Today, we think of the Stanley Cup as the trophy given to the National Hockey League champion, but the Stanley Cup actually pre-dates the NHL by three decades.
In its early years, a group of trustees would award the Cup to the team they judged the best in Canada. Since traveling across the country was expensive, and radio wasn’t a thing yet, they would usually take the easy way out and award the Cup to the best team in their own backyard. Since the trustees were located in Ottawa, that meant that the Cup was usually held by a team from Ottawa or Montreal.
But there was another way to capture the Cup. Any team in Canada could submit a challenge to the trustees and try to steal the championship in a two-game playoff. (If you’re wondering how a two-game playoff works, it’s by total goals scored and not victories.) The trustees couldn’t accommodate every challenger because of the extremely short window for the ice hockey season, but they would try to schedule two or three challenges a year, without showing favoritism to any particular league or province.
The challengers rarely won. Because of their location, population, climate, and wealth Ottawa and Montreal had access to the best players Canada had to offer. But once in a while, miracles did happen.
In January 1907, the scrappy Kenora Thistles challenged the reigning champs, the mighty Montreal Wanderers. Kenora was a small town of not even 5,000 people, but they had a hell of a team led by future Hall of Famer Art Ross. Yes, that Art Ross. The one the NHL’s scoring trophy is named after.
The Thistles outscored the Wanderers 12-8 in a two game series to capture the Stanley Cup. Now, the Wanderers managed to snatch the Cup back in their March rematch, but the Thistles’ brief reign gave hope to every small town in Canada that they could do the same.
1907-1908 Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League Season
One of those small towns was Renfrew, Ontario, a small farming community about 90 kilometers east of Ottawa, known mostly for the excellent quality of its local dairy. Renfrew was proud of its lovsl hockey team, the Renfrew Creamery Kings, and it had a secret weapon other towns did not: M.J. O’Brien.
O’Brien was a real Horatio Alger story, an Irishman from Nova Scotia who started as a poor water boy on construction sites and eventually became a well-to-do contractor building Canadian railroads. In 1903, during the construction of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railroad, his workers discovered rich silver veins while blasting through the Canadian shield. O’Brien snatched up every claim he could get, and soon he was the owner of the fourth-largest silver mine in the world and one of the richest men in Canada.
While running the railroad through Renfrew, O’Brien met and married local Jenny Barry, and from that point on Renfrew was his hometown. As a civic-minded Gilded Age magnate, he used his fortune to make sure his hometown had every modern convenience. He paid for road construction, the schools, the local opera house, telegraph lines, you name it.
And he was the biggest booster of the Renfrew Creamery Kings. If the team needed anything, he paid for it. Team operations were handled by O’Brien employees or, sometimes, his son J. Ambrose, who had played hockey in college and had a true love for the sport.
When the Thistles upended the Wanderers in 1907, the Renfrew Creamery Kings immediately submitted a challenge to the Stanley Cup trustees. And why wouldn’t they? They’d bested tough teams from Arnprior and Pembroke. They were the champions of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League, holder of the Citizen’s Challenge Shield. Their credentials were just as good as Kenora’s, if not better.
If the Kings didn’t deserve a shot at the Cup, who did?
Well, city slickers, for a start. In their eyes, Renfrew was a hick town that didn’t know its place. Its Cup dreams were widely mocked, with one newspaper even saying, “Don’t laugh, if you never lived in a country town you don’t know how seriously these people take themselves…”
In any case, Renfrew’s challenge came late enough in the season that it had to be put off until the following winter. When fall rolled around, trustee William Foran had two serious challenges from Ontario to consider: one from the Renfrew Creamery Kings, and one from the Ottawa Victorias.
The current Cup holders, the Montreal Wanderers, were willing to play either team at any time, but Foran did not want to allow two challenges from the same region of Ontario in a single season. He arranged a playoff between the two teams, with the victor moving on to face the Wanderers.
When the Kings arrived in Ottawa on December 23 for the first game, they got a nasty surprise. The Victorias lineup was full of ringers, specifically three players from the Ottawa Hockey Club: left wing Suddy Gillmour, center Marty Walsh, and rover Fred Taylor, the “Listowel Cyclone,” then as now considered the greatest player to ever strap on skates. That’s like showing up to an office softball game to find Roger Clemens warming up on the mound for the opposing team.
