Welcome to another edition of Hortland, in which WW freelancer Jay Horton unearths one of olden Portland's most obscure or beautiful or non-trivially interesting historical remnants, and then leaves it out to rust in the sun.
Before Portland won the the MLS Cup, before there were Cannabis Cups, the silver chalice of Lord Stanley gleamed as the noblest prize of a thriving sport. One hundred years ago, the Portland Rosebuds became the first American team engraved on the Stanley Cup—despite, technically, not really winning it.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead
– Easter 1916
The 1915-16 season was Portland's second in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, which had been founded four years earlier by the heirs to a British Columbia lumber fortune, Frank and Lester Patrick.
When Portland constructed its new Portland Ice Hippodrome (advertised as the world's largest) at NW 21st and Marshall, the Patricks inaugurated the United States' very first pro hockey outpost in our own Portland.
The team—which local newspapers soon dubbed the Rosebuds after the city's nickname and signature festival—played a decidedly early draft of the sport. Goalies wore minimal pads and no masks whatsoever. One match at the indoor Hippodrome was called on account of fog. Fan-favorite Thomas Ernest "Moose" Johnson used an outsized stick reportedly granting a 99-inch reach, which would surely seem a Bunyanesque exaggeration if not for photographs depicting the perennial all-star (already down two fingers from a childhood electrical accident) wielding a curved wooden spear nearly as long as his body.
Although famously rough—the previous season, Johnson played through a broken jaw, cracked ribs, and an eye dislodged from its socket (once bandaged, he returned to the game)—the Patricks had already begun initiating an array of breakthrough changes meant to speed up play and improve the onlooker's experience. Under their leadership, players now wore numbers on the backs of jerseys, raised their sticks to celebrate a goal, advanced the puck through the forward pass, took penalty shots, lost possession for icing, and had to contend with goalies no longer required to stay on their feet.
After raiding the NHL-precursor National Hockey Association for talent, the combination of elite athletes and modernized rules drew crowds comparable to the more established clubs back east, and, less than two years after Stanley Cup trustees had briefly forbade western squads from competing for the prize, the 1915 Vancouver Millionaires claimed the Cup for British Columbia.
While Vancouver was returning a strong club that winter, the Rosebuds were stocked with talent. Before the season, Moose Johnson had held out for better contractual terms but (along with Rosebuds captain Eddie Oatman) re-signed with the team despite more lucrative offers from NHA stalwarts and went on to earn his second of five consecutive all-star berths. Newly-acquired Tommy Dunderdale would finish his career with the most goals in PCHA history, Oatman and Charles Tobin were among the league's top scorers, and Tom Murray allowed nearly a goal less on average than the next-best backstop.
Still, through the final week of the season, the Rosebuds ran neck and neck with the Millionaires. On February 18th, 3,500 fans packed the Portland Ice Hippodrome for a pivotal home match against the Victoria Aristocrats. After each team surrendered an early goal, play had slowed to a fierce defensive struggle when fate took a hand during the first intermission.
According to Rosebuds-rights-holder Jon Mikl Thor and Empire of Ice: The Rise and Fall of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association author Craig Bowlsby, "it was common as smelling salts for players of that era to take a swig of spirits to get them through the pain and back in the game when things got tough.
In between periods, sitting on a bench in the dressing room, Moose Johnson grabbed for a bottle of gin and took a drink only to find that the contents were ammonia—used in the old indoor rinks as a refrigerant. He became quite ill and started vomiting but refused to be taken to a hospital and went back on the ice."
As the second period began, Johnson took the puck, weaved through the heart of Victoria's defense, and single-handedly buried the goal to give the Rosebuds a lead they wouldn't relinquish. This was two years before the Patrick brothers invented the playoffs, and, coupled with Vancouver's loss to the Seattle Metropolitans that same evening, the PCHA crown was mathematically Portland's by the time a defeated Victoria captain/coach Lester Patrick flung his stick into the crowds. (Patrick would apologize to the unsuspecting local woman nearly knocked unconscious. She'd keep the stick.)
