Following the end of the Challenge Cup era, the Stanley Cup Final series was instituted in 1914. A series between the winners of the PCHA (Pacific Coast Hockey Association) and the NHA (National Hockey Association, home of the Canadiens) to determine the best team in Canada. The inaugural series was won by Toronto HC over the Victoria Aristocrats of the PCHA, although technically this still fell under the challenge cup era. When the Portland Rosebuds joined the PCHA in 1914, the Cup trustees issued a statement that the 1914-15 Stanley Cup final, and all subsequent finals, would no longer be for the best team in Canada, but the best team in the world. The Vancouver Millionaires would become the first official world champions under this format.
The Habs were nowhere near contention for the 1914-15 Stanley Cup. A contract dispute with star player Newsy Lalonde resulted in him suiting up for only 7 games all year. Couple that with a somewhat aging side, and it should come as no surprise that the Habs finished dead last in the NHA that season. Team owner George Kennedy was determined to avoid a similar ending to the 1915-16 season, and proceeded to significantly retool the squad in the off-season. He offered contracts to Goldie Prodgers, Howard McNamara (who became Captain) Georges Poulin and Amos Arbour. These moves made the Canadiens a deeper team that was sure to fair much better than they had the previous season.
Newsy Lalonde via assets.sbnation.com
The biggest boost for the club was the return of Newsy Lalonde. Satisfied with his new contract, Lalonde returned to the team full time and in top form. In true Reggie Dunlop fashion, Lalonde was even named player-coach by Kennedy, allowing me to now make a pun about Old Time Hockey that works on more than one level. The Canadiens also had some other returning players: Louis Belinquette, Jack Fournier, Didier Pitre, Jack Laviolette, Harold McNamara (Howard's brother) Bert Corbeau and... Oh yeah, Georges Vezina in goal.
The Habs would also make a move towards the end of the season, adding veteran forward Skene Ronan. This would prove quite controversial, as the Canadiens and the Quebec Bulldogs had language restrictions forbidding them from dressing more than one English speaking player per game. In a January 20th game against the Bulldogs, the Canadiens forfeited the single point from a tie game and were fined $100 for breaking this rule. Following this game, the language restrictions were eliminated for both teams, but we all know that any Habs Coach at least, to this day had better be a Frenchman (see: Cunneyworth media fiasco).
Georges Vezina via assets.sbnation.com
The season itself was a complete turnaround for the last place team of the year before. The Habs (16-7-1) finished first in the NHA and Newsy Lalonde led the league in scoring. Didier Pitre was fourth and actually had more assists, thus more points by today's standards, but assists were not counted towards the scoring title back then. The Habs sported a very prolific forward line of Jack Laviolette, Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre that was extremely difficult for opposing teams to contend with. The "Flying Frenchmen" as they were called, were a very fast skating, and high scoring team. To illustrate; in a game against Montreal's other team, the Wanderers, the Habs won 15-5 in a game that saw hat tricks from Lalonde, Skene Ronan, Didier Pitre and Howard McNamara. As the team won the O'Brien cup for top team in the NHA, it had become evident that they were a real threat to take the Stanley Cup back from the PCHA.
The PCHA's newest team, the aforementioned Portland Rosebuds, did not have to wait long for their chance to compete for the cup. They finished tops in their league to take possession of the cup from Vancouver. For obvious reasons, travelling back and forth for alternating games would have been impossible back then, so the final series was decided to be held in one place, alternating between NHA and PCHA rules throughout. The inaugural series between Toronto and Victoria was held in Toronto, and subsequent years series would alternate between the winning city of the PCHA and that of the NHA. As the 1914-15 series was held in the PCHA winning city of Vancouver, the city of Montreal played host to the five-game final series starting on March 20th, 1916.
