators who tried to make the world a more leisurely place.

Trivial Pursuit

The bestselling Canadian board game in history might never have been invented if it weren't for missing pieces from another board game. Montreal Gazette photographer Chris Haney and his friend Scott Abbott, a Canadian Press sports reporter, were about to begin a game of Scrabble in 1979, when they discovered they were short six tiles. They bought a new game, smarting at the price tag on it, and then realized they could become rich designing a board game of their own based around wide-ranging trivia questions.

But they were new to the trade and needed intel. At the Montreal Toy and Decoration Fair, the pair went from booth to booth, grilling sellers about their business models. The interviewees, imagining they'd be featured in an article, were happy to share their secrets. In reality, Mr. Haney and Mr. Abbott were getting business advice and conducting market research.

By selling shares to 32 people, many of them colleagues, they raised $40,000 to start their company.

Mr. Haney, living in a pre-Google age, spent eight months in Spain with an enormous pile of reference books, to create 6,000 questions and answers for the game. At Christmastime in 1981, he and Mr. Abbott put out the first 1,000 prototypes of Trivial Pursuit, which sold out. Problem was, they'd cost $60 to make and were sold for half that amount. There was demand from stores for more games so, in 1982, the duo got a line of credit, opened a facility in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and began production.

After signing with a major U.S. company that would bring their game to the United States, success and profits quickly followed. By Christmas of 1982, stores had long waiting lists for the popular game. In 2008, it was sold to Hasbro for $80-million (U.S.) and went on to sell more than 100 million copies.

Opportunities came up for the young inventors from all around the world, including for a spinoff TV series, but Mr. Haney (who could not have predicted the runaway success of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? a few decades later) firmly declined – it was so very antithetical to the game's purpose, he told a reporter.

"That was the whole idea, to produce a game that would get friends back talking at the dining room table rather than sitting in front of the television," he said.

Cirque du Soleil

Before the opulent multimillion-dollar touring productions, or the permanent productions in Las Vegas, Cirque du Soleil was just a handful of misfits in the Quebec town of Baie-Saint-Paul, on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River. They were known as Les Échassiers de Baie-Saint-Paul at the time, a band of musicians, jugglers and stilt-walkers founded by Gilles Ste-Croix. Guy Laliberté, then just 21, joined the group as a stilt-walking, fire-breathing accordionist in 1980.

The troupe founded Le Club des talons hauts, a group that organized a street fair in town in 1982 and put out the call to performers across the continent. They produced large-scale shows together for three years, introducing a North American audience for the first time to the idea of a circus that delivered even more mesmerizing sights than tigers jumping through a flaming hoop or elephants balancing on chairs. This was the circus of the people.

Convinced they had what it took, in 1984 the Quebec government awarded Le Club des talons haut a contract to create a circus as part of the province's 450th-anniversary celebrations. Cirque du Soleil was born with a production that toured the province and the next year travelled across the country and then gambled everything to break into the global market with a long caravan to Los Angeles.

U.S. crowds quickly took to the death-defying acrobatic stunts, the clowns who were much more intriguing than those they'd come to know through traditional circuses, the aerial dancers who exuded sex appeal.

By the early nineties, the company was performing in Europe and Asia and began its first residency at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

Despite its runaway success internationally, the company stayed rooted in Quebec, opening its headquarters in Montreal in 1997, which has attracted artists from 50 countries.

"We should not forget that we were a bunch of young kids of 23, 24 years old, who [were] on unemployment at that time, who had long hair," Mr. Laliberté said in a 1988 interview, not yet wanting to take for granted the runaway success of his enterprise. "All of us were believing we were able to make it happen, but it was not easy."

Five-pin bowling

Canada's first bowling alley looked a little different than you'd expect. There was no pepperoni pizza, no Top 40 playing through the speakers, no wall of fetid leather shoes for rent. Thomas F. Ryan, who opened Canada's first ten-pin bowling lanes in 1905 in a Toronto club above a downtown jewellery store, had installed a gourmet lunch counter, a string orchestra and potted palms.

The sport was a hit in the United States, but Mr. Ryan's members groused that the 16-pound bowling balls with a 27-inch circumference were too cumbersome to hold and unwieldy to throw.

"Some hadn't used their muscles in years. They bowl one or two games then play bridge in my office while I supplied adhesive tape for their thumbs," Mr. Ryan said at the time.

Games were also tedious. Automation hadn't yet arrived so a ball was thrown, pins were knocked down and a "pin boy" had to go clear and reset each time by hand.

Mr. Ryan, who also dabbled in promoting horse racing and boxing, believed a few modifications were needed to make this game popular in his country. He had his father trim the pins to a smaller size, took away half of them and, in 1909, introduced a smaller, grapefruit-sized ball that was only 3.5 pounds.

Not only did his members take to the new sport, but five-pin bowling began spreading across the country. In 1922, a 24-lane five-pin bowling alley was opened in the heart of downtown Toronto, followed by a 100-lane one across the street. Many more facilities followed. The first national tournament was held five years later, at which time there were 100,000 bowlers in Toronto alone.

The appeal was simple: It was a game that didn't involve continued practice or high levels of athleticism.

Five-pin bowling was a $50-million-a-year operation in Canada by 1957.

"There was a time when people bowled only in the evening," a Globe Magazine reporter wrote that year. "Those days are gone. The policeman, the fireman, the shift worker and the housewife are all clamouring for afternoon space on the lanes."

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