|Out of the Mists of the Past
|The Kenora Thistles: 1907 Stanley Cup Champions
RAT PORTAGE was an exciting place to be at the turn of the century, and the recent discovery of gold in the region wasn't the only reason. Hockey fever was taking hold of the little boomtown, and soon the Thistles were making a bit of noise back east, where hockey's greatest champions reigned. Harry Trihey's Montreal Shamrocks were the cream of the senior league crop, laying claim to the Stanley Cup through the new century. The trophy was unceremoniously wrested away in January of 1901 by Dan Bain's Winnipeg Victorias, who had been the first western team to capture the famed trophy back in February of 1896. By that time the teenage boys playing out of the tiny town of Rat Portage were beginning to assemble a worthy rival to both.
Playing out of the intermediate
Diehard fans also managed to make regular railroad excursions over to Winnipeg to watch their favorite team play, and the Thistles' management encouraged the formidable 200 kilometer jaunts by negotiating special ride rates with representatives of the Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.).
The beginning of 1901-02 saw the Thistles dominating their intermediate division in extraordinary fashion. After a 12-0 drubbing of the Winnipeg Winnipegs in their season opener, the Thistles begun to look past their intermediate counterparts up towards the heavy-hitters of the senior division. They applied to join, and suggested that an exhibition be played against the powerhouse senior Victorias squad, who were in current possession of the Stanley Cup. The Thistles played valiantly in a 3-1 loss, but their application was turned down, the cited reason being the late submission.
The Thistles continued to play the rest of the season in the intermediate division, but their early season dominance soon gave way to late season frustration as injuries and illnesses mounted, causing them to finish tied for second behind the first place Brandon Wheat Kings. After the season concluded the Rat Portage faithful learned they would be losing team leader Tommy Phillips, who had previously ventured east to play a short stint with the senior league Montreal Shamrocks, yet this time the move looked to be permanent. Phillips would venture east again, this time to McGill University to attend college and play hockey in the Canadian Intercollegiate Hockey Union (C.I.H.U.)
Before the inception of the 1902-03 season, the Thistles again applied for admission to the senior division, but were again turned away, by both the Victorias and their chief rival, the Winnipeg Rowing Club. The other teams in the senior division, however, out-voted both Winnipeg teams and approved the applications of not only Rat Portage, but those of Brandon and Portage La Prairie, Rat Portage's two intermediate rivals. The two Winnipeg teams protested, and instead of acquiescing, decided to quit the league altogether and form their own two team Western Canada Hockey League (W.C.H.L.). Despite the loss of Phillips, the Thistles, led by captain Tom Hooper, streaked towards the top of the standings in the new Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association (M.N.H.A).
During January, 1903, the Victorias called for a Stanley Cup challenge rematch with the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, who had taken the Cup away from them the previous March in a defensively dominated best of three. The Victorias lost the hard fought four game rematch, and one of the main reasons was the stellar play of Rat Portage's homegrown talent Tommy Phillips. McGill's short four game season meant that Phillips had time to get on board another team before the winter was through, and did so by joining the Montreal senior circuit juggernaut. Phillips was inserted into Montreal's roster to help defend the Stanley Cup, prolonging their successful stewardship of the senior league hockey vanguard.
Even without the mighty Phillips in their line-up, the 1903 Thistles went on to win the senior division of the M.N.H.A., entitling them to their own Stanley Cup challenge, which they issued on February 20th. When the Thistles' began their journey eastward, Phillips' Montreal team was no longer at the top of the C.A.H.L.'s standings, and as a result were due to lose the Cup to the eventual league winner, who might be either the Montreal Victorias or the Ottawa Hockey Club, who had finished tied up top the standings. The Thistles left Rat Portage by train early on the morning of the 8th of March. The lads arrived in Ottawa on the afternoon of the 10th, just in time to personally witness the Ottawas trounce the Montreal Victorias 8-0 in the second game of a 2 game total goals series to claim the Cup. Despite Ottawa's dominating performance, the Thistles had confidence that the mighty little team could keep up with the new champs. Goalie Fred Dulmage was quoted in the Ottawa Journal the following day saying that the Thistles, "stand a good show."
The Thistles came up short in each of the two games-- 6-2, and 4-2 respectively, though their play was in part hampered by the slushy home ice of the Ottawa champion. In some parts the ice was covered by a slick of water two to three inches deep, slowing players like Hooper and Griffis who both relied on speed for their patented Thistle rushes. At one point during the first match, the puck slipped through a hole in the ice. Unsuccessfully hunted for by a unnamed player, a lengthy delay occured before a new puck was procured to resume play.
The Thistles resorted to the unheard of strategy of playing two goaltenders during the second match, hoping that the two would completely shut down the goal area and allow the Thistles to focus their attention solely on offense. Unfortunately, the two goalies stopped each other more than the puck and the experiment was soon abandoned.
The Ottawas were no flukes. The talented club was just beginning a four-year Stanley Cup stewardship, and are now historically regarded as one of the greatest teams of the pre-NHL era, comprised of such hockey legends as Frank McGee, Harry Westwick, Alf Smith, Billy Gilmour, and Harvey Pulford. Despite having 3,000 in attendance at Dey's Rink for the spirited series vs. the Victorias only days before, the quickly assembled challenge by the Thistles was only casually attended, and the boys from Rat Portage, only a few being over twenty years of age, were no more known before the series than after it.
The Thistles gained valuable experience in the failed challenge, and immediately re-dedicated themselves to the elusive quest for hockey supremacy. One of the things the lads did to keep themselves in off-season shape was to compete in summer sports such as baseball and rowing. The Rat Portage Rowing Club and the Rat Portage Alerts baseball squad were populated by the likes of Tom Hooper, Billy McGimsie, Si Griffis, Roxy Beaudro, and returning collegian Tommy Phillips.
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