Nothing against the Vegas Golden Knights or Washington’s own Capitals, who’ll meet tonight to decide who gets to claim the Stanley Cup and brandish it aloft.
If we’re a little quiet up here in Canada when the time of your triumph comes in a week or two, sorry: it’s not you, it’s us. It’s painful, for us, that yet again none of our true-north teams is in the mix. Even after all these years of yielding the former Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup to foreign powers, we’re still not quite used to the idea. Best not to remind us, either, that the trophy we covet so dearly was mostly an offshore affair from the start. It’s not just that the original Stanley Cup was bought and smithed overseas, in London. As much as it has occupied the imaginations of Canadians since then, this sacred cup of ours was first dreamed of by a 51-year-old Englishman who’d come here for work.
We’re still a little raw about that, too.
Not that we don’t revere Baron Stanley of Preston and that foundational gesture of his. If he’s not exactly the reason for the (hockey) season, Lord Stanley is written indelibly into Canada’s hockey story as a founder of the feast. Apart from anything else, he and his family remind us of how alluring our winter game is, and that it’s actually okay for foreigners to learn and love it — good things can happen.
Strange ones, too. With time to spare ahead of tonight’s game, can we dwell on an episode that’s got a little lost in the annals of our sixth governor-general’s association with the game we like to claim as our own? Is it possible that there was a time when Canadians actually rebuked Lord Stanley and his hockey-adoring family for their very enthusiasm?
It is, and we did, some of us, back in 1890, two years before Lord Stanley got around to commissioning his famous trophy. The whole affair roiled Ottawa, briefly, and made international headlines — small ones, it’s true, but pithy enough. With all that’s been written about the Stanleys and the cup that goes by their name, this is a bit of a missing chapter. It’s not a long one, and it vanished from the newspapers as quickly as it had appeared. It could, I suppose, have soured Lord Stanley on hockey for good, thereby endangering the entire future of hockey history — except, of course, that it didn’t.
First, some background. Baron Stanley of Preston arrived at Rideau Hall in June of 1888, he and his wife, Constance, were accompanied by four of their ten children. Much of the family embraced hockey enthusiastically during their first Canadian winter, including 13-year-old Isobel, a great hockey-playing story in her own right.
She was skating, stick in hands, in February of 1889. That same month, her brother Arthur (19) organized the Government-House team that would become known as the Rideau Rebels. At least two other Stanley brothers were in on this: Edward (24) and Victor (22). In their original alignment, the Rebels also featured a pair of vice-regal military aides, including Lieutenant Aubrey McMahon, who’s in the photograph here. The team’s earliest opposition was a five-man team made up of (mostly opposition Liberal) members of Parliament.
Much of this has been carefully documented, notably by Kevin Shea and John Jason Wilson in their 2006 biography, Lord Stanley: The Man Behind The Cup, where you’ll find a detailed account of what happened when the Stanley boys got serious about the Rebels during their second Ottawa winter, organizing a busy exhibition schedule for the team both on home ice, at Rideau Hall, and out and about across Ontario.
Arthur Stanley seems to have been the driving force in this, abetted by Ontario Liberal M.P. and keen hockeyist John Barron. The team sported crimson sweaters and white trousers and caps, and seems to have travelled in style, possibly by way of the Governor-General’s vice-regal railway car.
In the first week of February of 1890, the team travelled west from Ottawa to play in Lindsay, Ontario, where Barron had his legal practice. From there, they carried on to Toronto, playing a pair of games on Saturday, February 8. In the afternoon, the Rebels beat the team from the Granite Club, 5-4, before falling 1-4 to St. Georges in the evening. High sticks and fights featured in both games, “to the point,” as Shea and Wilson note, “that hockey received its first appreciable coverage in Toronto, albeit through editorials denouncing the violence of the game.”
Back in Ottawa, meanwhile, a different and mostly, now, forgotten scandal was brewing.
The first of the fuss appeared in the press just as the Rebels were embarking on their road trip. Before their departure, the team would seem to have been preparing, as teams do, with practices. Were they out scrimmaging on the Rideau Hall rink on Sunday, February 2? Seems so. There’s no indication that Lord Stanley himself was skating — indeed, I don’t know that we know if he ever got up on blades, or tried a vice-regal wrist-shot. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t about to be excoriated for desecrating the Sabbath.
It wasn’t only local Ottawa papers that took up the cry: The New York World was on it quickly, too, and within days, the news had carried to the pages of papers in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Lawrence, Kansas. Before long, the English press was taking note as well.
The scandalous word was out: the fact that Lord Stanley and members of his household and “some leaders of Ottawa’s upper society circle” were said to have been playing hockey on Sundays was said to roiling the city’s “religious circles.”
