In the trenches it never mattered who was a hometown hockey star. But in early October 1914, when the first Canadian contingent of nearly 33,000 troops headed to Europe, many of those young men were more comfortable wielding a hockey stick than their new rifle.
But as the First World War escalated and more Canadians enlisted, James T. Sutherland, president of the Ontario Hockey Association and quartermaster of the 146th Overseas Battalion in England, noted that the “nerve and gameness” crucial in hockey were also necessary in battle. “The bell has rung,” he said. “Let every man play the greatest game of his life.”
In 1919, to honour the Ontario Hockey Association’s dead, Sutherland conceived of the OHA Memorial Cup, for which junior teams across Canada could compete.
“The bulk of hockey players of that age had enlisted,” says Bill Fitsell, hockey historian and former curator of the International Hockey Hall of Fame in Kingston, Ont. “But Sutherland was sparked by the deaths of Allan ‘Scotty’ Davidson and George Richardson — two hockey greats whom he’d coached when they were Kingston Frontenacs players.”
The first cup title, in 1919, went to the University of Toronto Schools team, after they trounced the Regina Patricias 14–3 and 15–5 in two games at Toronto’s Arena Gardens. Still considered one of the most difficult trophies to win in hockey, the Memorial Cup’s legacy is sometimes overlooked. “It was a tribute to the OHA players who died,” says Fitsell, “but it was a gift to all of hockey across Canada.”
Memorial cup on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008.
(Photo: Scorpion0422/Creative Commons)
Top 10 Memorial Cup moments
Some of the best moments from Canada’s hockey history
“The fight to get one’s name on this trophy is what makes the Canadian Hockey League a place where not only playing the game, but winning at it, is learned,” write Richard Lapp and Alec Macaulay in their book The Memorial Cup: Canada’s Junior Hockey Championship. “It gives the Memorial Tournament lustre, but also grit and sometimes even ugliness.”
For Canada’s top junior players, the stakes are just as high as they are for the pros on the road to the Stanley Cup. But in the junior leagues, the battle for the ultimate prize has always been squeezed into just a handful of games. The locker-room interview cliché that “every game counts” might never be truer, and the play is also made even more electrifying by the fact that the young hockey players are less-honed and disciplined, and must rely all the more on pure athleticism.
The following is a roundup of 10 of the greatest moments from the 95-year-old Memorial Cup. And what makes some of these stand out isn’t the action on the ice.
1919 The first cup contest was a one-sided affair in Toronto’s Arena Gardens, with the University of Toronto Schools team outgunning the Regina Patricias 29–8 in two meetings. What made the game truly unforgettable was that it was delayed by nearly an hour-and-a-half. There were jubilant parades in the city the same day — for Canadian regiments just returning home from the First World War — and fans were late to their seats because of them. A more fitting start for the cup, named in honour of the Canadian soldiers who did not return, could not have been contrived.
1935 In this best-of-three showdown between the Sudbury Cub Wolves and the Winnipeg Monarchs, the Wolves made up for a 7–6 first-game loss by posting a 7–2 win in game two. Three of those seven points, however, came on power plays in the final two minutes. In fact, by the last 15 seconds, the Monarchs had only their goalie and a defenceman left, unpenalized, on the ice, and very nearly just their goalie. (An unlimited number of players could be penalized at once in those days.) The Winnipeg crowd was clearly displeased by the refereeing, and bombarded the rink with programs and peanut shells. Fortunately for the officials, the home team took the final game 4–1.
1938 It was a classic underdog story: Manitoba’s St. Boniface Seals upset all their western challengers and went to Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens to play the four-to-one favourites, the Oshawa Generals, for the cup. In the first game, St. Boniface protested the length of Oshawa’s sticks, and after two inches had been lopped off a bunch, the Generals still won 3–2. But after the Seals shut out the Generals 4–0 in the next game and the teams traded wins again on the next two, St. Boniface came up with a resounding 7–1 win in the final, in front of 15,617 spectators — at the time the largest crowd to have watched a Canadian hockey game.
