By Jack Ford
Canadians on the World Snooker tour are a bit like Brazilians in Formula One – once a big part of the sport, now completely absent.
Three of the nation’s athletes were staples of the snooker scene at the height of the sport’s popularity – Cliff Thorburn, Kirk Stevens, and Bill Werbeniuk.
Thorburn, who rolled back the years with victory in the Seniors Masters in April, was originally advised by three-time world champion John Spencer to travel to the UK to improve his game, which he did, accompanied by long-term friend Werbeniuk.
Stevens, meanwhile, learned the game in the billiard halls of his native Toronto, before turning professional at the age of 20.
When the three arrived on the tour, however, Thorburn would emerge as the superior talent. For 14 highly successful years he ranked among the game’s elite, with his highest accolade being victory at the 1980 World Snooker Championship – the first non-UK player to do so.
In addition, Thorburn became the first player to compile a 147 maximum break at the Crucible when he memorably achieved the feat in 1983, while the “Grinder” famously won a hat-trick of Masters crowns as well.
At around the same time, Stevens and Werbeniuk also became fan favourites and regular fixtures of the top 16, with Stevens also becoming both the youngest player to reach the World Championship semi-finals and the first to make a 147 in the Masters – the sport’s most prestigious invitation event in London.
During this time, their homeland played host to its own professional tournament. For more than a decade, the Canadian Masters attracted some of the biggest names in the game, including Alex Higgins, Steve Davis, and Jimmy White, who all have a Canadian title to their name. It looked as if snooker had found a firm new territory to expand into, and that Canada was becoming a new proving ground for snooker talent.
It didn’t pan out that way, though. When Thorburn and Werbeniuk retired, and Stevens dropped off the scene, Canadian interest in the sport went with them. Though Quebecer Alain Robidoux began his entirely respectable career at the same time, he didn’t enjoy the same levels of success as his compatriots, nor could his presence on the scene keep up snooker’s popularity in Canada.
The last Canadian to win a professional ranking title was Bob Chaperon at the 1990 British Open. Since then, the Canadian snooker front has been very quiet. The most recent attempts by Canadian snooker players to break onto the world tour saw pool player Alex Pagulayan attempting to make the crossover in 2014.
The former world nine-ball champion failed to emerge from Q School but his results provided him with a few opportunities to compete in professional events as a top-up, albeit he lost in all four encounters he competed in. The following year Roshan Birdi entered Q School, but lost out in the tournament’s first round.
Ironically, Canada’s biggest snooker export of recent times is not even Canadian. As a teenager, Hong Kong’s Marco Fu lived in Vancouver, practising with Thorburn and Werbenuik, and also competed in tournaments against them and some of the country’s best players. He credits his time in Canada as being “a vital part of (his) snooker development.” Fu turned professional in 1998 and has of course gone on to enjoy a highly successful career.
A snooker scene still exists in Canada, though it’s much smaller than it was, and that of other countries. A number of players, including Pagulayan, Tom Finstad, and Floyd Ziegler, are still highly active, and the sport is well advocated in Canada by players like Thorburn and two-time World Championship quarter finalist Jim Wych. In addition to promoting and presenting the sport, Wych also helps stage Canada’s biggest annual snooker tournament.
Held every year since 1969, the Canadian National Snooker Championship is currently the country’s most prestigious snooker tournament, and regularly sees Canada’s top players among its many competitors. 53-year-old Brady Gollan is the most recent champion, winning the title thirty years on from his first victory.
With a lot of Canada’s most active snooker players admittedly in their later years, it’s unclear what lies ahead in the future for Canadian snooker. The country’s governing body is seeking to rectify this issue by working to provide more opportunities for new, younger players to take up the game.
Even so, it seems like a long road ahead until another Canadian snooker player emerges who, like those who blazed the trail, can take on the world and compete at the sport’s highest level.