The World’s report was the one that spread widest, and it promised further fall-out: “His Excellency will probably be rebuked from one or more of the city church pulpits next Sunday.”
And so it was. I don’t know about the more, but here’s one: at the Congregationalist Church that in those years occupied the corner of Elgin and Albert streets, Reverend John Wood set aside his usual lesson from the Old Testament to orate on the law of God in regard to the Sabbath and (as was reported next day) “the example of the Saviour of His apostles in respect to its observance.”
Reverend Wood said the hockey was only hearsay, but even that was bad enough: he “exceedingly regretted” having heard it. He wasn’t inclined to believe the rumour, he went on, except that one of the players involved had been so bold as to write a letter that Reverend Wood had seen. It didn’t just confirm that there washockey being played at Rideau Hall on Sundays, this letter — the writer was positively glorying in the shame of it.
Would Her Majesty Queen Victoria allow such a thing on the grounds of Windsor Castle? No. Why, then, should it permitted on the grounds of the vice-regal residence in Canada? It was bad enough when the poor violated the Sabbath, Reverend Wood continued; it was, if possible, even lesspardonable for the rich.
“Mr. Wood’s remarks met with the decided approval of the congregation,” The St. Louis Dispatch reported.
We don’t know what Queen Victoria was thinking about all this — chances are that she wasn’t. Lord Stanley? He must have been — we just don’t have any record of the shape or temperature of whatever was on his mind that week. The Advertiser in Montgomery, Alabama, did inform its readers that an unnamed member of the Rideau Hall staff was wondering why the people of Canada should be interfering at all in what was so clearly a private matter. According to anonymous him, regular people back home in England “did not regard a game of hockey on Sunday as so very criminal.”
Beloved as his name may be to generations of hockey fans over whom he never reigned, Lord Stanley was not, in February of 1890, having a banner month in the press. That much we do know. In fact, the very same day that readers in Missouri were learning what Reverend Wood thought in Ottawa, the headline front-and-centre on page one of The New York Times read “Lord Stanley Denounced.”
The Times hadn’t registered (or didn’t care about) the outrage of Sabbath hockey. Instead, their correspondent had his eye on the indignation fermenting among members of the Canadian Parliament that was threatening to make Lord Stanley “one of the most unpopular Governor Generals Canada has ever had.”
The cause? Lord Stanley, it seems, had cancelled the annual Rideau Hall state ball. The reason given was that Lady Stanley was “indisposed,” but everybody knew better, according to the Times: “in reality his Excellency and the vice-regal household are averse to having the vulgar crowd of common people invade the privileged precincts of the vice-regal residence.”
Lord Stanley had, subsequently, relented. Somewhat, anyway: invitations had gone out for a pair of dances to be celebrated at Rideau Hall that very February week.
The storm abated, if only until Ottawa discovered who hadn’t been invited to twirl: many members of Parliament and the Senate, along with most of the city’s business and merchant elites. The word was that much of the guest list was taken up by civil servants who happened to have English blood and a good family name in their favour. “It is enough,” an editorial in Toronto’s Globe raged, “that Rideau Hall is a rat hole for many thousands of public money without becoming a nursery for snobbishness.”
Other papers were reporting that Lord Stanley was to be recalled to England imminently. His successor? The Vancouver Daily World said that the Duke of Fife had already been appointed — “a very popular and sensible nobleman.” The Winnipeg Tribune was hearing that the prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, would take the job himself.
Not everybody was willing to drop the matter of the Sabbath having been defiled. In light of what was happening at Rideau Hall, MP John Charlton announced that he would be introducing a bill in Parliament to outlaw Sunday hockey.
Charlton was not, so far as I can determine, a hockey player. Even if he had been, I’m not sure that he would have ever allowed himself to chase a puck past midnight on a Saturday. The fact that he was a colleague of the Rebels’ John Barron in the Liberal caucus doesn’t seem to have moderated his view, either.
American-born, Charlton had migrated to Canada as a young man. Now 61, he had a pre-politics background in farming and the lumber business. He’d been a town councillor in southwestern Ontario before seeking and winning election to Parliament as the member for Norfolk North in 1872.
Forestry and the lumber trade with the United States took up most of his attention as a politician, but as Thomas Ferns and Robert Craig Brown make clear in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography,
his religious beliefs and strong convictions about moral reform also found frequent expression, both commercially and politically. A member of the Presbyterian Church from the 1850s and a confirmed Sabbatarian, he did not permit labour in his lumber camps on the Sabbath and he managed to confine his business travels to the other six days of the week, returning home … by Sunday. For Charlton public morality and national strength were most definitely connected.
