I'm not sure if the world's greatest scientists have ever concluded whether the chicken came before the egg, but months ago, while researching information for my Newsy Lalonde book, I happened upon events preceding the creation of the Canadiens hockey club that lead one to believe that the overzealous Montreal media were certainly around well before the Habs.
The revelation totally blew my mind, and as it is something that has never been noted or thought much about in Canadiens history, I couldn't resist sharing it with readers.
While accessing several newspapers in both official languages going back to the early 1900's, I'd been curious about a particularly forgotten exhibition game between the 1909 Stanley Cup champions Montreal Wanderers and a makeshift, one-off club known for that game as les Canadiens - Francais, who wore the sweaters of the Le National club for this game. Such unofficial matches of this type were not uncommon in the day, but this particular game greatly captured the francophone community's interest.
The contest was a distinct one, mainly because it pitted an all - francophone team (seven players, back then) for the very first time, against an established professional club.
The game had initially been set up for two reasons. The Wanderers had scheduled it as a tuneup game at seasons end to stay sharp for a prospective Stanley Cup challenge. On the francophone side, the match was designated as a measurement of how well an all french club would fare against the best hockey had to offer. There had been many who hoped to place such a club in the Eastern Canada Hockey Association, and this game sought to demonstrate the francophone could keep pace.
As one might imagine, even prior to the contest, the interests of opposing sides differed greatly. The game was set up about one week before it was played, and in the french press, particularly, it became highly anticipated by all.
To backtrack some, at the time, francophone hockey players of great prominence and prowess were far from commonplace. They were few and far between. In fact, the best known Quebec players then, were Art Ross (Ontario born, Montreal raised), Frank and Lester Patrick (born in Drummondville, Quebec), Jack Laviolette (born in Belleville, Ontario, Quebec raised), and Didier Pitre (born in Valleyfiled, Quebec),
On the cusp of the scene, were soon to be two of the best known francophone players that would dominate the coming years of the pro game, namely Joe Malone (a pure francophone born in Sillery, near Quebec city), and Newsy Lalonde, from Cornwall, Ontario, who happened to own a francophone name, but for all intents spoke minimal french.
Beyond these name players, were thousands of others playing in city leagues, some at the pro level, and mostly all of them were a rung or two below the game's best in terms of skill.
The anticipation of this March 10, 1909 game in the french press compared little with the coverage in the english print. Of primordial interest to francophones, the contest was but a note in passing to Wanderers followers. Two happenings leading up to the game tilted the scales of importance for both sides, and altered much of what it meant for both teams.
First, the proposed Stanley Cup challenge tuneup was rendered moot for the Wanderers when they lost the ECHA title to the Ottawa Senators. The game was now essentially meaningless to them, as they would be playing for pride only. Secondly, a snow storm on the day of the game, cut the expected audience for the game by one third. Only one thousand fans, mostly francophone supporters, braved the weather to make it to the three thousand seat Jubilee Arena.
In the end, the Wanderers won the game by a 10-9 score, and by all reports, the hockey played that night was of a furious brand, displaying abundant offense by both clubs, keeping fans thrilled until the clock ran out. The teams seemed to trade goals at will, and the fans weren't bored for a second. The quality of the players on ice - with numerous future Hall of Famers - was insanely strong.
The Wanderers players stated that they were impressed by the French - Canadiens team's skills, surprised even. Although they had lost by the slighest of margins, the francophone team's supporters and the media covering them in the game, left with the impression that more than a moral victory had been won. The French - Canadiens, by their assessment, more than measured up, and that, was ultimately all that was hoped for.
But in the french and english papers the following day, there was a contradicting opinion, a dichotomy in spirit, of how the game was viewed.
The english media, undertsanding full well that the game meant nothing to the Wanderers, parlayed that their club managed to turn it on whenever they needed a goal to remain ahead on the scoreboard.
In the french media, the team in Le National's colours kept coming on, always battling back, giving the Wanderers all they could handle. Absent in the french print were mentions that the game meant almost nothing to the Wanderers side, and completely unmentioned was the fact that their best defenseman, Joe Hall, had left home for Manitoba, and did not play in the game.
