Lord Stanley of Preston, who was governor general of Canada from 1888 to 1893, was one of those devoted British sportsmen who helped to create the world of organized sport that so dominates our culture today. The British gave the world football (soccer), rugby, tennis, golf, cricket and many other sports – all in the name of developing healthy bodies and minds that could hold the far-flung British Empire together.
Stanley hoped that those sports dearest to the imperialist heart, such as cricket and rugby, would flourish in the colonies. But “corrupted" by French and American influences, Canada was already developing its own sporting interests, notably that hybrid of bandy on ice that the locals called “hockey."After a few Canadian winters, Stanley himself became a fan of ice hockey. He sponsored a large outdoor rink at Rideau Hall and gave his blessing to a Government House hockey team who dubbed themselves the Rideau Rebels.
In March 1890, the Rebels played a match against a team of parliamentarians, which included a senator and several MPs. Two of Stanley’s sons, Algernon and Arthur, played for the Rebels. Perhaps in this political nation it is fitting that one of sport’s greatest competitions arose from a tilt between Canadian politicos!
The two Ottawa teams grew ambitious and combined to challenge Toronto for hockey supremacy. The ensuing game featured bad ice, fisticuffs and unruly fans. The Rebels prevailed 5-4. Stanley decided that such competitions should be celebrated and that gave him his idea to donate a cup.
The gold-lined, silver bowl was ready for the 1892-93 season. (Stanley paid for it out of his own pocket. It cost him $48.67.) Initially called the Dominion Challenge Cup, it soon took the name of its donor.
Stanley hoped that his beloved Ottawa team would be the first to defend the cup, but after some political manoeuvring, the cup was awarded to the Montreal Athletic Association. The Ottawa Capitals were the challengers.
The first Stanley Cup playoff game took place in Montreal on March 22, 1894. Newspapers reported a spirited crowd of some 5000. “Tin horns, strong lungs and a general rabble predominated. The match resulted in favor of Montreal by 3 goals to 1. The referee forgot to see many things." The Montreal Gazette reported, “There was ‘siss-boom-ah’ ‘rah-rah-rah’ and several other audible tokens of imbecility and enthusiasm…. Every lady almost in the rink wore the favors of her particular club and never did belted knight in joust or tourney fight harder than the hockey men."
Was this the Golden Age of Sport, when devoted amateurs competed for club or community and for the love of the game? When small Canadian communities could compete with the biggest cities for hockey’s holy grail? Early winners of the cup included the Winnipeg Victorias, Ottawa Silver Seven, Montreal Wanderers, Kenora Thistles and Quebec Bulldogs.
In 1916 the Stanley Cup, surely against the intentions of its donor, became the exclusive domain of the National Hockey League. The values of commercialism would prevail, putting the Cup beyond the reach of all but a few Canadian teams. James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.
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