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ARCHIVED - Backcheck: a Hockey Retrospective

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French-Canadian Tradition

There are various theories and mysteries concerning hockey's first home, but one indisputable fact is that a recognizable form of the game was played in Montréal in 1875 by university students and members of English, Scottish and Irish sporting clubs. French Canadians, however, were not active participants until 20 years later, and the first French-Canadian teams weren't formed until some years after 1895. Their acceptance in local leagues wasn't immediate and required the support of the Irish.

Though there had been the occasional player like Charles Lamothe, captain of the Victorias in 1883, French Canadians generally started in hockey because of the setup of classical colleges in Montreal, where French and Irish Catholics studied together but in their own languages. Two colleges, Ste-Marie and Mont St-Louis, both bilingual, formed the core of an Irish hockey club, the Shamrocks. Though the Irish taught the French to play hockey in the college's yard rink, up to 1896 the Ste-Marie team was exclusively Irish, with players like Harry Trihey, Arthur Farrell and Jack Brennan (who would star later for the Shamrocks). Mont St-Louis had some French students on its team in 1895, including Louis Belcourt (who would join the Shamrocks in 1897, but was notably absent from the lineup when the team won the Stanley Cup in 1899 and 1900). In 1896 the college teams from Ste-Marie and Mont St-Louis merged to form the independent Orioles, though members still played for their respective colleges, thus producing an odd but workable combination of competing at one level and playing together at another.

In 1898, the Irish built their own college (Loyola) and parted physical company with their French friends. The ties between the two would remain strong, however, and play a critical role in the French gaining entry to Montreal's game. Not only did the first French players in the senior league play for the Shamrocks (Belcourt and Ernest Pagnuelo in 1897, Theophile Viau and Louis Hertubise in 1902), but perhaps even more indicative of the Irish support - and how crucial it was - is the fact that the Shamrocks always voted in favor of having a French-Canadian team join the senior hockey ranks while the other teams did not accept the French until 1905.

At about the same time that French-Canadian students first started to play the game, a new sporting club introduced a hockey team meant to be solely for francophone players, though a number of the players were actually Irish. This is where the difficult history of acceptance for French hockey teams begins. In 1894, a group of French-Canadian businessmen formed the Association Athletique d'Amateurs Nationale, known simply as le National. In the 1894-95 season, le National had two hockey teams (with all players from Mont St-Louis College) that played exhibition games. One of the teams beat the Junior Victorias, but mostly these teams suffered defeats. In 1898, a snowshoe club called le Montagnard built an ice rink and launched three new hockey teams which were placed in one of three leagues, depending on the calibre of the players. Most of these players were students at Ste-Marie College, effectively dividing the available francophone players by both college (Ste-Marie and Mont St-Louis) and club (le National and le Montagnard).

On their way to a Stanley Cup victory in 1899, the Shamrocks played an exhibition game against le Montagnard. To make it even more even, they traded one player, Stephen Kent, for one Montagnard player, Hector Dalbec, who replaced Jack Brennan at forward. It is hardly surprising that the Shamrocks still won this game. In another sense, however, both teams ended up as losers: the game had been organized largely to encourage the acceptance of the francophone team in the ranks of Montréal senior hockey, but it did not succeed.

In 1900, with Montreal's French-Canadian hockey-playing college students advancing to university, a new school team emerged. The Université Laval à Montréal played its Quebec City counterpart, where a former Ste-Marie College student instigated the challenge. Meanwhile, le National and le Montagnards continued their long, painful march toward the higher levels of hockey. Both were finally accepted into the intermediates in 1901 after a game between le Montagnard and the intermediate MAAA the year before. The two French teams helped to form a division along with McGill and the Pointe St-Charles team. Le Montagnard won the division, while le National finished last and resigned from the league. In the semifinals, le Montagnard finished the series even with the MAAA but lost in terms of total goals by just one goal. It had been a good year, but not good enough to advance to the seniors. After another season, le Montagnard also resigned from the league when they saw there would be no chance for advancement. The Ottawa Aberdeens had won in 1902 but were not accepted as champions by the current rules.)

In 1904, the two French-Canadian teams merged for one season. Le National was accepted into a new league, the Federal Amateur Hockey League (formed mainly under the leadership of the Montréal Wanderers), and the merger agreement called for le National to organize a team while le Montagnard provided its rink, free of charge, for games and practices. When this version of le National finished second in the Federal league standings, the mainstream senior league, (then the Canadian Amateur Hockey League) at long last took notice and asked them to join, which had been the main goal. But, perhaps ironically, the agreement between the two French clubs was now over. As le National joined the CAHL, le Montagnard was asked to form a team for the Federal league. Worse for le National, it lost its two main players from the 1904 season when Didier Pitre and Jack Laviolette left Montréal to turn professional in the United States. Both would later return and become prototype superstars for Montreal, but for now le National lasted only three games into the CAHL season (they lacked fans and kept losing) and then played only exhibition games. Meanwhile, le Montagnard stayed in the FAHL for two years. When the two clubs met again, in an exhibition game in 1906, le National won easily, 6-0, in a contest that was distinguished mainly by bloodshed.

