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May 14, 2009

The Legendary Patricks Bring Hockey To BC

Undoubtedly the people with the biggest impact in hockey in British Columbia were the Patrick brothers - Lester and Frank. In fact, you could say these two had the biggest impact in the development of hockey world wide, and it all was here in BC.

Lester is the best known of the two, thanks to his 1928 stunt while coaching the New York Rangers all the way to the Stanley Cup championship. When starting goalie Lorne Chabot came up lame with an injury and could not play, the 44 year old coach, who himself had played the game for years but never as a goalie, donned the pads and led the Rangers to victory.

That moment has forever since been a part of hockey folklore, but in many ways it has greatly overshadowed the importance of the Patricks.

The Family Business

Their father Joseph was an incredibly successful businessman and was extremely proud of his two hockey playing sons, each of whom would one day make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Joseph made a fortune in the lumber business. The family sought new fortunes and moved to lumber rich British Columbia, settling in beautiful Nelson in 1907. He sons would move out west too, but only after Joseph sold the family business for $340,000, a huge amount of cash back in those days. Treating them like partners, Joseph asked his sons to seek new investments.

Frank came up with a crazy idea - start a whole new professional hockey league. Because of the climate and the late settling of the west coast, hockey was still pretty new in the province. The Patricks, who had seen the ups and downs of many teams and leagues over the years, would run the league their way.

Early Hockey In BC

BC was not completely virgin territory for hockey. Competitive teams of mostly transplanted Easterners sprouted up in the Interior area then known as The Boundary District. Crude and vicious hockey games were held in little known areas like Grand Forks, Phoenix and Greenwood. Rossland and even Nelson also iced competitive teams before the Patricks arrived. The BC government, under the watch of Premier Sir Richard McBride, even introduced a trophy for the top BC team - the McBride Cup.

But that was small potatoes compared to what the Patrick's had in mind. They were exactly what hockey needed out west - visionaries. Make that visionaries with deep pockets.

Big League Hockey Comes To BC

They would introduce hockey to the BC masses, with teams to be stationed in Victoria, Vancouver and New Westminster, with American teams for Seattle and Portland soon to follow. Later on teams from Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon would be merge.

No rinks? No problem, they built them. No players? No problem, they brought them in from the east, raiding rosters of the National Hockey Association, forerunners to the National Hockey League.

There was one serious problem though. BC's climate was not always welcoming of ice and winter. How could you run a serious professional alternative when ice was no guarantee? Lester learned how to create artificial ice and had his rinks made that way, disregarding the staggering costs. To build the first artificial rinks in Canada, the Patricks would spend $110,000 for a 3,500 seat Patrick Arena in Victoria and $300,000 seat Denman Arena in Vancouver. The family's fortune was completely spent before a single game was played.

Undeterred, they pressed on, trusting they would be able to cover all operating costs when the turnstiles opened. It was quite the gamble, since they still had to start the bidding war with the NHA, forerunner to the NHL, for player services. Eastern owners were livid with not only the loss of talent but the newly inflated salaries.

Huge Impact On Hockey Worldwide

Almost from the very first puck drop the Pacific Coast Hockey Association was a huge success. Curious fans flocked to the games, eager to see the hockey stars that until this point had only been glamorous names in news print. The PCHA was sure to make a good return on their investment, and give the NHA and later NHL serious runs as the top professional hockey league.

The Patrick's greatest contribution to hockey came in their innovative changes to the game. They created the two blue lines as a way of cutting down off-sides and creating the neutral zone. They added assists to the scoring summary and did away with the ancient rule that goalies must remain standing at all times. They put numbers on the players' backs, to make them easier to identify for the fans. They permitted players to use their feet to move the puck at any time other than to score a goal.

All of these rules were designed to increase scoring, creativity and excitement in the game. It would not be long before every hockey league in the world adopted the Patricks' initiatives.

Stanley Cup Comes To BC, Twice

BC teams challenged the NHL on the ice, too. In 1914 Victoria first challenged for the Stanley Cup, coming up short against the Toronto Blueshirts. A year later the Stanley Cup would finally come west, as the Vancouver Millionaires defeated the Ottawa Senators. The Millionaires would challenge for the Stanley Cup again in 1918, 1921, and 1922, but they would fall short each time. In 1925 the Victoria Cougars won the Stanley Cup, knocking off the Montreal Maroons. The Cougars remain arguably the least known Stanley Cup champion of all time, and the last non-NHL team to ever win the title.

The End Of An Era

Ultimately the PCHA/WCHL would not be able to financially survive against the deep Eastern pockets of the NHL forever. They may have been great hockey men, but first and foremost the Patricks' were businessmen. They sold the WCHL franchises and rights to all of their players to the NHL for $300,000.

Victoria would be transferred to Detroit, at first keeping the name Cougars, then experimenting with Falcons before settling on Red Wings. The Portland Rosebuds roster was sold to the new NHL expansion team in Chicago, the Black Hawks. Many of the Saskatoon players were sold to restock the Montreal Maroons.

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