When Canadians think of hockey cities, they envision Montreal, Edmonton or even Toronto — the one they never think of is Victoria.
That’s because most Canadians don’t know that the modern game of professional ice hockey actually took shape in our city, starting with the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. And it’s all thanks to Lester and Frank Patrick, two of the most influential people in the history of the sport.
The Patricks came to the coast from Nelson in 1911 — Frank to Vancouver and Lester to Victoria — with ambitions to build Canada’s first artificial ice arenas, lure the best players with huge salary promises and start their own hockey league backed with money from their father Joe’s lumber business.
“It was a momentous decision,” writes Craig Bowlsby, hockey historian and Vancouver-born author of Empire of Ice: The Rise and Fall of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, 1911-1926. “Three men had just sunk their entire family fortune into building a new professional hockey league, in a region where hockey normally occurred only one or two weeks of the year, if at all. There were no hockey arenas on the coast, let alone artificial ones, and at least half of the inhabitants had never seen the game.”
The Patricks can also take credit for creating a number of game-changing rules: the blue line, forward passing, allowing the players to kick the puck (anywhere but into the net), the penalty shot, the wearing of numbered jerseys (to help fans identify their favourite players), the concept of “on-the-fly” line changes, the playoffs, farm teams, crediting assists and much more.
Empire of Ice is the first comprehensive written account of the creation, evolution and dissolution of the PCHA. It’s as much historical account as game commentary — providing insight into the teams’ players and play-by-play accounts of important games — as well as important statistics, photos and more. It also includes the first blow-by-blow account of the Victoria Aristocrats’ 1913 World Championship and the Victoria Cougars’ Stanley Cup victory against the Montreal Canadiens (of the National Hockey Association), March 30, 1925 at home in the old Willows (or Patrick) Arena on the corner of Fort and Epworth in Oak Bay.
The Cougars was the last non-NHL team to ever win the coveted cup. (Fourteen years earlier, the Willows Arena hosted the very first professional hockey game ever played on artificial ice. The Vancouver Millionaires won the cup in 1915, defeating the Ottawa Senators at the Denman arena on Georgia Street, the largest indoor arena in the world at the time.)
“The previous season, Seattle folded,” says Bowlsby. “Lester swooped in and snapped up four of their best players, including a championship goalie … Victoria already had a solid team and suddenly they were loaded with a ton of talent. They became a powerhouse.”
The entire four-game series is recounted in detail in the book.
Victoria would go to the Stanley Cup finals again the following season, but would lose three games to one to the Montreal Maroons.
Facing increasing expansion from the National Hockey League, Lester and Frank sold off their teams’ rosters to the NHL, with the Cougars going to Detroit and Vancouver to Chicago.
Hockey’s Silver Fox
Born in Drummondville, Que. in 1883, Lester “Silver Fox” Patrick won two Stanley Cups with the Montreal Wanderers before moving to the Kootenays with his family, where he played for Nelson.
In 1912, he became the owner, manager, coach and defenceman of the Victoria Senators, which became the Victoria Aristocrats in 1913, before the team was sold to Spokane when the Patrick Arena was taken over by the Canadian military for use during wartime. A new team formed in 1918 and changed its name to the Cougars in 1922. Some of the most notable players to suit up for Victoria included goaltenders Hap Holmes and Hec Fowler, Frank Fredrickson, Harry Meeking, Jack Waler, Clem Loughlin and Frank Foyston. After the PCHA folded in 1926, Lester moved to the Big Apple to work for the New York Rangers. At the age of 44, he was the oldest goalie to ever play in the Stanley Cup finals when, in 1928 as the general manager and coach of the New York Rangers, he stepped into the game to replace an injured goalie. The Rangers won in overtime.
Lester died in Victoria in June 1960. He and Frank (who died less than a month later) are buried in Section C of the Royal Oak Burial Park, just north of the Garden Chapel. To this day, the Lester Patrick Cup is an award handed out by the NHL to the person who does the most to develop the game of hockey in the U.S.A.
Bowlsby started researching the history of Western Canadian hockey almost 20 years ago.
“It was intriguing because there was a huge black void of non-info,” says Bowlsby. “I was like an explorer looking into a black hole … I had no path to follow. I had to carve my own.”
Bowlsby relied on provincial, municipal and university archives, as well as newspaper clippings and more to do the necessary research.
“You wouldn’t believe how many newspaper clips I read. The payoff was small. Sitting in the bowels of some archive, I’d find a fact I’ve been looking for for a year, and I’d want to shout out. But there’s nobody there. Nobody cared.”
But it was a labour of love.
“It had never been done fully before. There were lots of simple facts known, but even some of them I knew were wrong. Once I started looking into it, I knew there was a part of history here and I couldn’t resist being the one to tell it.”
It took Bowlsby three and a half years to complete the research and writing of Empire of Ice, his second about the history of hockey in Western Canada (his first was The Knights of Winter, which recounts the years between 1895-1911). But it could have taken longer had it not been for the technological revolution.
“Half-way through, a huge amount of material came online. It really sped up the process … it was a godsend.”
He shopped the book around to publishing companies and initially found some interest, but decided to go ahead with self-publishing after waiting longer than he wanted.
Despite having no distribution, he still managed to get his books into major Chapters locations (it’s also available at Munro’s in Victoria), and is hosting a book launch and reading at the Victoria Chapters (1212 Douglas), Wed., March 27 from 1 to 4pm. Bowlsby will be giving away Victoria Cougars T-shirts as trivia prizes. M