Now, loading up teams with ringers for a single game was a common practice in this era. Hockey was still in the throes of transitioning to a professional sport. Players didn’t always have contracts, and the ones they did have were poorly drafted and not always exclusive. There was nothing to stop a player from jumping ship to another team for a game or a series. Teams even encouraged this practice, loaning players out to friendly teams in exchange for future favors.
But three ringers in a single game? Two of them Hall of Fame caliber players, and one of those the GOAT? That was a step too far for the Renfrew Creamery Kings. They lodged a formal protest with the trustees, who barred Taylor and Walsh from taking the ice. Gillmour, who actually had signed a contract with the Victorias, was allowed to skate. With his help, the Victorias won, 4-1.
Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. When the Victorias arrived in Renfrew for the second game, they got a nasty surprise of their own: Cyclone Taylor was lining up with the Kings. The O’Briens had offered offered him a single-game contract for an exorbitant amount.
The Victorias complained to the Ottawas, who threatened to drop Taylor if he skated for Renfrew. Renfrew managed to win the game 3-1 without the Cyclone, but did not make up the goal differential and lost the right to challenge.
The O’Briens threatened to sue Taylor, claiming he’d signed a letter of intent and taken a small signing bonus. They implied he’d never intended to honor his contract, and was just using their offer as a threat to get more money out of the Ottawas. The O’Briens were eventually convinced to drop their suit, and as a consolation received an exhibition game against the Ottawas on February 4th, 1908. The Kings put up a valiant fight, but they were outfoxed by Cyclone Taylor at every turn and were crushed, 16-7.
Renfrew continued to play in the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League for the rest of 1907-1908 season, though it wasn’t much of a league since Arnprior and Pembroke weren’t bothering to field competitive teams that year. So they moved up to the Federal Amateur Hockey League.
The Federal League’s Brockville Braves felt like they didn’t have a competitive team and couldn’t be bothered to recruit one, so they decided to Mr. Burns the problem and field a team composed entirely of ringers. Approached the O’Briens and rented the entire team, who more than happy to don Brockville jerseys in exchange for an extra paycheck.
When the Ottawa Victorias showed up to play Brockville on January 21st, they immediately recognized the Renfrew Creamery Kings players they had lined up against a only month before. They refused to play the ersatz “Braves” and as a result the Federal League collapsed and did not play the rest of its schedule.
1908-1909 Federal Amateur Hockey League Season
In the off-season, the Federal League was reorganized and admitted Renfrew as a full member for the 1908-1909 season.
The O’Briens decided that moving up to a bigger league was their chance to finally take home the cup. They went out all-out, signing top free agents like forward Didier Pitre (“the Cannonball”), center Steve Vair, and goalie Bert Lindsay. It worked. The Kings dominated the Federal League, going undefeated.
And yet they did not submit a Cup challenge. Why?
Well, early in the season Renfrew was approached by the Montreal Wanderers, who wanted to borrow Steve Vair for a tough game against the Ottawas. Renfrew agreed, in exchange for a Stanley Cup challenge after the regular season.
When trustee William Foran found out, he was fit to be tied. I’m not sure why, because it’s not like other teams hadn’t done the same in the past. While he couldn’t act against Renfrew until there was a challenge in front of him, he suspended Steve Vair and threatened to strip the Wanderers of the Cup if it turned out there was a quid pro quo.
Foran eventually reinstated Vair, but required him to stay with the Wanderers for the rest of the season, turning what was supposed to be a one game loan into a full-fledged trade. The rest of Renfrew’s players were declared ineligible for Cup play for the rest of the season because of their rampant team switching.
Rather than submit a challenge and be forced to play with a thrown-together team of amateurs, the O’Briens decided it would be wiser to defer their Cup challenge to the fall when their star players would once again be eligible to play.
In the meantime, the team disbanded, with the all-star players scattering to other teams. Well, except for Bert Lindsay. But the O’Briens made it clear that they would spare no expense rebuilding the team if their challenge was approved. They even made fresh attempts to lure Cyclone Taylor away from the Ottawas.
