by Bruce Cherney (part 5 of 5)
With the Winnipeg Maple Leafs disbanded, the Winnipeg Shamrocks took the only route available to them to keep playing hockey and went to Edmonton to compete for the Fit-Reform Cup, emblematic of the top senior hockey team in Western Canada.
A group of Edmonton businessmen had assembled a team of highly-paid “ringers” to challenge for the Stanley Cup in 1908 and 1909, such as Lester Patrick, Tommy Phillips, Didier Pitre and Fred Whitecroft. Despite playing in what was called the Alberta Amateur Hockey Association (AAHA), there was nothing amateur about the team from the most westerly prairie province, as its roster was filled with professional hockey players.
Although the team had all-star professionals in its roster, the Edmonton Hockey Club lost a two-game series against the Montreal Wanderers, the holders of the Stanley Cup, by 13 goals to 10 in 1908.
The Shamrocks were slated to play the Alberta Amateur Hockey Association champions in an early March 1909 two-game Fit-Reform Cup series in Edmonton.
The first game saw the Shamrocks take what appeared to be a commanding 5-1 lead, but Edmonton came back to tie the game at 5-5, 15 minutes into the second half of the game. With one minute left in regulation time, Edmonton notched the winning goal and the game ended 6-5 in favour of the host team.
The second game, played under conditions termed “heavy ice,” was a decisive 9-4 victory for Edmonton, which gave the team a six goal lead in the four-game series.
Before the next two games in the series were to be played, the Edmonton team announced it would not be travelling to Winnipeg to face the Shamrocks.
Edmonton Hands Shams, Raw Deal, was the headline in the March 15, 1909, Free Press. “Manager (Jack) McNeil, of the Shamrocks, said last night that the matter would likely be taken to the courts as it was clearly a breach of contract.”
What made the Edmonton decision more upsetting for the Shamrocks was that the club had approval from the Stanley Cup trustees to challenge the Ottawa Senators — formerly nicknamed the “Silver Seven” — for the cup, although dates for the two-game series had yet to be agreed upon. Had the Shamrocks not gone to the Alberta capital city, the team could have possibly headed east to meet the Senators, who had earlier defeated the Montreal Wanderers to take top spot in the Eastern Canadian Hockey Association (ECHA) and possession of the Stanley Cup. By this time, the former Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association acknowledged the professional status of the participating clubs and the word “amateur” was dropped from the league’s title.
On March 4, after the two-game series played in Edmonton ended, the Shamrocks sent a telegram to the Stanley Cup trustees that they were unable to go east because of the two games remaining to be played in Winnipeg for the Fit-Reform Cup and the lateness of the hockey season. The expectation was that the Shamrocks would play for the Stanley Cup at the start of the following hockey season.
At the start of the new season, in a November 13, 1909, Ottawa Citizen article, it was reported that a professional hockey league had yet to be formed in Manitoba.
“Whether they will make a trip east after the Stanley Cup is still a matter of speculation only, as the management is completely at seas,” according to the Citizen.
“Should the Irishmen go east and be fortunate enough to wrest the trophy from Ottawa, their efforts will have a decided bearing on professional hockey in Manitoba and serve to stimulate interest in the sport where players are paid for their services; on the other hand, if the Shamrocks meet with defeat there is little liklihood of a professional league being organized this season.”
The Tribune on December 1, 1909, prophetically called the Shamrocks participation, the “last bid for the historic Stanley Cup ...
“Enthusiasm for professional hockey at the present time is at a very low ebb, but nevertheless the foregoing history of one of the greatest struggles for a championship is indissolubly linked with the Shamrocks who will shortly go east to what promises to be Winnipeg’s last effort for some time to regain the Stanley Cup.”
The Winnipeg Victorias, or Vics, held the Stanley Cup in 1896 and again in 1901-02.
The Shamrock club did begin to sign players to contracts with the expectation of playing professional hockey, but there was little interest expressed by other local teams to participate in a pro league.
According to the Tribune article about the last bid for the Stanley Cup, the Shamrock players were not playing for money, but for the love of the game, as they hadn’t made enough in the previous season for a “meal ticket.”
“It is true that the Shamrock club is a professional organization, but while the players are under the ban (from playing amateur hockey) there isn’t a single one who is otherwise amateur at heart. If all professional players were like Charlie Quinn, Paddy Chambers, Dan Flett, Billy Breen, Billy Kean, Tommy Dunderdale, Harry Kennedy, Billy Field, Jimmy Gordon and W. Bellamy there would be no lines drawn between amateurism and professionalism.”
All the above players on the Shamrock’s anticipated roster were from Winnipeg with the exception of Bellamy who hailed from Virden, Manitoba.
