• Brian McFarlane

Toronto’s First Cup Champs

The inaugural season of the NHL was an agonizing one, and by the time a Toronto team, the Blueshirts, skated off with the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1918, league organizers must have been concerned about the future of hockey in Canada. Over the course of the schedule, the newly formed league had weathered a series of threats, headaches, squabbles and bewildering events.

On the eve of the NHL opener in Montreal, the owner of the Montreal Arena said he was fed up with the poor caliber of hockey displayed by the two NHL clubs based there, the Canadiens and Wanderers, and threatened to turf them both and reserve the ice for pleasure skating if the locals didn’t shape up.

The Wanderers won their first home game over Toronto by a margin of 10–9. It was wartime, and soldiers in uniform were invited to fill the many empty seats for the opener. Little did the Wanderers know that their first victory would also be their last. A few days later, the Montreal Arena burned to the ground, forcing the Wanderers (with a 1–3 record and 35 goals against) to withdraw from the circuit. Prior to the season, the Quebec franchise had decided not to ice a team, so there were only three teams — the Canadiens (who hastily made arrangements to play at the Jubilee Rink), Ottawa and Toronto — left in competition.

When Ottawa’s starters skated out for a game in Toronto in January, the Senators bench was empty — they had no substitutes on hand. Toronto reciprocated by emptying its own bench. It was the only NHL game ever played with the minimum of 12 players involved.

Later that month, “Bad Joe” Hall of Montreal and Alf Skinner of Toronto tried to decapitate each other in a vicious stick-swinging duel. Both were arrested and hauled into court, where a lenient judge released them with suspended sentences.

Two Toronto stars, Harry Cameron and Reg Noble, were fined $100 each by management after they refused to play in a game at Montreal in February. They had also been caught breaking training.

Toronto tough guy Ken Randall was fined $15 by the league for lambasting game officials. He was suspended until he paid the fine — plus other outstanding fines of $20. Randall grudgingly coughed up $32 in bills and some rolled coins totaling three dollars. He tossed the change on the ice, where a player whacked a roll with his stick, scattering pennies in all directions.

The Jubilee Rink was so tiny that one Montreal game was transferred to Quebec City. Canadiens scoring whiz Joe Malone, on loan from the dormant Quebec Bulldogs, scored 44 goals in 20 games, a per-game pace that remains unmatched.

Toronto and Montreal were tied in the standings, and met in a two-game, total-goals playoff. Toronto won the league championship, 10 goals to 7. Both games were described as slugfests.

Toronto went on to capture the Stanley Cup over Vancouver, the champions of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, winning three games to two on home ice. The westerners wore very little padding and were pounded by the more aggressive Blueshirts. The fifth game was tied 1–1 in the third period when Toronto’s Corb Denneny, who had tallied 20 goals in 21 league games, broke through to slam home the winning goal and become Toronto’s first NHL playoff hero. The Blueshirts, soon to be known as the Arenas, became the first NHL club to win the Stanley Cup.

It wasn’t the first time the trophy resided in Toronto, however. In 1914, the Blueshirts were members of the National Hockey Association, the NHL’s forerunner. Playing before small crowds, the Blueshirts defeated the western champions from Victoria, British Columbia, to seal their claim to Canadian hockey supremacy.

Corb Denneny would score the goal that propelled Toronto, by now renamed the St. Patricks, into the 1922 Stanley Cup finals. After another 20-goal season, Denneny scored the decisive marker against Ottawa in the NHL playoffs, advancing the team to the finals against Vancouver of the PCHA. Toronto sharpshooter Cecil “Babe” Dye, with 11 goals in seven games, was the playoff hero as Toronto captured the Stanley Cup for the third time — the second time as a member of the NHL.

It would be another 10 years before Toronto claimed a fourth Stanley Cup. By then, the city’s hockey powerhouse would be known as Maple Leafs, performing in a world-class arena before sellout crowds and guided by the firm hand of a controversial, colorful hockey visionary named Constantine Falkland Kerrys (Conn) Smythe.