Welcome to the first article in a series spanning 10 (almost 11) decades of the history of the Montreal Canadiens. Throughout this series, we’ll be taking a look at the history of the oldest hockey team in the NHL from their inception to where we are today. It will include everything that made the Habs one of the most storied teams in the world of hockey, as well as our favourite team in the league.
Without further adieu, let’s jump right into it!
Hockey in Montreal began with a group of students from McGill University who played the sport on the Victoria Skating Rink in 1875. By December of 1886,they set rules for participating teams to follow and helped to organize the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC). The newly formed AHAC contained six hockey teams – four from Montreal, one from Ottawa, and one from Quebec City. The first Stanley Cup, awarded in 1893, was given to the Montreal Hockey Club. Montreal teams would continue to win over the years, with the MHC taking the cup again in 1894 and 1895, and the Montreal Victorias winning the cup every year from 1895-’98.
In 1898, AHAC was reorganized into the Canadian Amateur Hockey League (CAHL), with the Montreal Shamrocks taking the Stanley cup in 1899 and 1900. In 1905, the CAHL became the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association (ECAHA). The Montreal Wanderers proved once again that this city was full of teams to beat when they won the cup in 1907 and 1908, respectively. By 1909, ECAHA reformed into the Canadian Hockey Association (CHA), which then merged with Montreal’s National Hockey Association (NHA) in 1910.
The Birth of the Montreal Canadiens
On December 4, 1909, J. Ambrose O’Brien, a wealthy industrialist and former varsity hockey player, sat down at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal with the Montreal Wanderers GM Jimmy Gardner. Over drinks, the men and their crews discussed forming a new league (the NHA) where their respective teams would be included (as the Wanderers had been left out of the CHA and O’Brien’s own team had been denied a place in ECAHA). The men also discussed their intention to form a team that they would call Le Canadien that would represent the French-speaking people of Montreal. At the same time, O’Brien brought on Jack Laviolette as the new team’s coach, general manager, and captain.
Laviolette soon signed Didier Pitre, future NHL star Newsy Lalonde, Georges Poulin, Ed Decarie, Art Bernier, and Joe Cattarinich, the team’s first goalie. The newly formed Canadiens played their first game on January 5, 1910 against the Cobalt Silver Kings to a sold out crowd of 3,000 people at the Jubilee Arena in Montreal. After a tense game that went into overtime, the Canadiens beat Cobalt 7-6. Despite this big win during the first game, the Canadiens finished their first season in last place.
The GM of the Club Athlétique Canadien, George Washington Kendall (better known as George Kennedy), claimed rights over the Montreal Canadiens name that O’Brien had seemingly “borrowed” in 1909. In order to settle the dispute, Kennedy bought the team from O’Brien for $7,500. Kennedy served as the GM of the Canadiens from 1910-1921, and during this time, the once blue and white jersey evolved into an early ancestor of the Tricolore that we know and love today.
Before the 1910-’11 season even began, the Canadiens adopted red as the primary colour for their jersey. Around the same time, Kennedy signed contracts with players from O’Brien’s tenure as GM, including Jack Laviolette, Didier Pitre, Newsy Lalonde, Georges Poulin and Edgar Leduc. The Canadiens finished second in the league, winning eight of the 16 games with the help of freshman goalie Georges Vézina, who quickly established himself as one of the top players in his position. At the end of the season, Newsy Lalonde left the team to join the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA). Lalonde later rejoined the Canadiens during the 1912-’13 season.
In an effort to replace Lalonde, Jack Laviolette signed Louis Berlinquette, Pierre Vézina, and Frank Glass. Glass’ signing was controversial at the time, as there were rules in place that forbid the Canadiens from signing English-speaking players on a French Canadian team. The Canadiens finished last place in this season with eight wins and 10 losses, but Didier Pitre scored 28 goals overall, second only to Skene Ronan of Ottawa in the NHA.
Didier Pitre left the Canadiens for Vancouver in 1913 in exchange for the same Jimmy Gardner who served as the GM of the Montreal Wanderers. They tied the season for first place with the Toronto Blueshirts, however, the Blueshirts won the O’Brien Cup by outscoring the Canadiens 6-2. Off-ice hassles from the 1914-’15 season caused the Canadiens to lose their first eight games, though Lalonde was suspended for playing erratically causing the team to lose one of their top scorers. They finished the season with six wins, 14 losses.
Jimmy Gardner left the Canadiens at the start of the 1915-’16 season as Newsy Lalonde was named coach and captain by George Kennedy. They won 11 of 12 games finishing first in the league, and earning themselves a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Portland Rosebuds of the PCHA. The Canadiens raised the Stanley Cup for the first time after a tumultuous series with the Rosebuds, with Georges Vézina keeping a 2.60 goals against average during the series.
The 1916-’17 season saw the end of the NHA as an organization and it’s evolution into the National Hockey League (NHL), which was founded in Montreal on November 26, 1917. It was also the time when the Habs donned the iconic CH on their jerseys for the first time; previously, it had read CA to represent Kennedy’s Club Athlétique. The Stanley Cup was awarded to the Seattle Metropolitans after they beat the Canadiens, the first time since 1893 that the Cup hadn’t been in the hands of a Canadian team.
The inaugural season of the NHL started out with five teams, including the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Arenas. The 1917-’18 season also saw Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre replaced as the team’s top goal scorers by Joe Malone, who scored a total of 44 goals throughout the season. Vézina continued to prove why he was the best in the league, allowing only 84 goals compared to the 109 allowed by his closest counterpart.
While the 1918-’19 season saw Lalonde leading the league in goals, assists and points, the Canadiens suffered a tragedy when defenseman Joe Hall was hospitalized during the fifth game of the Stanley Cup finals. Hall died at the age of 31 as a result of the influenza epidemic that swept North America. Other players from both Montreal and Seattle fell ill, and for the first time in its history, the Stanley Cup was not awarded.
The 1919-’20 season saw the Canadiens’ home arena destroyed by a fire, leaving the team without a base. Lalonde scored 37 goals this season, followed by Amos Arbour (21) and Odie Cleghorn (20). Despite some great performances by their all-star captain, the Canadiens would not get a chance at the Stanley Cup, finishing in third place with the second best record in the league.