In 1896 “Vics” issued challenge for hockey supremacy

by Bruce Cherney

Twenty-five Winnipeggers travelled east 110 years ago to witness sports history in the making.

The 25 Winnipeggers were swallowed up by the throng of over 2,000 local supporters at the Victoria rink in Montreal on February 14, 1896, but they firmly believed their team was poised to win the cup Lord Stanley had commissioned to be presented to the best amateur hockey team in Canada.

“I have for some time past been thinking that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held year by year by the champion hockey team in the Dominion,” said Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada’s sixth governor general, on March 18, 1892.

“There does not appear to be any such outward and visible sign of championship at present, and considering the general interest which the matches now elicit, and the importance of having the game played fairly and under the rules generally recognized, I am willing to give a cup which shall be held year after year by the winning team.”

Following this announcement, Lord Stanley, a rabid hockey fan who’s son played the sport in Ottawa, commissioned a cup from a London, England, jeweller for $50, a rather modest price for what has since become the most recognized trophy for hockey supremacy in the world.

Although originally a challenge cup for amateur teams, professional players were vying for the cup by the early 1900s. Known as ringers, professionals would be brought in to bolster the ranks of teams challenging for the Stanley Cup. In 1908, the first all-professional team, the Toronto Trolley Leaguers competed for the cup. After that year, all teams challenging for the cup were professional.

In 1914, the Stanley Cup was to be awarded only to champions represented by the National Hockey Association and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, an agreement that lasted until 1926 when the cup became the top trophy for the National Hockey League.

It didn’t take long for hockey teams to recognize the importance  of the Stanley Cup and line up to challenge for its possession.

Just three years after the first Stanley Cup was presented to the Montreal AAA (Amateur Athletic Association) in 1893, Winnipeg had risen high enough in Canadian hockey prowess to challenge for the cup. Amazingly, hockey had only been an organized sport in Manitoba for about a decade.

Official publications claim that hockey started in 1890 in Manitoba, but sports historian Morris Mott, of Brandon University, has found evidence that hockey was probably being played at least by 1886-87.

“It is impossible to say more than ‘probably’ because it may be that some of the ‘shinny’ or other bat-ball-goal games that had been played sporadically in the West for several years by the mid-1880s were actually ‘hockey,’” he wrote in the article An Immense Hold in the Public Estimation: The first Quarter Century of Hockey in Manitoba, 1886-1911 (Manitoba Pageant Spring/Summer 2002).

“However, the first hard evidence of participation comes in the reports of ‘hokey’ or ‘hocky’ or ‘hockey’ played on the Red River early in the winter of 1886-87.”

Mott said hockey began to take-off in 1892-93 in Winnipeg when two indoor rinks were in use and the Manitoba and North-West Amateur Hockey Association was formed to oversee competition among the top clubs.

That winter, an all-star team formed from three Winnipeg clubs went “to Ontario and Quebec and demonstrated that they could compete with the best players in the world.” The Winnipeg team won eight of 11 matches.

Organized hockey was also played in Portage la Prairie, Carberry and Brandon. “By 1893 there could not have been many Manitobans who were unaware that a new sport was gaining a big following,” wrote Mott.

But, not only were Manitobans playing hockey, they had become innovators in the sport. George “Whitey” Merritt is called the first great goaltender in hockey history, and is credited for the introduction of the goalie stick and the first use of cricket pads as protection. 

This was at a time when, according to the Montreal Rules in effect until 1917, “The goaltender must not during play, lie, kneel, or sit upon the ice, but must maintain a standing position.” The butterfly style or flopping on the ice and stacking goalie pads to stop the puck were not allowed.

Another significant difference to today’s game is that there were seven players on the ice at a time instead of six.

Other innovations from Manitoba included the wrist shot, tube skates and a lacrosse-style face-off that is still used today and was quickly adopted by Eastern teams.

A test of local prowess in the sport came in 1895 when the Winnipeg Victorias travelled east, winning four of five games against Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto.

By 1896, the “Vics” (also referred to in newspaper accounts as the “Pegs”) knew they were good enough to challenge for the Stanley Cup, although  followers of the Eastern teams still doubted their ability. It was equally fitting that their opponents would be the perennial Eastern champions of the same team name, the Montreal Victorias.

“The blizzards from the land of the setting sun, which trouped into Montreal on Wednesday evening,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on February 15, 1896, “created no little stir in the breasts of Montrealers. In sporting circles their advent has been the topic of discussion for the past few days. While recognizing that their pet hockey team was to be confronted by a very worthy foe, they were all quite confident that the Winnipeggers would return to the land from which they came without the trophy they were after.”

