Allan Cup win warmed the Sault’s soul

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds 1924 Allan Cup championship.

When the Greyhounds’ captured the national trophy they effectively put the Sault, population 22,000 and change at the time, on the hockey map.

The win is solidly embedded in hockey’s history books. Father Time and a host of  local hockey accomplishments have tested and faded the glory of victory. 

On this day in 1924, the team returned home, victorious, to a incredible gathering of supporters.

In lieu of the anniversary and the marvellous impact the Sault’s first national hockey championship run had on its citizenry, First Local looks back at those 1924 champions, what the boys accomplished and how they managed to do it.

The budding hockey landscape

It can be tough for hockey fans to accept that the sport and its leagues are not static. Nothing lasts forever. Change is constant and inevitable, though not always anticipated and welcomed.

Favorite players get traded or retire, or leave their first team to sign for better money elsewhere. Franchises hit financial potholes. Some completely fold or are purchased and moved to a new city. Re-named and re-branded, the team’s historical thread and connections to its fan base forever snipped, at the very least, in two.

In 1924, change was constant and rapid in the hockey world. Hockey had experienced its ‘big bang’ when the National Hockey was formed in 1917, but the dust had hardly settled.

Toronto’s NHL team, for example, were the St. Patricks. They would not become the Maple Leafs until three years later. The NHL welcomed its first American franchise in 1924, when the Boston Bruins joined the loop. The New York Rangers followed in 1926.

Following a pro club was no easy task. There was no radio. There was no TV. How can a fan bond with a team they have literally never seen?

The focus of fans in Canada in hockey’s earliest days was not fixated on the NHL quite like it is today. It was arguably just as intense, but much more localized. In most cities and towns across Canada, amateur teams at the junior and senior levels were subjects of much adoration. For a rabid hockey fan, the local clubs were in every respect, ‘the only game in town,’ especially in the B-R (Before-Radio) era of the game.

The scarcity of readily-available and immediate media coverage helped fan the flames. One transplanted Saultite drove more than 500 miles from Virginia to catch a Greyhounds’ playoff tilt in Toronto, arriving just before the drop of the puck. 

After winning the 1923-24 NOHA title, the team’s third in four years, the Hounds were determined to make a mighty run at the Allan Cup. The Hounds were tops in 1921 and 1923, but those previous clubs fell short of realizing their Allan Cup dream. The post failures were the fuel for the 1923-24 club, and previous experience would serve them well.

The leaders

The core of vital Greyhounds included goaltender James “Flat” Walsh. Walsh had a peculiar every-game ritual of popping the puck into his net as the teams took to the ice to start the game. The Kingston, Ont-native was in his fifth year with the Hounds after starring with his hometown Frontenacs.

On the blueline, James “Babe” Donnelly and Dr. Stan Brown on defence were key, but Francis “Dutch” Cain did yeoman’s work on D while also supplying a spark as a forward on occasion.

An adept stickhandler, Brown was capable of dazzling rushes. Donnelly was a great skater and puck mover.

Leading the charge up front were left-winger Roy “Gloomy” Lessard, centre Bill Phillips and right-winger Jack Woodruff.

A Sault-native, Lessard was the team’s most vaunted triggerman, possessing the hardest and most accurate shot on the club. 

Phillips, who hailed from Thessalon, was deemed to be among the best centres in the country, and received overtures to go pro and to join Canada’s Olympic team.

Woodruff was described as a “bearcat” on the right side, a tireless worker and completely reliable. A gamer.

The squad was coached by George McNamara. The Penetanguishene, Ont.-native moved to the Sault as a youngster and its where he developed his game. A burly 6’1, 220-pound defensemen, McNamara earned accolades as one of hockey’s best open-ice body checkers. His game was clean, but without fear.

He brought the same rugged character traits to the game as coach. Under his tutelage, the Hounds were a confident, resilient hockey club.

McNamara is widely credited with giving the Greyhounds their name, stating ‘a Greyhound is faster than a wolf’ a factual if not friendly poke at arch-rival Sudbury, 180 miles to the east, and home of the Wolves.

Rosters were smaller back in those days. Injuries to key players could be devastating, which is why the Greyhounds rested some key players during a series of stay-in-shape exhibitions between the end of the NOHA season and the first game of their Allan Cup run.

The dream chase begins

The quest began with a single-game elimination match versus Niagara Falls. The Hounds whitewashed the Falls 7-0, minus stalwart d-man Brown who was nursing an injury. Even without one of the defensive aces, a Greyhounds victory was never in doubt.

The next day, the Hounds’ win was front page news in The Sault Star, but there was a much larger – and tragic – story on Thursday, March 13, 1924.  

A huge fire had engulfed a card dealership and warehouse on the corner of Brock and Albert Streets. One hundred cars housed in the two-level garage were lost, with damage estimates at $300,000, or $5.4 million, today. Fire Chief W.J. Phillips and all 26 Sault firefighters fought the blaze. No one was seriously hurt in what was one of the city’s largest fires on record.

The next opponent would be the Hamilton Tigers. Toronto and Hamilton papers expected the Hounds would meet their match. They predicted the Tigers would ultimately prevail in the two-game, total goals series, to be played at Toronto’s Arena Gardens.

The Globe and Mail’s reasoning was that the Sault preferred a wide-open style which they figured would play into Hamilton’s hands.

The Globe’s crystal-balling looked prophetic in the aftermath of a 3-1 win in Game One. Hamilton played the Sault tough, and held a physical edge in the game. 

