When you hear someone mention a hockey team called the Ottawa Senators, your mind probably goes to the current iteration playing in the National Hockey League. While that team has found success, even reaching the Stanley Cup Final, it comes nowhere near the legendary exploits of the original Ottawa Senators.
That team, which existed during the first part of the 20th century, is not only considered the greatest hockey team of the first 50 years of that century, but also the first-ever hockey dynasty in NHL history.
This week on Canadian History Ehx, we are going to dive back in time, to the team that changed hockey, dominated the leagues it played in and then faded away into near obscurity.
The beginnings of the Ottawa Senators starts with a group of early hockey enthusiasts, who came together to form the Ottawa Hockey Club. They had seen hockey games at the 1883 Montreal Winter Carnival and that was when Halder Kirby, Jack Kerr and Frank Jenkins met and created the club. Not only were the Senators the first hockey team in Ottawa, but they were also the first in Ontario itself.
Before we dive forward, lets look at those three men and where their paths would lead. Halder Kirby would play with the Senators from 1883 to 1894, before serving as the team doctor for the club’s four Stanley Cups in a row run of the early 1900s. He would die in 1924. Jack Kerr would play with the Club until 1893 and is credited with inventing the very first rubber hockey puck. He would pass away in 1933. Lastly, we have Frank Jenkins. He would spend many years with the club as a player, the first captain and the president of the team, and would also found the first full-size orchestra in the history of Ottawa.
Back to the team.
Spending most of their time practicing, since they had no one to play against, the Senators had their first competitive game at the 1884 Montreal Winter Carnival. It was at this tournament they wore their red and black uniforms for the first time. Nelson Porter, who would go on to become mayor of Ottawa from 1915 to 1916, scored the first goal in team history.
In 1885, the club once again returned to the carnival and would earn its first victory over the Montreal Victorias, and finished second in the tournament. That would be the last game for the team until 1887, after a smallpox outbreak cancelled the Montreal tournament in 1886.
In 1887, 1891 and 1892, the club played in the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada challenges. In 1891 and 1892, they would win the Canadian championship but lose the AHAC challenge. In 1890-91, the club would play 14 games in three different leagues, which gave early indications to what it would become as a dominant force in hockey. One league was the Ontario Hockey Association, which exists to this day. For the first three years of the league, the Ottawa Hockey Club was the champion. In 1894, the club left the league due to the league refusing to allow the championship final that year to be played in Ottawa.
The future Ottawa Senators would win many Stanley Cups in the coming years, but something that is often forgotten is the club’s connection to the creation of the Stanley Cup itself. In the banquet to honour the 1892 championship team at the Russell Hotel, Lord Stanley, the Governor General of Canada, announced a new Dominion Challenge Trophy. That trophy would become known as the Stanley Cup. The next year, the Montreal Victorias would win the first Stanley Cup.
An original member of the AHAC, the league did not have regular season games, and instead focused on challenges. It was not until 1892-93 that regular season games were played in the league.
From 1892 to 1898, the club would begin playing regular season games in the AHAC, usually finishing second, and losing in the final in 1893-94.
With the launch of the Canadian Amateur Hockey League, the team would begin competing as the Ottawa Hockey Club for the first three years, winning the league title in 1900-01. In 1901-02, the team began to be known as the Senators as an official unofficial name. This would begin the first dynasty of the team, when it was also known unofficially as the Silver Seven during the years of 1903 to 1906. On that team would be future Hockey Hall of Famers Harvey Pulford, Alf Smith, Harry Westwick, and Bruce and Hod Stuart. Harvey Pulford and Hod Stuart would be two of the original nine inductees into the hall of fame.
In this new era, one of the biggest changes was the arrival of Frank McGee, who would coincidentally play for the team from 1903 to 1906, the same years they won the Stanley Cup. Let’s look at McGee, a literal hockey legend.
During an amateur game on March 21, 1900, McGee lost the sight in one eye after a puck hit him in the face. Retiring to become a referee, he missed the game he loved too much and he would return and begin playing with the Ottawa Senators. The youngest person on the team, and relatively short, he scored 14 goals in only six games in that first season. He would play 45 games over the course of 1903 to 1906 before he once again retired at only 23-years-old. In 1905, when the Dawson City Nuggets challenged the Senators for the Stanley Cup, he scored 14 goals, including eight in less than nine minutes, to set a record that stands to this day. Over the course of his 45 games, he would have 135 goals. He would sadly die in the First World War. In 1945, he was one of the original inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Back to the team.
Finishing first in the CAHL in 1902-03, the team would win their first Stanley Cup championship in a game against the Montreal Victorias. The teams would play on slushy ice, covered with an inch of water, with Ottawa tying the first game 1-1 and winning the second game 8-0. This began the run of three championships in a row for the team. When the team won the Stanley Cup for the first time, each of the seven players on the team were given a silver nugget. This was the origin of the nickname, the Silver Seven.
