by Ron Spence
“All roads [led] to the Victoria arena….,” wrote the Daily Colonist.
It was the place to be. Derby-hatted and spats-strutting spectators arrived by the tramload. Victoria’s finest orchestra set the ambiance and the Lieutenant Governor dropped the first puck.
It was January 3, 1912 and there was finally a top-notch hockey league west of the Great Lakes. And Canada was on its way to establishing a national past time.
The conservative Colonist headlined this first contest: HOCKEY MAKES ITS DEBUT HERE.
Of course, the Victoria team had just lost 8 to 3 to the upstart New Westminster side. The grapes were sour in the capital city.
A few nights later there was a second game in Vancouver. And the Province was gushing after Vancouver defeated Westminster by the same score.
SENSATIONAL ICE HOCKEY SEEN AT VANCOUVER ARENA, the Province headlined.
This exciting new league was a long way from the spring of 1910 when the the Patrick boys returned home from Renfrew. Back in Nelson, Lester and Frank could only dream of playing competitive hockey in B.C. Their reality was working for Patrick Lumber Company in the Kootenays.
But then, in January, 1911 Papa Joe Patrick sold his company to an English syndicate. This left the family with the tidy sum of $440,000, which of course today is below the salary for a waiver-wire NHL castoff.
The first thing father Joe did was parcel off 50 large to both Lester and Frank. Next, he called a family meeting to discuss investing his residue. Blue chip suggestions were bandied about until Frank blurted out that they should start their own hockey league.
Ironically, Lester, who gets most of the credit for the western league opposed this idea. Fortunately, he was outvoted by Frank and their father.
Years later, Lester rationalized his point of view to Eric Whitehead: “We had much to learn as executives. We were just young hockey players with a lot of dreams.”
The new league sequed from dreams to plans when the family moved to the coast. Most of the Patricks relocated to sleepy Victoria, which was then 40,000 people. Frank, however, enjoyed the bustling metropolis of Vancouver which was two and a half times the capital’s size.
The Patricks met with the press and announced the formation of the PACIFIC COAST HOCKEY ASSOCIATION. There would be three teams: the Victoria Senators, the New Westminster (a city of 35,000) Royals, and the Vancouver Millionaires. It was also stated that teams in Edmonton and Calgary would be invited into the league.
Initially there were three British Columbian teams before the league expanded into Seattle, and briefly into Portland and Spokane. Then the association joined with the prairie circuit in 1924 to form the West Coast Hockey League. This league folded two years later and the players were dispersed to the National Hockey League, which was expanding at the time.
The Patricks’ roles would be simple. They would play, coach, manage, officiate and of course own their teams.
The PACIFIC COAST league was to differ from the National Hockey Association in one major way. Teams would play 7 a side (It was a game featuring a rover who alternated between the D and the forward positions.). Seven man was more of a team contest, and the Patricks claimed the NHA was cheap by reducing their rosters to 6 players.
But the Patricks’ talk was cheap. They saved cash by requiring their players to officiate.
The year 1911 was the proverbial blur for the Patricks. They had to buy land and build two arenas (The Westminster rink had to wait a year and the Royals and their fans had to trek to Vancouver for games.). They also had to procure some top-notch players from the prairies and eastern leagues.
The Patricks selected Victoria’s ritzy Willows area for their island site. In Vancouver they purchased property on the corner of Denman and Georgia.
Their Victoria arena would seat 4,000 – at a cost of $110,000. The mainland rink would house 10,500 – and cost $210,000 (It was second only to Madison Square Gardens in size.).
Box seats were priced at $2.00 (The Vancouver arena had 97 boxes of 6 seats for private subscription.). The Promenade was $1.50, while Reserved was $1 and Unreserved $.50 (This was at a time when Three Star Dublin Stout pints were wetting throats for only $.85 a dozen.).
The Patricks paid a good buck to build their two arenas. They also paid through their collective noses to acquire players. Knowing first hand that the luggage of hockey players was a carpet bag, they offered twice the NHA salaries. Sixteen players left that league for the west. It was the copper and silver leagues all over again.
Twenty-three players were sufficient because there were only the three B.C. teams. The Alberta cities declined to play west of the Rockies. They had listened to the eastern clubs who had denounced the PACIFIC COAST as a bogus circuit. Easterners often referred to the Patrick’s new association as the Sunset League.
