April 17, 2008

Ottawa Senators: Hockey's First Dynasty

Long before Montreal, Toronto or Detroit, Ottawa won three Cups in four seasons, making them professional hockey’s earliest dynasty. The team officially known as the Ottawa Hockey Club, although they were known by the unofficial nicknames "Silver Seven" and "Senators."

Ottawa was hockey’s earliest dynasty. From 1903 through 1927 Ottawa won 11 Stanley Cup championships, including 4 championships in the 1920s as a member of the National Hockey League.

Not that anyone remembers that today. The Ottawa Senators faded from memory after a disastrous financial slide and move to St. Louis in 1935. No one remembers the exploits of players like Jack Darragh or those Stanley Cup championships.

The first Ottawa team was formed at the 1884 Montreal Winter Carnival. By 1890 they were dubbed the "Generals" or "Capitals." The team was instrumental in the formation of the Amateur Hockey Association (AHA), the first major league circuit in Canada. The team would challenge Montreal AAA for the first two Stanley Cup championships, but would fall just short of winning Lord Stanley's mug.

The team was restructured at the turn of the 20th century, complete with the official nickname of Senators. Back then teams put seven players on the ice, including the now-extinct rover. As a result, the Ottawa media and fans dubbed their team the Silver Seven despite the official Senators nickname.

These Ottawa teams, led by the likes of team captain Harvey Pulford, One Eyed Frank McGee, Harry Westwick, Bowse Hutton and coach Alf Smith, won the Stanley Cup four years running, from 1903 to 1906.

As the rover position was eliminated, the popular Silver Seven nickname subsided. Ottawa would win Cup in 1909 as a member of the Eastern Canadian Hockey Association, a year before joining the NHA, the forerunner to the NHL.

Despite the uncertainties of teams folding, teams starting, owner infighting and World War I, the Senators obtained some of the greatest players in the early era of professional hockey. Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, Harry “Punch” Broadbent, Art Ross, Cy Denneny, and Sprague Cleghorn all played for Ottawa. It was a team of hometown heroes.

The Senators won their first NHL-era cup in 1920 after beating the Seattle Metropolitans. After Game 4, in which the Senators were beaten 5-2, Jack Darragh declared, “I’ve had enough hockey for this winter. You will have to get along without me in the final game.” He then promptly called a cab and headed home, but was convinced to return in time for the final game.

Interestingly, the final two games of the 1920 finals were played in Toronto, as the Sens' ice was quickly deteriorating due to unusually hot spring weather that year.

The Sens won again in 1921 after beating the Vancouver Millionaires. After this victory, the team lost several of its stars. Jack Darragh decided to retire. Frank Gorman didn’t want to deal with Cleghorn anymore, so he walked away and was assigned to play for the Hamilton Tigers. Cleghorn was promptly traded to Montreal.

But as the Senators lost or traded these stars, they also signed two rookies who would go on to have stellar careers: Frank “King” Clancy and Frank Boucher, though Boucher was traded after one season.

The Senators won again in 1923. This was the first time in NHL history brothers squared off against each other in the Stanley Cup final. Not only were Cy and Corb Denneny on opposing sides, but George and Frank Boucher as well.

Jack Darragh decided to come out of retirement for the 1922-23 season. He played on that championship team, played one more season and retired once more. He did not get to enjoy that retirement much. In July 1924, he died of peritonitis.

By the time Ottawa claimed another Cup victory in 1927, the lineup had changed somewhat. This time, they had Jack Adams, Hooley Smith and Hec Kilrea in addition to Nighbor, Denneny, and Clancy.

1927 marked the first all-NHL Stanley Cup Finals, as the Senators took on the Boston Bruins, with the Sens prevailing with a 2-0-2 record in the mandatory 4 game series. After the final game Billy Coutu assaulted a referee in the arena corridors, and was subsequently suspended for life.

Unfortunately, the team never really made money. Even in a winning season like 1926-27, the Senators lost $50, 000. Owner Frank Ahearn began selling off players. The team’s winning ways slowed, then stopped. In the 1930-31 season, the Senators only won ten games. The following year team operations were suspended.

The team was resurrected in 1932, but finished last in the 1932-33 and 1933-34 seasons. In the middle of the 1934-35 season, the team relocated to St. Louis and became known as the Eagles. That season, they only won 11 of 48 games; at the end of the season, the team folded and it was the official end of the Senators.

In December of 1990, the NHL board of governors met to hear pitches for the first expansion teams since the admittance of ex-WHA teams in 1979. One of the contenders for a new franchise was Ottawa.

To make sure the league understood just how serious Ottawa was, they brought along the last surviving player of the original Senators: Frank “Shawville Express” Finnigan. Frank was 87, and his mind was still as sharp as ever. He cornered then-president John Ziegler at a function and instructed Ziegler to give Ottawa a franchise. “You’re going to give those boys in Ottawa a chance,” Frank declared.

The next day, Ziegler did just that and once again the Senators were back in the league, beginning with the 1992-93 season.

-- Contributed by Jennifer Conway

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just FYI, Frank Finnigan was not the last surviving original Ottawa Senator (that's Teddy Saunders I believe). Frank was the last surviving member of Ottawa's last Stanley Cup winning team from 1927. Thanks!