Hockey Central

Our Electrifying Game

Hockey in the Era of Gaslight

For most of this century (and elsewhere in this volume), fans and historians have debated the birthplace of hockey. There is solid pictorial evidence that people have been batting a ball around a field with a stick for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Aside from Greek games, for example, paintings and tapestries of Dutch skaters knocking a spherical object around frozen canals date as far back as the 1600's. While such games can hardly be thought of as hockey even when they were transferred to ice, they were without doubt its forbears.

While a primitive form of hockey, “or ice-hurtling,” as it was described in the Montreal Gazette in 1837, was played in many parts of Eastern Canada in the early 1800's, there were no organized games or leagues to play in until late in the century. Garth Vaughan, a Total Hockey contributor and member of the Windsor, Nova Scotia, Hockey Heritage Society, points out that hockey was played there almost 100 years before it existed in many other parts of Canada.

But it was in the era of gaslight, on March 3, 1875, that the first game of recognizable hockey with a set of rules governing the conduct of the players on the ice was played at Montreal’s Victoria Rink. The ice surface measured 200 by 85 feet, which would become the standard size for rinks in North America.

Spectators at that first indoor match were warned to be on their guard at all times, as the puck, a circular piece of wood cut from a tree branch, was apt to fly off the ice. There were no boards surrounding the rink, but there was a low platform for people to stand on. Within a few years of this initial match, the piece of wood was replaced by a vulcanized rubber puck, invented in 1879.

The game received a huge boost at the Montreal Winter Carnival from 1883 to 1886 and it wasn’t long before several teams in Montreal and Ottawa were organized to accommodate the rapidly growing number of hockey enthusiasts.

The first hockey league was established in Kingston, Ontario when four teams — Queen’s University, Royal Military College, the Athletics and Kingston — agreed to play one another. In the championship game between Queen’s and the Athletics, the flow of play was frequently interrupted. At that point in the game’s evolution, the skate blade was not riveted but clamped onto a boot or a shoe. One of the goalie’s skates was not clamped tightly and every shot that hit the blade knocked it off and the referee had to call time until it was replaced. Queen’s won this first league title game by a 3-0 score. In the winter of 1886-87 the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada was formed. This body hoped to embrace and govern hockey in Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes, but it wasn’t long before the association was severely criticized for an apparent bias toward teams from Quebec. Member teams were the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, the Montreal Vics, McGill, the Crystals (also from Montreal) and Ottawa. A Quebec City team joined for the league’s second season.

Toronto did not adopt hockey in a structured form until a league was organized and its first game took place in Toronto late in the 1888 season. The first game saw the Granites meet the Caledonians. By then, hockey itself was respectable, but still never on Sundays. Not long before this league was formed, Toronto boys were arrested for playing hockey on the harbor ice on the Sabbath. One outdoor ice surface used for games was said to be 500 feet long; it too was policed in “Toronto the Good.” The Lord’s Day Act was strictly upheld: no sports of any kind on a Sunday. By 1890, the Ontario Hockey Association had been formed to act as a regulatory body designed to supervise teams and leagues throughout the province. Within a year of its formation, the OHA included teams representing colleges and universities, politicians and bankers.

A decade later, in 1898-99, dissension rocked the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada, resulting in the birth of a new league. When the Ottawa Capitals (whose bid to join the league had been turned down the year before) were admitted into the AHA, three teams withdrew: the Victorias, Quebec and the Ottawa Hockey Club. The Montreal Hockey Club also withdrew and these four teams established the Canadian Amateur Hockey League. A fifth team, the Shamrocks, joined shortly after. With teams in Montreal (the Vics, the Shamrocks and the Montreal Hockey Club), Ottawa, and Quebec, the new league dominated hockey in Eastern Canada, producing the Stanley Cup-winning team six times in seven seasons even though by 1900 there were numerous hockey leagues, large and small, throughout Eastern Canada.

