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Early Leagues and the Birth of the NHL (p. 2)
by Brian McFarlane

The Vancouver Millionaires (9–9) finished second to Seattle (11–7) in the three-team PCHA race (Portland finished third) but the Millionaires upset Seattle 3–2 in the two-game, total goals playoff series. The Millionaires, led by legendary Cyclone Taylor, moved east for the Cup matches, which were played alternately under eastern and western rules. Western rules allowed seven players on the ice, eastern rules permitted six.

Both Vancouver and Toronto had difficulty adjusting to the rules in the best-of-five series and when game five was played under eastern rules, Toronto had a slight edge and won the deciding game 2–1. Corbett Denneny scored the winning goal.

Five of the Toronto players – goalie Harry “Hap” Holmes, defensemen Harry Cameron, rover Jack Adams, right wing Rusty Crawford and left wing Reg Noble went on to become members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Cameron and Adams were the highest-paid members of the Stanley Cup champions. Each received $900.

After this near-disastrous season, the NHL grew slowly into one of the wealthiest, most powerful leagues in the history of world sport. Within a few years, only NHL teams competed for hockey’s most coveted award, the Stanley Cup. Until then, teams from at least fourteen leagues had challenged for the famous trophy.

Long before the turn of the present century, teams in many parts of Canada played in loosely-organized groups or leagues. One of the first was a league in Kingston, Ontario, which comprised four teams in 1885. Queen’s University, Royal Military College, the Athletics and the Kingstons played a number of games against each other – but not without difficulty. “Heads-up” play was a must – for the Kingston rink of that era had a bandstand situated at center ice.

Another league, the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada, was formed in 1886. It was a team from this organization – boys wearing the colors of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association – that captured the first Stanley Cup championship in 1893.

In the years that followed, several leagues blossomed in hockey hotbeds across Canada and the U.S. When leagues folded, it was because of financial shortcomings or bitter disputes between competitive club owners. These leagues were amateur organizations for professionalism was frowned upon. If a player found bills of various denominations tucked into the toe of his skate when he arrived at the arena, he quietly transferred the money to his purse or wallet. “Finders keepers” was his motto – at least during hockey season.

Competition for talent, then as now, was fierce. Team owners and managers scurried after the best skaters and scorers. In the early 1900s top “amateurs” could pocket up to $1,800 for a season’s play.

Hockey’s first professional league was organized in the United States. Dr. J. L. Gibson, a dentist in the copper mining center of Houghton, Michigan, recruited some of Canada’s best players and paid them to play for his Portage Lakes team in “exhibition” games against other mining towns. The miners bet heavily on the outcome of these contests and Dr. Gibson’s club seldom lost. In 1904, Portage Lakes and several other mining towns formed the International Professional Hockey League and Gibson’s imports continued to shine. The record of the Portage Lakes club, in 26 league games, was 24–2.

Four years later, the first fully professional league in Canada opened for business. In January, 1908, the Ontario Professional League, with member clubs in Toronto, Berlin (now Kitchener- Waterloo), Brantford and Guelph, made its debut. Newsy Lalonde of Toronto was the league’s brightest star. Lalonde scored 29 goals in 9 games to win the scoring race. Eight of his 29 goals came in one game – a 12–3 win over Brantford. The league was nicknamed the “Trolley League” because the teams traveled by the electric railway which connected the four centers involved.

In 1909 the Canadian Hockey Association was formed, an offspring of the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey League which had allowed professionals to play alongside amateurs during the preceding season. After dropping the word amateur, the Eastern Canada League folded when league members couldn’t get along with one another. Franchises in the new Canadian Hockey Association were granted to Ottawa, Montreal Shamrocks, Montreal Nationals, All- Montreal and Quebec. Each club paid an initiation fee of $30 and all clubs were fully professional. In the past, players were required to make written declarations as to whether they were amateurs or pros.

