Every Canadian knows something of the NHL. The National Hockey League dominates Canadian sports culture. But few likely know of the National Hockey Association, the forerunner of the now famous league.
Teams in this genesis of the NHL included the Renfrew Millionaires, so called because after all their biggest sponsor, M.J.O’Brien, was a millionaire many times over, the Montreal Wanderers and a team that has made a comeback in recent years, the Ottawa Senators.
In the heyday of Cobalt when the town was rich and booming, all the mines had their own hockey teams. Both Haileybury and Cobalt had teams in the National Hockey Association and had no trouble finding corporate sponsors among the many big firms represented in both towns.
The silver town had a real Stanley Cup contender. This was the Cobalt Silver Kings. Although the players gave their all on the ice in association play, the fiercest battles were reserved for games with the Haileybury squad.
It was almost a sort of working class versus the bosses battle. You see the silver town players represented working miners, whereas the Haileybury team was playing for the bosses’ town, as Haileybury was the place where the mine managers, supervisors and owners had their homes.
The games which have gone down in history between the two neighboring town hockey teams were played in 1909 and 1910,the later year a time when Cobalt reached the height of its silver production.
Famous player Art Ross was in the Silver Kings line up in the 1909 game. The man for whom the famous NHL Ross Trophy was named was paid $1,000 for that game, more than many miners earned in a year.
The referee for the game was a medical doctor in his professional life. He said to both teams before the start of the game, perhaps by way of encouragement, ’Boys, the sight of blood is nothing new to me.”
Cobalt won that match and retained the O’Brien Cup given by local mine owner M.J.O’Brien. O’Brien was not a man given to ostentatious expression, although he did have a solid silver telephone on his desk at home. On this occasion, he must have let out a whoop or two.
The following year the two teams were matched once more in the Haileybury arena. The Cobalt squad were on their way as Stanley Cup contenders if they could just brush aside the opposing team bankrolled by Millionaires Row supporters from the fine waterfront homes on Lake Temiskaming.
Some of the following may be apocryphal but it makes for a good story anyway. By now mining magnate Noah Timmins was already turning his sights on the newly opening gold camp of Porcupine but for now he was still one of the biggest mine owners in Cobalt. But he lived in Haileybury and was a Haileybury booster in a big way.
The story goes that he bet $40,000 on the game. Forty grand on a hockey game seems hard to believe even today but Timmins and many other backers had no trouble digging that kind of money out of their pants pockets.
Many working men in both towns bet their whole wage packets on the outcome of the contest. Losers would live on bread and scrape for a long time depending on the outcome of the big game.
By half time the outcome was not satisfactory for Haileybury. They were down 5 goals to Cobalt and the story persists that Noah Timmins made a personal trip to the home town dressing room.
He fanned a thousand dollars in crisp bills and promised it to the player who scored the winning goal. We owe much of the description of that epic game to young Leslie Macfarlane.
Macfarlane was the young fan later to become famous as the author of the Hardy Boys series and many other books. Leslie watched the game and said in his later biography, ‘Ghost of the Hardy Boys’, it was one of the roughest contests he had ever had the thrill of watching.
Five unanswered goals scored by Haileybury sent the game into overtime and when a Haileybury player scored the winning goal, players scooped up money thrown for them on the ice and held it in a washtub.
O’Brien’s son Ambrose took the Haileybury team south after the silver boom declined and gave them a new name and the start of a great tradition. He did not stop in his home area of the Ottawa valley. Instead the team went to Montreal and became Les Canadiens. I guess most people have heard of them, even if they do not know where they came from.
Michael Barnes is a published Canadian author who has written extensively on Northern Ontario. [email protected]