A History Of The Montreal Canadiens Ownership 1909 - 1935

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As the Montreal Canadiens imminent sale to the Molson family nears, it is interesting to note the diversity of previous ownership groups of the hockey club, their differing success, and the perception of these figures in the public eye.

This is Part One of a series on the Canadiens owners throughout their 100 year history.

J. Ambrose O'Brien 1909-10

The initial Canadiens owner, was its founder - John Ambrose O'Brien, who created the club on December 2, 1909. The creation of the club occurred much by happenstance.

O' Brien had wanted in on the formation of the flegling Canadian Hockey Association, a new professional league about to launch in late 1909. O'Brien owned the Renfrew Creamery Kings, as well as two other hockey clubs and the buildings they played in. Coming from a very wealthy family in eastern Ontario, O'Brien had his heart set on winning a Stanley Cup for the city of Renfrew.

Gathered at the league's meeting at the Windsor hotel, O'Brien's hopes were immediatly dealt a crushing blow. Having been laughed off as dreaming small town new timer, O' Brien bid was shunned so fast it left him raging. As he walked off steam in the Windsor's hallways, he met up with Jimmy Gardner - player, manager, and co owner of the Montreal Wanderers.

Gardner had also been left high and dry by the scheming entrepreneurs of the CHA. Unwilling to accept the Wanderers into the new league, due to their small 3,000 seat Jubilee home rink, the league heads from Montreal, Ottawa and Quebec tricked Gardner from their plans. After convincing the Wanderers owner to vote for the disolution of the league's previous ECAHA incarnation, and signing documents stating the termination, they then went forth as a new league, thus barring the Wanderers entrance.

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Gardner met the equally peeved O'Brien in the hallway and together they launched a plan to form a league of their own. Naming their new entry the National Hockey Association, it culled Gardner's Wanderers and teams owned by O'Brien in haileybury,Cobalt and Renfrew. All that would be missing was a french rival team to the english Wanderers.

A suggestion from Gardner that the team be named Le Canadien and stocked entirely with french speaking locals was greeted enthusiastically by O'Brien, who financed the team during its first 12 game season. Taking on financial responsability for the club, O'Brien did so conditionally, on the terms that it be turned over to Montreal ownership as soon as possible.

Le Canadiens endured a miserable first campaign. The CHA disbanded after a pair games, merging with the NHA, and thus strengthening the league. Le Canadiens were ill equiped to compete, and lost ten of twelve games. The first year club also bled money, as poor attendance hindered the bottom line. Along the season's course, O'Brien essentially purchased his own star player, Newsy Lalonde, transplanting him from Montreal to Renfrew for a Cup run that fell short

In the final tally, the NHA were in the process of mothballing the Canadiens franchise for a season, allowing for O'Brien to recoup his losses. At this point, the club was simply represented by an organizational paper debt. If that weren't enough, O'Brien was then hit with a lawsuit for copyright name infringement by Le Club Athletique Canadien, who had just failed in a bid to purchase the Wanderers. Whether the lawsuit was serious or tactical, it played directly into O'Brien wishes. The NHA agreed to have the CAC owners pay a nominal fee to O'Brien in return for their dropping of the lawsuit. The "Le Canadien" team, on paper, returned three years later as the Toronto Tecumsehs. The CAC were then awarded the Haileybury Comets club, which they would restock with many of the same french locals from Le Canadien.

With his finaces intact, O'Brien's initial wish for the club to find local ownership was complete, abstractly by league and court manoeverings.

George Kennedy / Le Club Athletique Canadien - 1910 - 1921

 

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George Kendall was a professional wrestler and entrepreneur whose wide ranging interests lead to his aquisition of the Club Athletique Canadien in the early 1900's and the Montreal Canadiens in 1910.

 

Changing his stage name to Kennedy, he pursued his interests of sport through the CAC which he founded with the help of

Dr. Joseph-Pierre Gadbois. After growing the club through smartly promoted wrestling and boxing events, Kennedy became intrigued by amateur hockey, and wished to add a professional team to his clubs ranks.

After attempting to purchase the Montreal Wanderers to no avail, Kennedy was then rebuffed upon inquiring to the NHA for an expansion franchise. Noting that the NHA's Le Canadien were making use of a name he felt was a copyright infringement of the incorporated name of his athletic club, he launched a lawsuit against both the league and the team. The case never went to court, as the NHA settled, giving Kennedy the former Haileybury Comets franchise and the Canadiens name in exchange for $7,500. The fee essentially bought off former club owner J.A. O'Brien's incurred debt from the team.

Under Kennedy's managerial and promotional skills, the Canadiens thrived, showing a first year profit of $4,000 - quite impressive for the time. On the ice, the new owner reorganized the Canadiens to profitability with astute moves such as moving the team's quarters to the Westmount Arena, which had double the seating capacity as the Jubilee, signing goaltender Georges Vezina, and arguing successfully to retain french stars such as Newsy Lalonde, Jack Laviolette and Didier Pitre.

