They were one of the most successful hockey clubs in the early history of hockey in Canada. If not for an unfortunate event, perhaps there would have been an Original Seven era, rather than Original Six.
While the team is long gone, for a time, it was a hockey dynasty with some of the greatest players to ever play the game lacing up their skates wearing the team’s colours.
Today, I am looking at the Montreal Wanderers.
Since the earliest days of hockey in Canada, there had been a team with the name Wanderers. Typically, these teams only lasted for a year or so before folding. The first was part of the historic Montreal Winter Carnival hockey tournament in 1884, while another was around in 1893. A third appeared in 1895 and a fourth appeared in 1897.
The team I am talking about though began in 1903 when James Strachan formed the club and gave it the red and white colours. Strachan had formed the club over a dispute he was having with the Montreal Hockey Club over control of the club.
Years down the road in 1909, Strachan would talk to Ambrose O’Brien out of Renfrew, Ontario, whose father had made a fortune as a railway contract. He would say quote:
“A club composed entirely of French Canadian players in Montreal, with its 70 per cent French-Canadian population, is bound to be a success.”
By the end of the year, O’Brien had financed a new team, The Montreal Canadiens.
The Wanderers rejected for membership in the Canadian Amateur Hockey League, so they would help form the new Federal Amateur Hockey League on Dec. 5, 1903.
The early Montreal Wanderers team was formed from several players from the Montreal Hockey Club that had won the Stanley Cup earlier in the year.
By the end of the season, the team had finished with six wins and no losses, earning first place in the league.
The team also had a mascot at this time, a monkey named St. Nick. The monkey wore the uniform of the Wanderers and was often let loose on the ice between periods to create amusement for the fans.
On March 2, 1904, the Montreal Wanderers played in their first Stanley Cup challenge against the Ottawa Hockey Club. The game finished in a 5-5 tie but the Wanderers refused to continue the series unless they could play in Montreal. This was refused and Ottawa was awarded the Stanley Cup out of the forfeit.
The Montreal Gazette wrote quote:
“The Wanderers yesterday declined to go to Ottawa, because the champions would not again come to Montreal to replay the draw game of Wednesday night. The Ottawa people profess to regard the action of the Wanderers as unsportsmanlike.”
The two teams would have a massive rivalry between each other over the next decade. From 1904 to 1911, the two teams won every single Stanley Cup challenge except for once, in 1907, when the stacked Kenora Thistles won the Stanley Cup briefly.
In 1905, the team would join a new league, the Eastern Canada Hockey Association with other teams in Ontario and Quebec. The Montreal Gazette wrote quote:
“Early in the afternoon the coup was executed at a secret meeting held in the Arena, where the first steps were taken to set on foot the oft-mooted project of a six club combination.”
In 1906, Ottawa and Montreal met again to play a two-game total goals series for the league championship and the Stanley Cup.
The Wanderers was captained by Lester Patrick, who would say there was no better hockey team than the Wanderers of 1905 to 1908.
In the first game, the Wanderers won 9-1.
The Regina Leader-Post reported quote:
“The biggest hockey surprise of the season was pulled off here tonight before 7000 people when the Wanderers defeated Ottawa in the first of the home and home games. The home team played rings around the champions and it was soon evident that they were out to win. The Ottawas during the first half were carelessly indifferent and over-confident and in the last it was too late to pull out a victory.”
Ottawa came back to dominate the next game 9-3. Since the Wanderers had two more goals in the series, they won their first Stanley Cup.
The Calgary Albertan wrote quote:
“The Ottawas defeated the Wanderers in the Stanley Cup match last night by a score of 9 to 3 in the most sensational match ever witnessed, as the aggregate of goals in two matches decides the honour.”
The Wanderers were able to defend the Stanley Cup in their first challenge, but they would lose the Cup to the Kenora Thistles in January 1907.
The Thistles 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 Winnipeg Tribune would describe the scene when the Thistles won, stating quote:
“If pandemonium had broken loose there could not have been wilder scenes than fallowed the wonderful finish of the challengers and now Stanley Cup holders. The victorious Thistles were carried off the ice, while friends of the Wanderers gathered around their team to give them a parting cheer as the holders of the Stanley Cup.”
Two months later, the Wanderers regained the Stanley Cup from the Thistles, to win their second Stanley Cup.
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:
“It was a decisive beating that the Eastern challengers handed out to the pride of the west for they excelled the cupholders in every way. As regards speed, teamplay, stickhandling and generalship, they left not the faintest shadow of a doubt as to which was the better team on the ice.”
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.”
Eventually, the Wanderers received the Stanley Cup. At this point, their names were carved into the Stanley Cup, the first team to have that done in what is now yearly practice.
Between 1904 and 1907, the team had finished first three times and second once in the league.
