A Hundred Year Flashback: The Story, Details, Media Rumours And Unprecedented Excitement That Lead To The First Ever Montreal Canadiens Game On January 5, 1910

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Some things change in the course of 100 seasons, some things remain the same.

In the beginning, pro hockey was all about money, and the city of Montreal was consumed with its favorite sport, even then, shall it be suggested, from the first drop of the puck.

It was 100 years ago, on this very day, that the Montreal Canadiens played their first official hockey game.

On January 5, 1910, the Canadiens defeated the Cobalt Silver Kings, 7-6 in overtime. 

Well, at least it was intented to be an official game, that is until the Canadian Hockey Association and the fledgling National Hockey Association decided a merger was in order, thus wiping out the Canadiens first scheduled official game and win.

The story, of why the official game is muddy in the record books, is a complicated and intricate one. And if you have ever believed that the city of Montreal became "hockey mad" sometime in the mid 1950's with a dynasty unleashed, well, you're only off by about 50 years or so!

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The city of Montreal had already claimed 13 Stanley Cups by the birth of the Canadiens in late 1909. Teams such as the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, the Montreal Victorias, the Montreal Shamrocks and the Montreal Wanderers had already taken home Lord Stanley's challenge cup, as it was then known, so it can be assumed and assured that the city of Montreal was quite immersed in the game, its blood, swea, guts and glory, shed and offered from the get go.

It's a bit insane, proportionately speaking, but it was said at the time that close to 5,000 residents of the city and its surroundings were involved in the game at various levels when pro hockey hit Montreal in 1909. 

It's also a bit nuts to consider that, relatively speaking, the city Montreal prior to the Canadiens birth in 1909, had already won more Stanley Cups than the Toronto Maple Leafs (11) and Detroit Red Wings (11) have won to this day. 

That fact shouldn't be misconstued as a bragging point, but merely as a statement of fact pertaining to how consumed the city was, and still is, with the game of hockey.

The birth of the Canadiens, was followed by one season, by the essential birth of the professionalization of the sport. With that, came a flurry of unimagible activity for the time. No less than two separate rival leagues and five area teams took a stranglehold on the city during the period of December 1909 and January 1910. 

The aforementioned leagues, with the Wanderers and Shamrocks, were soon joined by a team run by player / coach / manager Art Ross called All-Montreal. But what truly captivated the local hockey fan's collective spirits, was a budding rivalry between a Montreal club composed strictly of francophone players known as "Le National", and its new born rival, a team to be known as "Le Canadien." 

They weren't yet known, per se, as the Montreal Canadiens hockey club, but from their immediate origins at that particular time, their dinstinctions were forever carved.

So then, at this point in time in 1909, there were two brand spanking new professional hockey leagues. Five Montreal based teams vying for superiority. A talented sea of amateur players coming out of the woodwork, and rich owners with money to burn. And all in the name of getting their mits on that elusive Stanley Cup, as desired then as it is now. 

It's rather difficult to leap back in time and place the breadth of the entire scenario into an understandable perspective.

For those old enough to remember the World Hockey Association (WHA) and the bidding war they were involved in for NHL talent in the early 1970's, transplant such a notion back to January 1910 in Montreal. 

Add in that practically every player with a ounce of talent was essentially a free agent.

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The CHA and NHA governing boards have each decreed that "Le National" and "Le Canadien" have french player rights, as mandated in order popularize inner league, french versus english rivalries. 

The two teams waging war for these reputed players of skill, finesse and big balls, are basically your later day Habs and Nordiques.

Throw in about five newspapers, give or take, seeking each and every scoop. The Montreal Gazette, The Montreal Herald and the Montreal Star rubbed elbows for snipets of truth and rumour with their french newspaper counterparts from La Presse, Le Canada and La Patrie.

The windmill full of whispers contained some uncommon strangers on the scene, much money talk, and juicy rumours galore. The local press, all too eager to be in the gust, were lured aboard the scheme, happy to act as narrators to the unfolding dramas. 

That was the Montreal hockey scene, in a breath, as the calendar year of 1909 came to a close. 

