Wednesday, 19 September 2012

1904: Rowing Club v. Senators

One reason Billy Breen may not be as well-known today as he deserves to be is that he was never a member of a Stanley Cup championship team. Perhaps Billy McGimsie wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame, wouldn't be known at all today, if the Kenora Thistles had failed in their Cup challenge against the Montreal Wanderers.

As captain of the 1904 Winnipeg Rowing Club hockey team, Breen led his club on his one and only Stanley Cup challenge against the mighty Ottawa Senators. The Ottawa lineup was just full of legendary players: goaltender Bouse Hutton, point Harvey Pulford, rover Rat Westwick, centre Frank McGee and right wing Alf Smith. That's five of seven in the lineup that are in the Hockey Hall of Fame today. The western squad had just one in rover Joe Hall, who really built his Hall of Fame credentials later in his career as a defenceman.

Realistically, Winnipeg would seem to have had little chance, and going into the best-of-three series they were given none by the experts. The first game bore this out, as Ottawa came away with a 9-1 win in a chippy game on December 30, 1903. But things turned around on January 1, 1904 when the Rowing Club shocked the capital city club by taking a 6-2 decision, with Breen scoring half of his team's goals. Suddenly, it was a series again.

Unfortunately for the westerners, Ottawa played an outstanding defensive match in the deciding fixture on January 4, taking it 2-0 to hold on to the Cup. The game was scoreless until the 41-minute mark, and was anyone's game until they scored their second with seven minutes to play. Winnipeg winger Billy Bawlf was given much of the blame for the loss, his poor performance being disruptive to an otherwise promising forward attack. This was Billy Breen's only shot at a Stanley Cup championship, and it slipped away.

But here's the thing. There's absolutely no shame in losing to this edition of the Ottawa Hockey Club. In the CAHL that season, the Senators went 4-0, scoring 32 goals and allowing but 15. It was a season of troubles, of course, which ultimately resulted in Ottawa dropping out of Canada's highest league before the year was done.

Quebec ended up with the CAHL championship, since they had a 7-1 record after counting two default wins over Ottawa after the latter had dropped out of the circuit. But the Montreal Victorias were really the class of the league (barring the Senators); taking out any Ottawa matches the standings for the season would have been:

Montreal Victorias65106834+34
Quebec HC65105037+13
Montreal HC62403140-10
Montreal Shamrocks60602764-37

The Vics and Quebec split their two matches, but the former outscored the latter 19-14. Montreal was arguably robbed of a CAHL championship because Quebec was credited with two wins by default over Ottawa, who would in all likelihood would have defeated them both times, while the Vics actually played the Senators twice and lost, ending up 5-3.

So the Montreal Victorias were an outstanding team in Canada's best hockey league in 1904, and yet lost twice to Ottawa, being outscored 14-7. They couldn't do what the Rowing Club did: beat the Senators.

The Oarsmen's 6-2 victory on January 1 was the only time Ottawa lost that season. And Winnipeg's 2-0 loss in the third game of their series was the second-best score any team put up against the Senators in 1904. The westerners' performance in games two and three of the Cup series was a major accomplishment given the quality of the opposition. "Lost the series" doesn't do their effort justice, not remotely. Billy Breen led his team on the ice, and on the score sheet, against a hockey leviathan and came away with more than just their self-respect. They won a match against a team that no one else could beat, and came within a few goals of taking taking championship away from them. That deserves to be remembered.

1 comment:

  1. Quebec won the championship, and beat the Vics on their Mtl ice in the last game of the season. To bad trustees and Ottawa HC robed Quebec of there first Stanley Cup.


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