History Hunter: The Yukon has a Stanley Cup connection

For a small northern town, Dawson City has achieved some remarkable accomplishments. One of these is Dawson’s epic battle for the Stanley Cup. They say that getting there is half the fun. Nothing could be more true than the formidable journey taken by seven hockey players, in the dead of winter 1905, from Dawson City, to Ontario to challenge the Ottawa Hockey Club, who held the cup at that time.

Canadian author Tim Falconer was in Whitehorse last week to talk about this Dawson hockey adventure, as well as the growth of the nascent winter sport into a national obsession. Falconer was writer in residence at the Berton home in Dawson a number of years ago, and has given readings in Whitehorse before.

Speaking at the Whitehorse Public library to an enthusiastic crowd, and drawing upon his recent book, “Klondikers: Dawson City’s Stanley Cup Challenge,” (ECW Press, Toronto) he described the hardy team of Yukon athletes, some of whom had played hockey in Eastern Canada before coming to the Klondike.

A trip that should have taken 18 days stretched into 24 when a blizzard blocked the White Pass and the train was not able to connect with the Vancouver ferry in Skagway. The men, who had walked 500 kilometres from Dawson to Whitehorse over the winter trail, had to wait several days to catch a ship sailing to Seattle.

They connected to Vancouver by train, then traveled by rail to the nation’s capital. No sooner had they arrived, out of shape and practice after the long journey, than they were strapping on their skates to confront the Ottawa Hockey Club in Dey’s Arena.

The best-of-three game series was won decisively and not surprisingly, by the defending champions. Before a home crowd of 3,000, the Ottawa 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. Ottawa superstar, one-eyed Frank McGee, who had not performed well in the first game, made up for it by scoring eight goals in eight minutes, and a total of 14 for the game, a Stanley Cup record which is unlikely ever to be broken. The final score, 23-2, is also the biggest defeat in Cup history.

Dawson lost the series in two games, but Dawsonites can proudly point to their team’s name, embossed near the top of the silver trophy that now embodies the greatest of the great in the sport of hockey.

According to Falconer, Canadian hockey started out as a gentleman’s sport, where amateurism was upheld as a virtue. It was a sport for the upper middle classes, who were substantial enough that they could afford the free time to play the game.

There was a certain snobbery associated with amateurism that kept out the “ruder, undesirable element.” The early champions for the sport fought long and hard (and ultimately, unsuccessfully) to keep professionalism out of hockey, which is why many good athletes at the time were attracted to our southern neighbour where they got paid to play.

But ice hockey 120 years ago, while still recognizable, was substantially different than the game we play today. 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 were no line changes back then. 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.

Goalies had to remain on their feet; no graceful and athletic flopping or sprawling on the ice was allowed to block shots. That was something, along with the slap shot, that came from the black hockey league that competed in Nova Scotia. But the black hockey teams were not allowed to play hockey with the white teams. In fact, the first black hockey player did not join an NHL team until 1957.

Officiating was different. Referees could be very unpopular with local fans, often fearing for their lives in a hotly contested match. They used their own discretion in assigning the duration of penalty minutes for any infraction. In the first game between Dawson and Ottawa, Dawson player Norman Watt tripped Ottawa player Moore. In the altercation that followed, Moore cross-checked Watt to the ice. Watt retaliated by clobbering Moore to the back of the head. The referee penalized Moore two minutes, then changed his mind, and made it three. Watt was sent off the ice for 15 minutes.

And the sport seemed much more violent than the one we enjoy today. During a hockey match in February 1905, for instance, Allan Loney of the Maxville team administered a lethal blow to the head of Alcide Laurin of the Alexandria Crescents. Loney was charged with manslaughter for the incident, but that wasn’t the only death on the ice. According to Falconer, Laurin’s death was one of three hockey deaths that occurred that year.

Falconer also took pains to clarify some misconceptions about the two teams in the fateful Dawson/Ottawa match. The first was that the Dawson team was never called the “Nuggets” at the time; that descriptive name came much later. Nor was the Ottawa Hockey Club known as the “Silver Seven;” that was also a name given to the team at a later date.

I found Falconer’s book, Klondikers, to be a good detailed review of the birth of hockey in Canada through the tumultuous years leading up to the Dawson/Ottawa match. Falconer profiles the hockey players involved in the match and other key figures in amateur hockey, as well as those from the Yukon. I particularly liked the way he established the context of hockey during the early years of the sport.

Klondikers is 376 pages long, with two maps, but no photographs. Included in the end pages are an epilogue, a selected bibliography, a list of abbreviation (this a useful aid for someone not familiar with the alphabet soup of organizations from a century ago). There are endnotes, but you have to work to track them down as they are listed by chapter, but are not numbered. The most regretful absence from the book was an index, which would have made it much easier to find things worthy of note when I went back to look for them later.

All in all, this book is a captivating journey through the early history of ice hockey in Canada, especially the eventful match-up between the best team in amateur hockey at the time (Ottawa), and seven determined skaters, who traveled thousands of kilometres from Dawson City to challenge for the cup.

It’s a good thing that Dawson did not win the match. They would have brought it home with them; and think of it: where would you find another team in 1905 willing to take a couple of months off work, travel such a long distance, under such extreme winter conditions, just to win a silver cup?

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. His next book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is due for release in September. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

History Hunter