Canada lacrosse world champions — Winnipeg in1904 first to claim title

by Bruce Cherney

Lacrosse is a sport that generations ago helped bridge the gap between aboriginal and European cultures in North America. By 1892, the sport had transcended the playing fields of North America and attracted an international following, culminating in the establishment of a world championship in 1967. 

Competing in the tournament that ended last Saturday, and featured teams from around the globe, Canada defeated the U.S. 15-10 in the final and were crowned lacrosse world champions, a title they had last won 28 years ago. 

It was also in this game that a team from Winnipeg brought Olympic glory to Canada.

Often called the “fastest game on two feet,” lacrosse was so popular in this nation’s early history that it became the official sport of the province of Canada (Quebec and Ontario) through an act of the legislative assembly in 1859. This status was retained when the Dominion of Canada was created by the British North America Act in 1867.

While many consider hockey to be Canada’s national sport, the game on ice did not receive this status until relatively recently, and then it was only named by parliament as the national winter sport with lacrosse still retaining official status, though only as Canada’s national summer sport.

While lacrosse has been eclipsed by hockey and football — even basketball, baseball and soccer — in popularity among Canadians, it is still played across the land, especially in British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario. In fact, lacrosse has had something of a resurgence with the advent of professional teams which play box lacrosse, the indoor version of the game that has adopted some elements of hockey.

The first lacrosse games were played outdoors where wide open spaces allowed the free-flow of play which eventually evolved into the version of the game called “field” lacrosse when it became an organized sport. Wide open spaces were also used by generations of aboriginals across North America who played their own versions of lacrosse which, among other names, they called baggataway (Ojibway: Little brother of war) or tewaarathon (Mohawk). Some early writers reported that the field of play during native games of lacrosse could be kilometres in length with a tree, rock, pole 

or set of posts serving as goals (Encyclopedia of World Sport).

Aboriginals called lacrosse a gift from the Creator. They was used it to train warriors and resolve tribal disputes.

It was the French in the East who named it lacrosse. Missionary Jean-de-Brebeuf wrote about seeing the game played by natives and called it Ala crosse because the stick reminded him of a bishop’s crozier or Acrosse.

Field lacrosse, with 12 players per side, was the version of the organized game first played competitively in Manitoba and was brought to this province by Ontarians.

At the St. Louis in 1904, lacrosse was an official Olympic sport for the first time and the Winnipeg Shamrocks took on all challengers to win gold.

Unlike the International Lacrosse Federation Warrior World Championship in London, Ontario, featuring teams from Europe, North and South America, Asia, New Zealand and Australia that ended last weekend, the Shamrocks only had to face two opponents — a team from St. Louis and a Mohawk team from Brantford, Ontario. A team from Brooklyn, New York, pulled out of the competition in St. Louis at the last minute.

St. Louis was but one stop in the United States for the Shamrocks — 

referred to as the Western Canada lacrosse champions in newspapers — who also played matches in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Chicago, Illinois, as a warm-up to the Olympics.

According to a Winnipeg Morning Telegram article on July 12, 1904, the team spent 10 days travelling to the three cities. “Of those (teams) we found St. Paul to be the most aggressive,” said Shamrocks’ field captain (manager) Howard P. Carper.

Actually, the St. Paul team gave the Shamrocks a genuine scare at Lexington Park. The “hotly contested” game ended 6-6.

“The brilliant plays made by Armstrong of the Shamrocks was a feature of the game,” reported the Morning Telegram on July 4, 1904, “and while the St. Paul team appeared to be in better form than the visitors they could do no better than to break even ... the only 

regret was that one side or the other could not get a decisive victory.”

Despite ending in a tie, it was reported as the greatest lacrosse game ever played in St. Paul.

Surprisingly, Armstrong, who played so well in St. Paul, is not listed on the official roster of the International Olympic Committee as a member of the Shamrock team that won gold at 

St. Louis. (I was unable to find out what happened to him between St. Paul and 

St. Louis.)

St.Paul proved to be a difficult opponent, but the Calumets of Chicago were “just practice for Shams,” according to the July 5 headline in the Morning Telegram, with the Winnipeg team winning 14-5.

“The work of the Winnipegs was a revelation to the Chicago followers of the game,” said the special report from Chicago. “In defensive work the visitors showed to advantage, (George) Cloutier, their goaltender, proving almost impossible to score through ... The Canadians played the most accurate passing ever seen in this city, every movement showing them to be splendid players. Their dodging and backhand shots were far 

superior to the Calumets.”

The local newspaper said that 3,000 people showed up for the game, which was “easily the largest crowd to ever at a lacrosse game” in Chicago.

