The town that Lord Stanley Built

The Kenora Thistles own a special place in the history of Canada’s game

A float plane touched down on the Lake of the Woods and taxied up to a dock where its cargo, a single unwieldy, priceless item, was off-loaded with the customary white-glove treatment—the Stanley Cup. By now, everyone knows about the NHL’s perfect ritual and rite of summer, the delivery of the Cup to players on the winning team. On a beautiful day in August of last year, Mike Richards of the Los Angeles Kings was bringing it to his place on the water. It was stuff to warm the heart.

On its face, this vignette is as Canadian as you can get. Players come from hither and yon in this country, and thus the Cup visits burgs great and small, or, in the case of Kenora, Ont., pop. 15,000, very small. Richards raised the trophy in front of, by a conservative head count, more than a quarter of the town’s citizens at his hometown’s waterfront. The scene looked no different than what has played out before and will play out again. Symbolically, though, it was another story.

What made Richards’s day with Stanley special was the fact that the Cup was returning to Kenora, albeit in a vastly different form than it left. Fact is, when the people of Kenora last felt any such connection to the Cup, it wasn’t the towering, instantly recognizable trophy. Rather, it resembled a punch bowl, not a heck of a lot different to the gift that Governor General Lord Stanley originally presented.

In the days before the NHL came along, the Cup came into the possession of a number of teams that are now names known only to hockey historians. There was nothing like the playoffs as we know them. No, holders defended the Cup like boxing champions. Teams from far-flung cities, from Halifax to Dawson City, were sent to knock off the defending champions, but the Stanley Cup remained in the possession of squads from three majors cities—Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg—until 1907.

That was the year the Kenora Thistles won the Cup.

Though it was the first Kenora team to challenge for a national hockey championship, it wasn’t the first Thistles team to do so. Two years prior, the Rat Portage Thistles lost 5–4 to Ottawa HC in the third and deciding game of the Cup challenge series. Shortly after that heartbreak, the locals dropped the town’s less-than-savoury handle and cobbled together a composite name from the communities of Keewatin, Norman and Rat Portage.

Emerging as the best team west of Lake Superior, the Kenora Thistles beat the defending champion Montreal Wanderers in January 1907. In the two-game total-goals series, Kenora outscored the Wanderers 12–8, with Roxy Beaudro scoring the Cup-winning goal. The Thistles played to glowing reviews, and their story was a point of pride in Northern Ontario. The Fort William Times-Journal: “The town of Kenora has a special right to be proud of her hockey team. They have not been gathered together at great expense from outside and kept for hockey purposes. They are a homegrown bunch: the same gang who have lifted the Cup used to play shinny together on the streets of old Rat Portage when they all went to school in kneepants.”

Unfortunately the success was short-lived. The Thistles defended their prize a couple of months later, beating the Brandon Wheat Cities in the MPHL championship, but ultimately lost the Cup back to the Wanderers before the spring thaw. The team that had been an inspiration that winter was an anachronism the next.

Professionalism didn’t creep up on the game, it swept through it. By the fall of ’07, the former champions were broken up; teams in the east bought the services of Tom Phillips, Tom Hooper and Art Ross (yes, that Art Ross). What was left of the team played only one game in the Manitoba Professional League and disbanded less than a year later.

Hockey never ground to a full halt in Kenora, mind you. Different iterations of the Thistles made history, albeit as footnotes. The senior amateur team made the Allan Cup final in 1911, losing to defending champions the Winnipeg Victorias. The junior Thistles made the Memorial Cup final in 1940, losing to Oshawa.

Kenora has sent a handful of players to the NHL over the years. Before Richards came along, there was Gary Bergman, a defenceman who played a prominent role in the 1972 Summit Series. Which is to say Kenora was no less than average in its production of elite talent, given the community’s size. The laments of people involved in the game in Kenora sound no different than what you’d hear other places. “The kids only play inside nowadays, and it’s those hours that you spend outside that really develop skills,” says Doug Novak, coach of the Kenora Thistles midget AAA team. “Mike Richards, though, he stood out. When I coached Mike, I could see he had ambition. In the arena, on the outdoor pads, he couldn’t get enough.”

Richards’s ambition would take him far from Kenora. Seemingly every win took him a little farther: a World Junior Championship won in North Dakota, Olympic gold in Vancouver and the Stanley Cup in Los Angeles. He wasn’t the first Thistle to enjoy Cup glory, just the first in 105 years.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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