Two teams hoping to join the CHA were rejected – the Ottawa Valley town of Renfrew and Montreal Wanderers. Ambrose O’Brien, representing Renfrew at the league meetings in Montreal, resented the snub and said as much. But Jimmy Gardner, who played for and spoke for the Wanderers, was livid. He approached O’Brien and suggested they form a new league to include the Wanderers, a Renfrew team and two clubs from mining towns in Northern Ontario – Haileybury and Cobalt. To add interest, they would form a team of French-speaking players from Montreal and call the club Les Canadiens. At the time, neither man had an inkling that the league they were scrambling to put together – the National Hockey Association – would someday be supplanted by the greatest of all hockey leagues. Nor could they know that in boldly forming Les Canadiens, they were spawning a team that would set more records and win more Stanley Cups than any other in hockey history.

Ambrose O’Brien, backed by his wealthy father M.J. O’Brien, paid astronomical sums to lure great players to Renfrew. Cyclone Taylor signed for a reported $5,000. On a per game basis, Taylor’s salary of over $400 a game for the 12-game schedule was almost ten times greater than that of baseball’s number one player, Ty Cobb. Toiling for Detroit, Cobb had to play over 100 games before reaching the $5000 plateau.

Lester and Frank Patrick agreed to $3,000 contracts. Both men stayed but one season in Renfrew. Then they embarked on a grand hockey scheme of their own, one that took them thousands of miles away from the Ottawa Valley.

Renfrew’s costly bid to win the Stanley Cup ended in failure even though the Creamery Kings (later called Millionaires) made a deal with Les Canadiens to add Newsy Lalonde to the roster midway through the season. In a close race with Ernie Russell of the Wanderers, Lalonde captured the league scoring title with 38 goals in 11 games. Lalonde exploded for nine goals in Renfrew’s final match against Cobalt to edge his Montreal rival, 38 to 31. In another late-season game, Renfrew walloped Ottawa 17–2. It was in this contest that Cyclone Taylor is alleged to have scored a goal while skating backwards. Not only was Taylor fulfilling a boast he had made to Ottawa newsmen a couple of weeks earlier, he was responding to Ottawa fans who had pelted him with debris, including a whiskey bottle and lemons, in a previous game.

Jimmy Gardner’s Montreal Wanderers (11–1) won the league championship in the first season of NHA play and skated off with the O’Brien Cup, a massive silver trophy valued at $6,000. Wanderers also took possession of the Stanley Cup and, following the NHA season, accepted a challenge for it from Berlin, Ontario. Wanderers won the single game 7–3.

In the spring of 1910, the talented Patrick brothers packed up and left Renfrew. They’d like to have stayed around and helped Ambrose O’Brien win a championship and a Stanley Cup but they were itching to begin a mammoth project – organizing a professional hockey league of their own in Western Canada.

In 1911, Renfrew, along with Cobalt and Haileybury, dropped out of major league hockey. The NHA recruited other clubs to replace them (two Toronto teams were admitted, then excluded for the season because their new arena was not ready for play). NHA teams won six of the next seven Stanley Cups before the league folded in order to make way for the NHL. By then, Ambrose O’Brien’s interests had turned to railroad construction and Jimmy Gardner, the other principal booster of the NHA, had retired after a 12-year career as a player and had taken up refereeing. Both are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Hockey’s early leagues displayed all the stability of sand castles. They sprang up, encountered difficulties, most of them involving money, and folded. Fickle team owners jumped from one league to another. Players swore undying loyalty to a team and a league, only to jump at the chance to earn a few more dollars elsewhere.

The story of one league – the Pacific Coast Hockey League – is a remarkable tale that no hockey historian can ignore. It began in 1911 with the sale of the Patrick Lumber Company of British Columbia to a syndicate from England. Hockey stars Frank and Lester Patrick, as a result of the sale, became two of the wealthiest young men in Canada. At a family meeting during which the Patrick boys won the full support of their father Joe, they decided to throw all of their new-found money (Joe invested a sizeable amount as well) into a new hockey venture in Western Canada. It was a league they would organize and manage themselves. They’d even be able to coach and play in the league for Lester was only 27 and Frank was 25.

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