One of the clubs playing under the banner of the Ontario association was a popular team from Rideau Hall in Ottawa, the Rebels. On the team’s OHA roster were two boys named Stanley, Arthur and Algernon, sons of the Governor-General, who had learned the game quickly. Their sister, Lady Isobel Stanley, was also a player, and may have been the first woman “hockeyist” to have her photograph taken with a stick and a puck, on the pond next to Government House in Ottawa. For several years there had been a carefully maintained rink there that was the focal point of lavish skating parties hosted by the Governor-General.

A reporter for an Ottawa newspaper witnessed a game one night between the ladies of the Ottawa Alphas and the Rideaus. The following day, he wrote: “That the Alpha ladies and the Rideaus can play hockey was well demonstrated at the Rideau rink last night. Both teams played grandly and surprised hundreds of the sterner sex who went to the match expecting to see many ludicrous scenes and have many good laughs. Indeed, before they were there very long, the mens’ sympathies and admiration went out to the players and they became wildly enthusiastic.”

While eastern teams still dominated hockey at its highest levels, leagues were also being formed all over the west. The Manitoba and Northwestern [Ontario] Hockey League was active by 1892. By then, there were at least 30 teams in Winnipeg alone, with all the games played outdoors. Other associations were also established in the areas that would become Saskatchewan, Alberta, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.

Players who wanted a test of their skills against other players and teams, near and far, in good weather and bad, had plenty to choose from if they found means to travel. In 1896, a Winnipeg team went to play in a tournament that was part of the St. Paul Winter Carnival in St. Paul, Minnesota. Other teams came from Chicago, Duluth and Fort Snelling. Seven German loving cups, with music boxes concealed in the bottom, were obtained by the tournament organizers to be awarded to the championship team. In their first game against St. Paul, the Winnipeg team had an easy time of it, winning 18-2. In the championship match, the Winnipeg boys scored a goal every few seconds, so often that officials lost track and stopped counting after 20 went into the net. “The southern boys made a plucky attempt to play the game but their efforts were crude,” one of the victorious players told a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press. “As for the German loving cups, they were not exactly up to their advertised value and mine was missing the music box which would have made it a much more attractive prize.”

In December 1903, the Federal Amateur Hockey League was established as a result of the CAHL’s refusal to admit new members. Four teams from three cities were charter members of the FAHL: Montreal Wanderers, Montreal Nationals, Ottawa Capitals and Cornwall. It was during this season that someone suggested painting a line between the goal posts to aid the goal umpires, who stood in back of the net. The Wanderers became the first champions of the new league and might have won the Stanley Cup had team owner James Strachan not ruined their chance. The trustees mandated a two-game playoff between the Wanderers and Ottawa, the CAHL champions. In Montreal, both teams played brilliantly and wound up 5-5; the outcome would have to be decided in overtime. Strachan decided the referee was incompetent, however, and vowed, “We’ll not take the ice unless Kearns is replaced.” The trustees huddled and moments later ordered the teams to restart the series — with two games to be played in Ottawa. Strachan insisted that the tied game be played over again — in Montreal. Ottawa vetoed that proposal and the series was abandoned. Ottawa went on to defeat Brandon 6-3 and 9-3 to retain the Stanley Cup.

According to hockey historian Mike Terran, the American Amateur Hockey League became the first organized league in the United States in 1889. Artificial ice was common in a handful of American cities at that time. The Brooklyn Skating Club won the league championship in 1899, with all games played on the St. Nicholas Rink in New York. By 1905, the Brooklyn club was in need of fresh talent (they had allowed 93 goals in eight games) so several top amateurs — but no professionals — were recruited from Canada. Brooklyn dropped out in 1906, but other teams carried on and the league lasted until 1917. A Philadelphia team appeared in the league standings for one season (1901) and a Boston club was represented for a few (1915 to 1917).