The efforts of three future Canadiens players were heralded, with Laviolette and Pitre said to have thwarted several Wanderer rushes, despite the ten goals scored; the burly Pitre, muscling his way to four crowd pleasing rushes that lead to scores; and Lalonde's creativity counting for the other five goals.
As for the rest of the francophone lineup, good words were spoken of future Habs forward Alphonse Jette, a junior aged player who fared well, and goalie Emile Couture (named Coutu, in some accounts), who managed to stop a number of Wanderer chances.
On the whole, it was deemed in the french media that the French - Canadiens squad appeared more than able to compete with the Wanderers, and that given a break or two, would have emerged victorious in the game, while the english print, a more balanced view of things was expressed, considering the circumstances. The general impression was that the Wanderers club laid back, coming to life when their lead was most threatened.
All told, the french press were exhuberant, while the english assessment bore caution. Both sides agreed that there were good elements among the francophone team and that perhaps the time had come to place them in league play as a unit.
This one game, by steps and misteps, unforseen events, and balls occassionally dropped, ultimately lead to the creation of a francophone team in the newly created National Hockey Association nine months later. That team, named Le Canadien, included Laviolette, Pitre and Lalonde, and finished that first season with a record of two wins and ten losses. A far cry from that great showing in the Wanderers exhibition.
Ultimately, that result spoke best of the measurement of an all francophone team's prowess against other pro clubs from Montreal (Wanderers and Shamrocks), Ottawa, Renfrew, Cobalt and Haileybury in the 1909-10 season.
Lo and befold, the francophones did not measure in the big picture that first season, but it did not stop the french press from ever promoting the prowess of an all french club. The NHA mandate in those first seasons called for Le Canadiens to have first shot at signing any french player of prominence, but in following campaigns, when their lineup was infiltrated by the odd english player, the claim to an all-francophone club did not relent.
In the Darcy Jenish book, the Montreal Canadiens - 100 Years of Glory, published in 2009, the story of a player named James "Rocket" Power, added to the 1910-11 Canadiens, was an eye opener. (You can check out that tale here, from the EOTP archives)
Power, despite his english surname, was a francophone by all manner, speaking barely a word of english, but his addition to the team still caused consternation in the french press, because, on the surface, he appeared to be an anglophone on an all french club, Hypocritically, Edouard "Newsy" Lalonde, he of the french surname, was an anglophone for all intents, but that fact is never brought up much in Canadiens history, wherein Lalonde is often referred to as the original flying frenchman.
In following seasons, the all-francophone concept on the team that would eventually become known as "Habitants" would be diluted. Le Canadien, by altered NHA mandate, would now be allowed two english players by 1913, with league conterparts allowed to sign and dress two french players per team.
The exclusivity to french speaking players on the NHA Canadiens was hence, short lasting.
Still, the french media never gave up promoting their cause, and that of french speaking players. Understandably, how could they, when such a point of view sold newpapers, then as it does now.
That little has changed in 100 years.
When the Canadiens won their first Stanley Cup in 1916, team members included the very anglophone Skene Ronan, Howard McNamara and Amos Arbour, not to mention coach and captain Newsy Lalonde. The Cup winning goal that year was scored by one Samuel George "Goldie" Prodger.
In hindisght, there is perhaps a lesson in media, that the perceptions then easily altered by opinions were just as susceptible to fragmenting truth as it is nowadays. Two camps of thought originating from that Wanderers exhibition, one with a semblence of balance and the other soaked in hope and promotion, created a division in spirit, thereby telling opposing tales and launching seperate threads.
Time quickly proved the French - Canadiens squad were a step or two behind, but that reality never stopped the francophones from trying their best to close the gap. In future seasons, in a different era, there were times where no gap at all would be sensed.
The swelling of hopes for that long forgotten Wanderers exhibition is as understandable today as it was then, but in March of 1909, all the french print media can be accused of is simply propping up their habitants.
It has to be said that they did this extremely well.