By Rob Ficiur
As the “Stanley Trophy” playoffs glue millions across the country to electronic devices, it is hard to remember a day a different era of hockey. In the 2012 episode of Murdoch Mysteries entitled “Murdoch Night in Canada”, the constable investigates a suspicious death that occurred at a hockey rink. The episode describes a different kind of hockey than has been on our televisions, laptops and phones this week. Comparing the Stanley Trophy championship of 1899 to the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs gives us a clue how different the game is today.
The CBC television series Murdoch Mysteries is currently in its 10th season (and 153 episodes). The series portrays William Murdoch an 1890’s detective in Toronto. (Through his 10 seasons Murdoch has met some other interesting characters including Mark Twain, Jack London, Wilfred Laurier, Alexander Graham Bell and Buffalo Bill Cody).
The following four topics symbolize some of the changes in the hockey:
1. Equipment – The hockey equipment used in the Murdoch episode reflected a different era. Players used sticks without curves. Goalies played without padding or gloves. The police force were having a game of street hockey as the episode ended. When a car came down the street, they had to pull their new net off the side of the road to let the car pass.
In my younger years, it was reality that when we played on the street (which was most of the time) we always had to move off the road. Even our most basic equipment our goalie pads that were made out of Styrofoam were better than the nonexistent pads of 1890’s era.
2. “Stanley Trophy” – Through the episode Murdoch, a non-sports fan, kept referring to the trophy as the Stanley Trophy. In modern day Canada whether you follow sports or not you can’t help but know what the Stanley Cup is.
In 1893 Lord Stanley of Preston the Governor General of Canada donated a trophy to the top amateur ice hockey team in Canada. The trophy that Lord Stanley donated was a bowl, the top part of what modern day fans know as the Stanley Cup.
It is understandable why Murdoch didn’t know the proper terminology. The trophy had only been awarded for about five years when the tv episode took place. Those around him expected more. His Thomas Brackenreid “Cup, Murdoch it’s a cup!” Maybe that phrase was made because that is how modern fans react at hearing the phrase the Stanley Trophy.
3. The original Stanley Cup was a challenge cup. In the early years of the trophy a team challenged the reigning champion to a tournament. The tournament winner was the new Stanley Cup champion until they lost out. The winning team may expect to defend that trophy several times in a hockey season.
In this episode of the show the Toronto Wellingtons were going to challenge the Montreal Shamrocks play for Lord Stanley’s trophy. It was as the Toronto team was preparing for the challenge that one of the team mates was murdered. The challenge cup format is how the Stanley Cup was awarded from 1893 to 1906.
In the Murdoch world, no team from Toronto has ever won the cup. In modern days most of us can’t remember a Toronto team winning a Stanley Cup either.
4. Money to play hockey? One of the side stories in this episode was the rumor that Eddy Driscoll was being paid $5 a game to play for the Toronto Wellingtons. All the true hockey fans we met in the show knew that professionalism would be the end of hockey as they knew it.
If it was ever proven that, the Wellingtons paid a player they would have been suspended from the Ontario Hockey Association; and forfeit the right to challenge for the cup. The owner of the Wellingtons feigned innocence in the investigation. He told Murdoch the paying people to play hockey would be the end of the sport. All the money would go to the players as the teams tried to outbid each other.
Chief of police Thomas Brackenridge explained to Murdoch that “No greater stain on the face of hockey than specter of professionalism.”
In the end Murdoch did find out that the Wellingtons were paying Eddy Driscoll $5 per game. By the end of the show Wellington had left for Pittsburgh where they paid between six and ten dollars per game.
In our modern world we accept that professional athletes are well paid for their talents. The average NHL salary today is 2.4 million per season (or $29,268 per game) Each July when free agency hits, the teams do just what the owner of the Wellingtons feared. They try to outbid each other for players services.
5. Too much free time – The rise of professional sports in the 1890s showed how the world had begun to change. Modern advances meant people had more time for recreation, which sometimes meant watching a hockey game. Detective Murdoch did not understand this new trend. He said, “It seems absurd that an individual would pay to watch someone else play a game.”
What would the 1899 detective think if he found out that people were paying to watch hockey. In Edmonton the price for the same seat has (will) go up if the Oilers advance further in the playoffs. The lower bowel seat that cost $169 for a regular season game will cost $225 for a playoff game and $337 per game if the Oilers make the Stanley Cup final. It is unlikely that fans of the 1899 Challenge Cup paid much if anything for admission. We won’t begin to calculate the cost of a luxury sweat because in 1899 there were no such things.
The hockey of 1899 is different in many ways than our modern version. In another way, nothing has changed. Fans want to see their team win; and players want to play. Both just cost more now.