For a city to win the Stanley Cup these days, an NHL team is required. For an NHL team, a community needs at least a few hundred thousand people, a huge arena and millions of dollars to spend. That is how it has been for decades now, but there was a time many years ago when that was not the case.
In 1907, a small Ontario community of just under 6,000 people would field a hockey team called The Thistles and win the Stanley Cup.
Kenora, originally called Rat Portage, was an important community during the construction of the transcontinental railway in the 1870s and 1880s. This allowed the community to quickly grow, reaching over 6,000 people by 1906, only one year after the town changed its name from Rat Portage to Kenora.
Well before Rat Portage became Kenora, hockey was a passion for the residents of the community.
The first recorded hockey game in Rat Portage was played on Feb. 17, 1893.
The Manitoba Semi-Weekly Free Press will write of this new team quote:
“The hockey club has now about 25 members. Arrangements have been made for practice on Tuesdays and Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons.”
The next year, a proper club was formed and named Thistles. One of the richest men in the community, George Dewey, put up the money for the club and was made its honorary president. Even with that money, the team still struggled financially and would continue to do so for most of its existence.
For the remainder of the 1890s, the team would play various teams in its area and into Manitoba. The Manitoba Free Press Home Journal would write on March 10, 1898, quote:
“The semi-final intermediate hockey match was played off here tonight between the Brandon team and the Rat Portage Thistles, resulting in a victory for the former aggregation by a score of 4-3. The game was hotly contested throughout. A large crowd of spectators were present, who cheered the different players enthusiastically.”
As the older players on the team were gradually replaced by younger players, typically their own sons or relatives, the Kenora Thistles would become more dominant on the ice. By 1900, they finished second in the Manitoba Intermediate League. In 1901, they won the league title, outscoring their opponents heavily. To begin the 1901-02 season, they defeated their opponent 12-0. While that may seem like a good thing, the executives of the team worried that if there was no worthwhile competition, fans wouldn’t come to the games.
The decision was made to join the Manitoba Hockey Association, which had only two teams, the Winnipeg Victorias and the Winnipeg Rowing Club. The Victorias were one of the best teams in Canada, having won the Stanley Cup in 1896, 1901 and 1902.
The Winnipeg Tribune reported quote:
While the article would then state that the people of Rat Portage were confident the team could put forward a skilled franchise to compete. It would state quote:
“The Rat Portage people claim that a seven nearly as strong as the Thistles can be put on the ice at any time. They have some 15 players in steady practice and out of those 15, according to the Rat Portage people, 14 of them are first class hockeyists.”
To prove they could play in the league, the Thistles took on the Victorias. In the game, they defeated the Victorias 9-3.
The Free Press Prairie Farmer would write of the game quote:
“By their showing in the game with the intermediate Vics last week, the Rat Portage Thistles proved that they have good grounds for aspiring to enter the senior ranks.”
Despite this, the league council met and decided not to admit the team on the grounds that the Thistles were not fast enough for senior company, and it was ill advisable to allow them to enter. Even with the refusal, the team would still pursue joining the senior league.
In 1902-03, Kenora was finally admitted to the league, along with Portage La Prairie and Brandon. Winnipeg still opposed Kenora joining due to their distance and both Winnipeg teams left the league before the start of the season to start their own league, the Western Canada Hockey League.
In the three-team senior league, the Thistles won the league championship and were allowed to compete for the Stanley Cup against the dominant Ottawa Silver Sevens.
The Ottawa Journal reported quote:
“The Thistles Hockey Club of Rat Portage, having won the championship of the old Manitoba and Northwestern Hockey Association have sent in a challenge for the Stanley Cup. They say they are ready to play at once.”
The Thistles travelled to Ottawa for the challenge and there was little press coverage of the team before the series and the games only attracted 1,000 spectators, one-third what they usually did in Ottawa.
