#16: The History of Wheelchair Rugby 1983 - 1994

Written by Pawel Zbieranowski


The mid-1980’s demonstrated further growth and changes to the sport of Wheelchair Rugby as well as some new challenges. More tournaments were held across Canada, and more teams were established. This new decade also witnessed elevated status of the sport, further development of classification and rules, and growth at the international scale. 
1983 began on a high note with an exhibition tournament held in Regina, Saskatchewan, which featured provincial teams from Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and a new team from North Dakota. Alberta outscored Ontario in an exciting game with a final score of 26-24 in double overtime to win the tournament. At this time, lighter wheelchairs also started to appear and make a difference, and the games became faster and higher scoring. Ontario and Quebec also hosted annual provincial championships, and the Windsor Classic Indoor Games became well-established, providing further competitive opportunities for athletes. 
The 1983 National Murderball Championships were held in Sudbury, Ontario as part of the Canadian National Summer Games. As in the previous year, seven provincial teams attended: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and new-comer Nova Scotia. This spoke well for the development of Murderball in Atlantic Canada; however, the absence of British Columbia was a sign that development of the sport at the provincial level was still vulnerable. Murderball teams faced another challenge at this tournament: players competing in additional sports. Although common at this point in time to compete in multiple sports, most sports were prioritized higher than Murderball, and situations arose in which players were either late for games, or chose to compete in one sport over the other. To resolve this issue, future Murderball championships were held independently from the National Games from that year on.



The 1983 National Murderball Championships witnessed another first in that neither of the two finalists from the previous four tournaments (Ontario and British Columbia) made it to the gold medal game. British Columbia did not attend the tournament, and Ontario finished third. Quebec was victorious over Alberta with a final score of 20-19. This started a period of four consecutive National titles won by Quebec: 1983-Sudbury, ON; 1984- Winnipeg, MB; 1985 – Longueuil, QC; 1986-Regina, SK.


1983 also saw the beginning of the process of changing the name from “Murderball” to “Wheelchair Rugby.” This proposal, initiated by Pawel Zbieranowski and Ontario regional representatives, was approved by the province of Ontario in November of that year. The CWSA ratified this change nationally in 1984, with the first Canadian “Wheelchair Rugby” Championships taking place in 1985.


At the 1987 National Championships in Ottawa a change of guard took place at the top of the podium. Saskatchewan emerged as a new powerhouse in Canadian Wheelchair Rugby, winning five consecutive titles: 1987-Ottawa, ON; 1988-Vancouver, BC; 1989-Niagara Falls, ON; 1990-Saskatoon, SK; 1991-Toronto, ON. Unfortunately, due to some financial and organizational challenges, there were no National Championships held in 1992. In 1993, B.C. began their dominance in Canada by winning an unprecedented nine consecutive championships titles. Two of these titles (1996 and 1998) were shared with Quebec as the Championships were split into two regional tournaments for eastern and western Canada. In 1994, Nationals were held in Charlottetown, PE, marking the first time a national wheelchair rugby championship occurred in Atlantic Canada.


The mid-80's to the early 90's saw a process of events which elevated Wheelchair Rugby to the status of a truly established sport. The national development of the sport was led by National Coordinators: Chris Sobkowicz of Winnipeg (1981-84), Andre Asselin of Montreal (1985-mid 87), and Pawel Zbieranowski of Toronto (1987-94). A National Rugby Committee (NRC) was established in January 1993 with Pawel Zbieranowski acting as National Coordinator, alongside representatives from the west – Mike Bacon and east – Andre Asselin. Although Murderball, and later Wheelchair Rugby, functioned under the umbrella of CWSA, true representation of the sport within CWSA was only established in the 1987-88 season. Wheelchair Rugby, still regarded by CWSA as a “new kid on the block”, was placed in the 3rd category of so called “Non-Sanctioned Sports”. This meant limited financial support and assistance provided in “office time”. As provincial representation at the Wheelchair Rugby National Championships varied from year to year, these tournaments were regarded as non-sanctioned events by CWSA. Following the petition and motion presented by Pawel Zbieranowski at the CWSA meeting in the fall of 1992, the first sanctioned Wheelchair Rugby Championships took place in 1993. This elevated the status of the National Wheelchair Rugby team in Canada. 



Toronto Bulldogs 1991


The mid 1980's also saw key contributors in the areas of officiating development. Gilles Briere and Tony Lapolla, two very highly regarded wheelchair basketball referees from Montreal, were invited to the 1984 Windsor Classic Indoor Games. Initially, it was hoped that they would help establish an Official’s Development Program; in reality, the two of them would become pillars of officiating for Wheelchair Rugby in Canada and around the world. With the help of local referees, Gilles and Tony prepared, revised, and established quadrennial sets of rules, referees’ handbooks and case books. They also led instructional clinics and established a referee certification program. 


However, the classification of athletes was always an area of concern. The initial work of Sue Mount in Ontario was further developed by Sue Russel, a physiotherapist, and Dr. Emilie Newell. With support from physiotherapists in Quebec and Saskatchewan, they developed a functional test. The original “1A, 1B, 1C, and 8 points on the floor” system went through various changes, with some of the systems including up to 9 points on the floor and individual classification levels ranging from 0.5 to 4.5. In cooperation with international classifiers, the present system of 8 points and classes from 0.5 to 3.5 was established. To this day, Dr. Emilie Newell continues to provide her expertise in classifying athletes in a variety of sports.


The late 1980’s and early 1990’s saw extensive international development of Wheelchair Rugby. This was initiated with the 1st Annual International Wheelchair Rugby Tournament in Toronto in 1989, attended by Canadian provincial teams, the Great Britain National team, and various US state teams. This led to the first Wheelchair Rugby tournament held as part of the Stoke Mandeville World Wheelchair Games, where Canada’s first National Wheelchair Rugby Team convened and competed. Unfortunately, this National Team was not the strongest that Canada could field, as some key Wheelchair Rugby players were also members of Canada’s National Track & Field team. Much like the 1983 National Games, players were sometimes forced to choose between sports, and track & field provided competitors with the opportunity to participate in world championships and Paralympic Games – something that Wheelchair Rugby did not yet offer. Despite the fact that the competitive season was over for these athletes and they were at Stoke, they were not permitted to be part of this particular Wheelchair Rugby National Team. It was not until 1993, when the first sanctioned Wheelchair Rugby Championships took place that Wheelchair Rugby was on par with other Canadian National Teams.


This only touches "the tip of the iceberg" of all the events and people involved in the development of Wheelchair Rugby in Canada. In 1994, Pawel Zbieranowski resigned from the position of National Coordinator to focus on the Presidency of the newly established International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF), further international development, and work toward obtaining Paralympic Sport Status for Wheelchair Rugby.


Ottawa Stingers at the 1991 Windsor Indoor Games