Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Quality of Pre-Stanley Cup Hockey (Part 2)

In the first post discussing the quality of pre-Stanley Cup hockey, we noted that it was not a gentlemanly game played in a friendly fashion by the upper crust, but a rough-and-tumble affair played by men of all stripes. This time we examine the idea that the Stanley Cup gave the players something to strive for, giving them incentive to play hard, and play longer, in an effort to win the ultimate prize.

Something to Play For

Some argue that before the Stanley Cup, teams did not have anything to play for. As such they treated the game more as a pastime than a competition.

This argument is false. The first Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC) season was in 1887, and the association named a champion at the end of each season. Before the AHAC was formed, the Montreal Winter Carnival (which started in 1883) served to determine the champion team for the season. When the Carnival was cancelled in 1886, the teams decided to hold tournament amongst themselves to determine a champion.

Just because the Stanley Cup was not there did not mean there was no championship to be won. The Stanley Cup is viewed as the be-all and end-all in hockey by modern eyes, but that was simply not the case in its early years. It was highly prized, but other championships were important as well. In 1901, the Ottawa team, new champions of the Canadian Amateur Hockey League (CAHL, the direct descendant of the AHAC), declined to challenge Winnipeg for the Stanley Cup even though they would have had at least an even shot of taking it. They had just won a hard battle for the league championship, and decided that was enough for them; the Stanley Cup was not worth it that year.

If anything should be viewed as giving teams something to play for, it should be the Winter Carnival Tournament. It was that event that really sparked the growth of competition in Montreal, and led directly to the establishment of the Ottawa Hockey Club in 1883.

In the last post there was a game report excerpt about how the Quebec team never lost courage even in the face of unfavourable odds against them. This is not the description of a team out for a skate. Courage is not needed when undertaking a pastime. This is a team doing their utmost to win out against their opponents, trying even when it seemed the game had already been lost.

Player Turnover

Some argue that since few pre-Stanley Cup players continued to play in the post-Stanley Cup years, this demonstrates a significant increase in the quality of competition. Players who played before were allegedly now unable to compete.

This argument misses a very basic fact about hockey at the time: almost all players had very short careers, by modern standards. As players got into their late 20s, family and other responsibilities often came into play, meaning they had less time to devote to getting their shins whacked by sturdy pieces of wood. This trend continued into the early professional era. Here are some notable players from this era, and the age at which they played their last senior-level game:

Barlow, Billy: 26
Bowie, Russell: 27
Drinkwater, Graham: 24
Farrell, Art: 24
Grant, Mike: 28
Jordan, Herb: 26
McDougall, Bob: 22
McGee, Frank: 23
McKerrow, Clare: 22
Routh, Havilland: 25
Russel, Blair: 27
Scanlan, Fred: 25
Trihey, Harry: 23
Walsh, Marty: 27

With players retiring so early, it is unsurprising that few of them would be in the same league in X number of years, since they have so few years in their career to begin with. As such, even if few players who were playing in 1890 are still playing in 1895, this does not mean the quality of competition necessarily increased, because the same can be said for 1895 compared to 1900.

To demonstrate this, I examined several pairs of seasons. For each season, I noted which regular players (i.e., those playing at least half of their team's games) were still regular players five seasons later. I did this in two-year intervals. The results are below.

1888 to 1893: 7 players (Hodgson, McQuisten, McDonnell, Camerson, Stewart, Paton, Patton)
1890 to 1895: 5 players (Cameron, Brown, Watson, Davidson, Jones)
1892 to 1897: 4 players (Brown, Scott, Young, Watson)
1894 to 1899: 8 players (Kirby, Watson, Young, Brown, Elliott, Grant, Collins, Stocking)
1896 to 1901: 4 players (Stocking, Westwick, Cahill, Pulford)
1898 to 1903: 2 players (Westwick, Pulford)
1900 to 1905: 5 players (Bowie, Russel, Hogan, Boon, Pulford)

The average number of players is five, and there is no pattern here. Therefore the observed player turnover after the Stanley Cup came into play was merely the normal amount of player turnover for this era. This rate continued on after the Cup was introduced.

In the end, the idea that the Stanley Cup is the be-all and end-all of hockey is a modern one, and was not shared at the time it was introduced. It was certainly a big deal, even from the beginning, but did not produce any additional motivation for players to play the game. The players were already trying their best to be the best; they did not need another silver bowl to spur them on.


  1. Interesting to read about this :)

  2. Thanks, it's very interesting to research and write about it as well.


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