A History of Success
Friday, 18 December 2009
Originally published in the official 2009 World Junior Program
From the 19th century to the 21st, Ottawa’s hockey heritage is legendary
By Lucas Aykroyd
Even if it was just about checking birth certificates, Ottawa’s contribution to hockey history would be huge. Dozens of NHLers were born in the host city for the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship, including old-time legends like Alec Connell and Frank Boucher, 1980’s stars like Rick Vaive and Doug Wilson, and current aces like Derek Roy, Marc Savard, and Rod Brind’Amour.
Yet Ottawa’s connection to Canada’s national sport, at every level, runs even deeper.
Now, Ottawa wasn’t the birthplace of hockey. The IIHF has officially awarded that distinction to Montreal, where the first organized game was played at the Victoria Skating Rink on March 3, 1875. However, the man who codified the rules for that game, James Creighton (1850-1930), brought his talents to the national capital in 1882.
While working as the Canadian Senate’s law clerk, Creighton set up a team called the Rideau Hall Rebels, which featured two sons of Lord Stanley, Canada’s Governor General. The British politician took a special interest in hockey. In 1892, Lord Stanley bought the original Stanley Cup trophy, and on March 22, 1894, the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association beat the Ottawa Generals 3-1 in the first true Cup final game.
Only in 1903 would Ottawa celebrate its first Stanley Cup, but that inaugurated a glorious championship run that lasted till 1906. The club, now officially known as the Senators for the first time, earned the nickname of the “Silver Seven,” as hockey was still played with seven men per side then. It was a colourful era when fans came heavily bundled up to cold rinks (even indoors), sometimes threw salt (or other objects) on the ice to slow down opponents, and gathered at telegraph offices for news of road victories.
Defending their title against all comers under a challenge system, the tough and skillful Senators boasted such Hockey Hall of Famers as Harvey Pulford, Harry Westwick, Alf Smith, Billy Gilmour, goalie Bouse Hutton, and Frank McGee, a legendary sniper with one eye. McGee’s greatest on-ice feat was tallying 14 goals in a 23-2 win over Dawson City in the 1905 Cup-clincher. He retired from hockey at age 24, and sacrificed his life for his country in World War I.
The Senators remained a force to be reckoned with in those early years, winning more
Cups in 1909, 1911, 1920, 1921, 1923, and 1927. The 1920’s squad is widely considered the NHL’s first dynasty. Its front-line scorers included Cy Denneny and Frank Nighbor. Clint Benedict backstopped Ottawa to three titles, and later made history as the first NHL goalie to wear facial protection after breaking his nose in 1930.
After the 1933-34 season, Ottawa sadly relinquished its NHL team. Tough economic times, the loss of star players, and declining attendance saw the Senators relocate to St. Louis. But passion for the game in the National Capital Region stayed strong.
This has always been a senior amateur hockey hotbed, and the Ottawa Cliffsides won the inaugural Allan Cup back in 1908. When Ottawa earned the trophy again in 1949 by defeating Regina, a big contributor was goalie Bill “Legs” Fraser, who joyfully tossed his stick into the stands whenever his team prevailed.
In 1958, the city celebrated its first Memorial Cup, representing Canadian junior hockey supremacy, thanks to the Ottawa-Hull Canadiens. They iced future mainstays of the 1960’s Montreal Canadiens dynasty, like Ralph Backstrom, Bobby Rousseau, and J.C. Tremblay. Later, coached by 2003 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Brian Kilrea, the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League captured Memorial Cups in 1984 and 1999.
There were attempts to revive pro hockey in Ottawa with the old World Hockey Association, but neither the Civics (1972-73) nor the Nationals (1976) sparked the imagination of local fans. Happily, the exciting new era of international hockey did.
The inaugural 1976 Canada Cup kicked off at the Ottawa Civic Centre, one of this year’s World Junior venues. The host nation, led by superstars like Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull, hammered Finland 11-2 before 9,500 spectators. Canada went on to win the tournament, ousting Czechoslovakia in the final. (Ottawa would also host two games in the 1981 Canada Cup, and three in the 1996 World Cup.)
The 1990’s proved to be a groundbreaking decade. For starters, Ottawa boosted its reputation as a women’s hockey stronghold. Some reports place the first-ever all-female game here in 1889 (although others point to Barrie, Ontario in 1892), and one of the earliest women’s hockey photos shows Lady Isobel Stanley, Lord Stanley’s daughter, with a puck and stick outside Government House. A century later, the IIHF organized the first-ever official World Women’s Championship in Ottawa in 1990. In this eight-nation showdown, Canada, sporting pink jerseys, beat the USA 5-2 for gold before 10,000 fans at the Civic Centre. Angela James shone with 11 goals in five games for Canada.
NHL buffs, meanwhile, rejoiced over the big league’s return to Ottawa in 1992-93. It was admittedly a rough start for the new-look Senators, who didn’t make the playoffs until 1997. Alexandre Daigle, the #1 overall pick in 1993, failed to deliver the goods, and star centre Alexei Yashin was repeatedly embroiled in contract disputes. But the leadership of captain Daniel Alfredsson helped turn things around. Despite some recent struggles, the club has usually emerged as a regular-season powerhouse over the last 10 years, and made it to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals versus Anaheim.
Ex-World Junior stars are big for today’s Senators. Dean McCammond (1993) and Chris Phillips (1996-97) both participated in Canada’s 1990’s five-peat. Scoring leaders Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza medaled multiple times in the early millennium, and D-man Anton Volchenkov captained Russia to gold in 2002. When Ottawa was chosen as the host city for this year’s tournament on May 3, 2006, the excitement locally was contagious. Now, international hockey fans look forward to seeing more World Junior history made at Scotiabank Place.
To learn more about Ottawa’s hockey history, you can also visit a free special exhibit at the City Hall Art Gallery (Dec. 5-Jan. 18, 9 am-6 pm daily, 110 Laurier Ave. West)