Hobey Baker of St. Nick’s was the most renowned individual player in this league. A former Princeton star, he was the equal of any of the best Canadians, many of whom came with their teams to New York to play exhibition games at the end of each season. Killed in a plane crash in France at the end of World War I, Baker was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945. Indeed, Baker is in both the U.S. and Canadian Halls of Fame making him and “Moose” Goheen the only two non-professional American players ever to be so doubly honored. But if Baker had lived, he might well have starred in the U.S. version of the National Hockey League. Mike Terran comments on the existence of a short-lived NHL involving amateur teams from New York (Wanderers), Boston (Arenas and Charlestown Navy Yard) and Pittsburgh (Athletic Association). The circuit operated for only one year circa 1922, with Pittsburgh defeating Montreal Hochelaga for the title and a now all but forgotten honor called the Fellowes International Challenge Cup.

American hockey clubs had already shown a willingness to import some of the world’s best players — and pay them for their services. Certain regions and teams in the States were beginning to offer financial inducements to the best Canadian (read amateur — maybe) players. A standard offer to a star player was $30 a week and maybe a job. One of the first teams to line up for players was Pittsburgh, where artificial ice was a big attraction. The manager of a Kingston team returned from a junket to Pittsburgh in 1902 and gave the following report to the Toronto Globe: “Pittsburgh is hockey crazy. Over 10,000 turned out for our three games there. The general admission being 35 cents and 75 cents for a box seat. The receipts were about $4,000 but all we got for our share was about $350, which, after expenses, will leave about enough to buy some postage stamps.

“But the Pittsburgh rink is a dream. Around the ice surface, which is about 275 feet by 125 feet wide, the seats are arranged in tiers above the boxes, which are fitted up luxuriously. The place is lighted by thousands of incandescent lamps. The band is always in attendance and there is every convenience for patrons, who, for skating sessions, can get their blades sharpened or acquire a pair without going outside the building. What a marvellous place it is.”

By 1903, a dentist named J.L. Gibson was living in Houghton, Michigan, after leaving the Ontario town that was known as Berlin until World War I. In that previous home, which we now know as Kitchener, he had been a player on a team the Ontario Hockey Association expelled in 1898 after the members were rewarded with 10 dollar gold coins after an important victory. In Michigan, Gibson made history by creating the first fully professional team, Portage Lakes, hiring the best Canadian amateurs he could find and turning them pro. His imports whipped teams in other towns in the upper peninsula and environs so soundly that they in turn started to scour the Canadian wilderness for cash-strapped players to compete with Doc Gibson. In 1904, Gibson and his colleagues established the International (Pro) Hockey League. Portage Lakes continued to be the dominant team in the circuit.

While hockey’s governing bodies decreed that no player could participate in Stanley Cup matches if he was not a bona fide amateur, debates raged for several years about the status of players and the issues involved. Who was an amateur and who was a mercenary pro? Could amateurs play with pros and remain amateurs? Could pros be reinstated as amateurs? The Amateur Athletic Union of Canada was called on to adjudicate many of these disputes.

For instance, by 1908 it was well established that the teams of the Ottawa Valley Hockey League (including Pembroke, Renfrew, Cornwall and Smiths Falls) all bid for the best players. And money talked. Cyclone Taylor, who was then the Ty Cobb of hockey, was known to move from team to team, as was Art Ross — and always because they were well paid to do so.

