When the Stanley Cup first came into being, no one really knew what exactly to do with it. Lord Stanley famously gave the Cup to Canadian hockey, but he was rather hazy on the details. Not his fault, really, the poor man didn’t know what he was starting. He thought he was giving a punch bowl to the provincials, a small treat for a small victory in a small game. He called it the ‘Dominion Challenge Cup’, and made up five rules for it, which may be summarized thusly:
1. Don’t break it.
2. Put your name on it if you win.
3. Anybody can challenge for it.
4. These here two guys will figure out whatever other shit comes up.
5. If one of those guys doesn’t want to do it anymore, find another guy to replace him.
And with that, Lord Stanley patted himself on the back, washed his hands of hockey, and went back to England to earl over his Earldom.
In Canada, of course, these rule were a recipe for chaos. Wait, anybody can challenge for this thing? Whenever they want? Really? Canada was a pretty sparsely populated place at that time and hockey was a pretty new game, but once word of an open-challenge national trophy got around, the trustees were flooded with challenge requests from all over the place. Although the existing leagues tried, right from the beginning, to claim the trophy as exclusively theirs, the first generation of trustees were liberal, if somewhat inconsistent, men. They accepted a wide range of challenges from a wide range of places, inventing new rules and new standards of winning nearly every time. Sometimes a Cup challenge would be a single game. Others, it would be a five-game series. Sometimes it was decided on wins, others on total goals. Sometimes mid-season challenges were rejected, other times a defender would be forced to forfeit regular season games to face an upstart. There was no real system other than the whims of the trustees. It was a chaotic, nonsensical, glorious hot mess of hockey.
The Challenge Cup Era might be best understood as the horrible abusive childhood that made the Cup into the singularly tough motherfucker it is today. From 1893 to 1914, Cup challenges were accepted by the trustees at a rate of 2-5 per season. Considering that back then the hockey season was generally a little less than four months long, that meant that in some years the Cup would be won by three different clubs in March alone, as teams tried to line up their challenges on the threshhold of the spring melt. Only the coming of summer could keep the Cup safely in one city’s hands for any length of time.
In practice, the big-city teams out of Ottawa and Montreal were usually able to defend all challenges. Before teams could actually pay their players publicly, the best skaters usually went to the longest-established clubs with the best winning record and the most generous fans. Success compounded success and made it relatively easy for teams like the Senators and the Wanderers to hoard talent. Once they got the Cup they usually kept it for a couple of years, smacking away small-town teams like mosquitos in quick one- or two-game eliminations.
Except for Kenora.
Of course, the town wasn’t called Kenora when it first started challenging Ottawa for the Stanley Cup. It was called Rat Portage, a place so small and scruffy it was barely a step above nowhere at all. Settled in successive waves by fur trappers, railway workers, moonshiners, and miners, Rat Portage only took to hockey in a big way after the Canadian Pacific Railway banned brothels and bars within seven miles of town. It built its first rink in 1895 and, in the way of tiny towns in isolated places everywhere in Canada, within a decade had raised up a generation of rink rats- teenage boys who had done very little with their young lives except play hockey.
In 1903, as the Rat Portage Thistles, these boys issued their first Stanley Cup challenge against the Ottawa Senators. The trustees decided on a two-game, total-goals series, in which the Rat Portagers were soundly thumped 10-4 by their aristocratic opponents. In 1905, two years older and wiser, they tried again and lost again, this time 2-1 in a best-of-three series.
Finally, in 1907, the town got serious. First, giving in to the obvious embarrassment of playing against Canada’s social and economic elite under the name of a small and particularly hated rodent, they changed their name to Kenora. Second, they lured Art Ross, one of the first and most devious of the early hockey mercenaries, out of Montreal to pad their scoring*. The Thistles, having played together all their lives, had always been a fast team with an unusually good passing game. The addition of Ross’s offensive rushes proved to be enough to put them over the edge. In two games, they outscored the Wanderers 12-8, and brought the Stanley Cup home, to a town of 7000 people.
The town celebrated with a shameless, silly effusion of joy. They rigged up a giant thistle made of electric lights. They gave the coach a tea set and the trainer a silk hat and each player his very own ‘loving cup’. They had a party in the opera house with piano solos and singing and speeches, including one from the town doctor which has a distinctly drunken-improv ring to it. He credited the success of the hockey team to the excellence of Kenora’s womenfolk, who through their feminine charms were able to keep the boys from running off to the big cities. In Ottawa, a Cup victory would be celebrated with fancy dress balls featuring lords and ladies. In Kenora, it was celebrated with moonshine and Christmas lights and vague sexual innuendo. But honestly, the party itself doesn’t matter much. What matters is that they got to have it.
In total, Kenora only got to hold the Cup for two happy months. In mid-March, they successfully defended a challenge from Brandon, Manitoba, but barely more than a week later the Wanderers came back to reclaim their prize. The Thistles lost the Cup under the exact same format and by the exact same score they had won it- two games, total goals, 12-8. The Wanderers took the Cup back to Montreal, where they would swap it back and forth with Ottawa and Quebec until the end of the Challenge Cup days. Eastern hockey professionalized and salaries exploded. Mercenaries like Ross went back to Montreal, and afterwords, gifted small-town players like the rink rats of Rat Portage would follow their hockey dreams in the same direction: towards the money. Several of the ex-Thistles went on to have careers in the NHL, but none of them were ever able to bring the Cup back to Kenora again.
Kenora seems like one of those curious footnotes in hockey history, a scrap of random trivia that serves to prove one’s hockey nerdery and very little more. But it’s more than that, it’s a signpost that points to one of the saddest things that’s ever happened in hockey: the alienation of the Dominion Challenge Cup from the dominion. Kenora was, indeed, the only small town ever to win Stanley during the Challenge Era, but look over the list of losing challengers some day; it’s like reading a map of early 20th century Canada. Queen’s University. The Halifax Crescents. The Brandon Wheat Cities. Dawson City, Smiths Falls, New Glasgow. Galt, Berlin, Port Arthur. Hell, the Winnipeg Rowing Club challenged for the Stanley Cup once.
Anybody could try for the Cup. How awesome is that? How incredible? That there was a time when the Stanley Cup itself was within dreaming distance of ordinary men in ordinary towns? When it was hoisted by railway workers and postal clerks, engraved with the names of miners and policemen?
With the growth of professional hockey, and the trustees’ eventual decision to award it exclusivley to the winner of the NHL playoffs, the Stanley Cup has certainly gained some mystique. In the Challenge Cup era, one could never honestly have called it ‘the hardest trophy to win’. But it has lost some mystique, too. The Dominion Challenge Cup is now neither. It is beyond the hopes and aspirations of almost everyone. Rather than nurturing the dreams of ordinary men in ordinary towns, it serves now more as a symbol of the hopelessness and foolishness of such dreams. It has become something cold, exalted, and distant. Something no regular person could ever possibly achieve, something no small town could ever claim.
On August 22nd, the Kenora Thistles 1907 Stanley Cup banner was stolen from a party for Mike Richards, a good Kenora boy, bringing the Cup home. Once upon a time, Kenora itself was able to win the Cup. Now they just get to see it for a day, on loan from LA. The banner was recovered a couple days later, but what it represents is gone forever.
*This post originally and erroneously stated that Ross was brought on to fill out a forward line. Which, as was pointed out in the comments, is incorrect, as Ross was a defenseman.
Research for this post was taken from Putting a Roof on Winter, by Michael McKinley and The Canadian Hockey Atlas, by Stephen Cole.