Stories You Should Know: The Stanley Cup

Lord Stanley’s Cup

The Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy to be awarded in any professional sports league. It is named after Lord Stanley of Preston, a British citizen, who was appointed by Queen Victoria as the Governor General of Canada in 1888. While serving in Canada two of his sons became avid hockey players. In 1892, Lord Stanley gave Canada the original Cup, then called the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, to reward the best amateur hockey team in the land.

The first cup winner was the Montreal Hockey Club in 1893, who “defeated all comers during the late season, including the champions of the Ontario Association.” Controversy immediately erupted when the Ottawa Team of the Ontario Association complained that there were no challenge games scheduled, no rules to determine the winner. The rules were changed the next year to allow more challengers for the Cup.

The new rules did not have a formal playoff format to determine the participants. The leagues themself were responsible to pick their champions. The first Stanley Cup Playoff game occured in 1894, when the Montreal Hockey Club retained the Cup with a 3-1 win over the same Ottawa team that was shut out of the process the year before. Controversy returned in 1895. The Montreal Victorias won the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association league title, but the 2-time  defending champion Montreal Hockey Club somehow qualified for the challenge match, despite not winning their league title. Montreal Hockey Club won the game, 5-1, but the Stanley Cup was awarded to the Montreal Victorias anyway. The rules were tightened up the next year.

The Stanley Cup grew in prestige rapidly. The games were limited to amatuers until 1906, when the Montreal Wanderers proposed a rule change to allow professionals to participate. The change passed, and the Stanley Cup playoffs would never be the same. The professionals soon took over. The professional Wanderers won the Cup one month after the change.

The Montreal Wanderers were the first professional hockey team to win the Stanley Cup.

In 1907 the Kenora Thistles, representing a town of 4,000 in Ontario, captured the Stanley Cup by beating the Montreal Wanderers in a two game series.  The Thistle, led by Art Ross and Joe Hall, probably the two best hockey players at the time, repeated as Champions the next year. Kenora is the smallest city to ever hoist the Cup. They would surrender the Cup to the Wanderers on their next defense.

By 1915 the format was controlled by the two remaining professional hockey leagues. The National Hockey Association and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association had a gentleman’s agreement that the winner of their two leagues would compete for the Stanley Cup. This allowed American teams to compete for the first time. The Seattle Metropolitans in 1917 became the first champion representing an American city.

The Seattle Metropolitan’s were the first American team to win the Stanley Cup in 1917.

In 1919 tragedy hit the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the championship series tied 2-2-1 an influenza epidemic hit the Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans. Montreal, specifically was decimated. With four of their best players hospitalized, the sixth and deciding game was cancelled. Four days later Montreal’s best player, Joe Hall, died. The Stanley Cup was never awarded that year.

The best player for the Montreal Canadians, Joe Hall, died of the flu which he caught during the Stanley Cup. No Cup was awarded that year, 1919.

The Western Hockey League came into the picture in 1922, thus three league champions faced off against each other to determine the champion. This lasted for three years until the rise of the NHL (National Hockey League), which signed all the best players, and gained control of the Stanley Cup. The Victoria Cougars, of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, in 1925 was the last non-NHL team to win the Cup. Technically teams outside the NHL were still eligible to compete for the Stanley Cup, but as the NHL continued to consolidate its power it didn’t matter. By 1947 the trustee in charge of the Stanley Cup granted to the NHL control of the challengers for the Cup. The NHL then banned any team outside the NHL to compete for the Stanley Cup. The NHL has had complete control of the Stanley Cup since.

The Montreal Canadiens have won the most Stanley Cup Championship with 24. Surprisingly the Ottawa Hockey Club is second with 17, all prior to the professionals in 1916. Toronto Maple Leafs are next with 13, followed by the Detroit Red Wings with 11. The only other club to have double digit titles is another pre-NHL club, the Montreal Wanderers with 10. It is worth noting that the last Canadian Team to win the Stanley Cup was the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. An American team have now won 25 straight.

When Alex Ovechkin led the Washington Capitals to the championship last year it continued the tradition of Hockey’s best players getting their name on the Cup. Engraved in the Stanley Cup each year is every individual member of the team that has won it. That means every winner since the 1800s has their named etched in silver. Think of the greatest players in hockey history; Gordie Howe won four,  Maurice “Rocket” Richard won six, Bobby Orr two, Wayne Gretzky four, Mario Lemieux two, and Sidney Crosby three.

Ironically, Lord Stanley never awarded the Cup that bore his name. Recalled to England in 1893, he never returned to Canada, and died in 1908. He left a prominent legacy in Canada outside of hockey. Stanley Peak in British Columbia is named after him, as is Stanley Park in downtown Vancouver and Stanley Theatre. His largest contribution was as Governor General. He remained steadfastly non political, refusing many times to let his own personal politics to influence his decisions. Remember that every time you think of the Stanley Cup.

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