There’s no denying it’s a great story. An expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, playing for the championship in its first season is one of the greatest underdog tales in modern sports. Alex Ovechkin’s first trip to the Stanley Cup finals with the Washington Capitals is a nice story too.
Still, Las Vegas facing Washington for the Cup in a series that will stretch into June is a long way from what Lord Stanley had in mind back in 1893.
For fans in Canada, there is an added insult in knowing that for the 25th consecutive year since the Montreal Canadiens’ championship in 1993, a Canadian team will not win the Stanley Cup. That’s not what Lord Stanley had in mind, either.
In the earliest days of Stanley Cup history, Canadian teams won the trophy all the time. That’s because when Lord Stanley donated his trophy in 1893, he intended it to be awarded to the championship team in the Dominion of Canada. In fact, the Stanley Cup bowl is engraved to this day with the name Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, although the trustees Lord Stanley put in charge of his trophy decreed that it should be known as the Stanley Cup.
The first indication that American teams had their eyes on Lord Stanley’s prize came in January 1907. Manager A.S. McSwigan of the Pittsburgh Pros said that his team would challenge the Canadian champions if Pittsburgh won the International Hockey League title.
“This would cause more interest in hockey than anything that has ever happened in the States,” The Pittsburgh Press noted on Jan. 19, 1907. “There never has been a game for this celebrated cup played in which an American team participated.”
“As the cup represents the premiership of the world,” the article continued, “the Canadian officials cannot bar a team from America from playing for it.”
But bar them they did.
The Pittsburgh Press reported on Feb. 17, 1907, that Philip Dansken Ross, one of the Stanley Cup trustees, said it was “not possible for any championship hockey team outside the Canadian boundary to challenge for the trophy.”
“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,” The Press wrote.
Five years later, Ross’s fellow trustee William Foran refused to even consider allowing two Canadian teams to play for the Stanley Cup on American ice. As the 1911-12 season was nearing its end, there was speculation that teams in the East were looking to take advantage of the artificial ice at the Boston Arena, which could accommodate weather challenges later into March that their own natural ice rinks could not.
“Defending teams may play for the silverware in any rink or in any city they may choose, but not in the United States,” Foran said. “The cup was donated for the championship of Canada, and we will certainly oppose any move to play for it outside the Dominion.”
Yet on Dec. 8, 1915, the trustees changed their minds. “The Stanley Cup is not emblematic of the Canadian honors, but of the hockey championship of the world,” Foran said.
If an American team won the title, he added, it would be allowed to claim the Cup.
What accounted for the sudden reversal?
By this time, hockey had developed two major professional leagues: the National Hockey Association (the forerunner of the N.H.L.) and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Like the N.H.L. and the World Hockey Association many years later, players pitted owners against one another, jumping from league to league and driving up salaries.
In the fall of 1913, when both leagues had only Canadian teams, the N.H.A. and the P.C.H.A. had signed a “peace treaty” stating that they would respect each other’s contracts and that the champions of each league would meet in an annual championship for which the Stanley Cup trustees quickly agreed to make their trophy available.
But as the start of the 1915-16 season approached, the N.H.A. continually broke its agreements on contracts with the P.C.H.A., and there was a very real chance the Stanley Cup competition would be scrapped.
The P.C.H.A. had moved a team to Portland, Ore., in 1914 and expanded to Seattle in 1915. Declaring that these American-based franchises could compete for the Cup was an attempt by the trustees to help keep the peace.
Indeed, statements from Foran throughout the season probably encouraged negotiations between the leagues to continue. No new agreement was announced until the fall of 1916, but that March, the Portland Rosebuds, a team sometimes referred to as the Uncle Sams, won the P.C.H.A. and became the first American team to play for the Stanley Cup.
Portland was beaten by the Montreal Canadiens in 1916, but a year later, the Seattle Metropolitans defeated Montreal, and the Stanley Cup went south of the border for the first time.
Eric Zweig has written 40 books about hockey and history. His next book, “Stanley Cup: The Complete History,” will be published in the fall.