by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
Acting Stanley Cup trustee William Foran was in the centre of the controversy involving the Montreal Wanderers’ challenge against the Kenora Thistles for the Stanley Cup. He wired that the dates for the contest for the Stanley Cup could be postponed provided the two teams came up with an amicable agreement on other dates. But the Wanderers told Kenora team executives that they were willing to only play the two games in Winnipeg on a larger ice surface and in hopes of having greater ticket sales in a city approaching 100,000 residents. The Thistles, who held the cup and successfully defended it by defeating the Brandon Wheat Cities in the Manitoba Professional Hockey League (MPHL) playoff, refused and instead offered a compromise to play one game in Kenora and one in Winnipeg.
“This created a deadlock at once,” reported the March 21, 1907, Manitoba Free Press, “and disposed of any possibility of arranging future games to settle the championship. Then the Thistles offered to go out on the ice and play to-nights game if suitable officials could be found, but the Wanderers objected to playing at so late an hour ...
“Only once was the question of playing (Alf) Smith and (Harry “Rat”) Westwick brought up, and then (Thistle) President (J.) Johnson changed the subject by saying they were not discussing the personnel of their team with the Wanderers.”
The Wanderers had pushed for the exclusion of Smith and Westwick, who both played for Ottawa before joining the Thistles for the MPHL championship series against Brandon, from the challenge games, and were supported by Foran.
The Thistles sent a telegram to Foran stating their offers to the Montreal team. They claimed that the Wanderers had arrived in Kenora by a special train at 7 o’clock in the evening on March 20 “without notice to us. In view of your wire this morning we offered to play to-night if officials could be agreed upon.”
Adding to the confusion of the sudden arrival of the Wanderers in Kenora — they came because they received a telegram from Foran announcing that the game had to be played that evening — they had failed to bring along a referee. A suggestion was then made that each team provide an official, but this didn’t satisfy Kenora.
The Thistles then supplied a list of MPHL officials, but received no reply. Instead, the Wanderers returned to Winnipeg, saying they would not return to Kenora to play under any circumstances. The Montreal team claimed they won the unplayed game by default.
It may have been the case that the Wanderers would have refused any compromise, as it was earlier reported that they didn’t want to play in Kenora as the ice surface was “not regulation.” Their sudden arrival in Kenora could have been a mere ruse designed to give the impression that they were in the community to challenge for the cup, since they knew that the Thistles were unprepared to play that evening.
In the annals of the Stanley Cup to that date, the call to play only on neutral ice was unprecedented. In all instances, the team that held the Stanley Cup had always hosted the challenge games. When the Thistles faced the Wheat Kings in Winnipeg for the Manitoba Professional Hockey League (MPHL) championship, and by extension the Stanley Cup championship, it had been a pre-season decision to stage a season-ending playoff round. And no one in the league could have predicted — although it was highly probable — that the Thistles would have been involved in the playoff round. Technically, any of the league’s teams could have been vying for the championship at the end of the season.
In 1906, the Stanley Cup was contested by the Montreal Wanderers and the Ottawa Hockey Club, which were tied at the top of the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association (ECAHA) standings, when league officials with the support of the cup trustees decided each team would host a play-off game. Montreal won the two-game series and the Stanley Cup by 12 goals to Ottawa’s 10. It was another precedent, but not for the playing of games in neutral arenas.
Still, the Wanderers may have used the staging of the MPHL playoff in Winnipeg as a precedent for their refusal.
“So far as the Wanderers are concerned the thing is over,” Montreal team secretary William Jennings told a Free Press reporter upon their return to Winnipeg. “The Kenora team does not seem disposed to meet us on anything like fair grounds, and the negotiations are off. We claim the game of last night by default, and the matter stands there. Our team is here in Winnipeg. We propose to play a couple of exhibition games and will return east at the end of the week ...
“Whenever we suggested a solution to the dead-lock we were met with objections,” added Jennings.
An agreement was finally reached between the two teams. The Wanderers had their way and would play two games at the Arena Rink in Winnipeg against the Thistles. In return, the Wanderers allowed Smith and Westwick, who had been banned from Stanley Cup action by Foran, to play for Kenora.
The games attracted plenty of interest across the province, with fans arriving from Portage la Prairie, Brandon and other Manitoba communities to witness the series. From Kenora came a special train, with 200 fans prepared to root for their hometown hockey heroes. The Arena Rink may have only been designed for 2,500 spectators, but at game time on both days, 4,000 people crammed the arena.
Much of the interest in Manitoba, Kenora and, for that matter, across Canada, had been stirred up by the disputes between the teams and Foran.
The series for the cup was actually anti-climactic in view of what had transpired before it was played. The Wanderers won the first game decisively by a score of 7-2. The Kenora squad relied upon speed to set a fast tempo of play, but soft ice had slowed them down to the benefit of the Montreal side. This was an era before artificial ice was installed in the city’s arenas.
On harder ice, Kenora won the second game 6-5, but Montreal claimed the cup with 12 goals to the Thistles’ eight.
The 1907-08 MPHL season got off to an inauspicious start when the Winnipeg Winnipegs, or ’Pegs, and the Winnipeg Maple Leafs were told they had to play a game to decide which team would be admitted into the league.
A.C. Smith, the president of the Winnipegs, issued a statement on December 2, 1907, saying that two years earlier his team had defeated every team playing in the then amateur senior league, “and only lost the championship after a play-off with Kenora. We have practically the same team still available, so it is hardly up to us to be asked to demonstrate (that we can compete).”
