The Montreal Canadiens franchise is well known as the oldest professional hockey club. So old, in fact, that it predates the very formation of the NHL in which it competes. As the EOTP Habs history writer, I feel that I may have failed you all, in that I have yet to tell arguably the most important story in that long history; how the Canadiens were founded.
It is a story that, as far as I can tell, is not very well known among Habs fans. It is also a great story, and one that every Habs fan should have the opportunity to hear. If not for a certain series of events, it is entirely possible that the Montreal Canadiens as we know them would not exist today. Surely one would assume that there would be hockey in Montreal regardless, but the iconic CH logo and the history associated with it could be vastly different.
In the early 1900's, the sport of hockey was still finding its place. This was of course during the Challenge Cup era, where Lord Stanley's mug could be won by teams from different leagues across the country. The realities of the sport and travel at the time made it virtually impossible to have one league, so there were a number of them. But, from 1906 through 1909, only teams from the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association won the cup. As a result, they were viewed at the time as the premier competitive hockey league in Canada.
When the Allan cup was introduced as the trophy for the top amateur club in 1908, the ECAHA dropped the word 'amateur' from its name, and lost Montreal HC and the Montreal Victorias, its only Amateur teams. The 1909 iteration featured the Montreal Shamrocks, the Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa HC, and Quebec HC. They were thus a professional league by definition, and could continue competing for the cup, with Ottawa winning the cup that year.
Montreal's team at the time was arguably the Wanderers, but under the new ownership of P.J. Doran, they had fallen out of favour with the rest of the ECHA. Doran wanted the team to play at his Jubilee Arena, which was smaller than the Montreal Arena where they had been playing. This meant less money coming in for the visiting teams, so the other teams in the ECHA were looking to push him out.
On November 25, 1909, the members of the ECHA held a meeting at the Windsor hotel in Montreal. This meeting was to serve the purpose of disbanding the ECHA, and forming the Canadian Hockey Association in its place. Wanderers manager Jimmy Gardner attempted a bid to get the team into the new league, but their fate had already been sealed, and they were rejected. The team thus had no league for the season to follow, and their future was not looking bright.
Enter a man; a veritable jack of all trades. A great man, by the name of J. Ambrose O'Brien. He was a businessman, a railway developer, a silver mine owner, and perhaps most importantly, an avid hockey promoter involved with a number of Ontario-based teams. O'Brien happened to be heading to Montreal on railway business at the time of the CHA meeting, and as President of the Renfrew Creamery Kings, he represented the team in a bid to join the CHA at the meeting.
The CHA brass was obviously not in much of a welcoming mood, as they would also reject O'Brien's bid to get Renfrew into the league. As he left the meeting, he happened upon Jimmy Gardner in the lobby, and as fellow rejects of the CHA they got to talking. They had the idea that if the CHA didn't want them, they'd just go ahead and form their own league to compete for the cup.
And so on December 2, just a week later, they would hold a private meeting at 300 St. James street in Montreal, to form the National Hockey Association. It went without saying that the Wanderers and Renfrew would be a part of the league, but they needed more. Luckily, Ambrose O'Brien was quite the hockey man, and he had just what they needed to get going.
He would bring in two other clubs he owned in Ontario, the Haileybury Comets, and the Cobalt Silver Kings. Now at a healthy four clubs, they were definitely cooking, but they were also looking for ways to generate more public interest in their start up.
'Les Canadiens' are born
As hockey was still something that promoters in general were trying very hard to sell to the public, O'Brien and Gardner had the idea that a strong rivalry could be just the thing they needed to do it. They conceived the idea, that O'Brien with his decidedly impressive capital, would found a team of Francophones to play in Montreal and serve as the rivals to Gardner's Wanderers. It played on the historic differences between the French and English in Canada, and would help them generate more interest from the Francophone community in their league.
And so, on December 4, 1909, 'Les Canadiens' were admitted into the NHA under the financial backing of Ambrose O'Brien. Jack Laviolette was selected to manage the club, and O'Brien had the intent of transferring the club into Francophone ownership as soon as it was viable to do so. The freshly minted club would finish last in their inaugural season, but that rough start was a mere footnote in the history of what is now the most storied franchise in hockey.
Alas, Ambrose would not get the seamless transition of ownership that he had hoped for. George Kennedy, the owner of the Club Athlétique Canadien, would claim legal right to the name, bullying his way into purchasing the team under threat of legal action. They settled out of court and Kennedy paid O'Brien $7,500 for the Canadiens in November of 1910.
But O'Brien and Gardner were presumably quite happy at how things turned out. The CHA that rejected them would start the 1910 season with extremely bad attendance, and would seek to merge with the NHA shortly after the season began. The NHA would have none of the merger, but did absorb on the Montreal Shamrocks and the Ottawa Senators when the CHA folded.
In all, O'Brien owned the team for less than a year, but in that time he founded one of the greatest sports franchises in the world, and helped found a league that would ultimately lead to the formation of the NHL. And if not for a chance meeting between two hockey men, rejected by what was once thought to be the premier hockey league, there may not be a Montreal Canadiens today.