But come September, the Stanley Cup trustees announced new rules for challenging teams. Now they were required to submit a full roster with their challenge, and the players had to have been on the team during the regular season. Foran also hinted that clubs who used ringers in the past would get an additional level of scrutiny from the trustees when their challenges were considered. The new rules were clearly intended to hurt Renfrew, but they had far-ranging effects.
In addition to Renfrew, five other teams had submitted challenges that year: Edmonton, Cobalt, Galt, Winnipeg, and Strathcona. The only team that was in full compliance with the new rules was Winnipeg.
That was a problem, since any non-Winnipeg challenge the trustees approved would be regarded as favoritism by the other challenging teams. So they decided to play the waiting game, hoping some of the teams would drop out of contention and resolve the problem for them.
The O’Briens begin to (rightly) suspect that they would never get a challenge approved. That meant their was only one way left to capture the Stanley Cup: join the Eastern Canada Hockey Association, whose champion automatically received the trophy. The ECHA had already discussed expanding from four teams to six. J. Ambrose O’Brien decided that if they were adding another team, it would be the Renfrew Creamery Kings.
Behind the scenes he began approaching other owners to back his application. Harry McLaughlin of the Montreal Shamrocks and Jimmy Strachan of the Montreal Wanderers both game him tepid support, which got him to 50%. If he could make a solid pitch to the other owners, Renfrew was in. He showed up at the league’s November meeting in Montreal with application in hand and high hopes.
Before the meeting, O’Brien ran into some of the Ottawas excutives in a restaurant, and made his case for adding the Kings to the league. The Ottawas laughed in his face. Not a good sign. But there was always the Quebec Bulldogs. If he could sway them, he had a chance.
And then it all went to hell.
In the off-season, Jimmy Strachan sold the Wanderers to P.J. Doran. Doran intended to move the team’s games from the Westmount Arena to the much smaller Jubilee Rink, which he owned. That would give him him a much larger cut of the gate, but slash the receipts of visiting teams. The other owners were not happy about this, but they couldn’t kick the Wanderers out of the league.
So they dissolved the league instead.
On November 25th, 1909 the ECHA dissolved itself and then reincorporated as the Canadian Hockey Association. The CHA had the same constitution, the same rules, and all the same teams. Except for one: Doran’s Montreal Wanderers. To spite Doran even further, the CHA brought in two new Montreal-based franchisees to compete with him, All-Montreal and Le National.
There was no room in the new league for the Renfrew Creamery Kings.
Ambrose O’Brien was shocked. He had been playing the game by the same rules as everyone else, and had nothing to show for it. They’d been even been penalized for using the same tactics larger clubs used with impunity. Their Stanely Cup dreams were dismissed out of hand by league officials and trustees. They’d laughed in his face! The more O’Brien thought about it, the angrier he got.
Anger, it turns out, is a great motivator.
My Own League, With Blackjack and Hookers
Ambrose O’Brien sat stewing in the hallway of the Windsor Hotel, only to be snapped out of it when Jimmy Gardner, the player/manager of the Wanderers stormed out of the meeting room cursing a blue streak. He saw O’Brien, stormed over, and started venting.
In the course of their bitch session, they realized that the O’Briens had control of three hockey teams. Obviously, they were the primary backer of their hometown Renfrew Creamery Kings. But they were also helping support two teams near their silver mining interests: the Haileybury Comets and the Cobalt Silver Kings.
Put those three together with the Wanderers, and you had a league. A rival league.
It’s easy to see why this would appeal to the O’Briens. Those big city old money types in Ottawa had mocked them at every turn. Well, their small town new money would build a bigger league, a better league, with top teams and better players. They would make the trustees think twice before awarding the Stanley Cup to the CHA champs.
And so, with a handshake in the lobby of the Windsor Hotel, the National Hockey Association was born.
A week later, the two rival leagues were both holding their inaugural meetings in the Windsor Hotel — the CHA in room 135, and the NHA down the hall in room 129.
