by Bruce Cherney (part 4)
A blow to the The Manitoba Professional Hockey League (MPHL) came in the first week of January when both the Brandon and Kenora franchises dropped out after playing just one game each. From its glory days of holding the Stanley Cup, Kenora had fallen so far behind the MPHL’s top teams in terms of player quality that it lost its only game 16-1, while Brandon was slightly more competitive losing 4-0.
The MPHL was then reorganized with Portage la Prairie, the Winnipeg Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Strathconas being the only remaining teams.
As predicted at the start of the season, the Maple Leafs proved to be the best team in the abbreviated league, winning 11 games and losing six. But the second-place Portage la Prairie team (eight wins, seven loses — the Maple Leafs played one more game than Portage) stood in their way of claiming the MPHL title.
For the championship game in Portage, the Maple Leafs added goaltender Jack Winchester and defencemen Hamby Shore and Fred Lake from the Strathconas to their roster. All three began their professional hockey careers in the East.
“In one of the hardest fought games ever seen in Manitoba, the Maple Leafs of Winnipeg, defeated the home team to-night (February 26), and thereby won the Manitoba league,” reported the February 27 Manitoba Free Press. “Considering they were up against a picked seven from Winnipeg, the Portage team put up a magnificent argument and the result was in doubt until the call of time found them striving desperately to reduce the 2 goal lead of their opponents.”
In fact, the two teams were tied at two when the first 30-minute half of the game ended. In the second 30-minute half, the Maple Leafs finally took the lead and emerged with a 5-3 victory.
With the win, the Maple Leafs also won the right to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
Following the game, the Portage team announced it would not play an exhibition match against the Strathconas. Instead, the team was disbanded and the players were allowed to sign with other clubs.
Maple Leafs manager Jack Lee confirmed the team was heading east to challenge the Montreal Wanderers for the Stanley Cup.
“Our team will, in all probability, line up the game as at Portage ... but we will devote the intervening time to whipping the forward line into a more effective system of combination.”
One player who wouldn’t be in the line-up was rover Billy Kean. A medical examination showed that the rover had fractured a bone in his right ankle during the game in Portage.
The Stanley Cup matches were scheduled for March 10 and 12 in Montreal. In the meantime, the Wanderers wanted Barney Holden, a defenceman for the Maple Leafs, declared ineligible for the two-game, total-goals series. On February 15, Holden allegedly had signed a contract with the Wanderers — some called this claim “bosh” — to help them defend against a Stanley Cup challenge from Ottawa. He was prevented from playing by Ottawa, when the team successfully argued for Holden’s exclusion since he had been in the MPHL championship game.
Soon after, the Stanley Cup trustees came up with an official stand on player eligibility for cup games.
“During the present season,” stated a letter from the Stanley Cup trustees, P.D. Ross and William Foran, to the various league presidents, “the promiscuous buying and selling of players among major clubs has been accompanied by apparent dishonorable violations on contracts, of which the league regulations have taken little or no notice. The trustees do not think the Stanley Cup ought to be allowed to be contributory to common dishonesty.”
The statement mentioned that some players from one league had temporarily signed with another league for important games, and teams within a league hired players near the end of the season “for the purpose of pirating a championship.”
The trustees said that following the 1908 hockey season, players would not be allowed to compete for the Stanley Cup who had played for more than one Canadian club or anywhere else, “except in promotion from a junior club to a senior team.”
With the announcement, Holden was eligible to play for the Maple Leafs in Montreal. As well, Holden assured the Montreal club that if the Maple Leafs lost the Stanley Cup challenge, then he would play for the Wanderers until their season was completed.
The Leafs arrived in Montreal on March 9.
The Free Press reported on March 10 that the team held a brief practice, but their game condition could not be determined since “they were not working against any opposing forward line or defence.”
Reporting on game day, March 10, 1908, the Ottawa Citizen commented that the Wanderers were the favourites among bettors, “but there is a lot of going up on the Westerners. One thing is certain — the cup holders (Wanderers) will have to go some to keep the silverware, as the challengers have a great defence and a very speedy forward line.”
The headline in the Free Press following the first game against the Wanderers was, Maple Leafs Badly Bumped. In fact, the team suffered a humiliating 11-5 defeat.
“Barney Holden (of the Maple Leafs), the supposed to be wonderful defence man for whose possession all the Montreal teams were fighting and bidding during the early part of the season, was rather disappointing, although he did some good stopping, while Hamby Shore (a rover and another Leafs player), formerly of Ottawa, did some excellent and reliable work,” reported the March 11, Ottawa Evening Journal.
The Wanderers scored the first three goals before the Maple Leafs replied, and then reeled off another six goals before the Winnipeg team scored again.
“On the whole the match was not up to the standard of the great Stanley Cup matches of the by-gone days,” according to the Journal, “and it is to be feared that the attendance on Thursday will be rather small, although a number of people will come simply because they are obliged to buy tickets for both at the same time if they wanted any decent seat at all.”
After the game, the Free Press reported that Holden had claimed that the on-ice officials were mostly to blame for the Maple Leafs’ loss.
“He said his team was given a raw deal on the penalties.”
But Leafs manager Jack Lee said the Wanderers won simply because they were the better team, “and played a different game from any other team that the Leafs had met.”
Lee said he expected a different result in the next game as the Leafs had become accustomed to the Montreal team’s play. In fact, he predicted a victory for the Leafs.
But the Winnipeg team fared little better in the March 12 match against the Wanderers, losing in another blow-out by 9-3, despite scoring the first two goals of the game. The Montreal side claimed a 20 goals to eight victory in the two-games series and held onto the Stanley Cup.