The Greyhounds had plenty of chances, but couldn’t beat Hamilton 

netminder Charlie Stewart more than once. Roy Lessard had the lone Sault goal.

Greyhounds’ coach George McNamara was undaunted.

“We expect to win tonight,” McNamara told The Sault Star, on the eve of Game Two, “but we are not over-confident, for we know we are going to meet stiff opposition in the Tigers, who are a good team. In fact, (they’re) an exceptionally good team.”

Many of the Greyhounds’ most fervent supporters huddled in the core of Queen Street as the game played out. It’s reported a “great roar” was heard  downtown when the Sault went up 1-0 on the Tigers.

The game was tight for two periods, but Hamilton appeared to be in the driver’s seat on the Allan Cup road with a two-goal, total-goal cushion on the Hounds after 40 minutes.

What transpired in the third frame amazed onlookers, and left seasoned sports writers stunned. The Greyhounds scored no less than six goals in the final period to win the game 8-3, and take the series by outscoring the Tigers over the two games 9-6.

W.C, McMullen, writing for the Hamilton Spectator, said of the Greyhound barrage: “Tigers went into the final 20 minutes looking like champions…then things happened with uncanny suddenness. Biff! Bang! Bing! Pucks heaved from all angles at the Hamilton citadel. The rushes never stopped. Tigers wavered and finally broke.”

Babe Donnelly and Lessard each scored a pair of goals for the Hounds. Johnny Woodruff, Dutch Cain, Fred Cook and Stan Brown had singles. 

“The boys had the fighting spirit and were not to be denied,” said Hounds coach George McNamara, afterward. 

Meanwhile, on Queen Street, there was mass jubilation. Local merchant Ed Keyes opened up his hardware store and supplied fans with tin horns, basins and other noise-makers. Fire Chief Phillips led the gathering in an impromptu parade through the chilly downtown streets.

Two things were clearly confirmed with the upset of Hamilton: the Sault had searing Greyhound fever and the team could now only be viewed as a serious contender for the Allan Cup. They would now face the Sons of Ireland from Quebec City for the Eastern Canada title, and they would be the favoured.

Led by Babe Donnelly, the Greyhounds skated past the Sons of Ireland 6-2 in the Eastern Final. Donnelly was a star in the two-game set. His poke-checking prowess was notable but so were his spectacular rushes on offense.

Hounds’ goaltender James “Flat” Walsh had also shone in the series. The Greyhounds were healthy and playing well, but the press noticed something else in Ottawa. The Hounds played opportunist, allowing the Sons to attack them and then counter-attacking. It not only helped them win the series, but likely gave the Selkirks of Manitoba, their opponent in the Allan Cup Final, something extra to consider in their scouting reports.

Last leg of the journey

It was back to Toronto and the Arena Gardens for a two-game series versus the Winnipeg Selkirks, Thursday March 27 and Saturday, March 29. 

The Sault may have taken advantage of a travel-weary Manitoba club in Game One. The Greyhounds rolled to a 6-2 win over the Western Canada rep, led by two-goal efforts from Lessard and Donnelly. Woodruff and Bill Phillips had the other tallies.

Toronto writers were critical of the Selkirks’ effort, with the Globe stating the team had faltered where most had expected it to shine; on the attack.

From the Toronto Telegram: “The Son had the edge in all departments last night,” but adding a rather ordinary effort was enough to get the job done.

The Sault Star, in ‘War Is Over’-sized font, ran a front page quote the day after from Hounds coach George McNamara in Saturday’s edition which simply read: “We’ve Got’em.” 

McNamara was right. The Hounds’ opening game romp would prove to be all the cushion they would need. They leaned on team defence, guarding Walsh and their net with much vigor. The Selkirks found the mark once, but it was not  nearly enough to offset their 6-2 loss in the opener. The Hounds lost their final game of the season, 1-0, but no matter, they prevailed on total goals by a margin of 6-3.

The team dream was a mere dream no more. The Sault Greyhounds were Allan Cup Champions.

The entirety of The Sault Star’s front page Monday, March 31 was all about the Greyhounds and their Allan Cup Championship.

The newly-crowned champs hadn’t been home in three weeks. It was no secret they were due to arrive back in the Sault by train at Noon on Monday, March 31. 

When they arrived at the Oakland Ave. CPR station, the staff and players probably couldn’t believe their eyes. An estimated 10,000 fans were waiting to greet them. That’s close to half the city. If true, or even close, that’s incredible.

The City of Sault Ste. Marie paid tribute to the title holders by ordering Allan Cup miniatures for everyone on the team. 

The Windsor Hotel treated the club to dinner.

The ever-changing hockey landscape would continue to grow and develop in the years that followed. And these Sault Greyhounds, now officially Canada’s No. 1 senior hockey team, had just planted their championship flag on it.

Jerry Nichols, 82, whose father Art was the Greyhounds’ backup goalkeeper, still has his late Dad’s miniature Allan Cup. He’s a bit amazed it hadn’t got lost or misplaced after all these years.

“What an incredible experience it must have been, one hundred years ago, to be part of the group of 10,000 fans at the CPR station,” says Nichols. “Wouldn’t it be awesome to be at the bridge plaza to welcome back the 2024 Greyhounds after they win the Memorial Cup?”

When it comes to the Sault and its Greyhounds, there’s just no doubt about that.

This article would not have been possible without a good many Sault Star files readily available at the James L. McIntyre Centennial Library.

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