The 1906-07 season would be the best yet for French hockey. With le National virtually defunct, le Montagnard acquired most of the best francophone players and lost only two games during the season. Their championship, and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup against the Montréal Wanderers, came into question, however, when the agenda at two of the Federal league meetings was dominated by protests to take away two Montagnard wins. With only two games remaining in the season, the team withdrew from league. For the next two seasons, no French teams played organized senior hockey, but the Laval team was finally accepted in the University League in 1908 after a few games against McGill in 1906 and 1907.

As Canadian senior hockey was becoming professional, a number of francophone players began coming back from the United States. Jack Laviolette and Dider Pitre would join the Montréal Shamrocks for the 1907-08 season and also played together in a major event the following year: an exhibition game of the best francophone players against the current Stanley Cup holders, the Montréal Wanderers. The game was scheduled at the Jubilee Rink in east end Montréal for March 10, 1909. That morning the French lineup was still not known, but that evening the roster was made up of Laviolette and Pitre, Edouard "Newsy" Lalonde, Emile Coutu, Joseph Dostaler, Robitaille and Alphonse Jette. All were well-known in Montréal except for Robitaille, who played for Pittsburgh in the International (Pro) Hockey League. To the surprise of a good many present, the francophone players emerged on the ice in the jerseys of le National.

The Wanderers won the game 9-8 but the exhibition game helped le National in its bid to return to league play in 1909-10. The sport's top league had just become the Canadian Hockey Association, but the situation in this league was anything but straightforward. At the meeting that saw le National reinstated, the Wanderers themselves were thrown out because their new owner wanted to play all his games at the Jubilee Rink (which he also owned), while the other CHA teams insisted on staying in the west end at the Westmount Arena. A team from Renfrew wanted to join the CHA this year but was also denied. Hence the Wanderers and Renfrew got together in a room next to the CHA meeting at Montreal's Windsor Hotel and formed a new league, the National Hockey Association. It is here that French Canada's truly unique hockey history begins to take the shape we still recognize today.

Renfrew was represented by the wealthy and strong-willed J. Ambrose O'Brien , whose family also owned a league in northern Ontario. O'Brien would deliver Cobalt and Haileybury as well as Renfrew to the NHA, but to bring out some crowds to the Jubilee Rink, the Wanderers proposed a new French team, to be called les Canadiens, and suggested Laviolette organize it. He would have the use of the O'Briens plentiful funds to build his new team, and as O'Brien and the Wanderers went to battle with CHA club owners over contracts, thus did the competition between le National and les Canadiens for the best French players. By December of 1909, both teams were claiming that they had signed many of the same ones. In fact, though, only one player had signed with both teams - and he had done so all in one day.

When Jack Laviolette telegraphed his good friend and erstwhile teammate Didier Pitre at his home in Sault Ste. Marie, he told him to join him in Ottawa to sign with the team he was putting together. Hearing of this, some le National administrators took a train to North Bay, Ontario, where they met Pitre first. Arriving in Ottawa later, Pitre said that he had signed already but Laviolette told him to sign his Canadiens contract anyway. Les Canadiens were to play their first game at home on January 5, 1910. Le National got an injunction against Pitre stating he was not to play or face prison. By the time the dispute went to court in February of that year, le National was no longer a team. The war between the NHA and the CHA had ended with an amalgamation on January 15, 1910.

Before the NHA-CHA coalition, there had been two professional hockey leagues with 10 teams in total - five of them in Montreal. After the merger, there was only the seven-team National Hockey Association. Three of its teams - the Wanderers, Shamrocks and Canadiens - were in Montreal. Le National was offered the Canadiens franchise if they would satisfy three conditions: play their home games at the Jubilee Rink; pay the salaries of all players on the Canadiens; and pay all debts incurred by the Canadiens. The Nationals were unwilling to take on the extra expense these conditions entailed and closed up shop, leaving the Canadiens as the only French-Canadian professional hockey team. The expanded Canadiens roster now included players from le National, but the squad had little success on the ice, winning only two of 12 games. The team might have faired better had Newsy Lalonde, the league's top scorer, not been loaned to Renfrew in an unsuccessful attempt to help that club win the championship. Because Ambrose O'Brien owned the Canadiens, Renfrew and two other NHA clubs, such personnel moves were not unheard of.

Since assuming ownership of the Canadiens, O'Brien had maintained that he wanted the club turned over to a French entrepreneur as soon as it was practical. However, in the summer of 1910, le Club Athlétique Canadien took O'Brien to court over the use of the name. In an out-of-court settlement, the club acquired the team and would own it until 1921 when the team was sold following the death of club manager George Kennedy. (Kennedy was born Georges Kendall, and while that name often appears in association with the hockey team, he went by Kennedy in English-speaking circles.)

The Montréal Canadiens won their first Stanley Cup in 1916, and while this was the initial victory for the French-Canadian team, it was not the first triumph for French-Canadian players. When the Winnipeg Victorias defeated the Montréal Shamrocks in 1901, Antoine "Tony" Gingras, born in St. Boniface, Manitoba, had become the first French Canadian to play for a Stanley Cup champion. Henri Menard had been the second when he was in goal for the Montréal Wanderers in 1906.

Michel Vigneault


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