It wouldn’t be possible to operate any professional hockey league today without hundreds of players, most of them pretty well paid and a few of them extremely wealthy. But in 1911, when the Patrick brothers organized the Pacific Coast Hockey Association with franchises in Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster, British Columbia only 23 players were required to fill the rosters of all three of the clubs. Every player was expected to be on the ice for the full 60 minutes of every match in the 15-game schedule. Some players earned extra money as referees in the league. The Patrick brothers had gained their experience in league management in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, in Nelson, British Columbia. In 1907-08 they worked for their father’s lumber company and played for Nelson in the already established Kootenay Hockey League. Not only were they the best players in the league, but they raised money to replace the ramshackle 500-seat rink with one that housed 800 fans, and what’s more had a roof. Lester took a leave of absence in December of 1908 to join Edmonton, one of several ringers, in an unsuccessful bid to win the Stanley Cup against the Montreal Wanderers. Edmonton paid him $100 for expenses, but he mailed back a cheque for $32, the money he had left in his pocket when he got back to Nelson. A year later, several eastern teams bid for his services and he opted to sign with Renfrew of the newly formed National Hockey Association. The team met his demand for $3,000 and also agreed to sign brother Frank for $2,000. After their Renfrew experience, the now seasoned hockey men came west again, to Vancouver and Victoria, where their vision included new arenas with artificial ice and a professional league that had some of the world’s greatest players. And, like so many of the game’s pioneers, they made their dream happen until it too was history in the world’s fastest sport.

Meanwhile, in a virtually parallel universe perhaps inspired by the skills displayed by Lady Isobel Stanley a generation before, women’s hockey teams flourished across Canada in this era, with the first known league for women operating in Quebec as early as 1900. Another inspiration and role model may have been Lady Minto, wife of the Earl of Minto, Canada’s Governor-General from 1898 to 1904. Lady Minto once broke her leg while skating (was she perhaps playing hockey?) and was described by figure skating champion George Meagher thus: “I have seen all the best skaters in the world and I consider Her Excellency, the Countess of Minto, to be the peer of them all.”At the turn of the century, American women were playing hockey on artificial ice in Philadelphia. Some teams played and practiced behind closed doors, with no men allowed. College teams with names like the Morning Glories and Love-Me-Littles played against one another. Soon leagues developed. Other teams bore such interesting monikers as the Icebergs, Snowflakes and Mad Old Hens. In 1927, a Queen’s University player became the first goalie to wear a mask — a fencing mask. Michel Vigneault, who writes about early hockey in his native Montreal in this book (see page 10), has also written about the first professional hockey league for women. A small number of Quebec teams played in Montreal during the 1916 and 1917 seasons.

By this time, leagues from all over the country were sending challengers after the now-famous Stanley Cup that the Stanley children, and one of Lord Stanley’s aides, Lord Kilcoursie, had encouraged the Governor-General to give hockey in 1893. It turned out to be a wonderful and lasting gift. In 1945, the gift of a small silver bowl would earn him a place of honor in the Hockey Hall of Fame in spite of the fact he himself never played, coached, managed or even saw a Stanley Cup game, having been recalled to England before the matches named after the $50 trophy commenced. But let’s put the dry history aside and go back to that earliest era and see what we can by its gaslight. To gain a better perspective on how hockey was played and received then, let’s start by reviewing in detail a Stanley Cup series of that time, when challenges for the Cup generated incredible excitement and interest for fans in the towns that competed. What follows are edited newspaper accounts of a series played in Montreal in 1896 between the Winnipeg Victorias and the Montreal Victorias (the Queen’s legendary status is evidenced by the hundreds of hockey teams, among other things, named in her honor). Most accounts are from the Winnipeg Free Press.

    Saturday, Feb 1, 1896: A week from next Monday, the Victoria hockey team leaves for Montreal to play the Victorias for the Stanley Cup, which carries with it the championship of Canada. That the Winnipeggers will win it is earnestly hoped for by every resident of the Canadian northwest. We have shown that Winnipeg is the curling center of the world, and if the Stanley Cup is brought to the bull’s-eye of the Dominion, we will have proven our right to be called the hockey center of the world.
    Tuesday, February 11: The sendoff yesterday from the Winnipeg station partook of the vociferous. Several hundred admiring friends of the Vics gathered at the depot and as the train pulled out three cheers and a tiger were given with an enthusiasm which was new to the CPR station. On the evening of Friday next, the greatest struggle in the history of hockey will take place. The championship of the world is at stake, an honor worthy of the best efforts of Winnipeg. Out from the west go seven of the prairie capital’s most stalwart sons to do battle with the representatives of the 300,000 people who inhabit Canada’s greatest city. If our champions fail, it will be before most worthy opponents. There must be over half a hundred regularly organized hockey clubs in Winnipeg, a truly marvellous state of affairs for a city of its pretensions.
    Saturday, February 15: [Headline:] The Stalwart Sons of the Prairie Capital Show Easterners How to Play Hockey. Montrealers are Shutout on Their Own ice. Tremendous Local Interest in the Results.

