The Stanley Cup is hockey’s ultimate prize, hoisted above the sweaty heads of hulking hockey stars at season’s end.
Several American teams have won the Stanley Cup throughout its history, forever etching their names on the trophy. But it was a team from Portland, that in 1916, became the first American club to engrave its name on the Stanley Cup — and they didn’t even win it. (Seattle became the first American team to do that, winning in 1917.)
Portland won the four-team Pacific Coast Hockey Association in the 1915-16 season. That set them up to challenge the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup. The championship series went the distance — a full five games before Portland lost on a late goal by the Canadiens’ Goldie Prodgers. It marked the start of Montreal’s hockey dynasty. (Jay Horton retold the story of the harrowing series for the Willamette Week in 2016.)
Just how did Portland seize this prime real estate on the Stanley Cup? The answer lies in the trophy’s early years.
The Stanley Cup was relatively young then, so the strict engraving rules in place today weren’t yet in existence. Professional hockey leagues were mostly small regional outfits based in Canada. In a few cases, champions of these leagues claimed their titles by engraving their names on the Stanley Cup before actually playing for the cup itself.
Portland and Seattle were two of the first American cities to join those Canadian pro leagues, laying the foundation for the current structure of professional hockey in North America. And so when Portland won its league in the 1915-16 season, the Rosebuds cut their name into the famed hunk of metal.
Eric Zweig, a hockey historian, author and editor, spoke to OPB’s Bradley W. Parks about the Rosebuds and their place in hockey history.
Q&A with Eric Zweig
Bradley W. Parks: Tell me a little bit about the Portland Rosebuds.
Eric Zweig: The Portland Rosebuds, who also were known as the Uncle Sams — some of us in the hockey historian field argue about what they should or shouldn’t be called (I like Rosebuds) — they were the first American team in a Canadian hockey league. They played in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, which had been born by Frank and Lester Patrick, who had been big stars in the east. Their family moved out west and they set up the first artificial ice rinks in Vancouver and Victoria, and built a league around that. In 1914 they moved their franchise in New Westminster, British Columbia — which is basically a suburb of Vancouver — down to Portland and they became the first American franchise to play in a Canadian-based league.
Parks: You mentioned the Rosebuds were called the Uncle Sams. What was the sentiment toward an American team — especially one that saw some success — in a Canadian league?
Zweig: Well, it’s funny because Canadians now seem so defensive about, “Americans are taking over our game!” I think at the time it wasn’t a big issue to the fans. The leagues in the eastern part of North America hadn’t expanded into the United States yet, but there were American games, leagues and teams — they just weren’t playing in the Canadian leagues. It never seems to be a big issue in anything I’ve ever read.
It’s funny, I’ve always heard that Portland was called the Rosebuds because Portland is the Rose City. It wasn’t until very recently I was made aware of all this “Uncle Sam” business.
It seems to me that Pete Muldoon, who ran the team, maybe thought “Rosebuds” was a sissy name for a tough sport and liked the idea of calling the team the Uncle Sams. And certainly you can find newspaper stories where they’re referred to as that, but you can also find them being referred to as the Rosebuds and the Uncle Sams practically in the same sentence.
I don’t know that it’s any different than people calling the Cleveland Indians “the Tribe” or the Montreal Canadiens “the Habs” or the Pittsburgh Pirates “the Bucs.” I think “Uncle Sams” was more of a nickname than an official nickname, but I don’t honest to God know that for a fact.
Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, Lord Stanley of Preston, served as the governor general of Canada in the late 1800s. He donated the Stanley Cup — originally just a bowl that looks like what now sits atop the towering trophy — as a prize for Canada’s top amateur hockey teams.
Professional hockey adopted the cup as its championship prize years later.
At one point, teams challenged for the cup much like boxers or mixed martial artists challenge for belts. The National Hockey Association and PCHA later agreed to a series between each league’s champion with the Stanley Cup as the prize for the winner.
But whether one of the American teams could play for the cup became an object of debate.
Zweig: The Stanley Cup had been donated as a Canadian championship trophy. And for several years a handful of American teams in various leagues had attempted to challenge for it. Canadian teams had occasionally said, “We’d like to play our series — even if it was between two Canadian teams — in the States.” Because cities like Boston and New York had artificial rinks before they had them in the eastern part of Canada. And it was like, “We can get these challenges in later in the year if we can take the series down to New York or Boston.” And the trustees that oversaw the Stanley Cup not only didn’t allow the Canadian teams to play American teams, they wouldn’t even allow them to play for the cup in an American city. So suddenly when the PCHA expands into the United States, this is going to be a bit of an issue. What if an American team wins this Canadian league? Are they entitled to play for the cup? And the trustees who had all along said, “No, no, no. It’s a Canadian championship. It’s a Canadian championship,” suddenly in the fall of 1915 announced, “Oh no, it’s always been the world championship trophy. If one of the American teams (Portland or Seattle) wins the PCHA, they will be entitled to play for the cup.”
I think that the PCHA and the NHA were always fighting about something. … So I think, in a sense, Portland putting their name on the trophy was a bit of a, “Screw you, NHA, we won the cup as PCHA champions and we’re putting our name on the trophy.” There’s nothing that concrete says that anywhere but that’s sort of my take with how they ended up with their name on the trophy.
Parks: The Portland-Montreal series was a barnburner.
Zweig: The whole series is played in Montreal because it takes five or six days to get across the continent on a train, so part of the agreement was to play it in the east one year and play it in the west the next year. Even though the trustees were being sort of Canadian-first about this, I think it was more just a practical issue.
