In 1892 Lord Stanley of Preston, Queen Victoria's appointed Governor General of Canada, donated a silver punch bowl worth about $50 that would be called the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup. The trophy, soon and forever dubbed The Stanley Cup, was to be awarded to the top amateur hockey team in Canada, with challenge matches determining the champions.
Obviously a lot has changed over the years. We will get into that in good time, but for now I want to focus on "the Challenge Cup era."
Because there was so many different leagues in the late 1800s, and no dominant league, the only way to have a national champion was to have Stanley Cup trustees (originally Sheriff John Sweetland and Philip D. Ross of Ottawa were appointed) determine the worthy challenger against the reigning champion. It was also possible for a team in the same league as the Stanley Cup champion to become champion by winning the league title against the Cup champs. They would then have to defend their new title in the challenge match.
Let's take a look at the Stanley Cup's challenge era year-by-year history.
1892-93: Montreal AAA - The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association (also known as Montreal HC) were awarded the first Stanley Cup championship based on their first place finish in the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada. They had a 7-1 record, with their only serious competition coming from the high scoring Ottawa Generals at 6-2. Interestingly, Montreal HC wanted to be recognized as the Stanley Cup winner, and not the parent Montreal AAA. They even threatened to return the Cup.
GHL's MVP - Tom Paton
1893-94: Montreal AAA - The second season of play saw the AAA, Ottawa Capitals, Montreal Victorias and Quebec Hockey Club all tie with identical 5-3 records, forcing officials to come up with a playoff system to break the tie. Quebec withdrew, and as the only non-Montreal team Ottawa was given a bye into the Cup finals game. The AAA beat the Victorias 3-2 in the semi-final, then bested Ottawa 3-1 in the first ever Stanley Cup final.
GHL's MVP - Herbert Collins
1894-95: Montreal Victorias - The Stanley Cup stayed in Montreal in 1895, but it was Victorias who won as they posted a better record than the AAA. Yet they almost lost the title as Cup trustees had already accepted a challenge from Queen's University to play the AAA for the Stanley Cup. It was decided that if Queen's won, they would be named Stanley Cup champions, but if the AAA won, the Vics would keep the Cup. The AAA defeated Queen's 5-1 at Montreal's Victoria Rink on March 9th, 1895. Queen's had three disallowed goals due to confusion over the differing provincial off-side rules.
GHL's MVP - Mike Grant
1895-96: Winnipeg Victorias/Montreal Victorias: In a confusing set of challenge series, two teams nicknamed the Victorias traded the Stanley Cup back and forth. The Winnipeg Victorias successfully challenged the Montreal Victorias in February, 1896, winning 2-0 on Valentine's Day. Montreal won their league championship and the right to challenge Winnipeg in a rematch played on December 30th, 1896. Montreal edged Winnipeg in a wild 6-5 game.
GHL's MVPs - Whitey Merritt (Winnipeg), Mike Grant (Montreal)
1896-97: Montreal Victorias - The Vics were easily the class of hockey in 1897. They easily won their league title with a 7-1 record, they then humiliated Ottawa in the Stanley Cup challenge game 15-2. The challenge was intended to be a best of three showdown, but they cancelled the rest of the series after the lopsided win.
GHL's MVP - Mike Grant
1897-98 - Montreal Victorias - By 1898 the Victorias were so good that they coasted through the regular season with a perfect 8-0 record and no team in the country bothered to issue a challenge against them!
GHL's MVP - Cam Davidson
1898-99 - Montreal Shamrocks - The Stanley Cup challenge season opened with the Montreal Victorias successfully defending their title against their old namesakes from Winnipeg. Later in the year, though, the Vics surrendered the Cup to the cross-town Shamrocks who posted a better league record, thanks to a 1-0 win over the Vics before 8,000 fans. The Shamrocks later defended the Cup title against a challenging Queen's University team.
GHL's MVP - Jim McKenna
1899-90: Montreal Shamrocks - The Montrealers downed the challengers from Winnipeg 2 games to 1. The Victorias were alleged to have been offering financial incentives to their players, further highlighting the growing professionalism of hockey. Montreal also defeated a challenge from Halifax this season.
GHL's MVP - Harry Trihey
1900-01 - Winnipeg Victorias - Revenge was sought in the rematch as the Winnipegers knocked off the defending champions from Montreal with 2 straight wins, the second of which was incredibly exciting. Winnipeg also defeated the Toronto Wellingtons in another challenge that season. Interestingly though, hockey observers of the day did not consider Winnipeg or Montreal to be the best team in hockey that season. Instead they were impressed with the undefeated Ottawa Silver Seven, but they never issued a challenge for the Stanley Cup.
