WINNIPEG – The year was 1896 and the Stanley Cup looked more like a simple silver fruit bowl than the multi-tiered trophy NHLers hoist today.
Frederick Arthur Stanley, the hockey-loving governor general who donated the challenge cup to recognize Canada’s best amateur team, left for his home in England only three years earlier.
But the cup itself had never left Montreal. That is until an upstart team from Western Canada issued a challenge, then had the audacity to win 2-0 and take the cup back to Winnipeg, where the first ever Stanley Cup parade soon followed.
And so began the Stanley Cup’s travels around North America as hockey’s supreme object of desire.
The story of the Winnipeg Victorias and their first Stanley Cup win (they had two more) has been told in “Champion City,” a documentary by Winnipeg’s Farpoint Films.
“To have the wild and woolly west show up and take a trophy like that from you, it sort of sparked the imagination of everybody across Canada,” said Andrew Wall, the man behind the 30-minute documentary. “Every league, every hockey team was like ‘Hey, we can vie for this national cup.'”
He said he saw the dusty banners that hung in the rafters of the old Winnipeg Arena years ago, heralding the exploits of the Victorias.
But he basically forgot about them until researching another documentary, when he came upon an account of the 20th anniversary of that 1896 game.
“We somehow forgot the story behind it and the relevance and maybe because it’s not an eastern story, it’s a Winnipeg story,” he said. “It was so relevant to the game of hockey and so crucial to the game of hockey.”
The Victorias are a local legend but some of the players are national legends.
Donald (Dan) Henderson Bain was the Victorias centre. Years later, he was recognized as Canada’s outstanding athlete of the last half of the 19th century. Photos show a dashing young man with the thick, handlebar moustache popular at the time.
He’s in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and was one of the initial 12 players selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame when it was founded in 1945.
You name the sport and he excelled at it. He had only been with the Victorias for a year when they went to Montreal.
“In many ways these guys were incredible athletes of their time,” said Wall.
The team they played to win the cup was also named the Victorias, another sign of how things have changed. There isn’t a French name to be found on the roster, which included Percival Molson. The CFL’s Montreal Alouettes currently play in a stadium named after him.
The game itself was also different. Many of the positions on a team back then will have today’s fans scratching their heads.
Bain at centre, Colin (Tote) Campbell at left wing, Attie Howard at right wing and George Merritt in goal all sound familiar. But then the Winnipeg Victorias had Rod Flett at point, Fred Higginbotham and Charles Johnstone at coverpoint and Jack Armytage as rover and team captain. Bob Benson was the spare left-right wing.
For the film, Wall recreated the game with local actor/hockey players on the ice of the Winnipeg Winter Club (Bain helped found the original Winter Club). Coping with strange rules and awkward equipment wasn’t easy, Wall said.
“The guys were really complaining, ‘These sticks are too short, we can’t lift with them,”’ said Wall. “I said ‘Exactly.'”
He tried to outfit them with skates that looked close to what players might have worn back then but had to settle for skates from the 1950s and ’60s.
“The guys who did get the period skates on or something that looked period were in a lot of pain,” he said.
There was no forward passing and while lifting of the puck was allowed, you had to dump it into the opposing zone and couldn’t touch it until the other side did.
“It was rugby and football rules forced onto the ice,” said Wall.
The players were all amateurs so they had careers outside of sport and many of them were prominent businessmen.
Besides the Stanley Cup parade, the Victorias debuted a few other novelties for 19th and early 20th century hockeyfans.
Merritt wore pads in goal, but they were made for cricket players.
“Whether he was the first guy to use them we don’t know, but he definitely was the first guy to introduce them on that kind of stage,” said Wall.
And while it isn’t part of Wall’s film or that first Stanley Cup win, Bain introduced the face mask (to protect a broken nose) and scored the first overtime goal, both in 1901 when the Victorias won the cup again.
The cup itself remained an amateur trophy for only a few more years.
In 1906 professionals were allowed in and by 1908 they had taken over the cup and the Allan Cup was created for amateur hockey. A series of professional leagues competed for the Stanley Cup, including the NHL, which officially gained exclusive control in 1947.
The film is available free to MTS subscribers in Manitoba but Wall says they are working on broader distribution.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version reported that the film was only available on pay-per-view.