Monday, 17 June 2013

The Patrick Legacy

Frank and Lester Patrick (Hockey Hall of Fame archives)
Without a doubt, the hockey world owes a lot to brothers Frank and Lester Patrick for how they changed the sport for the better one hundred years ago.

The Patrick boys, Quebec-born two years apart in the mid 1880’s, were turn-of-the-century pro hockey stars back East, Lester as a rushing defenseman, Frank as a defenseman-left winger. In 1911, the two left their homes in Montreal for the West coast to work in their father’s lumber business. But once they settled in BC, they made a bold move by using family funds to start their own professional hockey league, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Three teams were formed…the New Westminster Royals, the Victoria Aristocrats, and the Vancouver Millionaires.

The Patricks needed rinks and they needed players. Due to the coast’s warm climate, the recent invention of artificial ice would be the answer. So, prior to the start of their inaugural 1911-12 season, the Patricks built two new structures, a 4,000-capacity arena  in Victoria at a cost of $110,000; and a mammoth 10,500-capacity palace in Vancouver costing $200,000, making it the largest artificial ice surface in the world.  Players such as Newsy Lalonde, Barney Stanley, Cyclone Taylor, Hugh Lehman, and Dick Irvin were soon lured off Eastern teams to play on the West coast.

As with any fledgling league, franchises shifted.  In 1914, the Royals moved to Portland. Seattle was added a year later, then Spokane in 1916. At first the league played in-house only, but by 1913-14 they took on the NHA (forerunner to the NHL) for Stanley Cup competition. By the spring of 1915, the Millionaires swept the Ottawa Senators in 3 games to take the Cup. Seattle, known as the Metropolitans, followed up in 1917 by being the first US team to win the coveted trophy, when they beat the mighty Montreal Canadiens. When Seattle dropped out of the league in 1924, forcing the only two remaining teams, Vancouver and Victoria, to join the Western Canada  Hockey League with teams in Regina, Calgary, Saskatoon, and Edmonton, the PCHA  renamed itself the Western Hockey League, a six-team entity with the addition of  a new Portland squad. Victoria, now called the Cougars, won the Stanley Cup in 1925, the last Patrick team to do so.

The WHL managed to hang on, but attendance was low in their less-populated venues, leaving them unable to compete for top player salaries with the ever-expanding NHL, now pushing into the US.  After the 1925-26 season, the Patricks decided to bail out. They sold Portland and Victoria intact to interests in Chicago and Detroit, respectively. Including separate player deals for their many stars such as Eddie Shore and Frank Boucher, the Patricks netted over $272,000 from their WHL fire sale.

During that 15-year run of being their own bosses, the Patrick brothers had incorporated plenty of innovations, most of them quickly adopted by the NHL. Two, in particular, stemmed by Frank’s off-season visit to the family’s native Ireland. There, Frank saw a polo match in which the referee awarded a player a penalty shot. Frank also saw a cross-country harrier race where the participants wore numbers for identification. Months later in Canada, the Patricks inserted penalty shots into the PCHA and placed numbers on their jerseys, which led to the selling of programs for player reference. They were also the first to hand out penalties for boarding, and delay of game infractions when players deliberately shot the puck over the boards. They invented forward passing, the blue line, the goal crease, and the raising of sticks after a goal. They allowed kicking the puck (not into the goal, of course), and the goalies dropping to the ice to make a save. Prior to this netminders had to stay on their feet.  The fans soon loved to see an acrobatic goalie stopping the puck any way he could. Other innovations were assists on goals and two one-ice officials for each game.

In 1918, when the Seattle Metropolitans were pulling ahead of the others in the standings, the brothers introduced playoffs at the end of the schedule, thus creating more fan interest.  And…the frosting on the cake…the Patricks used changing-on-the-fly, a major reason why the Victoria Cougars beat the Montreal Canadiens in the 1925 Stanley Cup finals. The Habs, a much faster team with stars Howie Morenz and Auriel Joliat, were completely neutralized by the Cougars bringing on fresh legs at the right time.

Frank and Lester followed several of their WHL players to the NHL. Taking on management positions, Lester chose the New York Rangers…Frank the Boston Bruins. Lester made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947 and Frank in 1959. They both died in 1960, a month apart, and both from heart attacks. Their contributions to the game of hockey will hopefully never be forgotten.

Entrepreneurs par excellence, the both of them.

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