Let’s play a quick game of word association. When you hear, “Canada,” what comes to mind? Hockey, you say? But of course. As Ron MacLean and those at Hockey Night remind us in their latest commercial, “You want to teach someone about Canada, you go to the television Saturday night, and it becomes crystal clear.”
The only things capable of unseating hockey’s place as the symbol of Canada are snow and maple syrup. (Many would point to the maple leaf, though taking the national flag into consideration, it’s in a different, more official weight class.) While maple syrup is very Canadian, there’s no way it beats snow. ‘The Great White North’ is not a nickname bestowed freely.
So, it’s between snow and hockey. Winter, and winter’s game. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a competition, as one would not exist if not for the other. When the temperature drops and the snow falls, backyard rinks pop up in communities across the country. Kids face off against each other in their favourite team’s sweater. This image can be found in stories and songs. It was, for a long time, depicted on the five dollar note.
But, what about the temperate West Coast? Outdoor hockey doesn’t exist in and around Vancouver. The game is certainly played on indoor artificial rinks, but there are not many postcard winters, only rain. This would seemingly make the far West less Canadian than the rest of the nation. In a sense, it does. We, and others beyond our borders, have developed a particular image of Canada, and the West Coast is not it.
Vancouver does have a hockey leg or two to stand on, however. There have been strong individual players to come out of the area: Joe Sakic, Paul Kariya, Evander Kane, and Milan Lucic to name a few. The city has seen success in minor league hockey, with the Giants winning the 2006 President’s Cup (WHL) and the 2007 Memorial Cup. Vancouver was also the site of Team Canada’s memorable Olympic gold medal game victory in 2010.
The NHL dominates the hockey world, so the Canucks’ lack of success has unfortunately received the most attention. Vancouver is still searching for its first championship since joining the NHL in 1970. The Canucks have reached the finals three times, and game 7 twice, but have never been able to close the deal.
The last (and only) Stanley Cup win by a Vancouver team came 102 years ago; the Millionaires won it in a series against Ottawa in 1915. The Cubs’ famous World Series drought, now broken, lasted 108 years. Longer, though not by much. Our inclination may be to laugh at the city’s inhospitable hockey climate and sustained ineptitude, but we should really be celebrating the history that’s there. Vancouver has not only been home to some real talent, but to hockey pioneers.
The first 30 years of the 20th century were dark days for the sport, a period when even successful teams had a life expectancy of only a dozen years. Those involved in the game weathered financial difficulties, ever-changing leagues, and stadia lost to fire. Hockey would not be what it is today if not for their determination and grit.
The Millionaires (later known as the Maroons) played in the PCHA and the WCHL between 1911 and 1926 and, due to that 1915 Cup win, are the best known Vancouver team of the era. They had a number of talented players on their roster over the years, including 13 future Hall of Famers. The star among stars was Fredrick “Cyclone” Taylor, who captured five PCHA scoring titles and wowed fans with his dazzling speed.
Frank Patrick owned, managed, and played for the Millionaires for their entire 15-year run. He and his brother Lester were huge figures in hockey and are responsible for many of the game’s current rules and features. The blue line, forward pass, jersey numbers, and playoff system are all product of a Patrick mind. Using the funds from the sale of their family’s lumber business, Frank and Lester also established the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, stealing away a number of high-profile players from the east to populate their new league.
And, thanks to the Patricks, men weren’t the only ones hitting the ice. Frank owned and managed the Vancouver Ladies Hockey Team, who played competitively against teams from Victoria and New Westminster in the 1910s. Unfortunately, the VLHT couldn’t inspire enough support and folded with the start of the First World War. Patrick then formed another club, the Amazons, who competed in and won larger women’s tournaments Rossland and Banff.
During this period there was also a plethora of local amateur clubs. Vancouver Amateur Hockey Club is one example. Not much is known of VAHC, aside from the 1929-30 roster. Only two photos of the team or its players are known to exist. Despite being such a small part of Vancouver’s hockey history, VAHC are a lasting image, their logo as iconic as any other local club’s.
After the Millionaires dissolved, the minor league Vancouver Lions took their place as the city’s professional club. The Lions shared both logo and stadium — Denman Arena — with the Millionaires, playing in different forms of the PCHL from 1928-1931 and 1933-1941. The PCHL, like most leagues of the early 20th century, struggled to stay afloat. Despite being shuffled around, the Lions were successful, winning titles in 1929, ’30, ’31, ’40, and ’41.
Denman was once the second-largest indoor stadium in North America, behind New York’s Madison Square Garden. With a seating capacity of over 10,000, it played host to Vancouver’s premier events, including Stanley Cup contests, boxing matches, concerts, and more. Fans from all over the Lower Mainland packed the wood and brick arena to see the Millionaires take on Ottawa for the cup. Then, in 1936, only 25 years after being built, it burnt to the ground, leaving the city without a major sports venue.
It wasn’t until 1945, with the formation of the Canucks, that hockey found true stability in Vancouver. The minor league club played in the PCHL and WHL for 25 years with no interruptions and were a successful team, winning 4 championships. In 1970 the city was finally granted its own NHL franchise, which took the ‘Canucks’ name. Vancouver has now seen 71-straight years of professional hockey in three different arenas (the Forum, Pacific Coliseum, and GM Place/Rogers Arena), none of which have fallen victim to fire.
Update: Sometimes us Vancouverites can be part of the Canadian narrative. December 2016 was been a frosty month for the Lower Mainland, granting hockey lovers the chance to play in the great outdoors. These cold-spells come so infrequently, a scene like the one featured here (Killarney Lake, Bowen Island) truly feels like a dream.