St. Louis was there next stop, but the Olympics were to be overshadowed by the World’s Fair occurring at the same time in the city. However, lacrosse was obviously popular among the fair-goers, as the final game played in World’s Fair Stadium was witnessed by a crowd reported to number 60,000 people.

In St. Louis, the Shamrocks were to have first played the Crescent Lacrosse Club of Brooklyn, but the team never showed up. Winnipeg’s Carper later explained that the Crescents backed out of the tournament when they saw how easily the Shamrocks had beaten Chicago.

In the first round, the St. Louis AAA beat the Brantford Mohawk Indians.

Winnipeg played the AAA for the first time on July 6. Carper said the St. Louis team was confident of victory and had some good individual players, “(but) they seemed to shoot too soon before getting close enough to the goal, and in this 

manner they counteracted all the good work they did by pass work.”

The Shamrocks defeated St. Louis 

6-1 on July 6, setting up the final for the next day. The first quarter of the final game was scoreless. Winnipeg scored one in the second, and the third quarter featured two goals by each team. The Shamrocks sealed the victory by scoring five unanswered goals in the fourth quarter for a 8-2 victory and the gold medal.

The victory was front page news in Winnipeg newspapers, a demonstration of the tremendous popularity of the sport locally.

According to the Lax Standard, the newsletter for the Society for Canadian Lacrosse Research (Summer 2002), the members of the victorious Shamrocks were: goal, George Cloutier; point, George Cattanach; cover, Ben Jamieson; defence, Jack Flett, George Bretz and Eli Blanchard; Centre, Stuart Laidlaw; home, Hilliard Lyle, Billy Brennaugh and Lawrence Pentland; outside, Sandy Cowan; and inside, Billy Burns.

The society explained that their list differs slightly from the official Olympic list because Winnipeg player Laidlaw is incorrectly given the first name Hilliard. The society said Laidlaw’s first name is Stuart and the other name belongs to Hilliard Lyle. 

On the way home to Winnipeg, the newly-crowned Olympic and world champions had a rematch in St. Paul and this time pulled out a close 8-7 victory on July 9.

The Shamrocks’ were feted when they returned home, but the team was soon embroiled in controversy.

It was the lacrosse rules formulated in 1867 by Dr. George Beers, a Montreal dentist, that were brought to Manitoba by settlers from Eastern Canada. By 1871, Manitoba had its first lacrosse club. In the three decades that followed, lacrosse was consistently among the most popular local sports.

In July 1892, it was estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 attended a lacrosse game at the Exhibition Grounds, the largest crowd until 1914 to witness a single sporting event in Winnipeg’s history.

Brandon University historian Morris Mott wrote in a 1981 Manitoba History magazine article, One Town’s Team, Souris and Its Lacrosse Club, 1887-1906, that it wasn’t uncommon for mayors to declare a half-day civic holiday so that Winnipeggers could watch matches between the Winnipeg Lacrosse Club and the Ninetieth Lacrosse  Club.

Lacrosse was also enthusiastically played and watched in towns and cities such as Brandon, Portage la Prairie, Rapid City, Roland, Holland, Manitou and Melita. But in the rural regions of the province, it was in Souris that lacrosse was enjoyed with the greatest passion.

The first lacrosse club in Souris — known at first as Plum Creek — was formed in 1874 from individuals who had a reputation for their play in Ontario. 

“By 1887 it was recognized, for a short time at least, as the championship club of the province, and from then until 1906, with the exception of about four years in the mid 1890s, it was the leading and most fervently supported sports club in the community,” wrote Mott.

The August 25, 1905, Souris Plaindealer said that compared to “our little town (there was) probably no other place in the broad Dominion of Canada where such enthusiasm prevails for the national ... game.”

The Souris club’s prowess on the lacrosse field was attributed to the hardy “sons of farmers,” thus their ability to out-muscle their opponents, according to Winnipeg newspapers.

Between 1902 and 1905, Souris had its best teams. In 1902, it won the intermediate championship of the Western Canada Lacrosse Association. Souris beat both the Mintos, another intermediate team, and the Shamrocks, the senior champions of the association, in that year. With their victory over the Shamrocks, Souris believed the were ready for the elite league of Manitoba lacrosse and in 1903 joined the senior WCLA.

When the Shamrocks from St. Louis, their first major opponent was to be Souris. The Morning Telegram reported the day after, on July 20, 1904, that 2,000 had gathered to witness the match, but those attending would go home disappointed.

“The Souris team refused to play the game because Robert McGibney, better known as “Buck,” appeared in a Shamrock uniform, prepared to take part in the contest ...” 

Referee Charlie Quinn lined the players up for the start of the game, noticed that McGibney was in the line-up and promptly cancelled the game, awarding the contest to Souris.

