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.

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