BY PAUL KITCHEN
To learn something about the emergence of hockey in Ottawa in the early 1900s, it’s instructive to look at a 1901 photographic montage of the Ottawa Hockey Club.
At the top are nine men in business suits, below are 11 men in hockey sweaters. The key role of the executive committee was evolving even in amateur hockey, where in earliest times the players themselves handled administrative matters.
Most prominent among the executive body at the end of the club’s first Stanley Cup dynasty (1903-1906) was manager R.T. (Bob) Shillington. A pharmacist and mining entrepreneur, he had inspired the unofficial name “Silver Seven” of the seven-man team when he presented the players with silver nuggets following their 1903 Stanley Cup win.
By 1906, hockey was on the brink of professionalism, which would add a whole new dimension to how teams were operated. Stars such as Tom Phillips were reluctant to sign contracts with clubs having no legal identity. Finally getting the message, the Senators incorporated federally in 1911 as the Ottawa Hockey Association.
A stern undersecretary of state had rejected the chosen name “Ottawa Hockey Club” because a “club,” he reasoned, could only operate in one place whereas the Senators would be competing in two provinces, Ontario and Quebec. So be it, but the team was nevertheless frequently referred to in the following years as the Ottawa Hockey Club.
Also revealing is the club’s ledger for the years 1913 to 1917. Written in pen and ink and now held by Library and Archives Canada, the accounts detail every item of revenue and expenditure. In 1913, for example, player salaries totalled $9,808.04, contributing to a net loss on the season of $3,870.66.
Star forward Jack Darragh drew $1,500 that year, Percy LeSueur $995.99, and coach Pete Green $250. The club paid Ted Dey $5,770.15 in arena rent. The season’s bill for rink attendants was $326.90.
With the arrival of the First World War, business conditions declined in the hockey realm. Senators players were going overseas to fight and club directors wanted out. This left Ted Dey in a fix because if the team were to disband his arena rental income would disappear.
So, he took over the operation of the team from the Ottawa Hockey Association, agreeing to pay all expenses and retain any profits. Soon, he entered a lease-to-own arrangement with partner T.P. (Tommy) Gorman and they ran the team for five years, culminating in a Stanley Cup championship in 1923.
They were an unlikely duo. Dey, with his dour visage and cold-eyed fixation on the bottom line, looked after the financial side. The gregarious Gorman, himself a sportsman, attended to team management.
Gorman, in fact, had previously been associated with the team in what today would be an impossible conflict of interest. At one and the same time he was on the club’s payroll as publicist while employed by the Ottawa Citizen as sports editor. Needless to say the Senators enjoyed plenty of favourable coverage.
For reasons unexplained, Ted Dey disposed of his interest in the Senators and relocated to New York City. Gorman found a new partner in Ottawa business magnate Frank Ahearn and they made a fresh start in 1923 with the opening of the Ottawa Auditorium, the city’s first artificial ice rink.
Ahearn was the son of Thomas Ahearn, who with Warren Soper, owned the Ottawa Electric Railway. As a youth, Frank managed the Buena Vista team, using one of his father’s out-of-service streetcars as a dressing room. Ahearn was a civic-minded leader who held a deep affection for his city and its hockey heritage – an affection that would cost him dearly in years ahead.
Within months of this new partnership, Gorman and Ahearn had a falling out over how the team should be handled on the ice. Ahearn tried to buy out Gorman for $20,000 but Gorman rejected the offer. Gorman counter-proposed at $50,000 but then backed out. Finally, after NHL intervention, Gorman sold out to Ahearn for $35,000 plus Ahearn’s shares in the Connaught Park Jockey Club.
This was the beginning of an eventful period for Ahearn, now sole owner of the Senators and principal shareholder of the 6,000-seat Auditorium. Though winning the Stanley Cup in 1927, the club was losing money, one reason being league expansion into rich American markets that supported bigger budgets than the Senators could muster. He sold the team to Auditorium Ltd. in 1929.
Ahearn’s father, Thomas, helped with finances, repeatedly loaning Auditorium Ltd. funds and accepting player contracts as collateral. With the club cutting back on player meal money and struggling to meet payroll and travel expenses, the Senators suspended operations for the 1931-32 season.
Returning for two years, Auditorium Ltd. finally threw in the towel and moved the franchise to St. Louis, Missouri, as the Eagles. It was the same team with the same owner and the same result – last place and more red ink. The Eagles disbanded at the end of the 1935 season, showing an operating loss of $61,603.07 (about $1 million today).
Back in Ottawa, Auditorium bondholders foreclosed on the tenantless arena in 1936. It then came under the control of Royal Securities Corporation until a Gorman syndicate bought the building in 1945.
Ottawa writer Paul Kitchen is the author of Win, Tie or Wrangle: The Inside Story of the old Ottawa Senators, 1883-1935