The CHA acted like it was business as usual. The biggest discussions were about formalizing the rules for player trades and setting a salary cap for teams, which had been priorities of the Ottawas for years.
The NHA meeting was chaotic but productive. They adopted the constitution of the ECHA wholesale, just like the CHA. To make their league equal in size to the CHA, they added a new team, an all-French squad called the Montreal Canadiens. (The O’Briens would foot the bill for the Canadiens, too, though they actively sought a French-Canadian partner to take it off their hands.) The various owners (or puppet owners) posted $1,000 bonds as a pledge that they would finish the season.
Behind the scenes, the CHA was worried. They decided they’d rather have the Wanderers back in the fold than deal with a rival league, and if the cost of that was admitting Renfrew, well, they’d cope. They made secret overtures to both teams, trying to induce them to switch leagues. Gardner and O’Brien nixed that idea from the start. If CHA teams were scared, they were welcome to jump to the NHA. None of the CHA teams bit on that.
When the meetings ended, the bidding war began.
The O’Briens fired the first shot, making a blanket offer of $1,000 to every Ottawa player. The gambit failed, but it cost the Ottawas dearly. They raised salaries and scrambled to get contracts in front of their players before they could reconsider. They wound up increasing their payroll by over $3,000, which put them in a precarious financial position. To break even, they would need to break attendance records for every game.
The Renfrew upped the ante, raising their offer to a guaranteed two-year, $2,500 contract, with off-ice jobs for anyone who wanted them. Payable in advance. The Toronto Globe called the offers “stage money” but the O’Briens were deadly serious. Still, the Ottawa players remained steadfast.
Except for one.
The greatest player in the game, Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, jumped ship.
Renfrew’s courtship of Taylor was an agonizing will-they-wont-they dance, as he flirted with one club or the other throughout all of December, but ultimately the O’Briens made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. His salary for the season was a reported $5,250, though it’s not clear if that was for one season or two.
To put that in perspective, Taylor was earning more than some entire teams. He was earning more money per game than anyone else in any other sport. Baseball’s highest plaid player, Ty Cobb, was only earning $6,500 a year for a season three times as long. The average Canadian office worker was only earning about $1,000 a year.
And Taylor may not have been the highest paid player on the team!
In a rare coup, the Kings managed to snag the hottest free agents in the sport, the Patrick Brothers. Ambrose sent a telegram to Vancouver asking if Lester Patrick would play for $3,000. Lester replied he was available, but that he and his brother Frank were a package deal. O’Brien responded by wiring them a check for $5,000.
The team already had Bert Lindsey in goal and Bobby Rowe in center. Herb Jordan, a top amateur from Quebec, was lured to the team by offering him an off-season job as M.J. O’Brien’s private secretary. The other spots were filled with talented locals seasoned in the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League.
Because of the talent raids, the Ottawa press tried to smear the Renfrew Creamery Kings by calling them “the Pirates.” Nice one, Ottawa, but Pittsburgh got there first. The extravagant salaries quickly gave the team a more apt nickname: “The Millionaires.”
The other NHA teams did well in the bidding war. Art Ross was brought in to play and manage the Haileybury Comets, the Wanderers snagged Joe Hall, and the Canadiens signed Didier Pitre and Édouard Cyrille Lalonde, better known by his nickname “Newsy.”
Over in the CHA, only the Ottawas and the Shamrocks were able to field respectable teams.
In the middle of all this chaos, the Stanley Cup trustees finally approved three challenges: Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Galt. Too late. The Winnipeg team had disbanded and could not reform. The Edmonton team was wounded by the loss of the Patrick Brothers, and had to scrape together a team of replacements on short notice. The lost and delayed challenges cost the Ottawas thousands of dollars of gate receipts they badly needed.
The Ottawas tried to make the best of a bad situation, issuing an open challenge to the Millionaires for an exhibition match, with the winner taking all the gate receipts. The O’Briens respectfully declined.
1910 National Hockey Association Season
As the season opened, Renfrew was deep in the clutches of Stanley Cup fever. The Millionaires were local celebrities, instantly recognizable on the streets of the small town. They seemed to split most of their time between the practice rink and the local pubs, but somehow found time to pal around with the town’s children, like an old-timey hockey version of the Baseball Bunch.