The visiting team almost never won … but it’s not as plucky-underdog as you’d think because the leagues are so small. The players are all Canadian players — though there is one American on Portland. Most of them have played in the east. These guys all sort of knew each other and had played against each other and with each other. It’s all fairly evenly matched.
The series itself in 1916, it’s the first time the Montreal Canadiens, in their storied history, win the Stanley Cup. And it was quite a series. It was a best of five down to the fifth game and it went down to late in the fifth game before Montreal won.
Parks: That would make for great TV ratings. Because the Rosebuds lost, some people think they stole a spot on the trophy, but other losing teams did this too, correct?
Zweig: Ottawa had done it just the year before. Seattle had won the cup in 1917. And when Vancouver wins the PCHA title in 1918, they engrave their name again. The funny thing about that one is it actually fills the space that was currently available then. And years would go by before anybody engraved their name on it again. The last name to be on it was a sort of controversial do-they-really-deserve-to-be-there sort of thing.
Parks: What can you tell me about the cup now? Because it’s not the original cup that they’re still passing out.
Zweig: No. When the cup was first donated it was basically the size of the bowl that sits on top of the trophy now. That bowl was mounted on an ebony base that had a silver ring around it, which was specifically placed there so that the winning team could engrave their name and the year they won on the cup. That filled up in about 10 years. Then people started engraving their information right onto the cup itself.
By 1909 there was no space left at all and another ring was added. A few years later, that ring was full and people started filling in the spaces around the base with more silver. Bigger rings were added and more rings were added. You’ve probably seen some of those pictures where it gets to be this tall, skinny, funny-looking trophy with the cup still sitting on the top. It’s sometimes called the “Barber Pole” or the “Stovepipe” or the “Elephant’s Leg” — it’s this big skinny trophy. It was redesigned and redesigned again.
All the original pieces have been replaced over the years. They’re in the old bank vault, which is the building the trophies are displayed in Toronto at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The one that they hand out now, the Hall of Fame and the NHL refer to it as the “Presentation Trophy.” People always say, “Is it the real cup?” It is and it isn’t. It is the cup that is handed out every year, but it’s not the original bits and pieces which have all been replaced, so it’s a little bit confusing.
Parks: On the cup that will be hoisted by the Nashville Predators or the Pittsburg Penguins this year, is Portland’s name still on that trophy?
Zweig: Yes, Portland’s name is on that cup. Most everything that was replaced over the years has been recreated. If you’re looking at the cup now, the wide barrel part is kind of like the body of the cup. The bowl at the top, which represents the original bowl, is sort of like the head. And then there’s like that three-level, wedding-cake, tiered neck part — Portland’s name is on one of those parts. It is still there on the cup.
Parks: Portland and Seattle had two of the original American professional hockey teams. Now neither city has an NHL team. There have been rumors that maybe NHL hockey comes back the Northwest with the Phoenix Coyotes on the way out. What do you think that would mean if the NHL returned here?
Zweig: Personally, I think it would be great. I imagine just based on population that Seattle is probably higher in the pecking order. Both have successful junior franchises in the Western Hockey League. I think it would be neat. What is your sense? Do people in Portland realize they have this tradition or is that going to shock nine-tenths of the population to know they had a team to play for the Stanley Cup a hundred years ago?
Parks: I think a lot of people know it, whether it’s always present in their mind is another question. Portland has an affinity for soccer and I feel like hockey sort of falls in a similar category. People love the Winterhawks. Portland loves its teams regardless of whether they’re always competitive, they just have a great affinity for their team and their city. I feel like NHL hockey would do quite well in Portland.
Zweig: Ottawa didn’t sell out all the games during this playoff round and people were like, “Oh my god, how can a Canadian city not support their team to that level?” And it was kind of a big, handwringing controversy. But Ottawa has very little industry. Ottawa is a government town. The government can’t buy season tickets in the way that Nike could buy a zillion season tickets or a corporate box and that sort of thing. I think it would be great. The Pacific Northwest seems like a more sensible place to have teams than Nashville, but Nashville’s become a big hit. Phoenix always seemed like an odd place, but it’s funny though that Phoenix and Oklahoma and places like that have a longer history of minor league hockey than people generally think they do. But I think it would be great, I think it would be cool. I have no sense enough to know if Seattle or Portland would actually support it, but to me, as a hockey historian who loves this era, it’d be just cool to say they’re going back home, more or less. They should be there.
Parks: What is it about this era that fascinates you?
Zweig: It’s a hard thing to put into words. To me it’s sort of where everything begins. The earlier years when hockey is still amateur and sort of a gentleman’s pastime, it’s a little too dusty for me. But by the early 1900s, they’re paying people, they’re starting to have the same issues we have now where people are worrying about whether salaries are getting out of hand even though they’re unbelievably tiny. People are being lured from city to city. The teams are small, the personalities are interesting. There’s just so many Wild West stories about what was going on. I’ll always tell people this is the best time in hockey. The hockey on the ice I’m sure looked ragged and if we watched it now, we’d think it looked slow and ridiculous. But it’s the stories that are the best, like the story with Portland. And the fact that we can’t really know. There’s no one alive anymore that can tell you, “Oh yeah, we engraved the name on the cup because ….” You have to try and piece it together. I get a kick out of that.
The Portland Rosebuds began playing in Portland in 1914, but only lasted a few short years. After playing for the Stanley Cup in 1916, the Rosebuds played two more seasons before relocating to Victoria, B.C. (Another Portland Rosebuds team returned for the 1925-26 season.)
Montreal’s victory over the Rosebuds sealed the Canadiens’ first of 24 Stanley Cup titles — the most in hockey history.