Nothing seems to embody the Canadian identity more than ice hockey; it has been this way for a century or more. To battle for hockey supremacy and the ultimate prize – the Stanley Cup – is a dream-come-true.
Well it happened to a team of hockey players from Dawson City more than a century ago.
Under the leadership of entrepreneur ‘Klondike’ Joe Boyle, a Dawson City team named the Nuggets challenged the illustrious Ottawa “Silver Seven,” the reigning champions, for possession of the Stanley Cup in 1905. Back then, the Stanley was a challenge cup, with the defending champion accepting challenges, from the likes of Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and yes, Dawson City.
Dawson City had attracted some amazing hockey talent. Many had played in eastern Canada before stampeding to the Klondike. Now the Dawson teams were being stacked with the best in the territory.
An exceptional player, Randy McLennan, was transferred to the Dawson mining recorder’s office from Stewart. Archie Martin was given a job working for Boyle’s dredging company, the Canadian Klondike Mining Company. J. K. Johnstone and Norman Watt worked in the Dawson post office.
Lorne Hannay, who had recently moved back to Manitoba, would join the team when they passed through Winnipeg. The youngest member on the team, 19-year-old Albert Forrest from Quebec, would protect the goal during the Ottawa series.
Manitoban George ‘Sure-Shot’ Kennedy and centre Hector Smith, a miner, were added to the roster.
Legendary Weldy Young, a former Ottawa player who had himself once battled for the cup, was the natural choice for team captain, but he would be delayed from travelling with the others and would join the team late.
What followed was an epic journey and one of the legendary battles for the cup. After the Dawson team was selected, they had a little over three weeks to travel to Ottawa for the first game, which was scheduled for Friday, January 13, 1905. Some of the team departed on foot on the 512-kilometre journey to Whitehorse, on December 18, 1904, while the remainder, riding bicycles, followed a day later.
For seven days, the athletes trod over a rough winter trail, sleeping outside when required, as they made their way south to the tiny town of Whitehorse
From Whitehorse they quickly departed for Skagway, but delayed by heavy snow, they didn’t arrive in time to catch the scheduled boat to Vancouver. Instead, they had to wait for three days to catch a later ship sailing to Seattle.
With the original schedule, the players would have had nearly a week in Ottawa to prepare for the big games. Days behind schedule, the team now had to double back to Vancouver once they disembarked in Seattle. From there, they had to take a five-day train journey to Ottawa.
They arrived in Ottawa, having completed a journey of 6,400 kilometres, in time for the scheduled match, but out of condition, and with no time to practice.
The best-of-three game series was won decisively and not surprisingly, by the defending champions. Before a home crowd of 3,000, the Silver Seven took the first game 9-2 after the Dawson team started to flag half way through the first period.
The second match was even more decisive. One-eyed Frank McGee, who had not performed well in the first game, made up for it by scoring seven goals in eight minutes, and a total of fourteen for the game, a Stanley Cup record which is not likely ever to be broken. The final score, 23-2, is also the biggest defeat in Cup history.
Of the first game, everyone agreed that the single referee for the game had missed as many as six off-side Ottawa goals. For a period of time, Dawson played short-handed, at one point being two men short.
The rules were different back then. First of all, there were seven players on each team, and they stayed on the ice for the full duration of the two 30-minute halves. There was no forward pass. They wore no helmets or the standard protective gear common in today’s game, though the goalies had shin pads.
Referees used their own discretion in assigning the duration of penalty minutes for any infraction. Goalies had to remain on their feet; no graceful and athletic flopping or sprawling on the ice was allowed to block shots.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is the physical nature of the sport. In the first half of the first game, Dawson left-winger Norman Watt and Ottawa right winger Alf Smith got into a fist fight.
In the second half, Watt tripped an Ottawa player named Moore, who retaliated with a cross-check to Watt’s face, putting him down on the ice. Watt responded by breaking a stick over Moore’s head, knocking him out for ten minutes. Both men were penalized 15 minutes.
Then Dawson point man Johnson and goalie Forrest were sent off, during which time, Ottawa scored two more goals.
After the Ottawa challenge, and one of the roughest games ever played in Montreal, the Dawson team toured the Maritimes, improving their play and winning more matches as their conditioning got better. In early March, they played a Pittsburgh team winning two of three matches by a total goal score of 17 goals to 10.
They travelled west, concluding with games in Winnipeg and Brandon, losing the first, but winning the second, before spring caught up with them.
Ninety two years later, in a fantasy-come-true story, a Dawson old-timers hockey team fulfilled every red-blooded Canadian’s dream by re-enacting the journey and playing the Ottawa Senators alumni in a charity fund-raiser at the Corel Centre.
This team, which included the likes of Pat Hogan, Kevin Anderson, Joe Mason, Bruce Duffee, Chester Kelly, Dale Kulych, and Gerard Parsons, departed Dawson City, travelling overland to Whitehorse, much like their predecessors did. This party though had snowmobiles and dog teams to transport them through the minus 40 weather.
From Whitehorse, they travelled to Skagway and took the ferry to Seattle, thence north to Vancouver and east to the nation’s capital.
Though this team suffered a fate similar to their predecessors, losing by the score of 18-0 in front of 6,000 fans, it was all in good fun, and they played a hockey match they will re-live for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps it was a good thing that Dawson did not win the cup, after all, in the challenge format of the time, wouldn’t any contenders have been forced to travel all the way to Dawson to win it back?
I can imagine the cup relegated to a trophy case in the old Dawson Amateur Athletic Association building at Third Avenue and Queen Street, never to be won back by an outside team. Perhaps it would have had an anonymous existence, instead of its glorious tradition.
After all, who would be crazy enough in those days to travel 6,400 kilometres, by boat, by train, and on foot, each way, just to win a silver cup?
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based