Monthly Archives: May 2017

Pittsburgh’s First Stanley Cup Story

When people ask my opinions about hockey, I often say to them, “I can tell you a lot more about why the Kenora Thistles won the Stanley Cup in 1907 than I can tell you about who’s going to win it this year.” Well, with two teams remaining, I think the Penguins are going to win it this year … AND I can tell you how Pittsburgh might have won it back in 1907.

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The Pittsburgh Press, January 19, 1907.

It will now be at least 25 years until a Canadian team follows up on Montreal’s Stanley Cup victory of 1993, but as I’ve said before in these pages, Canadian teams won the trophy all the time in the earliest days. That’s because when Lord Stanley donated his Cup in 1893, he intended it to be awarded to the championship team in the Dominion of Canada. Lord Stanley made no stipulation about amateur teams – although it’s unlikely he ever gave much thought to professionalism, which had became a pretty hot topic in Canada by the 1906-07 hockey season.

Many Canadians felt sports should only be played for the glory of the competition and were against paying the players. In the late fall of 1906, when some of the top teams and leagues in Canada announced they would allow professionals to participate – including the Stanley Cup-champion Montreal Wanderers – there were those who expected the trustees in charge of the Stanley Cup to take back the trophy. They didn’t, and since the winter of 1906-07, the Stanley Cup has been a professional trophy.

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The Pittsburgh Press, January 20, 1907.

Pittsburgh is where professional hockey began. In the early years of the 1900s, Canadian players were lured to the Pennsylvania city with the promise of paychecks. It was often reported that they were actually over-paid for off-ice employment rather than receiving a salary for playing hockey. This was so the players could make a case for retaining their amateur status back home. (The Ontario Hockey Association often banned these players anyway, although most other leagues in Canada were willing to play along.)

Beginning in 1904-05, the Pittsburgh Professional Hockey Club  played in the International Hockey League. Usually known as the Pittsburgh Professionals or the Pittsburgh Pros (and often Pittsburg without the ‘h’ as the city name was actually spelled from 1816 to 1916), they played against the Portage Lake team from Houghton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Calumet, Michigan, and teams from both Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

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The Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Daily Post, February 3, 1907.

With the Stanley Cup going pro in the winter of 1906-07, word came from Pittsburgh as early as January 19, 1907, that manager A.S. McSwigan of the local team intended to challenge the Canadian champions for the trophy if Pittsburgh won the International league title. “This would cause more interest in hockey than anything that has ever happened in the States,” noted the Pittsburgh Press that day. “There never has been a game for this celebrated cup played in which an American team participated … [but] as the cup represents the premiership of the world, the Canadian officials cannot bar a team from America from playing for it.”

But bar them they did.

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The Pittsburgh Press, February 17, 1907.

“P.D. Ross, one of the Stanley Cup trustees,” said the Pittsburgh Press on February 17, 1907, “… is reported as having stated that it is not possible for any championship hockey team outside the Canadian boundary to challenge for the trophy…

“Mr. Ross certainly looks at the matter in a strange light. If the trophy is the emblem of the championship of the world, then it is indeed queer that contests for it must be confined to teams in Canada… Mr. Ross’ opinion is likely fathered by his wish, for, of course, no true Canadian wishes to see the Stanley Cup leave the Northern boundary.”

That still seems to be true for a lot of Canadians today, and yet there’s something odd about Ross’s refusal in 1907. It had been reported in a much shorter story in the Globe in Toronto two days before the Pittsburgh report – but I haven’t been able to find it in any other Canadian paper. That includes the Ottawa Journal, which was owned and published by Philip Dansken Ross himself.

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The Globe, Toronto. February 15, 1907.

In addition, both stories say that the American teams would be barred from challenging, but that the Canadian Soo would be eligible if they won the International league title. While they were obviously a Canadian-based team, P.D. Ross would have known better than anyone that if the Canadian Soo won the Cup, that would have automatically made the other American teams in the International league eligible for it. That’s because in addition to challenge matches, the Stanley Cup would also change hands if a new team won the league title in the same league as the defending champions.