This headline no doubt tells it all except for the score. And the score, 2-0, doesn’t seem to account for much in the story written about the game:

    There’s joy in the ranks of the Winnipeg touring hockey contingent tonight. The magnificent Stanley Cup, emblematic of the championship of the Dominion, is theirs. They presented it to the Queen City of the west as a valentine, won as it was on February 14. Well and worthy was the victory, long and determined the battle, and for the first time in the history of the champions of the effete east, Montreal had to submit to a complete whitewash. The “Blizzards” from the land of the setting sun which trouped into Montreal on Monday evening created no little stir in the breasts of Montrealers and in sporting circles. Their advent has been the topic of conversation for the past few days.
    Alas for the frailty of human hopes, Montreal tonight is clothed in sackcloth and ashes and the sports have gone to sleepless beds with empty pocketbooks. The Peg contingents, on the other hand, have enough money to start a private bank. No less than 2,000 cold “plunkers” were passed over the Windsor Hotel counters tonight and went into the jeans of the Winnipeg supporters.
    The game was played in the large Victoria Rink before a crowd of several thousand people...
    McDougall got the face and the disc traveled toward the Winnipeg goal. Higginbotham lifted it gently in the other direction. Bain collared it and the Pegs swooped down on the Montreal goal. For five minutes it never got past the center line. Then the Montreal men quickened and there was some lively scurrying around the Winnipeg goal posts. Flett, with his wonderful lifts, made the spectators open their mouths in amazement. [Editor’s note: A high backhand shot to get the puck out of danger was known as a “lift.”] A particularly fine lift was taken advantage of when Howard got the puck in the corner, passed in front of the posts, and Armytage placed it fairly between the posts. Time: 10 minutes.
    The Winnipeg yell went up from a dozen different portions of the rink where little knots of westerners had secured places of advantage...
    [Later] Campbell managed to entice the disc past the Montreal goalkeeper and there was jubilation again in the ranks of the Winnipeg contingent. They surmised rightly that the victory was already theirs.
    No more goals were taken by either side...
    After the match, the Winnipegs were entertained to a pleasant supper by the officers of the vanquished club. The best of feeling prevailed.

Back in Winnipeg, a reporter for the Free Press wrote:

    It is seldom that there have been evenings of rejoicing to equal last night. Everyone was interested in the success of the hockey team in the east, and by eight o’clock hundreds of persons had gathered in the hotels to listen to the returns as received on the CPR wires from Montreal.

The Free Press also printed an eyewitness account of the match. Joseph Carter, of the CPR ticket office, called the championship game one of the major events of the century.

    Flett played the star game and Merritt’s work in goal has never been excelled in Montreal. Bain being laid off [penalized] weakened the team. The referee was strictly impartial. He would never argue a case. His word was law. In the east, if a man plays offside he is warned by the referee. If he continues this practice, he is laid off for five minutes.
    The Winnipeg club’s share of the gate was $160, a small percent, but the lads didn’t care if they never got a cent.
    Friday, February 21: Mr. George H. Merritt, the man who won the Stanley Cup, returned to Winnipeg yesterday on the CPR train. The redoubtable “Whitey” is not yet recovered from his hard work in the big match a week ago today and many bruises on his body bear testimony to the hard shots he stopped so well. Merritt was met at the depot by a large number of enthusiastic friends who scrambled all over one another in their eagerness to shake his hand. Merritt made his way to the Winnipeg Hotel, there to refight the great battle before an audience of ready listeners. Mr. Merritt told a Free Press reporter that the rest of the players were enjoying themselves in Toronto and that they would reach the city Monday afternoon. He says they received the best of treatment wherever they went. Their entertainment in Montreal was pleasant, but the Victorias of that city plainly showed their great disappointment in losing the Cup which has adorned their club room for so many years. The caretaker of the rink was so worked up over the defeat that he shed enough tears to fill the big trophy.