GHL's MVP - Tony Gingras
1901-02 - Montreal AAA - The Winnipeg Victorias, described as "rugged westerners," lost the Stanley Cup to Montreal in 1902, but not to the Shamrocks. The AAA, nicknamed the Winged Wheelers, won 2 games to 1. Interestingly, game 2, played on a Saturday night, had to be halted as midnight was struck. Hockey was not yet the official religion of Quebec, so the game was stopped to observe the day of rest.
GHL's MVP - Archie Hooper
1902-03 - Ottawa Silver Seven - The Montreal AAA never got to defend their title. As winners of the Canadian Amateur Hockey League Ottawa was selected to play for the Cup title against the challenging team from Rat Portage (now known as Kenora). Warm weather made the playing surface a real slush-fest.
GHL's MVP - Frank McGee
1903-04 - Ottawa Silver Seven - Ottawa embarked on a hockey dynasty after winning the Cup over Rat Portage. In total they would win 9 consecutive Stanley Cup challenges through December 1906. In the 1903-04 season they defeated Rat Portage again, the Montreal Victorias and a team from Brandon, Manitoba. Montreal issued another challenge, but the series never materialized as the teams could not agree where to play the games.
GHL's MVP - Frank McGee
1904-05 - Ottawa Silver Seven - Perhaps the most famous Stanley Cup challenge series came in 1905 when the unlikely challenge was granted to a team from Dawson City, Yukon. The Klondikers travelled by foot, bicycle, dogsled, train and steamship to get to Ottawa. After the long voyage the exhausted gold rushers were terribly outclassed, losing 9-2 and, amazingly, 23-2.
GHL's MVP - Frank McGee
1905-06 - Ottawa Silver Sevens - Two months after the Dawson City challenge, Rat Portage challenged Ottawa early in 1905. The Silver Seven punished the Thistles physically. Rat Portage player Bill McGimsie was so exhausted he collapsed in front of the goal and received a five minute penalty for obstructing the net.
GHL's MVP - Harry Smith
1906-07 - Montreal Wanderers/Kenora Thistles - The Wanderers of Montreal ended Ottawa's Stanley Cup reign, thanks to emergence of Lester Patrick as a hockey star. Two months later Montreal lost the Cup in a challenge by the Kenora Thistles, the newly renamed Rat Portage team. Montreal regained the championship in a rematch, and later defended their title again a team from New Glasgow. It was a busy year for the Wanderers.
GHL's MVP - Ernie Russell (Montreal), Tommy Phillips (Kenora)
1907-08 - Montreal Wanderers - Another busy but successful year ensued for Montreal. The Wanderers defeated challengers from Ottawa, Winnipeg and Toronto, who had a young Newsy Lalonde included on their team. The Wanderers faced one more challenge that year, defeating a controversial team from Edmonton. Controversy ensued because Edmonton only used one player from their actual club team. Instead they tried buying players for the challenge.
GHL's MVP - Art Ross
1908-09 - Ottawa Senators - A rule change saw the Stanley Cup awarded to the winners of the Eastern Canada Hockey Association. Ottawa's 10-2 record was better than Montreal's 9-3 record. Ottawa later played Galt in what was officially termed an exhibition. Edmonton challenged unsuccessful, while another western challenge, from Winnipeg, could not be arranged in time.
GHL's MVP - Hod Stuart
1909-10 - Montreal Wanderers - This was the first season of the NHA, National Hockey Association, the forerunner of the NHL. Since professionalism, be it admitted or poorly disguised, in hockey was undeniable, trustees decided to allow professional teams to openly play for the Stanley Cup. The NHA regular season champion would be awarded the Stanley Cup, with the Wanderers posting a better record than the defending champs from Ottawa. Montreal then successfully defended the Cup against Ontario champion Berlin (later renamed Kitchener).
GHL's MVP - Ernie Russell
1910-11 - Ottawa Senators - The Sens returned to win the NHA regular season with it the Stanley Cup. They defended their title first against Galt of the Ontario Professional Hockey League and then Port Arthur of the New Ontario League. Of note, this year saw the game change from two halves to three periods, so that the ice could be better cared for.
GHL's MVP - Marty Walsh
1911-12 - Quebec Bulldogs - Quebec won the NHA season, and for it not only were awarded the Stanley Cup but the newly minted O'Brien Cup. The O'Brien Cup, named after Ambrose O'Brien, was for the NHA championship, as the Stanley Cup could still be won by a rival league's team. Quebec defended the Stanley Cup against the Moncton Victorias in two games.
GHL's MVP - Jack MacDonald
1912-13 - Quebec Bulldogs - Quebec again took the NHA title, led by Phantom Joe Malone's 43 goals in 20 games. Sydney, Nova Scotia challenged for the Cup, but Malone exploded again for 9 goals in the first game. Quebec won the two game series by a combined score of 20-5. Quebec would lose a 3 game series against Victoria of the Patrick brother's newly formed western circuit Pacific Coast Hockey Association. But the Stanley Cup remained in Quebec as it was an exhibition series, not an official challenge.
GHL's MVP - Joe Malone