In the end, Pittsburgh lost the IHL title to Portage Lake in 1906-07, so couldn’t have challenged anyway. Still, it’s fair to wonder if the Stanley Cup trustees really issued the ruling credited to them at the time … even though it took them until early in the 1915-16 season to finally declare that U.S.-based teams could compete for the Stanley Cup. Despite the nearly quarter-century drought these days, it was probably the right decision!

Stanley Cup Trivia

On Monday night, the Nashville Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history. Tonight, we’ll find out if they’ll be playing against Ottawa or Pittsburgh. If the Penguins make it, they’ll have a chance to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 to win back-to-back championships. If it’s the Senators, it’ll be the first time since 2007 (when Ottawa faced Anaheim) that we’ll be guaranteed of a first-time Stanley Cup winner. That’s something rarer than you might think.

In 100 seasons of NHL history, there have only been four other times before 2007 when neither team in the Stanley Cup Final had won the Cup before. Three of those times were:

  • 1934 – Chicago over Detroit
  • 1991 – Pittsburgh over Minnesota
  • 1999 – Dallas over Buffalo

I’ve left out the fourth because it makes for an interesting trivia question since it marks the ONLY time in NHL history where both teams that reached the Final had never even played for the Stanley Cup before. If I was more clever with computers, maybe I could figure out a way to hide the answer better. As it is, I’ve tucked it in beneath the logos below to give you a chance to figure it out if you want to before you see it…


  • 1996 – Colorado Avalanche over Florida Panthers

Unless there’s more expansion or realignment, this will only happen again if the Columbus Blue Jackets advance in the Eastern Conference and face the Arizona Coyotes, the Minnesota Wild, the Winnipeg Jets or the Vegas Golden Knights, who join the NHL next season.

Stanley Cup Anniversaries: 2017

For the last couple of years, around the start of the playoffs, I’ve done a “Stanley Cup Anniversaries” story. (If you’re curious, you can check out the links to 2015 and 2016.) I’m a little late this year, and this time I’m choosing to focus on just a single quirky anniversary story. This one is from 80 years ago in 1937.

The story begins in the spring of 1936, when the Detroit Red Wings became the last of the so-called “Original Six” teams to win the Stanley Cup. Goalie Normie Smith (who I mentioned a few weeks back in Marathon Men … And Kids Too) was a Red Wings hero that season. According to a report in the Detroit Free Press (which was picked up by a few other papers) on April 17, 1937, Smith was friendly with an ex-Canadian couple living in Detroit, a Mrs. Ida Lefleur and her husband, who were expecting a baby shortly after the Red Wings’ 1936 championship.

After two stellar seasons with the Red Wings, Normie Smith
was never the same after his shoulder injury in the 1937 playoffs.

“If we have a boy,” Ida told Normie, “we’ll name him Stanley after the Cup and next year the Red Wings will win the Stanley Cup again on his birthday.”

As the story goes, the boy was born on April 15, 1936 and was named Stanley Lefleur. And as it turned out, the baby’s first birthday in 1937 really did coincide with Game 5 of that year’s best-of-five Stanley Cup Final … between the Rangers and Normie Smith’s Red Wings.

Smith had won the Vezina Trophy during the 1936-37 season, but was injured in the playoffs and replaced by minor-leaguer Earl Robertson. On the day of Game 5, Smith sought his replacement. “Out near where we live is a Stanley Cup baby,” he told Robertson. “Now what you should do is go out there and take a few lucky pats on that baby’s head.”

Figuring that Earl Robertson had earned a shot at the NHL,
and that Normie Smith would return healthy, the Red Wings dealt
Robertson to the New York Americans shortly after the 1937 Stanley Cup.

As the Free Press story explains, Normie Smith “will do anything for good luck.” Earl Robertson wasn’t nearly as superstitious, “but he doesn’t pass up any good luck charms.” So, “out they went to a little birthday party for Stanley and following Normie’s instructions Earl stole those few pats on the head.”