The O’Briens aggressively marketed the team throughout the region, and even ran a special red-eye train, the “Timberwolf Special” to ferry Ottawa fans to and from home games. They promised Renfrew a new rink if they won the Cup, which seemed to be an inevitability. Ambrose even backed up his bravado with good money, wagering up to $5,000 on his team’s games.
January 12th, 1910 arrived almost too soon. The Renfrew Millionaires took the ice against the visiting Cobalt Silver Kings — and lost in an 11-9 shocker.
It turns out the Millionaires were a wonderful collection of individual talents, but they weren’t playing like a team yet. The Silver Kings, on the other hand, had two games under their belt and were humming like a finely-oiled machine. They effectively defended Cyclone Taylor and Lester Patrick. Walter Smail of Cobalt also aggressively targeted defender Frank Patrick, breaking his nose and throwing him off his game. That meant at times poor Bert Lindsay was the only one playing defense.
The papers had a field day with the loss. One of them even called the team “the Renfrew Gold Bricks.” Like true professionals, the players just shook it off. One loss didn’t mean a thing. There were plenty of games left to play.
The O’Briens, though, started to panic and tinker with the team. (The curse of having a hands-on owner, I guess.) They tried to sign Hay Millar, who was in town for Edmonton’s long-delayed Stanley Cup challenge. They offered him $1,000 to suit up for a single game, but he refused, because he needed to be in Ottawa scouting his opponents.
On January 15th the Millionaires traveled to Montreal to face the Wanderers — and lost again, 2-7. That was dispiriting. The team had looked like they were going to steamroll their way to the Stanley Cup, and now they were down 0-2.
And then everything changed.
Whatever the NHA was doing, it was working. The public couldn’t get enough of the new league’s fast-paced, high scoring action. They were playing in small arenas, but games were selling out. Arenas were adding new seats to meet demand. Even increased ticket prices couldn’t keep the fans away.
Meanwhile the CHA was playing to half-empty arenas and dispirited fans. And they were doing very poorly in the Montreal market, where there were five teams competing for fan’s attention. With gate receipts down, teams just couldn’t afford to stay in operation. So hat in hand they approached the NHA and asked the upstart league to absorb them.
The O’Briens and Doran were elated, but cautious. If the NHA took on all five CHA teams, they would be outnumbered at league meetings and everything would be back to the old way before long. So they took on the two teams they couldn’t refuse — the Ottawa Hockey Club and the Montreal Shamrocks — and told the rest of them to go jump in a lake.
Well, not entirely. The O’Briens offered to sell the Canadiens to the owners of Le National, but they were contractually obligated to play in the Westfield Arena and had to decline.
The NHA schedule had to be completely rejiggered to accommodate the new teams. The good news for Renfrew was that all games played before January 15th were thrown out. That scratched their first loss, and more importantly, scratched two Ottawa victories. The dream was still alive.
1910 National Hockey Association Season (Take Two)
The first game after the merger was a home bout on January 19th versus the Montreal Canadiens. The Millionaires were impressed by Newsy Lalonde, who seemed to be everywhere and playing aggressively. Perhaps too aggressively. At one point he slashed Frank Patrick open with the butt of his stick. Frank, sick of being the punching back for everyone in the league, responded in kind and both players were left rolling around on the ice clutching their heads. Play came to a halt while they got medical attention. The Canadiens wisely decided to get off the ice, and Renfrew won 4-9.
(You’d think that a tough hit like that might lead to bad blood between two players, but it had the opposite effect — Newsy and Frank became fast friends.)
Even with their first victory under their belt, the O’Briens couldn’t resist the urge to tinker. Edmonton had made their Stanley Cup challenge and failed, so they quickly signed Hay Millar and Fred Whitcroft from the Edmonton team. They had to release two of their journeyman players to make room on their roster.
On January 22nd they played an away game vs. the Montreal Shamrocks. The game was dominated by the aggressive play of the Shamrocks’ “Bad Joe” Hall, who repeatedly went after the Patrick Brothers. Mild-mannered Frank Patrick eventually retaliated, slashing Hall over the eyes. A blinded Hall lashed out and accidentally hit referee Red Kennedy, who dropped the larger man with a single punch. Hall was ejected for the rest of the game.