1949 News reports claimed that bookies suffered throughout this series because the Montreal Royals and Brandon Wheat Kings (of southern Manitoba), were such evenly matched forces. With consecutive matches going 3–2 Montreal, 3–2 Brandon, a 3–3 tie and a 1–0 Montreal win in game four, the Quebec team’s 7–4 victory in game five may have given everyone involved a much-needed moment to breathe. The Wheat Kings evened things out over the next two games with a pair of home arena victories, but on neutral Winnipeg ice, it was the Royals who scored a stunning four goals in the third period to win 6–4 and secure Quebec’s first Memorial Cup.
1957 The Ottawa Canadiens arrived in Flin Flon, Man., too late to make the first game of their championship series against the local Bombers team. To many in the small northern city, it was proof enough that the easterners didn’t take them seriously, or consider them capable of hosting the major tournament. The Manitobans were pacified, however, when the Bombers won the rescheduled game 3–1. The series went back and forth and moved to Regina, where in the fifth game Ottawa coach Sam Pollock was ejected for having “questioned the ancestry of the referees,” as the Regina Leader-Post put it. Flin Flon triumphed in the seventh, deciding meeting, and upon returning home, the team was met at the train station by an estimated 4,000 cheering Flin Flonners.
1965 This series might best exemplify the “ugliness” that has at times defined Memorial Cup play. In a rematch of the 1963 cup between the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Niagara Falls Flyers (in which Edmonton came out on top), the Flyers skated away with the first two wins in front of an Oil Kings crowd. By the third game, tensions had erupted and chaos ensued, with Edmonton spectators joining in on violent team brawls and police blanketing the arena. Edmonton won 5–1, technically, but a total of 33 penalties and three player suspensions were earned in the last few minutes. Extra police were at the ready for the next games, but the Flyers came up with two big (and relatively uneventful) wins to take the cup.
1971 The eastern final between the St. Catharines Black Hawks and the Quebec Remparts was never completed, because the scrappy Ontario team, down three games to one, refused to return to Quebec City after an angry mob surrounded their bus and players started receiving threats from the FLQ. The eastern championship was, nevertheless, awarded to the Remparts, who then played an abbreviated, best-of-three Memorial Cup series against the Edmonton Oil Kings (who were greeted with much less venom when they came to Quebec City). The Remparts won their city’s first Memorial Cup in two straight, scored 5–1 and 5–2, and while their star player, Guy Lafleur, had been less prolific than in the eastern finals, he was already being touted as the greatest player in hockey.
1983 This was the first year the cup took on the four-team format, a round-robin between the three champions of the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and a host team — which that year was Oregon’s Portland Winter Hawks. It was also the first time an American club won the cup (the Winter Hawks again), and because they had come second to Lethbridge, Alta., in the WHL, they were also the first team to win the Memorial Cup without claiming a league title first. But, as Portland defenceman Brian Curran explained after his team’s 8–3 victory, “We’re mostly a Canadian team playing in an American city.”
1996 “We have a lot of work to do,” new Granby Prédateurs coach Michel Therrien admitted at the start of the 1995–96 season. “They don’t have a winning tradition here.” But a few roster changes and nearly a full season later, the Quebec team was Memorial Cup material. When Brandon’s Wheat Kings and Guelph’s Storm had been knocked out of the tourney, Granby faced the Peterborough Petes for the cup — on Peterborough ice. Or maybe “slush” is more appropriate. Inside the old arena, it climbed to a stifling 27 C during play, and fog rising from the ice made it hard for players to see. Maintenance crews came often to remove pooling water. Granby still managed a 4–0 victory, which brought the cup back to Quebec for the first time since 1971.
2007 The host Vancouver Giants beat the Medicine Hat Tigers 3–1 to win it all, but it was the trophy itself that had received the hero’s welcome. The Memorial Cup’s enduring ties to Canadian military history were never more evident than when Canadian Forces units delivered it to the championship by sea, aboard the HMCS Vancouver; by air, hoisted aboard a CH149 Cormorant helicopter; and by land, via the armoured 39th Canadian Brigade Group Convoy.