Written by Dan Rubenstein
Five years ago, at the 2014 Panda Game between the Carleton Ravens and University of Ottawa Gee-Gees men’s football teams at TD Place Stadium, the Gee-Gees were ahead 31-27 with five seconds left in the fourth quarter. Carleton had the ball at midfield.
What happened next couldn’t have been scripted any better by a Hollywood screenwriter.
With four receivers racing down the left side of the field, Ravens quarterback Jesse Mills lofted a “Hail Mary” pass toward the end zone. It was tipped by Gee-Gees defender Randy Williams near the 15-yard line — and snatched out of the air by Carleton’s Nate Behar, who scampered across the goal line for the game-winning touchdown.
Behar, now a CFL professional with the Ottawa Redblacks, spiked the ball and was mobbed by his teammates. It was the first time Carleton had defeated uOttawa since reviving its football program in 2013 after a 15-year absence.
“The annual Panda Game has an amazing atmosphere and brings out incredible school pride from students, alumni, faculty and staff, as well as football fans of the two universities,” says Jennifer Brenning, Carleton’s assistant-vice president of Recreation and Athletics, who is looking forward to this year’s match on Oct. 5.
“It has been amazing to watch this event build over the last couple of years,” says Brenning, “and see how it has embraced the entire community.”
The Panda Game, which attracts about 24,000 spectators and sells out just about every year, is the largest annual event in Canadian university sports.
The first game, held in 1955, was the brainchild of Brian McNulty, then associate editor of The Fulcrum, uOttawa’s English student newspaper. McNulty persuaded Sparks Street-based Jack Snow Jewelers to donate a stuffed panda as the prize for the victorious team and staged a fake robbery at the store with the help of sports editor Thomas White, blaming Carleton students for the heist.
Carleton came out on top in that first game with a 14-6 win over the Gee-Gees, and the epic rivalry alternated between Carleton’s home field and Lansdowne Park through the 1960s before eventually finding a permanent home at Lansdowne.
Carleton shelved its football program in the late 1990s, but it was resurrected in 2013 with Head Coach Steve Sumarah at the helm — leading to the excitement of 2014’s comeback victory and the Ravens 48-45 overtime win the following year.
Carleton won in both 2016 and 2017 as well, but the Gee-Gees ended that four-game streak with a 38-27 win last year, setting the stage for this year’s game.
“The excitement around the Panda Game unites our students each year with their classmates, alumni, faculty and staff, and the Ottawa community,” says Suzanne Blanchard, Carleton’s vice-president (Students and Enrolment).
“This annual event has grown to become a key part of the student experience at Carleton.”
Off the field and away from the stadium at Lansdowne, Carleton is taking steps to be a good neighbour so the entire community enjoys the Panda Game.
The university is sensitive to the impact of such a major event on surrounding neighbourhoods — especially the Glebe and Old Ottawa South — and works closely each year with businesses, city services and community members to minimize disruption.
In the days leading up to the Panda Game, students are conducting door-to-door and distributing pamphlets with details about the game to highlight the university’s commitment to a safe and fun event for everyone.
Student volunteers will also conduct a post-Panda cleanup in Old Ottawa South and the Glebe. They will cover the area from Bank St. and Grove Ave. to Bank and Fifth Ave.
The cleanup is part of Carleton’s Campus to Community Days, a community-engaged learning program that connects Carleton students with local non-profit and community organizations to explore the social, environmental and economic challenges impacting the greater Ottawa community. By supporting the work of these organizations, students gain practical employment skills and identify real-world connections to their studies.
“This particular Campus to Community day will explore the impact of large sporting events on small communities, from local football games to the Olympics,” says Dwaine Taylor, the student development and community outreach co-ordinator in Carleton’s Student Experience Office.
“In addition to the cleanup, students will participate in discussion about how we can host sustainable and safe sporting events.”
This year’s Panda Game starts at noon, but the doors will be open at 10:30 a.m. for onsite activities.
Carleton has added a shuttle service between campus and TD Place. The shuttle will loop through the neighbourhood to pick up students. Carleton University Student Emergency Response Team volunteers will be on the bus to assist students where necessary and Carleton University Students’ Association Foot Patrol volunteers will be also be on hand to assist students walking back to campus.