Times have changed? 

In hindsight, it was the team that caused the most ripples and noise that survived. "Le Canadiens" were front page litigation news, as it sought to outbid "Le National" for every player worth his salt. 

A plan? It was likely mere survival of the fittest, or most wealthy!

Le Canadien, and three other NHA teams, were backed by a Renfrew millionaire named J. Ambrose O' Brien. The O'Brien family wealth was litterally butter and mint, as they owned the riches of a creamery in Renfrew and steel mines near Cobalt and Haileybury, the towns that would round out the NHA franchises with the Montreal Wanderers.

The CHA, and Le National, would soon capitulate under such monetary confines. The Ottawa Senators and the Monteal Shamrocks, players in the underhanded coup that ousted the Wanderers and O'Brien team interests from the CHA, were soon begging to join the NHA. 

Montreal city hockey fans, swept up in the media frenzy, were magnitized by the more curious allures of the news of the day, and that meant following the Canadien's club's brash pursuit of one Didier Pitre, a large, charismatic, hard shooting cover point (defenseman), that just happened to be long time best friends with Canadiens manager Jack Laviolette.

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Laviolette and Pitre had grown up as boyhood chums, playing in backyard rinks together in Valleyfield, Quebec, long before the notion of a dollar earned playing a sport ever existed.

One week after the Canadiens team had been announced to the public, at least four of the city's papers spread word that a race was on, to nip in the bud of sorts, Pitre's train ride back to Montreal, in order to be the one to sign the star first.

Le National won the race, but Le Canadien, by simply upping the ante, won the war.

Laviolette's plan was to cut off Pitre's train ride home from Windsor in Ottawa, and get the player's name on a signed contract. Le National caught wind of the plan, and met Pitre hours before in North Bay, where he scribbled his consention, with a pocketed advance, on a deal securing him to Le National.

Not to be outdone, Laviolette, simply offered Pitre more money, guaranteed every single dollar of it, and promised to pay all court fees and fines incurred by Pitre's second signing in a twelve hour span. 

Whence it all got dragged out before the courts, Pitre's case breaker alluded to a promise made by Le National that he would be playing on a virtual All-Star team of french Canadians. 

Injunctions and appeals ran rampant, when the judge in the case came to the conclusion that athlete Pitre was in fact an employee, subject to offer his services to the highest bidder. Once it was noted that Pitre's so-called All Star team mates, including Laviolette himself, and the much sought after Newsy Lalonde, were already part and parcel of the Canadiens club, the matter was pretty much settled dust. 

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The final strums were left ringing on January 5, as the Canadiens prepared to play what was thought would be there first ever official game. Fans sold the game out, three thousand strong, likely just to see what the outcome of all the fuss.

The fans were served an enlightened game by all accounts, and the edge the Canadiens gained on that January 5, 1910 day, in the media, and on the ice, has everything to do with why fans of the sport are interested in the team today.

It didn't bore!

Truth be told, it can be said that "Flying Frenchmen" myth and the term "Firewagon Hockey" also has their birth on January 5, 1910.

This is page 2 from La Patrie on January 5, 1910. It contains among other things, an ad for that night's "Le Canadien" debut., an article concerning the Didier Pitre lawsuit, an ad for skating at the Forum, and an ad for a CHA contest between the Montreal Shamrock and All - Montreal.

The publicity generated by the Pitre court ruling assured that the Canadiens game at the Jubilee Arena (3,000) drew larger crowds than the one at the Westmount arena (6,000), despite the latter having double the capacity.

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In the bottom left hand corner, you can see the Canadiens 11 player post card promo, that is the most commonly known artifact from the 1909-10 season. Of the players, only nine would dress for the team that season, with the remaining spares never to play for the Canadiens in that season or beyond.

The NHA Canadiens and  CHA National were involved in a very high profile court case involving the playing rights of cover point (defenseman) Didier Pitre. The case was resolved just hours before game time, allowing Pitre to suit for the team of his choice.  The judge in the case decreed that no man can be held to work for an employer against his wishes.