The Ottawa Senators were not an easy team to play against by any means, not even going into the fact they had some of the greatest players in the game at the time. The thing is, they matched their goal-scoring ability with a ferocity that would have made the Broad Street Bullies shake their heads. In one Stanley Cup challenge game in 1904, the Senators injured seven of the nine players on the Winnipeg team.
Over the course of those three years, they would defeat 10 different challengers for the Stanley Cup until the Montreal Wanderers came along in March of 1906. With Ottawa and Montreal tying for the league lead, a playoff series had to be played for the Cup. Montreal took the first game 9-1 and in the second game Montreal took the second game 12-10. Frank McGee scored two goals, in his last-ever hockey game.
During this first dynasty run, the players on the team were legends within Ottawa. When Jim McGee, brother of Frank, died in a horseback riding accident in 1904, a funeral cortege ran for half a mile, and included Wilfrid Laurier, who was prime minister at the time.
In 1907-08, the team would go through several changes. Two of their star players, Harry Smith and Hamby Shore, left to play in Winnipeg, and the team replaced them with Marty Walsh, Tommy Phillips and Fred “Cyclone” Taylor. All three would wind up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Fred Taylor would become one of the greatest players in the game, but only spent one season with the Senators, scoring nine goals in 11 games. The Senators played Taylor $1,000 to play for them, the equivalent of $25,000 today. The following season, Kenora paid him $1,500 to play for him. That same season, the team would begin playing in their new arena, which had seating for 4,500 and standing room for 2,500. The club also began selling season tickets, the first team to do so, charging $3.75 for five games. At the home opener of the team, 7,100 people came out.
The Senators would play two more seasons in the ECAHA, winning the Stanley Cup again in 1908-09, and repeating as a member of the Canadian Hockey Association in 1910, winning another Stanley Cup in 1909-10.
In 1910, the National Hockey Association was formed, with Ottawa joining as a charter team. It was at this time that the Ottawa Senators name became more common in its usage. In 1909-10, the team would finish second in the league and defeat Edmonton in the Stanley Cup challenge. The following season, 1910-11, the team finished first and won the Stanley Cup, as well as two single game challenges for the Stanley Cup that same year.
The next few years were tough ones for the Senators, with the club finishing second, third and fourth over the next three seasons. In 1914-15, the Senators rebounded and took the league title. A big reason for this was the new players who joined the team. Clint Benedict, a future Hall-of-Famer, was the team’s goaltender, while Art Ross, another Hall-of-Famer, also joined the club. That year, the team took the league title in a 4-1 victory over the Wanderers, before losing in the Stanley Cup Final the Victoria. The team would finish second the following year but signed Frank Nighbor, another future Hall-of-Famer, followed by a loss in the league final to the Montreal Canadiens in 1916-17.
In 1917-18, the National Hockey League was formed and the Ottawa Senators were sold to Tommy Gorman for $2,500. With the NHL now formed, and Ottawa as a charter member, a new era had begun for the team. Unfortunately, it did not get off to a good start. The team started its first-ever NHL game late due to a protest by the players for a better contract. Eventually the game started and the Senators lost their first-ever NHL game 7-4. The team finished third in the league, and did not make the playoffs. In 1918-19, the team rebounded thanks to the play of Benedict, Cy Denneny and NIghbor and finished first, but lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. A big reason for this was that Nighbor was injured and could not play in the three games.
In 1919-20, the first dynasty in NHL history began when the Ottawa Senators began a run of four Stanley Cups and seven regular season first place finishes. In 1921-22, the team would lose star Sprague Cleghorn but with him leaving, Frank Boucher and King Clancy both joined the club. Both made their way to the Hall-of-Fame and Clancy is considered one of the greatest players to ever lace up skates. In the 1923 finals against Edmonton, Ottawa won the series with two straight victories. In the second game, King Clancy played every position on the ice. The team was so good during this time, and the talent pool so deep, that the team was able to trade away Clint Benedict and Harry Broadbent, both Hall-of-Famers, in 1924, for two different future Hall-of-Famers in Alex Connell and Hooley Smith. It would backfire on the Senators as both Benedict and Broadbent led the Montreal Maroons to the Stanley Cup in 1927. During that run, the Senators won the Stanley Cup in 1919-20, 1920-21, 1922-23 and 1926-27. From 1918-19 to 1923-24, the team finished first in the NHL. Oddly, the team missed the playoffs in 1924-25, but bounced back and won the Stanley Cup again two years later.
The play of the Senators was so dominating at times that the NHL would change its rules. Prior to the early 1920s, the Senators would keep both defensemen and a forward in the defensive zone at all times once they had a lead in the game. This strategy would allow them to control the scoring and made them highly difficult to score against. It also made the league short on goals and quite boring to watch. In 1924, Frank Calder, the president of the league, made it illegal for a team to have more than two players in its own zone after the puck went up the ice. This change would be one of the reasons that the Senators slowly began to fade from the top to the bottom of the league.
