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How the Vancouver Millionaires won the 1915 Stanley Cup and revolutionized hockey

WATCH: Today is the 100 year anniversary of Vancouver’s one and only Stanley Cup win. We speak to author Craig Bowlsby about the historic anniversary.

Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of the first and only time a Vancouver hockey team raised the Stanley Cup in victory. Except that they didn’t really get to raise the Cup at all.

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On March 26, 1915, the Vancouver Millionaires defeated the Ottawa Senators at Denman Arena, winning the best-of-five series in three straight games to become Stanley Cup champions. The Senators, who were considered heavy favourites going into the series, were so confident they would win they didn’t bother bringing the Cup with them from back east.

The Millionaires had to wait a few months for the Cup to arrive, and Vancouver hockey fans have waited a century for it to come back.

Interest in the Millionaires has taken off in recent years, thanks in large part to the Vancouver Canucks wearing vintage Millionaires uniforms during last year’s Winter Classic at BC Place stadium. The Canucks will wear the retro unis during Thursday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche.

While the Millionaires old-school sweaters may have connected with a modern audience, the brand of hockey that was played a century ago would be foreign to today’s hockey fan. But team founder Frank Patrick and his brother Lester did their best to modernize the game.

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The Vancouver Millionaires won the Stanley Cup in 1915. BC Sports Hall of Fame
Gordon Roberts. BC Sports Hall of Fame
Mickey MacKay was born in Ymir, B.C. BC Sports Hall of Fame
Goaltender Hughie Lehman came from the New Westminster Royals. BC Sports Hall of Fame
Millionaire Si Griffis is one of seven 1914 Millionaires in the Hockey Hall of Fame. BC Sports Hall of Fame
A cartoon of B.C.-born Millionaire Mickey MacKay. City of Vancouver Archives
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The Vancouver Canucks have worn retro Millionaires uniforms to honour the city's only Stanley Cup champs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
The Millionaires played in Denman Arena, located in Coal Harbour. City of Vancouver Archives
A cartoon that dubs Fred 'Cyclone' Taylor the Grand Old Man of Hockey. Taylor was 30 when the Millionaires won the Stanley Cup. City of Vancouver archives

Different era, different rules

From 1915-1926 the Stanley Cup was decided by the top teams from Canada’s east and west coast, teams that often competed in leagues that played by different rules.

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The 1915 Stanley Cup saw the top team from the east coast’s National Hockey Association take on the winners of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, which was founded by the Patrick family.

During their time with the PCHA, the Patricks implemented changes to the game in the hopes that the hockey establishment out east would follow suit. They introduced the blue line and line changes, and were the first to have players wear numbers on the backs of their sweaters.

The PCHA was also the first league to allow the forward pass. Players back east weren’t allowed to advance the puck to a teammate who was ahead of them, forcing them to pass it behind them or to the side, as in rugby.

“The speed of the game [in the NHA], the speed that the puck advanced up the ice, was actually a lot slower,” says Craig Bowlsby, author of Empire of Ice: The Rise and Fall of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. “It was the Patrick brothers, and in particular the Vancouver Millionaires, that pushed the new rule of allowing the forward pass. That proved to be a big difference in the actual Stanley Cup contest.”
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During the Stanley Cup series, games alternated between PCHA and NHA rules. Regardless of the rules they played under, the Millionaires dominated the Senators, outscoring Ottawa 26-8 over three games to sweep the series.

A cartoon that dubs Fred ‘Cyclone’ Taylor the Grand Old Man of Hockey. Taylor was 30 when the Millionaires won the Stanley Cup. City of Vancouver archives

A roster full of Hall of Famers

The Millionaires fast-paced style was no accident. President Frank Patrick assembled a team of uptempo players who could take advantage of the new rules. Patrick clearly had an eye for talent as seven of the 10 players on the team are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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Chief among them was Fred “Cyclone” Taylor. Although he was a man of modest dimensions–5’8″, 165 lbs.–Taylor’s prowess on the ice turned him into the sport’s first star.

“He was sought after by all of the leagues in his prime,” says Bowlsby. “He even had lots of intrigue around who was going to sign him. People would carry contracts around with them and follow him around by train from city to city, hoping that he would sign a contract. In that respect, he must have felt like he was a superstar. And he was.”

Taylor died in Vancouver in 1979 at the age of 94. His hockey legacy lives on through his family. His grandson Mark Taylor played in the NHL and his great-grandson Trevor Cox currently plays in the WHL for the Medicine Hat Tigers.

Mickey MacKay was born in Ymir, B.C. BC Sports Hall of Fame

Taylor was paired with Mickey MacKay, a speedy forward from the Kootenays.

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“They became the one-two punch,” says Bowlsby of Taylor and MacKay. “One would get an assist and one would score. They both knew what each other wanted and needed, and fed each other all the way up the ice. That was really important for Cyclone Taylor to have that kind of person with him.”

Veteran Frank Nighbor was a steady presence and the team’s best two-way forward while goaltender Hugh Lehman, who had come to the Millionaires from the New Westminster Royals, proved to be a critical component to the team’s Stanley Cup win. Playing goal was quite different in Lehman’s day, as keepers weren’t allowed to leave their feet to make a save.

In addition to being the team’s founder, Frank Patrick was also one of his team’s best players. More importantly, he was the architect of the Millionaires win and much of modern hockey.

It took a while, but the NHA eventually adopted Patrick’s rules and the forward pass became part of hockey.

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A century later Vancouver hockey fans are waiting for a second Stanley Cup. After winning it all in 1915, the Milllionaires were runners-up in 1918, 1921, 1922 and 1923. In modern times, the Canucks made it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1982, 1994 and 2011, losing all three times.

It’s enough to make Vancouver hockey fans feel sorry for themselves. If it’s any consolation, Vancouver’s century-long drought is not the longest losing streak among current Canadian NHL cities. Winnipeg won its only Stanley Cup back in 1902.