Off the ice, using his promotional knowhow, Kennedy helped ignite French Canadian nationalist sentiments, stimulating competition between his club and the Wanderers, which greatly helped to increase the number of spectators in seats. In essense, Kennedy, a sly Irishman, helped forge the team's soon to be termed "Flying Frenchman" identity. Leaving no stone unturned, the new boss redesigned the Canadiens sweaters, bringing in the tricolore red, white and blue scheme, fortified by a big Irish green logo with a stylized Old English "CA" lettering.

Above all else, Kennedy was a good businessman with an eye on the bottom line. As the CAC was a shareholder based club, he understood that his main function was to keep dividends flowing into shareholder's pockets. In doing so, he maintained a ready stream of interested investors, which gave the corporation solid continuity.

By 1912, Kennedy began to understand that aligning french only players placed him in a catch 22 of sorts. Generally, the french speaking stars were the equal to the league's best, but as a group, they could not maintain the NHA pace. In addition to that dilema, the french stars had Kennedy over a barrell, as other teams could not sign them. The players contract negotiating leverage came from western Canada, where the Pacific Coast Hockey Association were paying big bucks and robbing the league of star quality. Kennedy knew that in order to keep the clun competitive and profitable, he would need to consider employing english players.

Navigating through accusations in the media that he was diluting the club's distinct local flavour, Kennedy won the right to begin employing players of both languages from the NHA. It was an arduous, argumentive battle and victory for Kennedy and the Canadiens, as Ottawa ownership especially disaproved of the team getting it both ways. When the owner naturally complied with allowing other teams to sign french players as well, a deal was sealed.

During Kennedy's reign, the Canadiens won the NHA title three times, winning it's first Stanley Cup in 1916, followed by league championships in 1917 and 1919. Prior to the 1917-18 season, Kennedy was instrumental in assisting with the NHA's transition into the NHL.

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The 1916 Stanley Cup champs (Photo: International Hockey Archives)

 

Shortly after the Canadiens first Stanley Cup, a tragedy altered the course of the club's standing. In May of 1916, a fire swept through the CAC gymnasium, destroying the building. With the combined effect of the failure of a Montreal Canadians professional lacrosse club, Kennedy sought to protect the principal asset that the hockey team had become, by encorporating the club as its own financial entity. Thus, "Le Club de Hockey Canadien" was formed corporately speaking, while the CAC was rebuilt, with a new building, becoming a separate financial interest and endeavor.

Cosmetically, in regards to the hockey club, the change was mainly apparent in a logo alterations. Hence, the "A" inside the oval "C" was replaced by an "H", which stood for "hockey".

Six games into the inaugural 1917-18 NHL season, the league and the city of Montreal were dealt a fateful change of course. A fire that levelled the Westmount Arena - home to both the Canadiens and Wanderers - knocked the former from the league. The Canadiens survived the incident, due in part to being better financially structured at that particular moment in time. The Westmount was property of the Wanderers owners, who coincidentally and conspicuously, were bleeding money at the time of the fire. The Canadiens moved their operations back to the 3000 seat Jubilee Arena, donned the sweaters of a Hochelaga club for the next home game, and took the financial hit the setback incurred. The Wanderers were too far in debt at the time to follow suit.

Tragedy reared its fateful head once more, resulting in the doomed 1919 Stanley Cup final, that helped bring an end to Kennedy's successful run as the Canadiens owner.

That winter, the Spanish Flu virus was just beginning to ravage the world's population. As NHL regular season champions, the Canadiens headed west, as they had in 1917, to challenge for the Stanley Cup in Seattle. Kennedy took all neccesary precautions prior to the trip. In assuring his troops were healthy, they were vaccinated against the virus before leaving Montreal. Kennedy also took out insurance on the club, should anything happen along the course.

Landing in Victoria, British Columbia for a pair of exhibitions, the team, unbeknownst at the time, came in contact with the virus. Following the fifth game in Seattle one week later, several members of the team fell ill, cancelling the completing of the series. While the majority of the Canadiens survived the illness, Montreal defenseman Joe Hall, the elder statesman of the team, succumbed to it's viscious effects and died within days. Kennedy himself was afflicted, and his health remained in a constant precarious state until his death in October of 1921.

On November 4, 1921, Kennedy's widow sold the team to a syndicate consisting of local businessmen Léo Dandurand, Joseph Cattarinich, and Louis Létourneau. The sum - a bargain deal of $11,000!

Léo Dandurand, Joseph Cattarinich, Louis Létourneau - 1921 - 1935

 

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In Montreal business circles, Léo Dandurand, Joseph Cattarinich, and Louis Létourneau were well known as the Three Musketeers - a spirited entrepreneurial group whose primary interests revolved around horseracing and racetrack betting. The trio were heavily involved in several Montreal area businesses and were well known among the community when they purchased the Canadiens from the widow of George Kennedy in 1921.