The Daily Nor’Wester of Winnipeg reported on February 15 that the Victoria rink in Montreal “was crowded to the very doors long before the hour when play was to commence, large numbers were turned away.”

The Vics confounded and surprised the Montreal’s fans, using a strong defence and then rushes to take the play into the Montreal zone during the first half (there were two halves — periods — with the first half referred to as the first game and the last half called the second game).

“Flett by his wonderful lifts (wrist shots) made the spectators open their mouths in amazement; a particularly fine one was taken advantage of by the forwards, who followed up closely,” reported the Free Press. “Howard got the puck in the corner, passed in front of the posts, and Armytage placed fairly between the posts.”

The Victorias had scored 10 minutes into the game.

“The Winnipeg yell went up from a dozen different portions of the rink, where little knots of westerners had secured places of vantage.”

Nine minutes into the second half (period), “Armytage made one of his old time rushes up the side,” the Free Press reported, “evading the Montreal defence men, and a decidedly lively scrimmage took place around the Montreal goal. Campbell managed to entice the disc past the Montreal goal keeper, and there was jubilation again in the ranks of the Winnipeg contingent. They surmised rightly that the victory was already theirs.”

Eight minutes into the second half, Don Bain of Winnipeg and a Montreal player were sent off the ice for “indulging in a little scuffle.” Under the rules, he could not reappear on the ice. Bain, who was considered one of the Vics’ best players, spent 32 minutes off the ice throughout the game for a number of infractions. Despite the loss of Bain after the scuffle, Winnipeg successfully settled into a defensive shell to keep their opponents at bay.

“This demonstrated the success of the defence,” according to the Free Press. “Flett and Merritt were simply impregnable, and it is freely admitted in Montreal that their equals have never been seen. Many shots were rained in on Merritt, but none got behind the posts.”

The newspaper said that for the last 15 minutes of the game, Montreal played “really wonderful hockey, but it was of no avail, the Winnipeg defence was impregnable.”

The Daily Nor’Wester reported that during the last minutes of the game Montreal “played a dashing, slashing game that kept the nerves of the Winnipeg spectators on the ragged edge until the superlative excellence of their defence restored confidence ...

“But as the assaults on the Winnipeg goal grew fiercer Flett began to loom up, and he gave for half an hour an exhibition of point playing unequalled in the history of hockey.”

The home account of the game also heaped praise upon Merritt. “During the last 15 minutes he had a great deal of stopping to do, and he did it magnificently.”

The game ended 2-0 in favour of the Vics, who thus became the first Western team to win the Stanley Cup.

“To sum up the match,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester, “the forwards won it in the first half but the back division saved it in the second half.”

The Montreal Gazette reported that the Winnipeg victory was a surprise to everyone but the victors.

The Montreal Herald said that a statue should be erected to Merritt “for there never was such a goal keeper.”

Following the final outcome, the Toronto Star said that there was no doubt that the better team had won.

The front page headline in the Free Press proclaimed A Famous Victory: Stanley Cup Wrested from Montreal. 

The Daily Nor’Wester reported that “the Winnipeg whirlwinds swoop down on Montreal.

“Three cheers and a tiger for the Winnipeg Victorias! All Winnipeg today rejoices, for the boys of the capital of the Prairie Province have won for themselves the laurel wreath of victory.”

In an era when betting on sporting events was common, newspapers reported Winnipeggers were flush with cash for having laid large bets on their team. “No less than two thousand cold plunkers (dollars) were passed over the Windsor hotel counter after the match to-night, and went into the jeans of the Winnipeg supporters,” according to the Free Press.

But, Winnipeg’s drink from the cup of champions was brief. 

As the champions of the Amateur Hockey Association, the Montreal Victorias challenged the Vics to a rematch. Since the cup was at the time in the Vics’ possession, the game was scheduled for Winnipeg on December 30, 1896.

The rematch was reported at the time as “the greatest sporting event in Winnipeg history.” Seats were being scalped for as much as $12 a piece.

At the end of the half (first period), the Vics appeared to be in control, leading 2-0, but the easterners roared back in the second half, scoring six goals for a final 6-5 victory.

The players on the Stanley Cup champion Vics were: George “Whitey” Merritt (goal), Rod “Doctor” Flett (point), Fred Higginbotham (cover), Jack Armytage (Captain, forward), C.J. “Tote” Campbell (forward) Donald “Dan” Bain (forward), H. Howard (forward), and Robert Benson (substitute).

(Next time: Winnipeg reclaims the Stanley Cup.)