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The headline below reads: "Canadiens win debut, in a lively incident filled game". The one above states that 3000 frienzied fans greeted captain Jack Laviolette and team mates.

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Game notes:

Hundreds of fans were left waiting outside by game time, with the event being sold out.

The game began at 8:40 and the official were rivals NHA players Riley Hern and B. Percival.

The Canadiens began the game very much on the offensive, while Cobalt held up defensively.

Newsy Lalonde scored the game's first goal, set up the second by Poulin, and scored the third.

The hitting and body checks were rough and very prominent.

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Cattarinich made some keys saves on several hard shots.

Vair and Smaill were the two best players on the Silvekings in the first half. Clarke distinguished himself in the final seconds of the half to score for Cobalt.

There were several penalties on both sides and Lalonde left the game due to an ankle injury.

Starting in the second half, Cobalt played much better, thanks to Lalonde's absense, and scored three consecutive goals.

Bernier, who had been having a mediocre game up until that point, then scored a nice goal by splitting through the Cobalt defense.

Laviolette was penalized twice, with Cobalt profiting both times to score.

Smaill and Campbell then went off for Cobalt, and the Canadiens scored twice to tie the game at 6.

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After some discussions at center ice, the two clubs left the surface to the orchestra strains of "God Save The King".

Hundreds of fans had then left their seats, protesting the outcome with cries of "Fake, fake, fake."

Due to the chants, the game officials concurred to restart the contest, and the two teams came back to play.

Cobalt started strong, but were missing Smaill when Poulin managed to beat goalie Jones for the game winner.

The Canadiens had a well earned victory and roundly applauded by the crowd.

For the Canadiens, Lalonde, Pitre, Laviolette and Cattarinich distinguished themselves, particularly Lalonde.

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Poulin and Bernier were especially weak at the start, but got better as the game wore on. They were were effective in the second half.

Decarie looked out of place, and often had trouble keeping up with team mates.

For Cobalt, Vair , Smail and Clarke stood out, while McNamara was rather weak on defense as he played despite looking injured. Jones distinguished himself in goal, but Campbell and Kennedy contributed by their weakness to their team's loss.

Campbell was penalized five times during the second half.

During the game, Art Bernier's mother was seriously injured by a mix up along the boards. It would be advisable that administration install some type of protection before another such scrum injures more patrons.

The journalists were also too cramped in their locale, and that is also a situation in need of being remedied.

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Here is the starting lineup from the Canadiens first game. Jos Cattarinich was in goal with Jack Laviolette at point and Didier Pitre at cover point. The defenseman of the day lined up not side by side, but in an I - formation. The forward line had Ed Decarie at center, with Skinner Poulin on the left and Art Bernier on the right. Newsy Lalonde was at the rover position. Decarie, by all accounts during the season, was hapless and terribly unaccountable defensively. His tenure at center would not last long, and he would often be replaced by Poulin and Lalonde in the game second halves.

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Here is the summary from the Canadiens very first game. Note that teams played two 30 minutes periods and that goal times related to how much time had elapsed since the last goal or the beginning of the period. Penalty times are equally skewered.

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Robert L note: Another media account of the first ever Canadiens game, much more detailed as such, is obtainable from the newspaper "Le Canada". It follows after the jump.  I would truly love to provide readers english scans of text in print, but as it goes, only the french papers that are extinct are available online. I am always open to questions involving the Canadiens origins, so please feel free to -e-mail me regarding such queries.

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The scanned photographic material used in this post comes from "Le Canada" newspaper (the game summary and the content after the jump), from January 7, 1910 and "La Patrie" (all other news clips) from the same date. The Forum ad is from the book "La Glorieuse Histoire Des Canadiens" and can be found in every french language Montreal papers of the day. The photo of Lalonde is from Le Canadiens first official press release. The photo of Laviolette, source unknown, precedes his association with the Canadiens. An unclipped version of the shot shows that he is actually in the colours of the Le National lacrosse team. The Pitre hockey card was produced by Imperial Tobacco in 1910.

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