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Inside thestar.com

Long before Leafs, T.O. had a team to call its own

2006/12/23 04:30:00

The Toronto Professionals made their debut on Dec. 28, 1906. The team initially played exhibition matches against the best clubs in Canada and the United States.

Hockey Hall of fame
Stephen Harper Prime Minister of Canada

Although the Maple Leafs have the night off, next Thursday marks a milestone in Toronto's professional hockey history.

On Dec. 28, 1906 – 100 years ago – a team of paid players skated onto Toronto ice for the first time.

The Toronto Hockey Club, known as the "Toronto Professionals" or more simply the "Torontos," didn't even belong to a league. But the players proposed to suit up in their white sweaters with the big purple "T" for exhibition matches against the best clubs in Canada and the United States.

It is hard to fully comprehend today the controversy that such a band of entrepreneurs would generate. "If we Britons are as great as the glory of our Empire," thundered John Ross Robertson, president of the Ontario Hockey Association, "then the flag of amateurism will be as safe from harm as the Union Jack in the hands of your fathers and mine!"

Robertson was no small opponent. Owner and publisher of the Toronto Telegram, philanthropist, member of Parliament, his views represented the powerful social and newspaper elite that controlled sports, particularly hockey, in Ontario's capital city. In the eyes of such gentlemen, a man paid for playing hockey was a deviant from polite society, disreputable to a fine sport if not outrightly disloyal to the country itself.

Robertson was so opposed to professionalism in hockey that he had instituted a lifetime ban for its practice. Through the OHA's connections, the ban would not just be from hockey, but from any sanctioned athletic activity.

And a professional was not merely someone who accepted pay for play in some form. It included anyone who ever played with or against a professional. So serious was the charge of being professional that the accused was required to prove his innocence. To be found to be guilty of professionalism meant exclusion from virtually all sporting fraternities for life.

Outside Ontario, however, hockey was increasingly falling to the control of more commercially oriented men, including those who ran the competitions for hockey's highest prize, the Stanley Cup.

So incensed was the OHA by the creeping professionalism of Cup competition that the league – which had never won the trophy – decided to boycott the competition altogether.

But ordinary Toronto hockey fans weren't buying the OHA line. They wanted Toronto to compete with the best. Despite the attacks and ridicule of the local hockey czars, and in spite of the team's indifferent performance, they flocked in great numbers that first year to see the locals play against the star players they could before only read about in the newspapers.

By the next year, the growing number of OHA players banned from amateur hockey had created a sufficient mass of players and teams to form a provincial league. The new Ontario Professional Hockey League gave the Torontos a base from which to build a contender. With a team built from the former OHA powerhouse Toronto Marlboros and led by Newsy Lalonde, an early French-Canadian star and future hall-of-famer, the Torontos captured the first OPHL championship.

On March 14, 1908, the Torontos travelled to meet the Montreal Wanderers, the hockey dynasty of the era, in a sudden-death game for the Stanley Cup.

To the surprise of most observers, the Wanderers barely hung on to the Cup, scraping out a 6-4 decision in the closing minutes of the game. Even the Toronto establishment was impressed, Robertson's Telegram headlining "Torontos Made Great Show, Wanderers Given Scare."

But the love affair was short-lived. The next season the Professionals experienced ongoing personnel changes and player defections, winding up near the bottom of the circuit.

In the fall of 1909, the management decided to withdraw the team from the league. Without a flagship Toronto team, the OPHL quickly declined and folded a couple of years later.

But while Toronto's amateur hockey establishment celebrated the apparent death of professionalism, the die had been cast. Soon the pros were back, in a bigger and stronger league.

In 1911, the National Hockey Association granted Toronto two franchises. A re-christened Toronto Hockey Club, now wearing a blue sweater with a big white "T" would soon win Toronto's first Stanley Cup. In 1927, that club would, three name changes and one league later, become the Toronto Maple Leafs.


Stephen Harper is prime minister of Canada, and is writing a book about the early history of Canadian hockey.



Stephen Harper

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