In two games played between March 12 and 14, 1903, the Thistles lost both games, scoring four goals to the 10 by the Silver Seven.
The Free Press Prairie Farmer stated quote:
“Stage fright, this is the explanation the Rat Portage Thistles give of their defeat at the hands of the Ottawas…The soft ice handicapped them, and their frequent rushes were spoiled by their skating over the puck…The Thistles lost their heads in the early stages of the game and allowed the fast rushes of the Ottawas to demoralize them.”
The Thistles were unhappy with the challenge and due to the small crowds, the team lost $800 in the challenge, but they did see they could compete against the best teams in Canada.
The Winnipeg teams were impressed by the play of the Thistles against the best team in Canada and they invited the team to join the Western Hockey League. The Thistles declined this offer and remained in the Manitoba League.
In 1904-05, the two Manitoba teams merged, and the Thistles won the league championship. Given the chance to compete against the Silver Seven once again.
Once again travelling to Ottawa for the challenge, the media was more interested in the team now and their games attracted 3,500 to 4,000 people this time. Since the team was made up almost entirely of citizens of Kenora, with the exception of Eddie Giroux who was from Toronto, many were intrigued by this homegrown team.
In the first game, the Thistles won 9-3 using forward passing rather than shooting the puck into the opposing end and chasing after it. The Thistles emphasized the use of skating and passing to maintain control of the puck.
The Montreal Gazette would add to this, stating quote:
“Ottawa never saw such hockey as that which graced the final match to determine the possession of the Stanley Cup…It will hardly be too strong an assertation to make in saying that the last of three stirring matches proved to be in many ways the greatest struggle that ever took place on Canadian ice.”
The 1905 team is amazing considering it featured four Hall of Fame players in Silax Griffis, Tom Hooper, Tommy Philips and Billy McGimsie.
In 1905, Rat Portage would change its name to Kenora and with that, the Rat Portage Thistles became the Kenora Thistles.
In the 1905-06 league season, the Thistles easily won the league championship and once again prepared to play for the Stanley Cup. There were accusations that Kenora was covertly paying its players, something not allowed under amateur rules.
The Thistles denied this was the case, but it was likely at least partly true and in fact, many teams in Canada covertly paid players to get the best players on their team.
The Ottawa Journal reported quote:
“This statement is decidedly unfair both to the executive of the Manitoba League and the Thistle Hockey Club. As a matter of fact, it was only today, March 16, that the consent of the league was communicated by wire to the Thistle Club, and it was accompanied by an intimation to the effect that the permission of the Amateur Athletic Union should be obtained. A course which the Thistle Hockey Club had intended to follow at any event.”
In the end, the entire Manitoba League would become professional. Even with the professional aspect to the league now, the Thistles mostly retained their homegrown roster.
With the challenge put forward, one person with the Ottawa Silver Seven stated there was no beating the Thistles. He would say quote:
“If the Kenora Thistles plays Wanderers for the Stanley Cup they will beat the team so badly it will almost put them out of business.”
In January 1907, the team took on the Montreal Wanderers for the Stanley Cup. Leaving on Jan. 12, 1907, the club had hired Art Ross and Joe Hall, two future Hall of Famers to play for the team, although Hall would not play any games for the Thistles.
Excitement was high in Montreal for the series, but more subdued than was seen in the Ottawa versus Kenora series. The Montreal Gazette stated quote:
“There has been a steady sale of tickets for the games, but it has not so far reached the proportions of the demand for the Ottawa contest.”
This time, the Thistles were favourites to win the Stanley Cup. In the first game, Tommy Phillips scored all four goals in the 4-2 win for the Thistles.
The Montreal Star reported quote:
“The speed of Kenora Thistles won for them the first match. They skated circles around the Wanderers, but the latter showed more finished play. One of the finest and cleanest ever played for the Stanley Cup.”
