Tea Bowl football game rallied Canadian troops ahead of D-Day

A football game played in front of 30,000 fans in a London stadium with spitfires flying overhead just a few months before D-Day is being fondly remembered as a great day for Canadians in the sport's history.

Teams made up of soldiers, but some were professional players

Some archived footage courtesy Canadian Football Hall of Fame. 2:55

A football game played in front of 30,000 fans in a London stadium with spitfires flying overhead just a few months before D-Day is being fondly remembered as a great day for Canadians in the sport's history.

Called the Tea Bowl — a nod to their British hosts — the idea behind the game was cooked up by a couple of army officers over a pint.

The Military Museums of Calgary is researching the game for an upcoming exhibit.

"I suggested that it might be a morale booster for all the troops if we organized a game between the U.S. and Canadian troops — sort of an international Grey Cup," said team captain Denny Whitaker in archived video footage.

The teams were made up of soldiers, but some of them were professional players. The Canadians called themselves the Mustangs.

Whitaker, a soldier and star quarterback for the Hamilton Tigers, told the story in a Canadian Football Hall of Fame video.

  • Watch the video above as Whitaker recaps how the game came to be and its outcomes.

"The roster included such Canadian football greats as Jeff Nicklin, Andy Beiber, Nick Patowski, Shanty Mackenzie, Orville Burke, Huck Welch [and] Paul Rowe," he said.

Rowe was from Calgary and like thousands of troops growing restless and homesick the pub agreement became a passion.

"The Tea Bowl was an opportunity for Canadians to really prove themselves as an entity, as a nation," said his son Bob Rowe.

Canadians win 16-6

Rowe was a five-time sports hall of famer and a Grey Cup champion with the Calgary Stampeders. He saw bitter fighting throughout the war before he was wounded in 1945.

"He was one of those players that the Americans would have a hard time with," said Bob Rowe, who wrote a book about his father and the game he never forgot. 

The Canadians ended up winning the Tea Bowl 16-6.

"My dad said to play a game like that in front of your peers and for the Canadians to take it to the Americans was, as he described it, one of the biggest thrills of my life," said Bob Rowe.

And the Canadian soldiers did get a big morale boost.

"The stands went crazy, and particularly the Canadian soldiers who won more money in a day than many of them had earned in a year," said Whitaker. 

"In fact days later, Canadian soldiers could still be seen wandering through London in battledress yelling 'We're No, 1.'"

A month later they held a rematch called the Coffee Bowl and the Americans took the game 18-0.

But soon the rivalry was forgotten as players from both teams fought side-by-side to end the war.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.