From the Renfrew Millionaires to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Renfrew, Ontario is the birthplace of the NHL …
You can’t miss the huge roadside sign as you drive into Renfrew, a town of 8000, one hour west of Ottawa. So when we stopped for gas we asked about it and were directed to the “building with the clock tower in the centre of town”. There we discovered on the second floor, the NHL Birthplace Museum.
Bill Austin, hockey fan extraordinaire and proud museum volunteer, met us at the entrance. Dressed in a referee’s uniform, the 74 year old told us he once played for the North Bay Trappers, a Junior A team in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. Bill still looks like he could easily move a puck down the ice.
Hockey memorabilia, early photos and newspaper articles tell Renfrew’s NHL story which begins with the mother of all hockey trophies, the Stanley Cup.
Back in the day (1893), the Stanley Cup was a challenge cup. A Canadian hockey team had to challenge the reigning team to win the cup and be declared a league champion. Since there were different leagues, challenge requests could be turned down, which often infuriated team owners.
That’s exactly what happened in November, 1909; millionaire businessman M.J. O’Brien of Renfrew and his son Ambrose wanted their team, the Renfrew Creamery Kings, to compete for the Stanley Cup. The Creamery Kings, who were part of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League, issued a Stanley Cup Challenge to the reigning team, the Montreal Wanderers, who were with the Eastern Canadian Hockey Association. The Wanderers turned them down and because the Creamery Kings were from a different league, their Stanley Cup challenge died on the vine. Not willing to give up easily, Ambrose O’Brien went to the November 1909 annual meeting of the Eastern Canadian Hockey Association and asked to join. But by 1909, hockey had become profitable and league members wanted to maximize profit by limiting membership, so they dismantled their association, restructured it to form the Canadian Hockey Association (CHA) and then wouldn’t allow the Renfrew Creamery Kings (or the Montreal Wanderers) to join. The O’Briens were furious and so was the owner of the Montreal Wanderers, so they teamed up to establish a new league.
Even though hockey types and the press opposed their idea, one month later the National Hockey Association (NHA) was born. M.J. O’Brien financed four of its five teams – the Renfew Creamery Kings, the Haileybury Comets, the Cobalt Silver Kings and a team that would become the most storied in hockey, Les Canadiens of Montreal. The fifth team was the Montreal Wanderers. By the second season the Ottawa Senators had joined the league, which was thriving. Timing, however was not good for the O’Briens. Hockey salaries were soaring and their business interests were in a down turn. Without a Stanley Cup in hand, they decided to sell their franchises.
You’ll have to visit the museum to get the rest of the story, but in short, the NHA eventually morphed into the National Hockey League (NHL). One of the O’Briens’ franchises later became the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ambrose O’Brien was inducted as a ‘builder’ into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1962 and in 1967 he finally got a Stanley Cup when the Montreal Canadiens presented their founder with a replica.
The NHA/NHL Birthplace Museum is located at 249 Raglan Street in Renfrew, Ontario.
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