Thursday 13 February 2014

The Trail of the Stanley Cup: Roadblock to Nineteenth Century Hockey

Let me first just say that in no way do I mean to disparage Charles Coleman's magnum opus The Trail of the Stanley Cup here. It is a wonderful, an exceedingly important one in the study of the history of organized hockey.

The Trail presented results and player statistics for nineteenth-century hockey, something that had never been done before. It went back as far as 1893, of course, since this was the first season that the Stanley Cup was awarded. It also only covered the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada, and its successor the Canadian Amateur Hockey League, which is understandable given that teams from this league won all but one of the Stanley Cup championships awarded before 1900. Ultimately it's not so much an issue with the book, but the perception of later historians.

With Coleman's work, the nineteenth century is seen by many historians to be "done", taken care of. However, since the trustees decided that only Canadian senior-league champions could challenge for the Cup, there were only three leagues in Canada in 1893 that could have a team in contention (AHAC, the Ontario Hockey Association and the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association), and Coleman focused only on one. Even today historians such as Kevin Slater are still working on completing statistical records of the OHA in the nineteenth century, which had been left untouched, a matter of the mists of history. I compiled the MNWHA records myself over a decade ago, since before then apparently no one had record of how many goals Dan Bain scored in regular competition (65 in 27 games by my count), because it seems only Stanley Cup games mattered.

But there was so much more to hockey in the nineteenth century than the Stanley Cup, and I see The Trail of the Stanley Cup standing as a bit of a roadblock to this realization. By the 1899 hockey season, the game was being played at the senior level in British Columbia and several districts of the Northwest Territories (Assiniboia and Alberta especially), as well as in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It had spread to the US in Minnesota, New York, Pittsburgh and the Michigan Peninsula. There were intermediate and junior leagues in the hockey centres of the AHAC, OHA and MNWHA as well. None of this was considered by Coleman (as it was not in he purview), but much of it has been ignored by historians as well.

And that's just the post-1893 era. Coleman also did not consider the origins of organized hockey going back to 1875. Senior hockey games were played in Montreal from that year, and Quebec City, Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto joined in, all before the introduction of the Stanley Cup. Historians are only now catching up on much of this information, which has lain buried in old newspapers for over a century. It's starting to come to light, but I think we'd have it before now if that mammoth volume had not been in the way, in a way.

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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