The Pacific Coast Hockey Association would sink into the ocean like the setting sun, the easterners quipped.
courtesy of legendsofhockey.net
The coast league wasn’t quite the equal of the NHL.
During the twelve seasons that they competed for the Stanley Cup, Vancouver won in 1915 and Victoria in 1925. The PCHA’s Seattle team took the Cup in 1917, which made the Metropolitans, America’s first Stanley Cup champions. Of those series that PCHA teams lost, most of them were by only one game in a series.
While they were building arenas and acquiring players, the Patricks were also learning how to make ice. Four cities in the east (Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland and Boston) had built covered arenas to attract crowds during the cold weather. On the coast the Patricks needed artificial ice for the opposite reason. The winters were too warm.
Lester travelled to Boston to study Iceology.
Victoria’s ice plant was producing by Xmas, 1911.
The Colonist noted: “At a late hour last night there was a fine clear sheet of ice over the entire area of about two and a half inches in thickness, and flooding was in progress and will continue during the greater part of today. The big engines are now working at their best, and the freezing process is in operation continually.”
(Even then, things were so slow in Victoria that people used to watch the ice thicken.)
The Patricks didn’t have to visit Beantown to learn dressing room designs, however. They simply housed their stars first class. The Colonist wrote: “The dressing room for the players has been fitted up in excellent style, and nothing has been spared to assure their comfort. Large bunks have been made and one will be assigned for each player with his name inscribed over it on a nicely painted card.”
The players’ names were spelled correctly. But, the Patricks didn’t always dot all their ‘i’s and cross all their ‘t’s. Opening night their nets had more holes than a False Creek condo. A number of disputes arose over whether goals were scored or not.
courtesy of legendsofhockey.net
Holes or not, the Patricks still did an excellent job.
“In introducing hockey to the public of British Columbia,” the Province wrote, “the Patrick brothers have left no stone unturned to insure the success of the innovation. They have built here and in Victoria the two best artificial rinks in America. They have scoured Canada for players and have secured practically the cream of the talent of the Dominion.”
The Patricks had the fancy arenas and the hot shot talent. But, would the fans in this virgin territory like hockey? The Patricks would discover what the owners in L.A., San Jose, Dallas, etc. learned three quarters of a century later. You don’t have to know the game to love it.
“Most of [the opening night fans] had never seen a hockey game before,” wrote the Province, “but they became ardent enthusiasts long before the finish. At times the game was very fast and the spectators were up on their toes, all cheering wildly at the spectacular work shown. After last night’s exhibition there is no doubt about the popularity of hockey here.”
The Colonist across the pond echoed this: “The enthusiam shown by the large crowd present was surprising when it is considered that the game is in its infancy in this city, but as it progressed, especially towards the end when the home club made a consistent spirited attack for fully-15 minutes, the cheers rang in every quarter of the structure.”
The Province’s only reservation concerned league parity: “[The Patricks] have started right and now it remains to be seen whether their judgement in the arrangements of the three teams in the league was correct. If it was, good hard close games should be seen all season and big fat gate receipts should follow. If they were wrong in the estimation of the players then the weak teams will have to be strengthened by still further importations from the east.”
Parity wasn’t the problem, however. Neither was the lack of excitement. Hockey was a popular game, but there were few excited, paying fans. Only 2,500 attended in Victoria and only 5,000 in Vancouver on opening night.
The PACIFIC COAST HOCKEY ASSOCIATION would never enjoy “big fat gate receipts.” And a decade and a half later the sun would set on the Sunset League.
The 1925-26 season was the last spring a non-NHL team competed for the Stanley Cup.
The P.C.H.A. was important for a number of reasons.
It gave hockey players the opportunity to move from the confining eastern leagues for the higher salaries out west. Of the P.C.H.A.’s first twenty-three players, sixteen were enticed from the National Hockey Association (the forefather of the NHL).
The league also brought many innovations to the game of hockey. The P.C.H.A. placed numbers on players’ sweaters and allowed their goalies to dive for pucks and skaters to kick the vulcanite. The PCHA credited players with assists, and introduced the blue line to reduce offsides and speed up the game.