By this point, slushy ice conditions made skating difficult, so Renfrew played conservatively. They were aiming for a 1-1 tie, hoping that when the ice had been cleared after the game they could win in a sudden death overtime without Hall there to bedevil them.
But when that overtime came around, the Shamrocks sent Hall back out on the ice citing a 1903 Cup game between Winnipeg and Manitoba as precedent. Renfrew objected, and officials decided to call the game and replay it later since both teams had more immediate obligations.
After the game, the O’Briens called a league meeting which only included representatives from the four O’Brien backed teams, which constituted a quorum. They suspended Hall indefinitely and planned revisit the matter at the full league meeting in two weeks. Which, conveniently, was after the Millionaires and the Shamrocks played their second game on January 28th.
With Hall riding the pine the second game was a blow-out for the Millionaires, who won 2-10. After the game, Hall was reinstated but fined $100. In any other year, that would have been a player’s salary for the full season.
The Millionaires kept their momentum going, beating the visiting Haileybury Comets 3-6 on February 4th. The Comets were timid, and seemed especially wary of Fred Taylor. At one point the Cyclone skated behind Renfrew’s net and posed with the puck, and the Comets were so timid they wouldn’t even approach him. The referees had to halt play and order another face-off.
The next game, though, was the big one: an away game in Ottawa on February 12th. Though they had never faced each other in a regulation game, the two teams were now bitter rivals and fan interest was high. Ottawa sold 7,000 tickets to the game, making it the largest crowd to ever see a hockey game in the city. Some 250 fans made the trip from Renfrew to see the game, and a special telegraph line was set up to communicate a play-by-play in real time. On game day, the line of fans waiting to get in to the arena snaked all the way to Sparks street.
Drinking before the game, Fred Taylor boasted in jest that he could skate backwards through the entire Ottawa line and score a goal. An innocuous enough boast, except that he made it within earshot of his former Ottawas teammate, goalie Percy LaSueur.
When the Millionaires took the ice, they were greeted by a chorus of boos. The fans hurled rotten fruit and bottles at the players, taking special aim at Fred Taylor’s head. At one point they even had to stop play so the groundskeepers could clear broken glass from the ice. Taylor played well but the fired-up Ottawa defense kept him from scoring. At the end of regulation, the game was tied, 5-5. But in two five minute overtimes Ottawa scored three times to win 8-5.
At 3-2-1 Renfrew’s Cup dreams weren’t dead yet, but they were on life support.
Their next game was on February 15th, when they beat the Canadiens 8-6 on the road. Montreal played with great heart, but with only one superstar on the team they just couldn’t stop the Millionaires.
After the game, the O’Briens tinkered with the team yet again, using their ownership stake in the Canadiens to force Newsy Lalonde’s immediate release. Renfrew immediately signed him to a contract, though Ottawa made a serious offer for his services.
Lalonde played brilliantly in his first game as a Millionaire, scoring four goals in a 12-7 victory over the Cobalt Silver Kings. (He was still outplayed by Lester Patrick, who scored five goals.) After the game, the Silver Kings filed a formal protest with the league, claiming that Lalonde had been acquired after the trade deadline, though no one could agree whether it was supposed to be January 30th or February 15th.
The away game in Haileybury on February 22nd has gone down in history as the coldest game in the history of professional hockey. At game time, the outside temperature was -31°C with a significant wind chill.
How cold was it?
It was so cold players and fans were both treated for frostbite after the game.
It was so cold Haileybury’s Art Ross skated wearing a tuque with two eye holes poked in it pulled down over his face.
It was so cold that when Ross threw down his gloves to fight Lester Patrick he immediately thought better of it and put them back on before his fingers fell off.
