Nelson’s Stanley Cup challenge

As the Vancouver Canucks try to become the first B.C. team in 86 years to win hockey’s holy grail, we look back at the province’s earliest Stanley Cup aspirations

Lester Patrick

“Within the next year, it is probable that a hockey team wearing the colors of the Nelson club of British Columbia will be in the east playing for the Stanley Cup.” Ottawa Free Press, 1908

Frank and Lester Patrick were adamant: Nelson was going after the Stanley Cup.

Between them and the talented Bishop brothers, they felt they had the nucleus of a championship team. All it would take was a few roster additions and a new rink.

It was 1908 and in those days, the Stanley Cup was a challenge trophy — if you felt your club was strong enough, you wrote to the cup’s trustees and asked them to schedule a series where you would attempt to dethrone the reigning champs.

Your city’s size didn’t matter. In fact, the previous year, tiny Kenora, Ontario prevailed against the Montreal Wanderers — helped by some of the greatest names in the game, including Si Griffis, Eddie Geroux, Art Ross, Roxy Beaudro, and Tommy Phillips.

Kenora only held the cup for two months, however, before Montreal snatched it back in a rematch series. Among those in the Wanderers’ line-up: Lester Patrick.

ASSEMBLING A PANTHEON OF HOCKEY’S GREATS

“Nelson has had a crack hockey team for some years and now the Stanley Cup is buzzing in the bonnet of every enthusiast in the district.” — Nelson Daily News, September 24, 1908

When he came to Nelson a few months later to help run his father’s new Slocan Valley sawmill, Lester figured his playing days were over. He was wrong. He couldn’t stay off skates, and before long was thrilling local spectators with end-to-end rushes.

Oddly, talk of Nelson’s Stanley Cup hopes was mostly covered by newspapers in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Ottawa — and then simply reprinted in the Nelson Daily News.

The earliest sign of the Patricks’ dream appeared in the Ottawa Free Press in May 1908 — in which Lester was said to be putting together a “whirlwind septet.” (Back then, teams iced seven at a time, including a rover. They didn’t always carry subs and there was no changing on the fly, so players often went the entire game without a break.)

A B.C. club had never challenged for the cup, much less won it, “but the prospects for a star team at Nelson are growing brighter, and residents of the far west are beginning to wax warm over the great winter game at last,” the Free Press reported.

Lester suggested Kenora’s Si Griffis and Roxy Beaudro might be willing to come to Nelson, and “hinted that several Montreal hockey players of repute are seriously thinking of going west.”

In Ottawa, Lester’s brother Frank — a superb player with McGill University — made Art Ross an offer to join Nelson. Then, on Sparks Street one evening, he instantly recognized the game’s greatest player, though they had never met off ice. Cyclone Taylor said he was interested in moving to B.C., and Frank replied he would be welcome in Nelson.

That summer, another member of Kenora’s championship team, Tom Phillips, indicated he might be willing to come to Nelson, while Harry Kennedy, renowned as the best left winger in Winnipeg, sent Lester a letter saying he intended to move to B.C. Lester also wanted to bring in Harry Bright, a star centre with Pittsburgh of the pro International League.

“It would be a fine advertisement for Nelson to have the championship hockey team of the world,” the Daily News said with remarkable understatement.

In addition to the Patricks themselves, another pair of brothers were already in place: Archie and Harry Bishop, originally from Niagara Falls, had played in Nelson for four years. Archie, a centre, was among the most prolific goal scorers of the era, while Harry was a goaltender whom Lester said “was good enough to have made professional company had he cared to make the jump.”

“Can you show me any team in the east which would have it on us?” Lester exclaimed. “Not yet you can’t. Just watch us land that Stanley Cup … We have the champion hockey team of British Columbia in Nelson and we want the championship of Canada now.”

As they built their dream team, the Patricks also started collecting public subscriptions for a rink “with the large surface necessary for the training of a team going after such a trophy.”

Designed by local architect Alex Carrie, the arena on Hall Mines Road (where the Alpine Motel is now) would replace the old rink at the corner of Houston and Stanley and “meet fully and adequately the wants of curlers and hockeyists.”