Dandurand was the most boisterous of the three. Born an American in Bourbonnais, Illinois in 1889, he moved to Montreal at age 16, already well versed in the local language. Cattarinich, was a former Canadiens player, who had several local business in town since leaving the team not long after it's inception. Létourneau was less known in the public eye.

 

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For much of the trio's ownership tenure with the club, Dandurand was it's jolly public persona, handling the management of the team and its assets. A promoter at heart - much in the Kennedy manner - Dandurand was a skilled ringmaster when handling public relations. What rendered him successsful in his endeavors, was a sharp sense of people and their abilities.

Cattarinich represented the hockey acumen side. A life long sportsman, the one time Canadiens goalie understood the inner workings of the game better than his counterparts, and was blessed with great judgement when it came to assessing club needs. Back in 1910, it was Cattarinich who lobbied for the signing of Georges Vezina in goal, despite the fact that he would lose his own job to him. A principalled man, for Cattarinich, the good of the team always came first, and took care of the rest.

Létourneau was the quietest member of the trio, rarely making public statements or ventures in regards to the team. He dedicated himself mostly to money matters concerning the group's wide ranging interests.

Dandurand, Cattarinich, and Létourneau would prove to be the Canadiens most successful owners to date. In their fourteen year reign, the club would win three Stanley Cups (1924, 1930, 1931) in addition to an NHL championship in 1925.

 

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The Three Musketeers were impeccable in the first decade of their run. Under their leadership, the club transitioned aging star Newsy Lalonde into Aurel Joliat - a trade either due to brilliant good luck or stunning vision. They followed that masterstroke by the scouting, courting, swaying and signing of Howie Morenz - a player whose talent and charisma would not only lead the Habs to glory, but enable the NHL to sell it's game south of the border as well. When goalie Vezina succumed to tuberculosis in 1926, the trio found a suitable replacement in George Hainsworth within a season.

Perhaps the two shrewdest moves parlayed by Dandurand and company occurred in the mid 1920's, and both represented acute hindsight and forward vision. If Dandurand has a legacy, it states that he was no fool when sniffing out the opportunity to make a buck.

Around the time of the Canadiens second Stanley Cup in 1924, interest in the city was building for a second Montreal team. It had been six seasons since the Montreal Wanderers had vanished from the NHL scene - 6 games into the inaugural NHL campaign - due to a fire that detroyed the Westmount Arena they shared with the Canadiens. Dandurand, was surprisingly open to the idea of a local team moving in on his home turf. Knowing full well that a rivalry translated into more money in the Canadiens owner's pockets, Dandurand allowed a group calling themsleves the Canadian Arena Company to set up shop for a minimal fee of $15,000. Territorial rights would never again be so cheap!

Dandurand was a well connected and informed man, and surely understood where the CAC were headed.

The rival team became the Montreal Maroons, and they quickly reignited the lost Wanderers rivalry. To suggest the rivalry sparked an inferno would almost be understatement. Battles between the Canadiens and Maroons often neccessitated police involvement to quell fervors in the stands, as well as the heated furnace on ice. It was the bitterest of rivalries, and as Dandurand predicated, fans were all too ready to be witness to it and buy in.

The CAC built Montreal Forum also presented an opportunity for Dandurand and company. Since 1920, the Canadiens had been playing home games on the natural ice surface confines of the Mount Royal Arena, whose seating arrangement was substantially less than the spanking new Montreal Forum.

When the 1924-25 season began, the Canadiens first date at the Mount Royal Arena on November 20 needed to be moved to the Forum, due to bad ice conditions. While the arena was built with the Maroons in mnd, history notes that it was the Canadiens who first played there, defeating the Toronto St. Pats by a 7-1 score.

Following lawsuits between the Canadiens and the Mount Royal Arena, the Canadiens would soon emerge unscathed by 1926, with the Forum as their shared home rink with the Maroons.

 

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With a solid team bolstered by reliable veterans, the Canadiens were Cup contenders for the remainder of the decade. By the onset of the Great Depression at the dawn of the 1930's, the Canadiens were greatly placed atop the NHL, with Stanley Cup championships in 1930 and 1931.

This would be the peak years of the Dandurand, Cattarinich, and Létourneau triumvirate. The group refused a sale offer reported to be in the $600,000 neighbourhood. Not long after passing that over, Létourneau sold his shares to Dandurand and Cattarinich for $150,000.

Once the Depression hit full force, it seemed that Dandurand became distracted. He was spending less and time involved in hockey operations, focusing more of his energy on the racetracks, where more serious coin was being made. As the Canadiens team aged, and the Depression raged, the value of the club sagged. In 1933, Dandurand turned down an offer from Cleveland interests for $300,000. By 1935, Dandurand and Cattarinich had to sell, as the Canadiens fortune plummetted on the ice and off it, as ticket sales were sliced in half by the hard times.

On September 17, 1935, the last two Musketeers sold the team for a measly $165,000 - a considerable hit in light of what they paid for Létourneau's share.

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