In 1908, the team won its third consecutive league title and were able to defend the Stanley Cup that year, earning technically their third Stanley Cup in the process. At the end of the season, due to their dominance, the team was given the Arena Cup, the league championship, trophy permanently. That trophy is now at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The 1908 squad of the team featured five future Hockey Hall of Fame members in Moose Johnson, Hod Stuart, Riley Hern, Lester Patrick and Ernie Russell.
The team was sold to P.J. Doran, who owned the Jubilee Rink, after the season.
Before the 1909 season, Montreal was able to defend its Stanley Cup against the Edmonton Hockey Club but they would soon lose their Stanley Cup, ending a two year hold on the trophy.
Since the Wanderers were now playing in the smaller Jubilee Rink versus the Montreal Arena, other members of the ECHA would receive a smaller share of proceeds from games played in the Wanderers rink. The members of the ECHA then suspended the league and set up the Canadian Hockey Association League, and rejected the Wanderers for inclusion. The representatives of the Wanderers then met on the ground floor of the hotel where the other team owners were meeting. They then met with the owners of the Renfrew Creamery Kings and they suggested forming their own league with teams from Cobalt, Haileybury, Montreal and Renfrew. This was agreed to and on Dec. 4, 1909, the NHA was formed. In January 1910, the Canadian Hockey Association League folded and Ottawa and the Montreal Shamrocks joined the NHA.
The Halifax Evening Mail wrote quote:
“This change was brought about by a split in the ranks of the Montreal Wanderers. For some time the pot of dissension had been boiling over. The real trouble it might be said arose over a question of rinks.”
In 1910, the Wanderers won their fourth Stanley Cup in five years, technically becoming a dynasty but it is not recognized as such since it predates the NHL. This would be the last great season for the team, when they finished with 11 wins and one loss, earning first place in the NHA.
The team would be bought by Sam Lichtenhein, who owned the Montreal Royals. Unfortunately, the team would hit on hard times from this point on and they would miss the NHA playoffs four seasons in a row after the Stanley Cup win. They would have one winning season in 1914-15, but over the course of the next two seasons they won only 15 of 44 games.
The Montreal Wanderers joined the new NHL in 1917-18 but their time in their league was short. In the first month of the new league, the team lost Sprague and Odie Cleghorn to other teams, but gained future Hall of Fame goaltender Hap Holmes. On Jan. 2, 1918, their home rink, the Montreal Arena, burned to the ground.
After the fire, the team called for new players but none came and they would default on their next two games. The team then disbanded, having played only four games in the NHL.
The Vancouver Sun reported quote:
“Sam Lichtenhein, president of the Montreal Wanderers hockey club, this morning announced the resignation of his team from the National Hockey League, submitted at a meeting of the directors last night and refused was final. He intimated that the club’s players were disbanded today and given their releases outright.”
By the time the team disbanded, Lichtenhein was losing $15,000 per season on the team, including $30,000 in 1917-18 alone. Oddly, Lichtenhein was no stranger to fires. His family lost their department stores in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, causing them to move to Montreal. Then he lost the Wanderers’ arena, and fires destroyed the baseball park of the Royals twice, and another fire destroyed one of his businesses.
The last active Wanderers player to play in the NHL was George Geran, who played his last game in 1926.
While the team’s time was short, its mark on hockey history was large. Beyond just helping to form the NHA, which would lead to the NHL, the Wanderers won or defended for the Stanley Cup an astounding 10 times in their first seven years of existence and only lost two direct challenges, their first in 1904, and another in 1907 against Kenora.
Over the course of the team’s existence, the team played 212 games, winning 122 and losing 90. The team would score 1,188 goals in its existence, and lost 1,045. Arguably the team’s best season was 1907 when they won 10 games and lost none, and successfully took the Stanley Cup back from Kenora. The teams worst season was likely 1916-17, when they won two games and lost eight.
In the team’s last nine seasons, they won 63 games and lost 81, but we take out the teams seasons from 1910-11 to 1917-18, when they only made the playoffs once, the team’s record would be unbelievable 59 wins and only nine losses.
In the team’s history, 16 players made the Hockey Hall of Fame. Some of their players were among the best to ever play the game including Sprague Cleghorn, Lester Patrick and Art Ross.
Of those Hall of Famers, 10 played for the team during its dynasty years from 1904 to 1910. The first player to be inducted from the team was Hod Stuart, who was one of the first nine players inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945. The last player to be inducted was Gordon Roberts in 1971, five years after he had passed away and over 50 years since the Wanderers had last played a game.
One interesting fact, which I will end the episode on, is that in 1963, four of the players inducted had played for the Montreal Wanderers. That class of inductees was actually the largest ever inducted, with 20 people being enshrined in the Hall.
Information from Our History Montreal Canadiens, Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Sports Team History, Wikipedia, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Saturday News, Halifax Evening Mail, Vancouver Sun, Regina Leader,