That night, Robertson recorded his second straight shutout in a 3-0 win over the Rangers as the Red Wings rallied to win the Stanley Cup. Afterwards, the injured Smith happily told of the role that he and baby Stanley had played in the comeback. “I got into the final playoffs after all,” said Smith, grinning broadly, “by getting Robbie to go out there with me.”

This version of the story appeared in the Winnipeg Tribune on April 17, 1937.

It’s a silly story, really, but one told with such detail that I certainly hoped it was true. So, imagine my disappointment when I went to and searched for “Stanley Lefleur” born in “1936” with the mother’s name “Ida” … and found nothing.

But fear not! Expanding the search a little bit, I discovered that a Gilbert Stanley Lafleur, son of Lenard or Leo Lafleur and his wife, the former Ida Bergeron (both French Canadians living in Detroit), really was born on April 15, 1936. I didn’t come across a birth certificate or baptismal record, but I did come across a record of the Lafleur family in Detroit in the 1940 U.S. Census:


And enough Social Security records to confirm the names and dates match up.


As for the rest, I know that many old-time sportswriters never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but I’m choosing to believe this one is true!

50 Years Ago Tonight

On May 2, 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. It was the 13th time a Toronto team had won the Cup during the first 50 seasons in NHL history. No one needs reminding that they haven’t won it since.

There have already been many commemorative stories about the 1967 Leafs, and I’m sure there will be plenty more today. I was looking to find something a little bit offbeat; a story of the 1967 Leafs that hadn’t been told before. Well, this one at least is new on me.

In the Thumbnail Tales notes at the bottom of his column on the day of the game, Toronto Star sports editor Milt Dunnell wrote about Leafs captain George Armstrong lingering in front of his locker after practice “long after most other players had showered and departed.” Armstrong, who would score the clinching goal into an empty net in the team’s 3–1 victory over Montreal that night to win the Stanley Cup in six games, explained that “this could be my last hockey practice. I hate to leave it.” (Armstrong would indeed retire briefly a few weeks later, as he would several times over the next few years before officially calling it a career in 1971).

Red Burnett of the Star noted that as Armstrong sat in the dressing room, he looked across the way to where rookie Mike Walton was shaving the shaft and blade of his hockey stick.

Longtime Leafs captain George Armstrong (left) and 1967 rookie Mike Walton (right).

“I wonder how [Conn] Smythe and Hap Day would have acted if we’d tried those curved blade sticks in the days when I was a rookie,” mused Armstrong, although he knew that Walton was actually shaving his stick because he thought it was too heavy, not to try and deepen the curve.

“When Hap and Mr. Smythe were in charge, they insisted that every stick on the club weigh 23 ounces or better.” Armstrong explained that he didn’t like a heavy stick and would try to get by with a lighter one. However, “from time to time, Hap would take all the sticks out of the racks and weigh them. If you had a stick under 23 ounces, it was an automatic $25 fine. I paid a few fines before I got wise to the fact that you couldn’t fool the scales.”

Burnett relates that Smythe and Day had issued the order after Garth Boesch and Bill Barilko broke their sticks on the same sequence of plays, leaving the Leafs defence … well, defenceless.

That would have been between 1947 and 1950. “Times have changed,” Armstrong said. “Nowadays, the players have more say – and rightly so – in the type of equipment they use.”

Today, the average NHL sticks weighs about 400 to 515 grams. Converting 23 ounces into grams comes out to just a shade over 652. So, the sticks that Day and Smythe insisted on in the 1950s weighed as much as 50 percent more than the sticks of today. I’m sure that even with the shaving, Walton’s wooden stick was a lot closer to 23 ounces than it would be to the 400-gram composite sticks of today.

Personally, I have no comprehension of how the difference in weight and material effects shooting, but you only have to have watched a game in recent years to see how much faster players can fire the puck. Still, given the way even modern observers complain, you have to wonder what men like Conn Smythe and Hap Day would make of the fact that these $300-plus rocket-launchers seem to snap if you even look at them too hard!