Although the Rosebuds won their league, the sport's true prize remained the silver bowl that Canadian Governor-General Lord Stanley of Preston bequeathed in 1892 to the finest hockey team within his Dominion: The Stanley Cup.
For more than two decades, possession of the Stanley Cup had been decided by official challenges that met the approval of Cup trustees—lifetime appointments whose duties blend boxing promoter with the Knights Templar.
But after hockey went pro, it was guaranteed that the only legitimate contenders would emerge from either the NHA or PCHA. The rival organizations agreed their respective champions would meet for an annual post-season best-of-five contest —up from the three game maximum decreed by Lord Stanley, though no series had yet gone the distance. The winner would get the Cup.
The new system led to unexpected repercussions—like the threat of a foreign Portland team winning the Cup from the Canadians.
Although nearly all the Rosebuds hailed from the great white north —Dunderdale was Australian, of all things, and Michigan-born Charlie Uksila starred for the Multnomah Athletic Club in the NW amateur circuit —the U.S. press dubbed them "The Uncle Sams." There was a real threat the Cup would be taken home by the Americans.
Or, worse, by the French.
Owing to the era's limitations of travel and the dramatic differences separating each league's regulations, the NHA and PCHA heads negotiated a compromise in which the series' site would alternate between East and West each year with a majority of games officiated according to the home team's normal guidelines.
Since Vancouver had last hosted the Cup finals, the Rosebuds would not only be required to head across the country and play their first and third games (plus, potentially, the climactic fifth) under strange rules—operating without their customary seventh man as defensive rover, most notably—but each match would also be fought beneath the roar of the highly-partisan Quebecois faithful.
The Canadiens had grown to become an emblem of pride for Montreal's passionate francophone community that transcended athletics; only three months earlier had the team dispensed with a directive stipulating they could dress no more than one English-speaking player.
Led by future hall-of-famers Jack Laviolette, Didier "Cannonball" Pitre, and captain/coach Edouard "Newsy" Lalonde—regularly deemed the greatest of his era (and ranked 32nd all time by the 1998 Hockey News)—"The Flying Frenchmen" were the only NHA team sufficiently fast to keep up with the more freewheeling PCHA squads and boasted a legendary brick wall behind goal. Georges Vezina, among the nine original inductees of the Hockey Hall Of Fame, had surrendered the NHA's fewest goals for the third year (of an eventual seven) and survives today as namesake for the annual prize awarded to the NHL's best goaltender.
In that first game, however, Rosebuds' backstop Tom Murray proved the star.
Despite arriving just one day prior after a train trip of some 3,000 miles, the Rosebuds shocked the crowds by scoring twice in the shutout. Alas, though the following game was played to the Rosebuds' usual specifications against a Montreal squad without stars Lalonde (illness) and Laviolette (broken nose), all hopes of riding an early momentum to an upset sweep quickly faded as the Canadiens emerged with a 2-1 victory to tie the series. Fully recovered from his cold, Lalonde led a ferocious Canadiens assault in the third game's 6-3 shellacking as chief playmaker and aggressor. Briefly laid out after a vicious retaliatory cross check from Moose Johnson, Lalonde came up swinging, both benches cleared, and the violence soon spread to the stands. With reportedly more than 500 men and women set upon one another, the referees were helpless to stem the melee until the local Chief of Police slid onto the ice and threatened to arrest the lead combatants should they not abide penalties.
Johnson, it turned out, hardly needed more publicity. Years earlier, he had starred for the Montreal Wanderers before heading to the greener pastures of the PCHA. Claiming a breach of contract, the club had won a judgment approaching $45K (all sums estimated for 2016 dollars) but were unable to force recompense outside the jurisdiction of Quebec courts. Alerted to his presence, Wanderers ownership demanded forfeiture of his series pay – each of the Rosebuds had been guaranteed around $7,500K for victory and $5K for a loss – and area headlines eagerly trumpeted the news that Johnson planned to sit out the remaining games. Whether sparked by their teammates plight or simply exploiting their familiarity with 'home' rules, Portland leapt to an early 3-0 lead with such apparent ease that Johnson was cajoled out of the locker room to start the second period. Even with their defense again intact, the embarrassed Canadiens embarked upon a run of their own to tie the score, and the Rosebuds barely escaped with a 6-5 win that sent the series to a climactic game five.