McGibney had been officially accused of being a professional just prior to the match by the Winnipeg Mintos. Western Canada Lacrosse Association (formed in 1896 and replaced the Manitoba Lacrosse Association) president E.B. Nixon agreed and had suspended the newly-arrived player from Ontario. The president had ordered referee Quinn  to call off the game if McGibney played and had informed the Shamrocks before the match of his decision.

“The expressed charge in the affidavit was that McGibney had received money from (Joe) Moir to coach and train the Minto Lacrosse Club, which, under the amateur rules, constitutes professionalism,” reported the Morning Telegram.

But, that wasn’t the end of the problems confronted by those who had paid to see the game. After the game was called, the crowd went to the box office for a refund, but “a big delegation of small boys who had climbed the fence, went through the stand entrance and as a result before half the people in the stand were able to pass the ticket taker the supply of tickets taken in had been exhausted. The 25 cent tickets ran out too, and on consequence, many spectators were unable to get back their coin.”

The Shamrocks got their revenge on July 21 when they filed their own affidavit with the association president, calling for the expulsion of the Mintos for professionalism.

The Shamrocks accused the Mintos of having paid $75 to Barney Quinn to play for them. Quinn had apparently played just one game for the Mintos, an exhibition match, not a league game, and had gone back to Ottawa before the Winnipeg team had played its last league game.

Carper had also notified the WCLA that he had applied to the Judicial Committee for a reconsideration of the McGibney case, asking that the earlier decision awarding the game to Souris be overturned.

In reply, Nixon said that McGibney would never play in the league as long he was president of the WCLA.

“I am satisfied that McGibney violated the amateur rules,” said Nixon, as 

reported in the Morning Telegram. “... I was within my power in suspending McGibney.”

Meanwhile, the Minto club denied it had paid anyone to play for its team.

“I can truthfully say, which is more than certain  other clubs can do,” said Moir. “That not a player of the twelve received a cent for playing. As for the claim that Barney Quinn was paid $75 for playing with us that is all nonsense. Quinn did not get anything but a pleasant smile, though he tried hard enough to collar some coin. He went to C.R. Gordon, the president of the Minto Club, and tried to get $25 for a suit of clothes, but was turned down.”

Moir hinted to journalists that if the Shamrocks continued to pursue the matter then other players might be tossed out of the league for being professionals.

When approached by the media about alleged proof of payments to McGibney, Moir came up with an explanation that didn’t involve the Minto club executive. He said he had personally paid McGibney to coach the team, not the club.

When he was asked if had gotten his money back, Moir replied that he hadn’t, “but it is fixed so that no one else can get it.”

“It is said that the money which Moir claimed had been paid to McGibney was deposited by the latter in a local bank and Moir put a lien against it,” reported the Morning Telegram.

The eventual outcome was that McGibney was not allowed to play for the Shamrocks or any other WCLA team and the earlier outcome was still in Souris’ favour.

But, a champion still had to be declared. On July 23, the Winnipeg Lacrosse Club (Winnipegs) journeyed to Souris where the visitors were beaten 8-2 during one of the “fastest and most 

brilliant games ever played here,” 

reported the Manitoba Free Press.

The championship was again at stake on August 19 in Souris, but the Free Press reported that the game against the Shamrocks was marred by “considerable roughness on both sides” and poor refereeing by T. Carson of Arden (about 16 kilometres northeast of Neepawa). 

The Morning Telegram was kinder to the Arden referee, saying he “had a hard proposition to handle and did it to the entire satisfaction of both teams.”

Souris managed to score first “and for 15 minutes it was a continual spurt from end to end,” according to the Morning Telegram. The Winnipeg team tied the score before the completion of the first half which ended 1-1. Souris opened the scoring in the second half, going ahead 2-1 at the 12 1/2 minute mark.

“The Shams now began to rush matters and put forth every effort to score, but the Souris defence kept them at bay until 20 seconds of the call of time, when Lyle by a sensational run, scored the second goal, thus tieing the game.”

The referee left it up to the two teams to decide about overtime, but there was no agreement. The referee announced the final score was a 2-2 tie.

Souris ended up being declared provincial champions, actually WCLA, based on their overall winning record against senior league competition — or were they the champions? It took another six weeks for arguments between teams and league officials before Souris was finally awarded the WCLA championship.

The Shamrocks may have prevailed in St. Louis as the Olympic champions and thus world champions, but they couldn’t get the best of their local competition. The team that Souris beat was essentially the same one that played in St. Louis and won the gold medal — O’Brien who didn’t play in St. Louis was in the Souris game and Brennaugh had been in St. Louis and not in Souris.

The 1904 Shamrocks have been inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.