Thursday, March 29, 2012

TVOS and Fan-tastic Sports: The Dawson City Nuggets and Ottawa Senators - 107 Years of Hockey History

Every Wednesday, I share my thoughts from inside the NHL Alumni Association and from around today’s NHL at Peter Ing and Bryce Salvador’s Fan-tastic Sports XHockey blog. This week’s article - the Dawson City Nuggets and the Ottawa Senators - 107 years of hockey history!

“Lost amidst our traveling turmoil is the simple, overwhelming love of hockey. Caught up in the day-to-day schedule, interviews, and personal problems, we forget the essence of this whole adventure, that a group of guys could so love a game, be so enamoured of its history that they would drop everything in their lives for a month just to re-enact one game.”

 - Don Reddick in The Trail Less Traveled

What if the Stanley Cup Went North and Never Came Back?

If you look closely at the Stanley Cup, you will see the name of a team that you may not be familiar with - the Dawson City Nuggets. While the Nuggets never won the Cup, losing their challenge against the famed Ottawa Silver Seven, they are forever etched on hockey’s Holy Grail and have a special place in hockey history. Their story and rivalry with Ottawa’s hockey teams has continued for over 100 years. The games are for fun now when the modern-day Nuggets and the Ottawa Senators Alumni compete, but it remains one of hockey’s most remarkable stories.

The year was 1904, the NHL was yet to be created and Lord Stanley’s Cup was still a challenge cup (before 1912, hockey teams from different leagues could challenge the reigning champions at any time). Joe Boyle, a legend in Canada’s North, set out to bring hockey’s greatest prize to the Yukon. His hope was that after defeating the Silver Seven, no team would be foolhardy enough (or willing) to travel to Northern Canada and challenge his Dawson City Nuggets; the Stanley Cup would remain in the Yukon forever.

Travelling by dog sled, bicycle and on foot, the Nuggets left Canada’s North in December of 1904 on their epic journey to Ottawa. Once they reached the coast, the Nuggets travelled south by steamship to Vancouver and then across the country by train, arriving in Ottawa after 24 days of travel over some of the country’s most rugged and unforgiving terrain. Waiting for them in Ottawa was the Silver Seven - a team that would hold on to the Stanley Cup through ten challenges, led by future Hall of Famer Frank McGee.

You could say that the Nuggets held their own in the first game of the three-game series, losing 9-2 on January 13th, 1905. However, McGee’s 14 goals in game two (which is still a Stanley Cup record) powered the Silver Seven to a 23-2 victory (January 16th, 1905). Dawson was outscored 32-4 and the Stanley Cup remained with the Silver Seven. It did not travel north when the Nuggets returned home, but Boyle suggested the Silver Seven attempt the trip north, promising that the result would be different if the two teams faced off in the Yukon.

The rivalry would remain dormant until 1997, when a group of modern-day Dawson City Nuggets embarked on the same remarkable journey for a March 23rd date with the Ottawa Senators Alumni in the nation’s capital. While they added snowmobiles to their transportation options in the first part of their journey, the trip to Ottawa was just as challenging 92 years later - the year may have changed but the terrain had not! When they reached the coast, the modern-day Nuggets boarded a ship for the voyage south and then caught a train in Vancouver for the trip to Ottawa. Award-winning author (and rookie snowmobiler) Don Reddick chronicled the remarkable re-enactment and the history of the Ottawa - Dawson rivalry in his book, The Trail Less Traveled - a must-read for any hockey fan, as it beautifully captures the spirit of the historic 1904/1905 and 1997 trips.

“When I went up to Dawson to start the trip, I flew from White Horse to Dawson in a small plane,” Don recalled in one of our first conversations a few years ago. “We flew directly over the terrain that we were going to come back over. I looked down for an hour at nothing but ice encrusted rivers and mountains. I just remember thinking, my god, what have I gotten into here?”

Don and the Nuggets arrived in Ottawa for their 1997 rematch, along with 50 ounces of gold that would be donated to charity by the winning team. While the Senators Alumni went on to an 18-0 victory, the Nuggets won the hearts of fans throughout Canada and the hockey world. For the Yukon men taking part in the re-enactment, the journey was not necessarily about the game itself or the final score; it was about breathing new life into one of the game’s greatest stories.

Last year, when the Senators Alumni travelled to White Horse and Dawson to continue the Nuggets/Senators tradition as part of the Hockey Day in Canada celebrations, Don was once again in attendance to witness the historic games. The trip to Canada’s North would fulfill a promise made over a century ago.

“After the 1905 games,” Don explained. “Joe Boyle, the leader of the Dawson team, challenged the Ottawas to come up to Dawson for a rematch. He promised to make a cup out of solid gold for the event. The players were quoted in Ottawa papers talking about the better team they would put up. So the invitation, after the great, legendary trip and loss, was extended in 1905 and it was 106 years before an Ottawa team responded and traveled up. So this was history to me, real hockey history.”

If you ever have the opportunity to spend some time with the Stanley Cup - perhaps you are at an event like the NHL All-Star game or visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame, take a moment and look closely at the engravings for 1905. You will see a very special moment in hockey history, Ottawa vs. Dawson. As a fan of hockey history, it is interesting to think about Joe Boyle’s plan in 1904... What if the underdog Dawson City Nuggets had done the impossible and defeated the Ottawa Silver Seven? What would have happened if the Stanley Cup had gone north and never come back?

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