The money was raised (between $12,000 and $15,000, depending on conflicting accounts), Phillips, Griffis, Beaudro, and Kennedy agreed to join the team, and the Patricks put up both lumber for the rink and $2,500 to cover travelling expenses. They would head for Montreal beginning around January 15, and play exhibition games en route, in Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Brandon, Winnipeg, and possibly Ottawa and Toronto.

And then something went wrong.

According to a later report, “the fine new ice rink… was not ready soon enough and the plan to go after the Stanley Cup was abandoned for the time being.”

It’s also possible the cup trustees refused Nelson’s challenge — if it was ever formally issued.

Days after a contract was awarded to W.G. Gillett to build the new rink, the Patricks said they would not play with any team for the Stanley Cup that year.

“Pressure of business will prevent either of the brothers from going east this season,” a newspaper report said.

Yet Lester changed his mind, for in December he joined Edmonton’s unsuccessful bid against his old team, the Montreal Wanderers. He returned to Nelson in time for the local club’s season.

Even without other ringers — none of the much-vaunted talent arrived — Nelson was virtually unbeatable. In the season opener, Archie Bishop scored six times as Nelson defeated Rossland 14-1. In the rematch, Lester scored seven times in an 11-4 win. Next they downed Moyie 16-3, with Archie notching seven and Lester five.

At the Rossland winter carnival, Nelson stormed its way to the 1909 B.C. championship. They had outscored their opponents 71-12 to that point, but then lost a two-game challenge series against the same Edmonton team Lester helped in its cup run.

TENACIOUS, BUT STILL DENIED

“Last year the Patrick brothers pointed out to the people of Nelson that there was a very desirable piece of pewter in eastern Canada, vastly prized that sometimes resided on the St. Lawrence river and at other times on the Ottawa. Nelson district boasts one of the finest collections of minerals on the continent, but is not strong on pewter.” — Nelson Daily News, October 17, 1909

Nelson’s success — and the completion of the new rink — only further fueled the Patricks’ desire to win the Stanley Cup. That fall, they were in talks with the brilliant centre Newsy Lalonde, who had come west to play lacrosse.

“Lalonde will, it is said, come back to Nelson for the cold months and will assist that city in making a bid for the Stanley Cup, the trophy which is to hockey as the Minto Cup is to lacrosse,” the Vancouver Province reported. “It is the intention of Nelson to go after the cup sometime in February next if the cup trustees will give them dates then.”

Those dates were critical, the Patricks felt, “for it would be folly to go east in December, without having had any practice on home ice, or in March, when home ice would have for some time been a memory.”

The series would be played in Ottawa against the champion Senators, and in addition to Lalonde, both Phillips and Griffis — now retired from hockey — were again expected to bolster Nelson’s ranks.

“We want to get the Stanley Cup for Nelson and if we get the dates, and if the people of Nelson back us up, as there is not a single doubt of their doing, we will make the most of our lives to lift it,” Lester said.

However, the cup trustees were unwilling to grant the dates, and once again Nelson’s challenge was stillborn.

The Patrick brothers instead joined a team from Renfrew, Ontario in exchange for then-enormous sums. They returned to Nelson in 1911 after a disappointing season and resumed routing the local competition — although a dispute with Rossland carnival organizers prevented them from vying again for the B.C. title.

Soon after, the Patrick family sold their sawmill and risked the proceeds in a new professional hockey circuit with teams in Vancouver, Victoria, and New Westminster. Lester and Frank would simultaneously be players, coaches, owners, and officials.

The Pacific Coast Hockey Association pioneered new rules — the blue line, forward pass, and playoff system, among them — that forever changed the game.

Frank and Lester would go on to coach in the NHL and be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, while several generations of their descendants would also be involved in the sport professionally.

CUP GLORY PAST… AND FUTURE?

In the end, Nelson’s Stanley Cup hopes turned out to be mostly hot air.

But in 1915, Frank Patricks’s Vancouver Millionaires brought B.C. its first Stanley Cup victory, while a decade later, Lester’s Victoria Cougars gave the province its second. We’re still awaiting the third. The Vancouver Canucks may be poised to do something about it.

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