Writing about Phillips, the Star wrote quote:
“Phillips seemed to go so fast that the others could not keep up with him and were not there to take the puck as it was brought down to the Wanderer nets. Therefore, Phillips did the scoring himself.”
On Jan. 21, Phillips scored another three goals as the Thistles won 8-6, capturing the Stanley Cup.
The Manitoba Morning Free Press stated quote:
“The Cup comes west again! Such was the glad tidings that quickly gained circulation last night as the news was flashed over the wires that the big game at Montreal was over and the Kenora Thistles had succeeded in downing the defending Wanderers team after a hair-raising contest.”
The Winnipeg Tribune would describe the scene when the Thistles won, stating quote:
The Thistles had become the smallest community to win the Stanley Cup, something that remains a record to this day and one that will never be broken.
That team was stacked to say the least. Along with the four Hall of Fame players from the 1906 team, the team had five more Hall of Fame players playing for them in 1907.
When the Thistles returned to Kenora, they were greeted as heroes and given a massive reception of the Opera House. The team’s finances quickly changed with the win as well, and it was announced a new 4,000 to 5,000 seat arenas would be built, making it the largest arena west of Ontario and four times bigger than the previous Kenora hockey rink. This unfortunately, would never come to pass.
Only a few weeks after they won the Stanley Cup, the end would begin for the team. Eddie Giroux, their star goaltender, would join the Torontos, returning back home to his hometown after a few years living in Kenora.
The Montreal Wanderers would challenge the Thistles for the Stanley Cup, which was played after Kenora won their league title once again. During that season, the team lost three of its best players, Hooper, McGimsie and Phillips to injuries. To compensate, they signed Fred Whitcroft, Alf Smith and Harry Westwick, all future Hall of Famers, to the team.
Instead of the series being played in Kenora, as would have been tradition as they were the current Cup champions, the games were played in Winnipeg since there would be greater revenue there.
In the first game on March 23, 1907, the Wanderers won 7-2. The Thistles came back to win 6-5 the next game but lost 12-8 the following game.
The Winnipeg Tribune would write quote:
Thus ended the two months of time when the Kenora Thistles could claim to be Stanley Cup champions. This is the shortest amount of time a team has ever possessed the Stanley Cup.
Even though the team had lost the Cup, they didn’t actually give the Cup to the Wanderers. It would take until May for the Stanley Cup to be given over to Montreal. It was believed the engraving was taking longer than expected. William Jennings, secretary with the Wanderers, stated quote:
“We are not worrying about it. It is some two weeks over the engraving time, and it is still probable that it is due to engraving the plate for us.”
Things would continue to go downhill after the Stanley Cup loss. Before the 1907-08 season, Beaudro and McGimsie both retired, while Phillips signed with the Wanderers.
Phillips had stated he would play for Kenora for another season, but the money was too hard to refuse, as well as the strong team the Wanderers had.
The Montreal Gazette wrote quote:
“Wanderers were luckier than they thought themselves when they succeeded in signing Art Ross, for it is said that the fact of Ross being with the champions played a big part in Phillips’s decision to accept their offer.”
As it happened, he would not play for the Wanderers, but would instead go on to play for the Ottawa Silver Seven for $1,500. Despite his move, he would never win another Stanley Cup. When the Hockey Hall of Fame was created in 1945, Tommy Phillips was one of the first nine inductees.
The team brought up four younger players, but the writing was on the wall. In their first game of the season, they lost 16-1. They forfeited the next two games and then withdrew from the league when it was apparent, they could no longer compete at the league level anymore.
After a few exhibition games against Port Arthur and Fort William, the Thistles folded.
In 1982, the Kenora Thistles were inducted into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
The Thistles name continues on in the community and has been used for teams in the town on the amateur, junior and senior men’s levels.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Manitoba Semi-Weekly Free Press, Wikipedia, Winnipeg Tribune, Ottawa Journal, Montreal Gazette, Winnipeg Tribune, Manitoba Free Press,