Another reason for the sudden dip out of the playoffs was the retirement of Jack Darragh, and off-the-ice problems over ownership. The season wasn’t a total loss though. Cy Denneny finished fourth in league scoring and Frank Nighbor won the first-ever Lady Byng trophy for gentlemanly play.
The 1926-27 championship would be the last Stanley Cup for the team. That last championship team may have been the best Ottawa ever had, when they won 30 of 44 regular season games, and dominated in the playoffs by outscoring opponents 12 to 4. They never allowed more than one goal in an individual game during the playoffs.
Beginning in 1927-28, a downward slide began. From 1927-28 to 1933-34, the team missed the playoffs four times, didn’t compete at all one year, and only made it to the quarter-final in two seasons.
A large reason for this was expansion into the United States, which made Ottawa the smallest market in the NHL by far. In 1927, the club had won the Stanley Cup but still lost $50,000. With expansion into America, attendance was low for the games against expansion teams, further hurting the club. In 1927-28, the team had only one bright spot, which was Alex Connell, who had six straight shutouts for an NHL record. The team would then sell its star players Cy Denneny and Hooley Smith to bring in extra cash. This didn’t help the problem and the team would play its last playoff game on March 28, 1930. This would be the last playoff game in Ottawa until 1996. In 1930-31, King Clancy was sold to Toronto for $35,000, and the team fell to last place for the first time since 1898.
The last home game for the team was a 3-2 loss to the New York Americans on March 15, 1934. A crowd of 6,500 came out for the game, which saw Alex Connell play for the Americans after their goalie was hurt. The home crowd rained down boos, carrots, lemons, oranges and many other things during the game. The final regular season game for the franchise would be a 2-2 tie against the Montreal Maroons on March 18, 1934.
In 1935, the legendary franchise moved to St. Louis to become the St. Louis Eagles, a team that lasted only one season.
Flash Hollett would be the last player to have played on the Senators when he retired in 1946 as a member of the Detroit Red Wings.
The last surviving member of the team was Frank Finnigan, and he was supposed to drop the puck at the first ever Ottawa Senators game in 1992. Sadly, he died a year before that could happen but the club did retire his #8 jersey. He had also played a key role in helping to get Ottawa a franchise in the NHL again.
The last team captain would be Syd Howe, from 1933 to 1934.
Over the course of the Senators NHL career, they would win 258 games and lose 221, with 63 ties. In all, the team played in 23 Stanley Cup Final appearances from 1894 to 1927,
The club would continue on as a senior amateur club, and would win the Allan Cup in 1949. In 1954, the club folded, which put an end to 71 years of hockey history for the organization.
In 1992, when the current Ottawa Senators began their first season, nine Stanley Cup banners were raised to the rafters to honour the original team.
During the existence of the team, there would be have 36 Hall-of-Famers. When the Hockey Hall of Fame opened six of the nine inaugural inductees had played for the Senators at one time or another, with Eddie Gerard, Frank McGee, Tommy Phillips, Harvey Pulford, Art Ross and Hod Stuart being inducted. I’m going to take a brief look at these men now, with some like Art Ross eventually getting episodes about their lives in the future.
Eddie Gerard, who played 10 seasons with the Senators, winning the Stanley Cup every year from 1920 to 1922. He had 98 points in 128 games.
Frank McGee, as I mentioned through this episode, played for Ottawa from 1902 to 1906, winning four Stanley Cups. He would die in France during the First World War.
Tommy Phillips played briefly with Ottawa, in 1907-08, when he recorded 26 goals in 10 games.
Harvey Pulford played for Ottawa from 1893 to 1908, during which time he won four Stanley Cups.
Art Ross, a legendary player who is honoured with the Art Ross Trophy today, played only briefly for the Senators during his nearly two decade career. He would play for the Senators from 1914 to 1915.
Hod Stuart played for Ottawa from 1898 to 1900 before moving on to other teams.
The last player from the original Senators to be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame was Carl Voss, who was inducted in 1974. He had played 40 games for the Senators in 1933-34, recording 23 points. He would be inducted as a builder into the Hall of Fame, but counts as the last player to make it for the Senators.
Philip D. Ross would be the last person associated with the original Senators to make the Hall of Fame, when he was inducted as a builder in 1976. He was a builder with the Ottawa Hockey Club and was friends with Governor General Lord Stanley, and was appointed in 1892 as a trustee for the Stanley Cup. Technically, he did play briefly for Ottawa, helping them win an Ontario championship in 1891.
Cy Denneny was the all-time leader for the team in goals with 245, assists with 67 and points with 312. He did all that in only 302 games with the club. Frank Nighbor is the next closest with 194 points in 326 games with the club. Alex Connell lead the club in games with 293, wins with 158 and shutouts with 70. Denneny would be inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1959, Nighbor in 1947 and Connell in 1958.
Information from Wikipedia, Canadian Encyclopedia, SBNation
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