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Vancouver, Ottawa battled for early hockey supremacy

by Craig H. Bowlsby

With the 2014 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic to take place Sunday at BC Place, 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.

The hockey battles between the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Millionaires of 1915 and 1921 were struggles between two great teams. But in a sense, the Vancouver-Ottawa rivalry existed years before the two teams ever met.

When the Patrick brothers, Lester and Frank, created the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in 1911, they tormented the National Hockey Association, the precursor to the NHL, by raiding its players, by paying more for their salaries, and by pushing the boundaries of tradition in order to speed up and streamline the game.

The players of both leagues reveled in the excitement and the opportunities offered by this competition, while the owners of the NHA tried to fight off the indignities poured on them by the upstart PCHA.

The NHA forbade interaction, but in 1912, in its first season, the PCHA enticed the Eastern players into an East-West All-Star series. Then, in 1913, the PCHA hosted a "World Championship" between the Quebec Bulldogs and the Victoria Pros, as well as a second All-Star series, all to the protestations of the NHA.

The next year saw the NHA moguls bowing to the inevitable and embracing the great spectacle of a truly national rivalry. Each region had its own set of rules, and the Stanley Cup Final would see the separate sets of rules in alternating games. Which was better: the Eastern system or the Western system? The players were aching to prove themselves in the greatest contest they could imagine.

In 1914, the Toronto Blueshirts (also called the Torontos) defeated the Victoria Pros (now usually called the Aristocrats) in three games. One of those games was an overtime victory, with each team using the new forward pass for the first time. This seemed to show the superiority of the Eastern system.

The next year, the Vancouver Millionaires deliberately applied the forward pass as their tactical principle and refused to believe it was inferior. The Ottawa Senators, who advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in Vancouver, were out to prove otherwise. The Senators' coach, Alf Smith, called the new rule a "farce," and Ottawa expected to represent and continue the Eastern supremacy. In fact the Senators were so confident of their own system and abilities that they churlishly left the Stanley Cup behind, assuming they would not be leaving it in Vancouver anyway.

But Vancouver, led by Fred "Cyclone" Taylor, Frank Patrick, Frank Nighbor and Mickey MacKay, with Hugh Lehman in goal, had tremendous speed, and it applied this to the new forward-pass rule, which was allowed at this time only in center ice, between the two blue lines. This caused the Senators fits when they had to backcheck furiously, trying to catch up to the whirlwinds around them. Ottawa tired more quickly than Vancouver and couldn't keep up. They lost the first three games and the Cup by a total score of 28-6.

Vancouver, and the PCHA, had its first Stanley Cup, much to the chagrin of the East.

Unfortunately for Vancouver, it couldn't keep all its talent. Nighbor, the great checker and sniper who would win the first Hart Trophy in 1924, jumped to none other than the Ottawa Senators. He had thought he was going to get more money. But although he made marginally more in his first season for Ottawa, he made a lot less the next. Frank Patrick also retired from active playing for several years.

Vancouver still competed directly for the Cup again in 1918, barely losing to Toronto. By the time Ottawa and Vancouver clawed their way back to the Stanley Cup Final in 1921, Ottawa had won the Cup against Seattle in 1920, and the young players who had lost in 1915 were battle-hardened, experienced warriors. Five of them had played in the 1915 Final (not counting Nighbor), and they had not forgotten that setback. These were Eddie Gerard, Harry Broadbent, Jack Darragh, Leth Graham and Clint Benedict. There were only three full-time members of the Vancouver team who had fought for the Cup in 1915. But Lehman, MacKay and Lloyd Cook were just as good as they had been six years previously. Frank Patrick still coached the team, and "Cyclone" Taylor was also brought out of retirement for the Final.

The best-of-five series was very rough. When they played with Eastern rules (in alternating games), the Senators did their best to trip and bash the Millionaires because the penalty rules allowed them to substitute a fresh man whenever a player was sent off for an infraction. The Senators had four spares; the Millionaires had two, so this strained the Vancouver bench. Also, Vancouver lost its top sniper, Alf Skinner, for two-and-a-half games from an eye injury, and it lost its top playmaker, MacKay, for two periods, when he stayed by the bedside of his sick daughter. The Senators had great precision and teamwork, and every player was dangerous. Nighbor played the role for Ottawa that he had first played for Vancouver, checking the Millionaires' best drives.

Still, when Ottawa went ahead 2-1 in games, Vancouver came storming back in the fourth game and tied the series. In the last game, Mickey Ion clamped down more on the roughing, and a magnificent contest resulted with both sides storming the other in great rushes. Ottawa carried a 2-1 lead into the third period, and then retreated into a hardened defensive shell. This was the great strength of the Senators, and Vancouver could not crack through. Ottawa won the game 2-1 and the series 3-2, retaining the Cup and exacting its revenge.

The series set a record at the time for attendance, both for single games and for any hockey playoff.

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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