By 1890, Charlton had been lobbying for a stricter national policy on slowing down the nation’s Sundays for more than a decade. When the Lord’s Day Alliance of the Dominion of Canada was established in 1888, Charlton was elected vice-president.
Now, he clearly saw that an opportunity was at hand: with Sunday hockey at Rideau Hall as his wedge, Charlton had his bill ready to introduce to Parliament by early March. “It is a physical necessity that man should have a day of rest at regular intervals,” he told the House of Commons ahead of the bill’s first reading, “and experience teaches that one day in seven is the natural period, the observance of which is for both his physical and moral well-being.”
This 1890 bill of Charlton’s packed its no-fun agenda into 11 sections stipulating all that Canadians wouldn’t be able to do when they woke up of a Sunday morning. Forbidden under Charlton’s law would working at any job, or compelling anyone else to work; selling and buying anything; tippling in any inn, anywhere; promoting or causing any horse or foot race, or cock-fight; revelling; swearing; hunting, shooting, or pursuing any game; going out fishing, or catching or killing even the tiniest fish; printing or delivering any newspaper; opening any canal in Canada, or post office, or railway station; running any train, freight or passenger (with a few exceptions); allowing any steamboat to embark on — that’s right — any excursion.
Nowhere in the bill did the word hockey appear. I guess Charlton must have felt that the ban in Section 3 was strong enough without it, specifically the part that prohibited “any noisy public game whereby the peace and quiet of the Lord’s Day is disturbed.”
For Sunday outlaws, the bill proposed fines ranging from $50 to $400. The New York Times took note of this in reporting the news of Charlton’s proposals in another page-one column. The fact that the new law would not apply to Canada’s Indigenous peoples caught the Times’ interest, as did the opposition of Quebec MPs, which was said to be near universal — the bill, to them, smacked of Puritanism.
This new Times dispatch duly mentioned how Lord Stanley and his family and their Sunday hockey had “shocked the strict Christians of the Dominion” before reaching their own New York conclusion: “If the bill passes, which is unlikely, Canada will be indeed a dead country on Sunday.”
The bill didn’t go anywhere — not in 1890, anyway. By the time Parliament did enact its Lord’s Day Act in 1906, John Charlton was out of politics and Lord Stanley and his hockey-mad family had long since decamped for England. The new law, which took effect in March of 1907, still didn’t mention hockey specifically, though the old injunction against noisy games still stood. Most commerce was prohibited, along with sports and amusements, though there were nuances now, and exemptions than in Charlton’s day — you were free to fight a fire or flood, for instance, and also to make maple syrup, so long as you did so in the woods.
Back in 1890, the crisis as it affected the vice-regal hockey rink seems to have passed promptly enough. Towards the end of February — on a Saturday — the Rebels hosted the Lindsay team they’d visited earlier in the month. Arthur Stanley refereed the first game and played in the second; the Rebels won both. In between, Lord Stanley gave the hockey players lunch at Government House.
If there was more outrage in Ottawa that winter for any other hockey turpitude, it doesn’t seem to have filtered out into the world’s press — like the hockey season and the natural ice it relied on, the commotion melted away with the coming of spring. I don’t know whether the Stanleys learned their lesson and ended up curtailing Sunday shinny on the rink at Rideau Hall to placate Ottawa’s disapproving pulpits. I kind of hope not — I’m hoping that they just got stealthier, and that somehow all their secret skating and furtive shooting made those Rebels better, craftier hockey players.
What I can say is that Lord Stanley wasn’t recalled in 1890, and didn’t turn his back on hockey, such that in March of 1892 a letter he wrote ended up at a banquet celebrating the successful season the Ottawa Hockey Club had just finished.
The venue that night was Ottawa’s Russell House Hotel, at the corner of Sparks and Elgin — just two blocks north, as it happened, of Reverend Woods’ Congregational Church.
Supper was over by ten o’clock; there were toasts, then, to Queen Victoria and her Governor-General, who wasn’t in attendance. The Earl of Cavan, Lord Kilcoursie, was, and he rose to make a reply. A 52-year-old Irishman, Kilcoursie served Lord Stanley as an aide-de-camp. Before coming to Canada, he’d distinguished himself as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy during the Crimean and Second Opium wars. Later, he’d been elected as an MP to the English Parliament.
In Ottawa, he was known to skate with the Rebels, which made him the right man to be reading out the letter with which Lord Stanley had entrusted him.
“I have for some time past been thinking,” it began, “that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held from year to year by the champion hockey team in the Dominion.”