“While the Maple Leafs showed on the hour’s play better form than in the first game, they were outclassed at most points,” according to the March 13 Free Press. “Their defence did not have the ability to rush with the Wanderers pair, who, the greater part of the play were up on the line helping out the forwards. At times the Wanderers had six men in the attack, and nothing could stand before their persistent hammering at the Maple Leaf net.”
“We should have waited till next season,” said Leafs manager Lee after the game.
His opinion was that the Leafs had “gone stale.”
When the team returned to Winnipeg, Lee complained that teams in the east played a rather effete game as a result of the rules they followed compared to the more rough-and-tumble game played in the west (Free Press, March 19).
“It is a regular parlor game,” he said. “Why our fellows were ruled off (penalized) for simply raising their sticks above the shoulder. Of course that is one of the rules down there, but our boys simply could not remember it.”
While playing the cup games, Eastern Canada-based newspapers had made a point of commenting on the rough play of the Western Canadians team.
“As far as the first game is concerned,” continued Lee, “we were beaten by a better team. The officials were satisfactory, but in the second game they were rotten, and I believe if (Joe) Power had been judge of play again we would of won. We were playing a man short all the time.”
Referee Power had announced before the first game was even played that he wouldn’t be available to officiate in the second game.
At the start of the 1908-09 hockey season, there was a measure of doubt that the MPHL could be reorganized with only two Winnipeg teams involved. On November 4, 1908, the Winnipeg Tribune reported that the reorganization of the professional hockey league depended upon interest being shown by Brandon and Portage la Prairie. There was also a glimmer of hope that Kenora would once again field a professional hockey team.
As it turned out, none of the three communities outside Winnipeg were willing to return to the league.
“There is no reason why professional hockey of the right brand should not flourish in Winnipeg,” the Tribune sports writer commented. “Give the public what it pays its good money to see, and it is safe to bet that the sport will have a following here most gratifying to the backers of the clubs.”
At a meeting at the National Hotel on November 14, 1908, it was announced that the MPHL would cease to exist and that it would be replaced by a solely Winnipeg-based professional league with just two teams — the Maple Leafs and Winnipegs. The two teams were scheduled to play their regular season games at the new Winnipeg Rink at the corner of Portage Avenue and Langside Street.
During the meeting, no name was given to the new league, although subsequent newspaper accounts (Tribune, November 21) referred to it as the Winnipeg Professional Hockey League (WPHL).
It was further agreed that no set salaries were to be paid to the players, “the co-operative system being employed” (Free Press, November 16).
Meanwhile, a new club called the Winnipeg Shamrocks announced its intention to apply for admission into the new professional league. The admission of the three teams into the league was announced shortly afterward.
“With the Winnipegs and Shamrocks playing on the co-operative system, and Jack Lee paying salaries to his men, he is anxious to have the teams all put up a substantial guarantee that they will complete the schedule of games, and also wants assurance that efforts will be made to make the teams as strong as possible,” reported the Free Press.
According to the November 21 Tribune, each team agreed to post a $100 bond as a guarantee of play.
One important change made in the rules was passed by Lee of the Maple Leafs, Harry Quinn of the Winnipegs and Jack McNeil of the Shamrocks: “A player shall secure his release from the club with which he has signed before he can join another club in the league, and after Feb. 10 (1909), no such transfer of player shall take place without the unanimous consent of all clubs in the league, nor shall a player not connected with the league be admitted to a team after Feb. 10, unless it is to take the place of a regular player incapacitated for the rest of the season.”
The new league was making an attempt to halt the “pirating” of players from other teams, as well as the previous common practice of signing players from another professional league for important games.
The Manitoba Amateur Athletic Association (MAAA) issued a statement warning amateur athletes not to compete against professional players banned by the association. If they did, they would lose amateur status. In the statement, a long list of professional hockey players banned by the MAAA was provided. Another regulation allowed for the re-entry of a professional into the amateur ranks after sitting out a season.
With all the problems facing the professional clubs, an amateur senior hockey league was re-established in Winnipeg after a one-year absence.
The MAAA bans and the return of amateur senior hockey was not good news for the fledgling Winnipeg Professional Hockey League.
As the 1908-09 hockey season progressed, it became evident that the professional league was experiencing difficulty. The Winnipegs only managed to play two games, losing both, before the team dropped out. That left the Shamrocks and Maple Leafs as the only remaining clubs.
In the first half of the season, the Maple Leafs were the top team with four wins and no losses. The Shamrocks had one win and three losses.
Once the league was down to two teams, the standings in the second half of the professional season had the Shamrocks on top with four wins and one loss, while the Leafs recorded the opposite number of wins and losses.
According to newspaper accounts, the Leafs were plagued by injuries to key players that prevented the team from fielding a competitive on-ice product against the Shamrocks.
Team representatives met on January 27, 1909, to discuss the fate of the professional league. At the meeting, the championship was conceded to the Shamrocks and the decision was reached to end the reign of a professional hockey league in the city.
“Professional hockey has not been a paying proposition in Winnipeg this season,” reported the Free Press on January 29, “and the fact that the Leafs are in a badly crippled condition resulted in the shortening of the schedule.”
On January 30, the Tribune commented that it was no surprise that the Leafs had left and the league was disbanded: “There is no getting away from the fact Jack Lee, manager of the Leafs, encountered an unusual run of hard luck. He was deprived of Kean, Hall and Poulin in a row which disrupted the forward line ... The Shamrocks have a strong team, too good for the Leafs the way the latter were situated prior to the blow-up, and it would have been folly on the part of Lee to continue with his battered team and hope to win out.”
(Next issue: part 5)