on this day in 1893: when baron stanley of preston first sent his cup to montreal

Trustee John: Dr. Sweetland in thoughtful repose in 1870, before the distinguished Ottawa surgeon took up his role as one of the Stanley Cup’s original custodians. (Image: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada)

If you’re out and about in Toronto today, lucky for you — so, too, is the original Stanley Cup, which the Hockey Hall of Fame is letting out of its vault for the day. You can take a photograph with the simple silver bowl that Frederick Stanley, Baron Stanley of Preston, commissioned and donated as Canada’s sixth governor-general, grasp it in your hands, raise it to your lips, swig some champagne — actually, I don’t know about the grasping and the champagne. Probably that’s forbidden. Paying a visit is definitely a go, though, on this auspicious anniversary: it was 125 years ago, May 15, 1893, that the Cup was presented for the very first time, in Montreal.

The tale of how that happened is a bit of a tangled one, with accents of confusion and even rancor. I’m not certain that they’ll be highlighting the whole messy truth of the matter down at the Hall today, but do feel free to ask about it, if you’re going.

It was back in 1892 that Lord Stanley originally announced his intention to donate a trophy — you remember all this from hockey catechism back in school, no doubt. It had to be commissioned, smithed, engraved & etc., back in London, in England, and it wasn’t until early May of ’93 that the Dominion Challenge trophy arrived in Ottawa — just as its perpetrator was preparing to head the other way, in fact.

That April, Lord Stanley’s elder brother had died in England, making him the 16th Earl of Derby. While his term, which he’d started in 1888, didn’t officially come to its end until September of 1893, he was already preparing to depart. Word of the appointment of his successor, the Earl of Aberdeen, was already circulating, and earlier in May the Globe advised that he’d given the servants at Rideau Hall their notice, along with a bonus of three months’ pay and a promise to faithfully recommend them to the new man of the house.

Earl Derby stayed on in Canada until July, as it turned out, and so he could have presented his hockey trophy for the first time, if he’d chosen to. Instead, he delegated the work to locals. The future former Governor-General had appointed two Ottawa-based trustees to look after and administer his new trophy, Philip Ross and Dr. John Sweetland. Ross, owner and publisher of The Ottawa Journal, had played hockey with Lord Stanley’s son Edward as a member of the Rideau Rebels. Sweetland was a prominent doctor who also served as sheriff of Carleton County and, thereby, the Supreme Court. They were the ones who made the decision that the new trophy would be awarded to the hockey club of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association — the MAAA — champions of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHA). This in itself was not without controversy, insofar as the MAAA won the last game of the season by default over the Montreal Crystals after the latter abandoned the game in protest over the referee’s decision not to allow a previously penalized player to play in the overtime. This didn’t specially please the Ottawa Hockey Club, sitting in second place: an MAAA loss to the Crystals would have left the two top teams with identical won-loss records. It wasn’t as though the rules for the new trophy had been set out from the beginning of the season, either: Ottawa thought that playoffs might be in order.

Didn’t happen. For a full and fascinating account of the further confusion that marked the actual awarding of the trophy, I recommend Paul Kitchen’s essay “They Refused The Stanley Cup,” which you’ll find in the second edition of Total Hockey (2000). Kevin Shea and John Jason Wilson’s book Lord Stanley: The Man Behind The Cup (2006) is also required reading.

In short, Sheriff Sweetland was the one who carried the cup to Montreal, where he was due to make a formal presentation at the annual meeting of the MAAA. In preparation for that, the MAAA’s secretary advised the president of the hockey team, James Stewart, who also happened to be a member of the winning team. The reply from the latter astounded the former: the hockey players advised that they did not wish to receive the trophy until they’d had an opportunity to review the conditions “upon which said trophy was to be held,” asking that this decision be passed on to the trustees.

Newspaper reports of the proceedings on this day in 1893 don’t mention the kerfuffle that ensued when the MAAA refused to go along with this. If the hockey players didn’t want to receive their trophy, then the club’s leadership would do so on their behalf. And so it was that Sheriff Sweetland handed over the first Stanley Cup to MAAA president James Taylor rather than the hockey club’s James Stewart.

In his remarks, Sweetland joked that the Governor-General would much sooner have had the cup kept in Ottawa, “but after the Capital he preferred to see Montreal hold it. The only thing he was not certain about was how the Montreal people managed to win all the decisive games.”

There would be more strife to come at the MAAA between the leadership and the hockey club, but on this day, the peaceful façade included the club’s board presenting the nine cup-winning players with engraved gold rings. Off the ice, they were bank clerks and bookkeepers, worked for the Dominion Bridge Company, sold Liebling’s Liquid Extract and Tonic Invigorator. Tom Paton was a manufacturer’s agent who happened to be a founder of the MAAA itself, as well as the original driving force behind its hockey club — for which he also played goaltender. A hundred and twenty-five years ago today, for his long and dedicated services in all those capacities, he got a Heintzman piano.