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The North's Biggest Underdogs

The North's Biggest Underdogs

What would you do for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup?
By Herb Mathisen
Mar 11
2016
From the March 2016 Issue

The seven men had travelled nearly 7,000 kilometres in 23 days, by bruising dogsled rides, through a blizzard on foot, over stomach-churning seas and finally in a cramped cross-country train. Arriving in Ottawa on January 11, 1905, the Dawson City Nuggets had just completed the most taxing road-trip in Stanley Cup history. 

Back then, there was no NHL and the Stanley Cup was up for grabs by challenge. Millionaire Klondike mining mogul Joe Boyle backed a group of amateurs from Dawson’s local clubs—including ringers from the city’s hallowed Civil Service squad, a constable, and a 17-year-old goalie named Albert Forrest—to form the first and only Yukon team to compete for this country’s most coveted chalice. 

But the Nuggets were without their best player, Weldy Young. The swift and surly Young had once played for the champion Ottawa Hockey Club in the 1890s, but moved North to work as a civil servant in Dawson. He couldn’t leave his post during an election, and missed the challenge. And the team was also exhausted after the epic trip, which included few real opportunities to train. (They got in a quick skate on a sandy rink in Skagway that dulled their skates, and did wind sprints on train platforms in each town they stopped in, from Seattle to Ottawa.) They arrived with two days to prepare for the first game in their best-of-three series. 

It showed. While word of the team’s travels made them a sensation in Ottawa, the good feelings stopped on the ice. The Ottawa Silver Seven, led by superstar sniper “One-Eyed” Frank McGee, were hockey’s first dynasty, and as was their signature, the game was rough. Dawson’s Norman Watt got a stick in the mouth from Ottawa’s Art Moore in retaliation for a trip. Watt returned the favour, breaking his stick over Moore’s head and knocking him out. 

The Dawson City Nuggets' sweater (1905). Illustration by Beth Covvey

(A month later, a Silver Seven player—Allan Loney—would be charged for manslaughter for a similar incident that resulted in the death of an opponent in a game outside Ottawa.) After keeping the score to 3-1 at halftime, Ottawa exposed the tired Nuggets, beating them 9-2 in front of 2,300 fans.

Despite the lopsided score, the physically battered Nuggets remained encouraged. They claimed many of Ottawa’s goals resulted from plays that were offside. And they’d managed to shut down the illustrious McGee, keeping him to just one goal. Word got out that Watt, at a saloon after the game, said McGee wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.

Three days later, the teams took to the ice again. This time, McGee was merciless. The short, shifty centreman scored 14 goals, a Stanley Cup record that still stands today. (And let’s face it—that record will never be broken.) The final score was 23-2, with Toronto’s Daily Evening Star noting the Nuggets played “as if they were under a general anaesthetic.” Others who witnessed the blowout said it could have been worse if not for the goaltending acrobatics of young Forrest, named his team’s MVP. 

Had the Nuggets won the Stanley Cup, it might have been trapped in Dawson City forever, in lieu of challengers willing to make the grueling trek North. It’s likely they would have treated the cup with more reverence than the Silver Seven. Not satisfied with kicking the Nuggets, the Ottawa team held a contest at a post-game celebration to see who could kick the Stanley Cup across the Rideau Canal from an embankment. Forward Harry Smith dropkicked it into the frozen canal to cheers from his impressed teammates. The cup stayed there until the next morning, when a hungover Smith retrieved it.

As for the Nuggets, they barnstormed from Manitoba to Pittsburgh to Nova Scotia—finally with the services of Weldy Young—to recoup some of Boyle’s money. These exhibitions repaired their reputations: the Nuggets compiled a record of 12 wins, 10 losses and one draw. 

Was it all worth it? The name “Dawson” is forever inscribed as a challenger on the cup. What do you think?