The game also gave the O’Briens another chance to throw their money around. In the first half Bert Lindsay was struck by the puck and his eye swelled shut. Renfrew noticed Cobalt goaltender Chief Jones in the crowd, scouting the game, and offered him $200 to suit up for Renfrew, promising they’d take care of any fines that might arise. Cobalt’s manager Tommy Hare strenuously objected, even after he was offered a generous bribe. Jones, who was already half into a Millionaires uniform, had to change back into his street clothes and go back to his seat. Lindsay played the rest of the game one-eyed. The Millionaires won 11-5 on the strength of hat tricks by Lester Patrick and Newsy Lalonde.
Back in Renfrew, the O’Briens were hastily adding a thousand extra seats to the Argyle Street Rink, anticipating huge turnouts for their upcoming home games against the Ottawas and the Wanderers. They could have probably added 2,000 more it wouldn’t have been enough.
When the Wanderers showed up on February 25th, it turns out they had “accidentally” forgot to bring their white road uniforms. The Millionaires were forced to line up the uniform of the amateur Renfrew Rivers. Whether it was a genuine accident or a sophisticated mind game, it worked. Renfrew was shut out, losing 5-0 in front of a flabbergasted home crowd.
At 6-3-1, Renfrew’s chances of winning the cup were now almost non-existent. But they clung to hope, like the fans of an 8-7 NFL team running through every tiebreaker in their head.
At the February 28th league meeting, Newsy Lalonde’s transfer was officially approved. They also rescheduled the Shamrocks/Renfrew rematch for March 2nd on neutral ground in Ottawa. Then it was rescheduled a second time because freak weather conditions made the ice unsuitable for play.
It wound up not mattering, because on March 5th the Montreal Wanderers earned their tenth win by defeating the Ottawas 3-1, making it mathematically impossible for anyone else to unseat them. They won the Stanley Cup, along with the new league championship trophy — the O’Brien Cup, a massive gaudy trophy made of Cobalt silver valued at almost $6,000.
Renfrew still had games left to play though, including one final grudge match against the hated Ottawas on March 8th. But there was a problem. The referee had missed his train from Ottawa and a replacement had to be found on short notice. They found one of unimpeachable credentials — M.J. O’Brien’s personal secretary, Herb Jordan. Yes, former Millionaire Herb Jordan, who had been dropped from the squad earlier in the season to accommodate the O’Briens’ new hires. To his credit, he was tough, even-handed and gave the Ottawas nothing to complain about it.
To spice things up and really rub Ottawa’s nose in it, Ambrose offered bounties to his team: $50 to each player who scored a goal, plus $100 to be split between his teammates. That wound up costing him over $2,550 in bonuses, because Newsy Lalonde scored six goals, Lester Patrick scored four goals, and Fred Taylor scored three in a 2-17 blowout. (It helped that the Ottawas were playing listlessly, since it was a meaningless game for both teams.)
Late in the game, Lester Patrick snapped off a to Cyclone Taylor, who controlled the puck, turned around, skated backward at full speed, and flipped the puck pacy Percy LeSueur to score. Taylor had finally managed to make good on his idle boasting. Though it should be noted he didn’t skate through the entire team.
The season ending contest vs. the Cobalt Silver Kings on March 11th was likewise meaningless for all involved, except for Newsy Lalonde, who scored nine goals to capture the league scoring title with 38 goals in 11 games. Lester Patrick finished in third, with 12 goals in 24 games. Fred Taylor, the highest-paid man in professional sports, wasn’t even on the leaderboard. Though if they’d tracked assists back then, he’d probably be right up there.
And that was it. Hockey was done for the year, except for a few post-season exhibitions in New York.
True to their word, O’Briens had gone all out to try and capture the Stanley Cup, shelling out over $16,000 in player salaries and thousands more in bonuses. That’s still a far cry from a million dollars, even when adjusted for inflation. They’d put together a team of superstars that included four Hall of Famers, and still only managed to finish 8-3-1. They’d learned two important lessons: individual talent is great but can be defeated by teamwork, and money can’t always buy championships.
When the team said their farewells to each other on March 22nd, they remained hopeful for the future. Next year, they promised, they would be unstoppable.
1910-1911 National Hockey Association Season
But that wasn’t going to happen.
The free-for-all talent acquisitions of the season effectively bankrupted three of the league’s clubs: the Cobalt Silver Kings, Haileybury Comets, and Montreal Shamrocks all folded. The Quebec Bulldogs were brought into the league to make scheduling games easier.
