The Stanley Cup, 11 February 2002. Photo credit: Uncleweed.
Montrealers are quick to boast about the Canadiens’ record 24 Stanley Cup trophies but some hockey historians lament how few citizens know their city has actually won 41.
Jean Beliveau’s stoicism and Maurice Richard’s icy glare are central to city lore, but little is known about the five other teams — the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, the Victorias, Shamrocks, Wanderers and Maroons — whose players hoisted Lord Stanley’s cup 17 times.
Montrealers seem to have bequeathed the narrative of their hockey history to the National Hockey league, which, according to historian Michel Vigneault, isn’t particularly interested in telling stories that predate the league’s inception 100 years ago.
“The NHL was created in 1917 and everything before is not NHL — so we don’t care,” said Vigneault, who wrote his master’s and PhD theses on the history of hockey in Montreal.
Even the city itself has blind spots about its hockey history, added Vigneault, a lecturer at McGill University and Universite du Quebec a Montreal.
The website for Montreal’s ongoing 375th anniversary celebrations included a story falsely describing the Canadiens as the oldest hockey team in the world, he said.
Vigneault said he wrote twice to the city to have them correct it.
“It just goes to show Montreal doesn’t know its own hockey history,” he noted.
Earl Zukerman, the sports information officer for McGill’s varsity teams, says the media tend to focus on NHL history but that “even then they make grave errors.”
“As an amateur historian and as someone who cares about the history, when I hear ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ people say ‘Original Six,’ I cringe,” he said.
“I find it’s incredibly ignorant. It’s quite shameful and you know, it amazes me how this keeps getting perpetuated.”
Of the so-called “Original Six,” only Montreal and Toronto existed in 1917, and Toronto’s team at the time was known as the “Arenas.”
Vigneault said part of the reason people make mistakes about the history of the game is because it’s complicated.
There were many teams before 1917, a relatively loose organizational structure compared with today, and many squads were only around for a few seasons.
Moreover, before the first official hockey game, which Vigneault said was held in Montreal in 1875, details about the sport and its origins are murky.
But the game grew quickly afterwards, especially in Montreal, which hosted the first hockey tournament, in 1883, during the city’s Winter Carnival.
During one week, the Victorias, the McGill University Hockey Club and the Quebec City Bulldogs competed for the Carnival Cup, a trophy that can be seen at Montreal’s McCord Museum.
“It’s a gorgeous cup and it’s really hockey’s first championship cup,” said Zukerman. “The names of the players and the referee are engraved on it. And the tradition of engraving names started with that.”
Ten years later, in 1893, Gov. Gen. Lord Stanley donated a cup to the best team out of all the various Canadian hockey leagues across the country.
Teams had to win their league in order to play for the Stanley Cup, Vigneault explained.
Zukerman says the actual Winter Carnival trophy was valued at $750, compared with $50 for Lord Stanley’s.
“All that history is unknown to most and it’s a shame,” Zukerman said.
Montreal hockey pre-NHL tells the story about the urbanization of the city and the country, and of relations between the English and French.
The elite anglophone students at Montreal’s university prep schools introduced the game to French-Canadians, who took separate classes but shared sports facilities, Vigneault explained.
Moreover, the location of ice rinks across the city follows the expansion of Montreal’s aqueduct, which brought water — and ice for rinks — across the rapidly expanding metropolis.
In 1935, the owners of the anglophone Maroons bought the Canadiens, a team mostly composed of francophones.
For financial reasons, they closed the English-speaking Maroons, despite it being the better team of the two.
The Canadiens were saved because they had the bigger following, due to francophones outnumbering English-speakers in the city.
As the Canadiens continue their playoff run, Vigneault and Zukerman urge fans to celebrate their team, but to also make an effort to broaden their hockey knowledge.
“It’s (NHL) history, but it’s not Montreal’s story,” said Vigneault. “That’s the problem. Everybody knows about the Canadiens and nobody knows about the rest.”
Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press
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