The Free Press writer described the Cup itself:

    The Stanley Cup is in the form of a punch bowl. It is of sterling silver and has about a two-gallon capacity. It will be brought up to the team next Monday along with the sticks and pucks used in the great game. It will be put on exhibition.
    Tuesday, February 25: “A Heartily Welcomed Winnipeg Hockey Team Returns From Montreal”
    A right royal welcome was extended to the Winnipeg hockey team yesterday on their return from Montreal, where they gained glory for themselves and fame for the province which was never prouder than yesterday to call them her sons. It was a welcome in keeping with the high honors the Vics have won.
    Long before the train from the east was due, a steady stream of citizens of all sorts and sizes assembled at the CPR depot. When the inevitable “Here she comes!” started it ran through a crowd of several thousand people who swarmed the platform. When the iron horse made its appearance, a Union Jack was fluttering in front of its headlight and the cowcatcher was adorned with hockey sticks and brooms, symbolic of a clean sweep in Montreal. The engineer showed the pride he took in his work by wearing Winnipeg colors.
    All eyes then turned to the rear sleeper from which the champions emerged, to be taken in charge by their enthusiastic friends. Captain Armytage led the procession and behind him came Mssrs Flett, Higginbotham, Bain, Campbell and Howard.
    Mr. Merritt, the crack goalkeeper, had met the visitors down the line and landed with them.
    High gray hats adorned with the club colors gave the champions a truly dignified appearance. To the tune of “See the Conquering Heroes Come,” played by the Dragoon band which kindly lent its services to make the welcome a worthy one, the conquering heroes were escorted to the rear of the depot where Mr. Jordan had cabs at their disposal. The players and officers filled five cabs which, headed by the band, moved up Main Street. A great many other rigs followed and hundreds more moved along on foot.
    The Stanley Cup trophy, coveted by every hockey team in the Dominion, occupied a prominent place in the leading cab and was the center of the admiring eyes of those who lined the streets.
    At the Manitoba Hotel, another immense crowd had gathered before the procession arrived, and when Mayor Jameson arose to speak, he was greeted by the shouts of several thousand proud citizens. The Mayor gave an eloquent address in which he extended from the city a warm welcome to the proud world champions. There were loud calls for Mr. Armytage, who upon rising was greeted by great cheers. The worthy captain took but a few minutes to thank his large audience for their enthusiastic welcome and stated that he hoped the Stanley Cup would long remain a prominent feature in the city of Winnipeg. At the conclusion of the speechmaking, all adjourned to the hotel’s smoking room, where the capacious trophy was filled to the brim with champagne.

That’s what winning the Stanley Cup meant in the gaslight era, when the trophy was still just a baby, only three years old.

Incidentally, the Winnipeg Vics didn’t hold the Cup long. In December of that same year, the Montreal Vics sought revenge. The big rink in Winnipeg was sold out far in advance, but the home team had lost a big star two months before this return match. At the peak of his career, 28-year-old Fred Higginbotham, star athlete and accomplished musician, was playing with some children and riding a pony when he ran into a clothesline. His spinal cord fractured, he died a few hours later in the arms of Joe Hall, his best friend who would later gain fame as a notorious “bad man” of hockey. Montreal recaptured the trophy, beating Winnipeg 6-5 at home.