Also, George Kennedy of the Club Athletique Canadien sued the O’Briens, claiming the Montreal Canadiens were infringing on his trademark. The O’Briens wound up giving Kennedy the Canadiens franchise for free, just to shut him up. They did get some measure of revenge when they made him pay a $7,500 transfer free to get Newsy Lalonde back.
That meant that the O’Briens had gone from having an automatic 4-3 majority at league meetings to having just one of five votes. That allowed the Ottawas to take control again, and they immediately started pushing for one of their pet causes: a salary cap.
Of $5,000 per team.
The O’Briens were not happy, because that neutralized their deep pockets. The players were also not happy, since it meant most of them would have to take a severe pay cut. Many threatened to retire, sit out the season, or start a rival league. In the end, they had no choice but to submit to the new rules, though teams helped out with off-the-books signing bonuses that didn’t count against the cap.
That year the Renfrew Creamery Kings were significantly diminished. Lalonde had been sent back to the Canadiens. The Patrick Brothers left and went west found the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Cyclone Taylor and Bert Lindsay were still there, backed up by Steve Vair and the Cleghorne Brothers, Odie and Sprague.
That new team once again made a valiant effort, and the team led the league in goals scored. But they were still leaving poor Bert Lindsay out there by himself on defense, and the team also led the league in goals against. They finished the year in third, with an 8-8 record.
The O’Briens could no longer justify throwing good money at a team with no Stanley Cup to show for it. They had railroads and mines to run. The Renfrew Creamery Kings were shut down after the 1910-1911 season and the players were dispersed in a draft. Fred Taylor was drafted by the Wanderers, but he spurned their offer and went west to play for the Patricks.
Hockey went on without them, to no one’s surprise.
In an ironic touch, in 1919 the National Hockey Alliance would dissolve itself to get rid of a troublesome owner, Eddie Livingstone of the Toronto Blue Shirts. This time it didn’t work, and the newly-founded National Hockey League was stuck with him.
These days Renfrew is a larger town, but not by much. Their primary industry is manufacturing instead of agriculture, and the town makes most of the hockey tape used in Canada. They still have amateur hockey teams, though none of them use the Creamery Kings name. They honor their place in hockey history with the the NHA/NHL Birthplace Museum, though as of February 2020 it appears to be closed for renovations.
M.J. and Ambrose did manage to leave their mark on the league in two ways. The Montreal Canadiens, which they founded as an afterthought, are now the longest-lived and most storied team in professional hockey. The O’Brien Cup was awarded to the NHA champion until 1917. It was awarded to the NHL’s Canadian Division champion until 1938, and then to the second-place team until 1950.
Today, the O’Brien Cup awarded to no one, and sits in a pretty case in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
- Cosentino, Frank. The Renfrew Millionaires: The Valley Boys of Summer 1910. Toronto: self-published, 1990.
- Holzman, Morey. Deceptions and Doublecross: How the NHL Conquered Hockey. Toronto: Dundurn Group, 2002.
- Isaacs, Neil D. Checking Back. New York: WW Norton, 1977.
- Wong, John Chi-Kit. Lords of the Rinks: The Emergence of the National Hockey League, 1875-1936. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
- Young, Scott and Young, Astrid. O’Brien. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1967.
- “Cyclone Taylor.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclone_Taylor Accessed 1/30/2020.
- “Renfrew Creamery Kings.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renfrew_Creamery_Kings Accessed 1/30/2020.
- “Sensation in Hockey Circles: Renfrew Threatens to Prosecute Taylor.” Ottawa Citizen, 31 Dec 1907.
- “Hockey Clubs on the Move.” Ottawa Citizen, 1 Oct 1909.
- “Rival Hockey Leagues Inaugurate Big Hockey War.” Ottawa Citizen, 3 Dec 1909.
- “Two Pro Leagues, Five Clubs in Each.” Montreal Gazette, 6 Dec 1909.
- “All Renfrew is Greatly Excited over Present Hockey Situation.” Ottawa Journal, 18 Dec 1909.