If previous contests had been marked by bluster and showmanship, the deciding match proved a tense struggle between well-matched squads whose speed of play was tempered by newfound focus and officials anxious to prevent another near-riot. Skene Ronan, the rogue English-speaker who'd forced Canadiens to change lingual policy, garnered an early lead for Montreal with a freak goal from face-off nine minutes into the game. (The Rosebuds manager would furiously argue Ronan had batted the puck from the air before it hit the ice—a clear violation—but there wouldn't be video review of a coach's challenge for another 99 years.)
With both squads settling into defensive alignments and a steady string of whistled penalties, the first and second periods ended without a change of score. Finally, near the start of the third, Tommy Dunderdale broke free to put Portland on the board. As the teams traded cautious possessions and the minutes ticked by, the deadlocked game appeared surely headed for overtime when coach and captain Lalonde turned to the unlikeliest of heroes for an inspired of feint of misdirection.
With just over three minutes remaining, Lalonde appeared to gather an errant shot from behind the Canadiens' goal for another weary charge, but he had actually left the puck for (and drawn attention from) defensive substitute Goldie Prodgers who flew up the length of the ice—evading Johnson, miming a slapshot that forced goalie Murray into a desperate lunge, and batting the puck into an empty net for the lead. In response, the Rosebuds sent all of their players on a frenzied offensive attack, but, once again, they could not quite overcome the goaltending that had bedeviled them throughout the series.
Later that evening, Vezina's wife gave birth to a child soon famous across Canada after a photo was taken of the baby happily nestled inside the Cup. They'd name the boy Marcel Stanley.
This would be the first of 24 Cup victories for Montreal. As the NHA gave way to an NHL, the Canadiens emerged as the newly dominant league's signature team.
The fates proved less kind to Portland and the PCHA. But the Rosebuds made their mark.
Technically, only the victors were allowed to engrave their names on the Stanley Cup. And over nearly a quarter-century, Cup-holders could stamp their identities as they pleased.
The first winning club added a base ring to inscribe "Montreal AAA/1893." When the 1907 Montreal Wanderers took possession, they scrawled twenty names of players and executives along the insides, which forced the pre-NHA Senators to attach another ring beneath for their "Ottawa/1909" snippet.
And, though the trophy had only passed to Portland by organizational fiat, you can't really blame the Rosebuds for forging their own names on the ledger of heroes.
As far as Portland was concerned, they were the winners. The formalized agreement for an East/West series was only a year old—and over the past season, Portland had won four of their six matches against Vancouver (a total of 15 goals to 11). Any prior interpretation of Cup ownership would surely have vouchsafed their claim.
According to Bowlsby & Thor, the 1916 matches against the Canadiens were nearly canceled. "Oddly, the PCHA was not talking officially to the NHA because of a serious rift so the Stanley Cup challenge almost never happened. If that was the case, the trustees would have revised their decision, and, even though they weren't the defending champions, a challenge probably would have been taken by the Montreal Canadiens against another team for the Cup."
In the formal histories, the Rosebuds survive only as the losing squad of a forgotten series fought between the dimming hopes of a near-bankrupt league against legends soon to embark upon arguably the most successful run ever enjoyed by any franchise of any sport.
But our boys held the literal Cup. And "Portland Ore. / PCHA Champions / 1915–16" shall forever gleam from a central placement across the 1909 base ring.
Later, another note was engraved weeks afterward by a Montreal club so hastily indignant they inexplicably rendered an anglicized, singular version of their own moniker. "Canadian," reads the top line. Below that, it reads: "N.H.A. & World's Champions/Defeated Portland/1915-16".
While the Rosebuds likely never believed themselves legitimate victors, the impromptu engraving now seems at worst a plucky bit of gamesmanship midst the still-aborning codes of professional sports. In any event, their defiant exclamation aged rather better than the Canadiens' sloppy protestations. No such thing as bad publicity, after all, so long as they spell the name right.