#6: History of Murderball/Wheelchair Rugby 1977-82

Written by Pawel Zbieranowski

The Founding Fathers of Murderball, Gerry Terwin, Duncan Campbell, Paul LeJeunne, and Randy Dueck introduced their game to fellow quadriplegic athletes at the 1977 National Games in Edmonton, Alberta. The “Manitoba Winged Wheelers” (later renamed “Prairie Fire”) awed other quads with their play; and thus began the spread of Murderball across Canada.

Players Joe Ross and Julien Wedge, and physiotherapist Sue Mount from Toronto established “The Toronto Bulldogs Wheelchair Sport Club” that same year, followed soon after by the creation of a team in New Brunswick. The development of Murderball across Canada took place simultaneously, and in a way independently, in multiple centres; however, the outcome was the same, with more quadriplegic athletes enjoying a team sport. A big boost for further growth was an exhibition Murderball tournament at the 1978 National Games in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Following the 1978 Games, Julien Wedge of the Toronto Bulldogs moved to BC, and with the support of other Murderball enthusiasts, established the sport in Vancouver. As a result of this endeavour, BC hosted the First Canadian Murderball Championships in 1979, attended by: BC, Manitoba, Ontario, and New Brunswick, with Ontario winning this historic tournament. The success of the Ontario Provincial Team was based on the previous year’s work by the Toronto Bulldogs who organized workshops in Ottawa, London, Kingston, Sarnia, Windsor, and North Bay. The first Ontario Provincial Championships were held at York University in Toronto in 1979.

As the sport of Murderball grew, so too did the rules. Officiation was led by Ben Harnish of Winnipeg, along with Larry Jones, Bill Wiseman, Alf Blackaby, and Sue Mount. The work of physiotherapists Sue Mount and Sue Russell, and Drs. Lush and Dubo was crucial in the development of the classification system. These early years saw the discussion of various proposals regarding the number of players and point value on the court, even going so far as to consider 5 players with up to 11 points.

In 1980, Quebec joined the Murderball family, and the sport continued to grow. Many new volunteers were attracted to the sport, and helped with coaching, refereeing, classification, and tournament organization. A very prominent role was played by Barb Montemurro, aka “MurderMama,” who began her journey of volunteering in wheelchair sports at the 1976 Torontolympiad. Barb would eventually become a mentor to Pawel Zbieranowski, who joined the Toronto Bulldogs in 1980.

1981 was a special year with two national championships; Winnipeg hosted a delayed 1980 National Tournament in February 1981 attended by BC, Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and New Brunswick. This time BC was victorious over Ontario with a score of 8:7 in the final game. The Third National Murderball Championships took place in June 1981 at Variety Village in Toronto. The same six teams attended, and once more BC was victorious over Ontario for their second consecutive title.

1982 began with a friendly tournament in Toronto attended by two Ontario teams, Quebec, and Manitoba. 1982 also saw the establishment of the Annual Windsor Classic Games, where teams from across Ontario, Canada, and neighbouring US states would compete for many years. The Ontario Provincial Championships were held annually featuring between four and six teams, and Quebec established its own league.

The 1982 National Championships in Edmonton, AB were attended by a record high seven provinces: BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and newcomer Alberta. The previous year, Duncan Campbell had switched colours from Manitoba’s yellow and brown to Alberta’s red and white, and as a result, Alberta not only joined the other six provinces, but also hosted Nationals. Once more, the final was a battle between Ontario and BC. With a final score of 12:10, Ontario won the championship title, and evened the number of national titles with BC.

These early years saw many coaches who left a permanent mark on the development of Murderball: Gary Reid, Gary Hewitt, Gerry Terwin, Darryl Horst, Pawel Zbieranowski, Ken Walsh, Murray Wilson, Linda McMillan, Wayne Walsh, Diane Bateman, Andre Asselin, Michel Vadeboncoeur,; to mention just those who led their provincial squads. There were many more equally enthusiastic coaches at the club level across Canada.

Murderball games were much lower scoring in the early days. One contributing factor was the use of regular, collapsible hospital-style wheelchairs, which were heavy and difficult to maneuver. The most unique wheelchair used at the time was by a New Brunswick player, which had big wheels in front and small casters at the back, allowing him to perform unusual spins and turns against rivals on the court. However, he was permitted to play as the rules only specified that the wheelchair “had to have four wheels.” Thus equipment regulations started to develop.

The first few years of the development of Murderball witnessed explosive growth. With teams in seven provinces and the ongoing development of coaching, rules, classification, and equipment underway, Murderball was set to become a popular and fast growing sport.