With the formation of a professional league in the previous season, the Winnipegs decided to join the Winnipeg Victorias (Vics) and create a senior amateur league. But with just two teams in the league, it was not “a howling success” (Winnipeg Tribune, December 23, 1907).
With the start of the 1907-08 hockey season, the Vics were hesitant to form a team, so the ’Pegs applied for admission into the professional league. The Winnipegs claimed they would only use amateurs when competing in the league.
Complicating the league’s overall competitiveness was a series of contract signings of professionals from other MPHL teams and outside the league. The Maple Leafs, formed that season by Jack Lee and J. Bell, lured “Bad” Joe Hall from Brandon. Harry Smith, the brother of Alf Smith and a centre for the Ottawa club, also signed a contract to play for the Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs were stocking their roster with the best players then available. Other players signed included Winnipegger Barney Holden, Matty Brown, formerly a Thistle, and Lorne Campbell, who had played professionally for Montreal and Pittsburgh. Fred Lake was another pro who played for Portage Lake-Houghton of the International Professional Hockey League (IPHL) and signed with the Maple Leafs.
“From the first it was seen that the Leaf management understood that it was necessary to get a team of tried players who knew the game and to this end they went to a great expense, and while disappointed in a couple of men failing to accept terms, it was generally conceded that they had gotten together a septette that would be hard to beat, though some of the local sports were not altogether in accordance with them in having Joe Hall and Harry Smith on the line-up, as these players had often been mixed up in episodes on the ice which reflected neither credit on themselves or the game.”
As a result of these signings, it was felt in local hockey circles that the Maple Leafs should not be required to play a game to gain admission in the league.
Eventually, the Winnipegs decided they would play the elimination game, which was held on December 19 at the Auditorium Arena at Garry Street and York Avenue. The Auditorium could seat about 2,000 spectators for hockey, but with standing room could hold a few hundred more, and over the years it was renovated and expanded so that eventually it could hold over 3,500 spectators. It was one of Winnipeg’s “big game” rinks until after the First World War, and it remained in use until it was destroyed by fire in 1926 (An Immense Hold in the Public Estimation: The First Quarter Century of Hockey in Manitoba, 1886-1911, by Morris Mott, Manitoba History, Spring/Summer 2002).
The next day, the Winnipeg Tribune called the game a “disgraceful” and “brutal” exhibition.
“A few more contests of a like nature and the death knell of professional hockey will be sounded resonantly.”
One incident was a “mix-up” between Percy Browne and Harry Smith, who had delivered a cross check to the ’Peg player that resulted in his stick hitting Browne squarely in the face. Browne then retaliated by cracking Smith over the head with his stick. It should be noted that players did not wear helmets in the early days of hockey.
Six ’Peg players received stitches to have “gashes closed up.” The Maple Leafs’ “Bad” Joe Hall lived up to his name and was said to be the most brutal player on the ice. At one point, he used his stick to deliver a blow to the temple of Charley Tobin, who was “laid out” on the ice and had to be carried off.
As a result of the last incident, the ’Pegs refused to continue the game and the Maple Leafs won by default.
After the game, Harry Sullivan, the trainer of the ’Pegs, commented that he had never seen so much blood spilled during a hockey game, “and Harry is a veteran of the game.”
The same arguments used today to clean up the game and protect players were made in the aftermath of the ’Pegs and Maple Leaf encounter.
“If professional hockey is to become a favorite pastime here,” commented the Tribune sports reporter, “measures must at once be taken to eliminate features of last night and protection given players which insured them of not being carried off the ice (in) an insensible condition. Accident’s will happen but there is a great deal of difference between an accident and a blow struck with deliberate attempt.”
Following the game, MPHL officials promised to take action, and league president Selkirk McDonald of Portage la Prairie called a special meeting the following evening. Much of the meeting centred around whether the Maple Leafs should be allowed into the league, and what to do about Hall.
Hall was said to be well liked off the ice, but had difficulty controlling his temper while playing.
Some questioned whether referee Eddie Giroux had contributed to the mayhem on the ice during the elimination game by not calling the play more closely, which allowed incidents of rough play to go unpenalized. When he tried to enforce control by issuing more penalties as the game progressed, it was too late, as the game was already out of control, according to newspaper accounts of the game.
At the meeting, by a three-to-one vote, league officials decided to exclude the Leafs from the MPHL. President McDonald was the only individual favouring their admission. Later in the meeting, the Strathconas changed their vote in favour of allowing the Maple Leafs into the league. With the vote changes, a deadlock ensued and it was decided to debate the fate of the Maple Leafs at another meeting.
On the other hand, the delegates from Portage, Brandon, Kenora and Winnipeg unanimously decided to bar Hall and Smith from the league. The delegates expressed the opinion that “clean play would never take place in the Manitoba league with Smith in it,” and that Hall had deliberately used his stick as a weapon to seriously injure Tobin.
A. Donley, the delegate from Kenora, said he had heard that the Maple Leaf backers had instructed Hall “to play dirty hockey, and if this was the case the players could hardly be blamed for doing what their employers wanted them to do.”
In the next meeting held three days later on Christmas Day, the delegates had a change of opinion and admitted the Maple Leafs into the MPHL.
The fate of Smith and Hall was left for a later date. In the case of Smith, the matter was settled when he left to play for Pittsburgh of the IPHL in early January 1908. In Hall’s case, the defenceman did not suit up for the Maple Leafs for the 1907-08 season, and instead played in the Eastern Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (amateur in name only, and in 1908, admitted its professional status by dropping the word “amateur”) for the Montreal Hockey Club and the Montreal Shamrocks.
(Next week: part 4)