Once players were signed, practices were organized and the club executive started talks with the Stanley Cup trustees and the Ottawa Senators about potential dates for a cup challenge. The first dates mentioned were December 21 and 23, 1909, which were rejected by the Shamrocks, who wanted dates in early January. Finally, January 1 and 3 were agreed upon for the trip to Ottawa.
But before the Shamrocks even boarded a train for the east, it became evident that all wasn’t well with the team. The club’s problems began when illness and injuries sidelined its best players. In addition, the Shamrocks didn’t have another team to play and thus no revenue derived from ticket sales. Without money in its coffers, the club couldn’t attract high-priced talent. The only team the club could field for the challenge was filled with local players that the executive were coming to realize wouldn’t be competitive against Eastern Canadian professional teams. With the mounting problems confronting the club, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable announcement was made.
Winnipeg Bids Farewell to Professional Hockey was the headline in the December 21, 1909, Winnipeg Tribune.
Club president W.F. McDougall issued a statement that the Shamrocks had cancelled their trip to Ottawa. “We did our best to fulfill the challenge,” he said, “but circumstances have broken badly for us and as far as Ottawa and the trophy are concerned they are safe from the Manitoba champions. We wanted to win back the cup for Winnipeg and felt pretty certain of doing so before the difficulty of getting out players cropped up.”
“When the Maple Leafs and Shamrocks brought the two team series to a close last season professional hockey was suspended on a slender cord,” reported the Tribune.
All observers agreed that the future of professional hockey in Manitoba had depended upon the Shamrocks winning the Stanley Cup.
Once the challenge was abandoned, so was any hope of forming another professional hockey league and the Shamrocks were disbanded.
In addition, newspapers, such as the Tribune, commented that the experience with professional hockey after the 1907-08 season had not been overly successful.
“When all is said and done it was the famous Kenora Thistles that made professional hockey a possibility to the west. With that all-star aggregate in the league, Winnipeg was supported not only from this quarter but from Brandon and Portage la Prairie.”
Once the Thistles left the league, followed by Brandon and then Portage, a professional hockey league was no longer viable. And with the demise of professional hockey, Manitoba teams could no longer challenge for the Stanley Cup, as it was not possible for amateurs to successfully compete against the best players money could buy.
Many players who first made a name in the former MPHL had already signed contracts with Eastern Canadian and U.S. clubs before the end of professional hockey in Manitoba. Art Ross, who had played for Brandon and Kenora, signed with the Montreal Wanderers; Tommy Phillips, who played with the Thistles, signed with Ottawa for $1,500; Fred Lake, formerly of the Shamrocks and Maple Leafs, went to a pro team in Pittsburgh; and Lorne Campbell, who played with the Winnipeg Maple Leafs in their unsuccessful Stanley Cup challenge, also left for Pittsburgh. The flight of players to other leagues was another indication that local clubs simply couldn’t afford to pay the money demanded by Canada’s elite hockey stars.
After the demise of the professional league, Manitoba senior hockey teams would only compete for the Allen Cup, the top amateur hockey trophy in Canada, which was established in 1908.
By 1910, the Stanley Cup was recognized as a championship reserved solely for professional teams. Clubs in the National Hockey Association (teams from the NHA in 1917 formed the National Hockey League, which, of course, exists to this day), and later in conjunction with the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), challenged for the Stanley Cup. After the 1914 season, the Stanley Cup trustees came to an agreement with the NHA and PCHA and the challenge era for the Stanley Cup ended. Instead, yearly playoffs between the two leagues decided the Stanley Cup champion.
Players such as Billy Breen, Paddy Chambers, Billy Kean, Dan Flett, Jimmy Gordon and Bert Boulton attempted to regain their amateur status in 1910, but were rejected by the Manitoba Amateur Athletic Association. Breen, considered one of Canada’s best forwards and goal-scorers at the time, although he was relatively small — 5-foot-6 and just 140 pounds — didn’t regain his amateur standing until three years later. Unlike other top-calibre players from the disbanded MPHL, he didn’t bother pursuing a career in the pro leagues then operating in Canada and the U.S. Instead, Breen turned to coaching and refereeing local senior amateur hockey.
The Shamrocks were the last professional hockey team in Manitoba until the Brandon Regals (1955 to 1957) and the Winnipeg Warriors (1955 to 1961) played in the minor pro Western Hockey League. The two WHL teams were followed by the World Hockey Association and NHL Winnipeg Jets (1972 to 1996 and 2011 to present) and the International Hockey League and American Hockey League Manitoba Moose (1996 to 2011, and now playing in St. John’s, Newfoundland).
While it lasted, teams playing in the Manitoba Professional Hockey League could boast of having some of the era’s best players on their rosters, and fans in Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Kenora and Winnipeg witnessed some of the best hockey played in the region for a long time to come.