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Patricks' arrival brought hockey to Western Canada

by Craig H. Bowlsby

With the 2014 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic to take place Sunday at BC Place (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS), takes a look back at hockey in British Columbia during the past 100 years and the early rivalry that developed between the Vancouver Millionaires and the original Ottawa Senators.

In 1911, to the amazement of the citizens of the Pacific Coast in Canada, three men from Nelson, British Columbia swept down from the Columbia Mountains and built a professional hockey league out of what seemed to be thin air, or at least thin ice.

Few people in Vancouver or Victoria had seen the game of hockey or knew anything about it. There was rarely any ice to play it; there were no rinks, and the Patrick family, brothers Lester and Frank and their father Joe, must have seemed like showmen on the scale of P.T. Barnum when they promised the biggest sporting spectacle to be seen in the West.

But who were the Patricks and why were they so driven by this sport?

Before coming west to cut timber in Nelson with their father, the brothers had been rising sports stars. Lester had already won the Stanley Cup twice in Montreal and Frank had been a regular on his university team. In Nelson, in 1909, they helped their senior team to win the B.C. Championships, and then briefly returned to the East to become highly paid members of the Renfrew Creamery Kings of the National Hockey Association in the search by owner Ambrose O’Brien for the 1910 Stanley Cup.

The brothers were rarely satisfied, however, with the irregular officiating and conditions they found in their new home. This was especially true in Nelson, where they felt they had often been cheated by the Rossland Carnival committee, which controlled the B.C. Championships.

More and more, they tried to control as much of their hockey careers as possible. The family spearheaded the construction of a new indoor arena in Nelson, where Lester became the manager; Lester captained the senior teams in Nelson, and he and Frank brought in a profitable challenge series with the Edmonton senior champions. The brothers also attempted to create a regular Kootenay league, which ultimately fell apart due to the mountainous terrain.

In 1911, however, the family sold its logging interests in the Kootenays and needed a new direction for its business. In a burst of bravado, the Patricks vowed to spend money on creating a new professional hockey league hundreds of miles away in an unlikely place: the warm Pacific Coast.

It was a huge gamble, but the new game enthralled the populace, who provided the support and flocked to the magnificent new arenas. Furthermore, the effect on the game in Canada was huge. Not only did the Patricks raise the bar of entertainment by building two (and soon three) artificial ice arenas, to the chagrin of the East which at that time had none, they also ransacked the East of many of its best players, setting up a rivalry that pushed both sides to the limits of pride and ability.

In a period of 15 years, the Patricks gave the game of hockey more than 20 key improvements, almost all of which are still used today. (No one rings a brass bell in the dressing room to signal the start of a new period anymore.) In some cases, like Thomas Edison with the light bulb and the phonograph, the Patricks took many existing ideas and made them into workable inventions. In other cases, they broke convention completely in their drive to make the game faster and more entertaining.

No innovation was more important to the game than the forward pass. Without this quantum leap the game would still be played by passing the puck backward or laterally under the very restrictive rules of the period.

We would see no lead passes to Sidney Crosby as he speeds around the defense. There would be no breakout passes from a team's own end. The game would still be advancing as fast as a player could skate, but not as fast as the puck could be launched. The creation of the forward pass in the fall of 1913 finally gave the game its true potential. But it was a difficult birth, and it almost didn’t happen.

Lester Patrick teaches at a hockey school in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1939. (Getty Images)

When the Patricks announced they were allowing forward passing in the center third of the ice only (also creating blue lines to define it) there was a huge cry of foul play by the NHA, the forerunner to the NHL. The whole idea was considered farcical. Even the captain of the Vancouver Millionaires, Si Griffis, called the idea "impossible."

Lester himself had second thoughts about the rule during its early trials, and Frank had to convince him it would work. There were innumerable objections to the new tactics, usually centering on the unfairness to a defending player. But the overriding problem was defenders now had to back-check like banshees, and they quickly ran out of steam. This meant substitutions had to take place on a regular basis. As a result, almost everything about the game began to change.

Even then, the new rule almost died in its infancy. When Lester Patrick took his Victoria Pros (also called the Aristocrats) to Toronto for the 1914 Stanley Cup Final, he was allowed one game with both teams using the forward pass. Unfortunately for Lester, Victoria lost this game in overtime, and ultimately lost the series quickly in three games. The Toronto team and the Eastern press derided the new rule unmercifully, and there seemed no chance it would ever be adopted universally.

But the Vancouver Millionaires took up the cause the next season, and learned how to use the tactic effectively. Led by Cyclone Taylor, the Millionaires easily defeated the Ottawa Senators for the 1915 Stanley Cup, using the forward pass to the utmost. This proved the worth of the new rule, and although the NHA, and later the NHL, still resisted for a short time, they could not hold back the force that changed the game into the exciting one we know today.

Craig H. Bowlsby is a Vancouver-based author. He wrote "Empire of Ice: The Rise and Fall of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, 1911-1926," which details the history of the Vancouver Millionaires, including the two Stanley Cup Final appearances against the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey Association. The historian also published another hockey book, "The Knights of Winter," a history of hockey in British Columbia from 1895 to 1911.

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