Despite showing up in Montreal the day before game one by train, the Rosebuds showed absolutely no rust, shutting out the Canadiens 2-0 . I gather that must have really sucked to watch as a fan. But the Canadiens bounced back two nights later, edging Portland 2-1 to even the series. This was quite inexplicable because Newsy Lalonde and Jack Laviolette were both out for the game; hopes were not high going in. On March 25th Laviolette and Lalonde returned for game three, only to both be ejected from the game as a result of a fight. Didier Pitre then put the team on his back, scoring a hat trick to lead the Habs to a 6-3 win. Portland would then send the series to a fifth and final game in a wild game four that saw the Canadiens come back from 3-0 only to lose 6-5 in the end.
Goldie Prodgers: via ourhistory.canadiens.com
The final game was a tight one as the players on both teams were exhausted from the games leading up to it. In those days, squads were not as numerous as they are today, which meant a lot more ice time for top players. Tommy Dunderdale opened the scoring for the Rosebuds on a spectacular individual effort, putting the Habs down 1-0. Skene Ronan, the anglophone who caused a stir for being an anglophone earlier in the season would then tie it up for the Canadiens. With the second period scoreless, the two clubs entered the third period knowing it would be to decide the Cup winner. Queue Goldie Prodgers, the seldom used substitute defenceman, with a play for the ages. Newsy Lalonde took the puck behind the Canadiens goal, yelled for Prodgers and left it for him in the corner. The big man started out for Portland's end, crashing into opposing players and forcing his way to the outside. Then he cut back towards centre, steamrolled a Portland defender, faked a shot on net, skated around the Portland goaltender and lobbed the puck into the empty net: 2-1 Montreal. With only four minutes left to play, the Canadiens had no trouble holding the lead for their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. I would equate the Prodgers rush with the present-day Habs calling up Greg Pateryn in the playoffs, him going end-to-end and top shelf against the Bruins in game seven. It surely wasn't pretty but at the same time it couldn't have been more beautiful.
Georges Vezina posted an excellent 2.60 GAA throughout the series. This was quite astonishing as in this era goals were typically easier to come by. Of course, this also predates Jacques Plante's pioneering of the goalie mask, so anyone who played net back then makes Chuck Norris look soft in my books. The Habs also got great production from players that were sparingly used throughout the season; guys like Ronan and Prodgers really stepped up their game. When you also factor in that two of the team's best players were sidelined for nearly two games, it is apparent that it was a real team effort, on the heels of a terrible season. Yes, the first Stanley of our team's history was a great one.
Skene Ronan via assets.sbnation.com
The engraving of the Stanley Cup is a well-known tradition for the winning team. While Montreal did get to honour this tradition, an overzealous Portland organization had already beaten them to it. After obtaining the trophy from the Vancouver Millionaires, the Rosebuds promptly had it engraved; "Portland Ore./PCHA Champions/1915–16," despite not being the winners. Maybe they jinxed it, maybe the Habs heard about it and it lit a fire under them. At any rate, Portland is, to this day, the only non-winning city to be featured on Lord Stanley's Mug. The end result is still the same; the Montreal Canadiens took their first Stanley Cup, sparking a long history of winning.
One thing I like to do with these articles is draw comparisons between historical events and present day circumstances. I feel it is entirely necessary to point out that the 1914-15 Habs finished last, only to revamp the roster enough to win their league, and ultimately the Stanley Cup. The Habs finished last in the east in 2011-12, revamped their roster (really the whole organization) and have achieved measurable improvement. What am I trying to say here? I'll say this: I'm not the type of fan that looks at any amount of success in the regular season as a guaranteed precursor for championship glory. I am merely pointing out some striking similarities between the team that won the organizations first cup and the one that could win it's 25th.
Alas, the team is doing well so 'tis a good day to celebrate this anniversary. I feel pretty comfortable stating that no readers of this article would have been born. Most of my Great Grandparents weren't even born, but that is no reason not to celebrate. I hope you'll all join me in pouring a drink at some point during the New York game, as if you needed my invitation. I shall drink, toasting the memory of the long deceased legends that won the first Habs cup, while watching those who now carry the torch.
And I'll throw this out there: I predict that no station carrying the game tonight will make mention of the anniversary. Though I suppose I can live with that, if the Habs can do what they did on this day in 1916; win.