When Winnipeg later returned to Montreal for a Stanley Cup series in 1903, the Bell Telephone Company provided a much-needed service. Bell put 10 extra girls on duty in its central station and they could have used more. Over 30,000 calls were answered and no less than 50 were incoming at one time. Every one asked the same question: “What’s the score?”

In the earliest era of hockey, games were often played in public parks where bandstands were common. On a breakaway, a player might have to decide rather quickly whether to veer left or right in a dash around the bandstand. It was a circuitous route to the goal, and players who kept their heads down were in constant peril of crashing right into the immovable structure. And it was far from uncommon for fans to get involved in the action. In a turn-of-the century match in Sudbury, a number of them landed right in the middle of play, but not by design. Over 30 spectators came down on the ice when the gallery’s railing collapsed. Some landed on people directly beneath them and a number were seriously injured.

Flareups of temper were hardly unheard of. During a game in Ottawa in 1899, Ottawa star Chauncey Kirby had his stick grabbed as he skated along the boards. Kirby stopped and whacked the lad holding the stick on the jaw, a reaction that was “quite proper,” according to an Ottawa reporter at the contest. When another Ottawa star, Weldy Young, lost his temper over critical remarks tossed his way, he “so far forgot himself as to jump into the crowd and assault a fresh young supporter of the opposing team. However, the latter had quite a number of friends with him and Young was roughly handled before he was thrown back on the ice.” Fans too were quite often rowdy and had to be chastised. In 1899, the Ottawa Citizen stated: “It is hard to believe there are so many hoodlums in Ottawa. The manner in which Harvey Pulford was roasted by the crowd was a disgrace to decent sports.” The paper quoted Bob Shillington, a famous coach: “Never in my life have I seen one player get such dirt as the Ottawa man was given by the crowd of hoodlums. They have but one equal and that is the Hamilton newsboy. There are two creatures that hiss — a snake and a goose. The former is venomous and the latter has no brains.”

Referees and goal judges, then as now, had their critics. The Toronto Telegram weighed in in 1898: “There is little wonder at Waterloo objecting to Mr. King refereeing their game the other night. He is a tinhorn sport of the first water and should not be allowed in decent hockey circles.”

The Ottawa Citizen decreed that a certain (unnamed) referee is “unfitted to the game and should stick to bowling. The next step before death is refereeing.” One well-known referee had his own complaints. Fred Waghorne told newsmen in 1903: “I will not officiate in Stouffville ever again. No more little rinks for me. In future I will decline to referee in rinks where the ice surface is no larger than a billiard table.”

Oddities were almost the rule in some of the earliest games. In a Stanley Cup match played between Rat Portage (Kenora) and Ottawa on March 12, 1903, the Citizen reported: “The ice was in wretched condition. In several places the water was two to three inches deep. On one occasion the puck slipped under the surface and disappeared. There was a delay while a player fished for it without success. In a second match, the visitors played two men in goal all during the game.” In a model of understatement, the Citizen concluded: “Consequently, it made scoring a difficult problem for the Ottawas.”

But complaints about ice conditions were common in those early days. Deep pools of water spoiled a game between Kingston and Belleville one warm day in March, 1894. The Kingston paper reported three or four inches of water on the open ice, but Belleville wouldn’t pay Kingston’s expenses if the team didn’t play. What’s more, the paper reported, “Belleville scored one of their two goals in a most peculiar way. While one player splashed water in the face of the Kingston goalie, another put the puck through for a goal.”

The first outright professional league in Canada was in business for the 1908 season. Toronto, Guelph, Brantford and Berlin (Kitchener) were charter members of the Ontario Professional Hockey League. Since the teams traveled by trolley cars linking the cities, the league came to be known as the Trolley League. Leading scorer Newsy Lalonde had 29 goals in nine games. Berlin employed the fewest players (seven); the others clubs used 10 to 12. No doubt it is indicative of how rapidly progress took place that from such rough beginnings, in less than a decade the National Hockey League would come into being, setting the foundation for the highest level of the today’s game.