Thursday, 6 February 2014

The First Championship of the Northwest Territories

When the first hockey league in Western Canada was formed in the winter of 1892/93 in Manitoba, it ostensibly represented the game for all points west of Ontario. It was called the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association (MNWHA), but except for very rare occasions no team from the Northwest Territories actually competed against Manitoba clubs in championship hockey (remember that the Northwest Territories until 1905 included all of what is now Saskatchewan and Alberta, and northern Manitoba as well). In fact the most prominent extra-provincial club to compete in the MNWHA came from Rat Portage, Ontario (later Kenora). The "NW" in "MNWHA" was not terribly accurate.

As discussed last time, hockey was being played in what is now southern Saskatchewan (but was then the District of Assiniboia) by 1894, and in what is now southern Alberta (then the District of Alberta) in 1895. It was not long before inter-district hockey matches were played. In 1897 the unofficial championship of the Northwest Territories was decided by a tournament in Medicine Hat, in Assiniboia. Competing against the host Hatters were the Regina Capitals, also of Assiniboia, and the Calgary Fire Brigade of the District of Alberta.

The Calgary Fire Brigade was surely the favourite to win. I have record of five matches this team played in 1895 and 1896 against clubs from Edmonton and Fort Saskatchewan, and they won all five of them by a combined score of 21 to 1. Ironically, even though the modern Calgary Flames bear a nickname that was simply inherited from Atlanta where it actually made sense, for a city whose first notable hockey club was the Fire Brigade, the name is actually appropriate. Happy accident. Although the Fire Brigade had a brief history of success, Medicine Hat had the advantage of some relatively experienced players, who had played the game before it had been introduced to this part of the country.

On February 18, 1897 Medicine Hat defeated Calgary 14-10 in the first match of the tournament. The following day Calgary walked over Regina 10-2, and unless the latter club managed a miracle against the hosts the Hatters would be champions. On February 20 Medicine Hat clinched the title with a 12-2 victory over the Capitals, becoming champions of the Northwest Territories.

Of the Hatters, only three players first played hockey in Medicine Hat as far as I can tell: forwards Jack Hargrave, Judd Bassett and Ben Niblock. Most of the team was actually made up of players from Rat Portage, Ontario who had competed against Manitoba intermediate clubs in 1895: goaltender George Delmage, forwards Tom Hardisty and Jack McMahon, and cover-point Don Hardisty, who had also previously played with the Winnipeg Vics junior side in 1892. Their other man was point Lorne McGibbon, who I believe was the same McGibbon who played junior hockey in Montreal in 1893.

Medicine Hat played its first competitive matches in 1896, when they defeated both Moose Jaw and Regina to show they were already the best team in Assiniboia. Of the 1897 championship squad, only Tom Hardisty, Hargrave, Bassett and McGibbon were on the original edition of the team. Presumably it was Hardisty's influence that brought his brother and the other ex-Thistles to Medicine Hat, making a good team that much better with some seasoned, effective players. An experienced team was a rare thing in the Northwest Territories in 1897, and it proved to be too much for the old-time Flames to handle.

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