OTTAWA - Political leaders may come and go, but in Canada's capital, hockey is a perennial favourite. Why? Just check some birth certificates.
Dozens of NHLers were born in the host city for the 2009 IIHF World U20 Championship (Dec. 26-Jan. 5), including old-time legends like Alec Connell and Frank Boucher, 1980's stars like Rick Vaive and Doug Wilson, and current aces like Derek Roy, Marc Savard, and Rod Brind'Amour.
Yet Ottawa's connection to Canada's national sport, at every level, runs even deeper.
Now, Ottawa wasn't the birthplace of hockey. The IIHF has officially awarded that distinction to Montreal, where the first organized game was played at the Victoria Skating Rink on March 3, 1875. However, the man who codified the rules for that game, James Creighton (1850-1930), brought his talents to the national capital in 1882.
While working as the Canadian Senate's law clerk, Creighton set up a team called the Rideau Hall Rebels, which featured two sons of Lord Stanley, Canada's Governor General. In 1892, Lord Stanley purchased the original Stanley Cup trophy, and on March 22, 1894, the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association beat the Ottawa Generals 3-1 in the first true Cup final game.
Only in 1903 would Ottawa celebrate its first Stanley Cup, but that inaugurated a glorious championship run that lasted till 1906. The club, now officially known as the Senators for the first time, earned the nickname of the "Silver Seven," as hockey was still played with seven men per side then.
Defending their title under a challenge system, the tough and skillful Senators boasted such Hockey Hall of Famers as Harry Westwick, Alf Smith, goalie Bouse Hutton, and Frank McGee, a legendary sniper who was blind in one eye. McGee's greatest on-ice feat was racking up 14 goals in a 23-2 win over Dawson City in the 1905 Cup-clincher.
The Senators remained a force to be reckoned with in those early years, winning the Cup in 1909, 1911, 1920, 1921, 1923, and 1927. Front-line scorers on the 1920's squad included Cy Denneny and Frank Nighbor. Clint Benedict not only backstopped the Senators to three Cups, but later made history as the first NHL goalie to wear facial protection after breaking his nose in 1930.
After the 1933-34 season, Ottawa sadly relinquished its NHL team. Tough economic times, the loss of star players, and declining attendance saw the Senators relocate to St. Louis. But passion for the game in the National Capital Region stayed strong.
In 1958, the city celebrated its first Memorial Cup, emblematic of Canadian junior hockey supremacy, thanks to the Ottawa-Hull Canadiens. The roster included future mainstays of the 1960's Montreal Canadiens dynasty, like Ralph Backstrom, Bobby Rousseau, Gilles Tremblay, and J.C. Tremblay. Later, coached by 2003 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Brian Kilrea, the Ottawa 67's of the Ontario Hockey League captured Memorial Cups in 1984 and 1999.
The new era of international hockey also brought thrills to Ottawa. The inaugural 1976 Canada Cup kicked off at the Ottawa Civic Centre, one of this year's U20 venues. The host nation, led by superstars like Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull, hammered Finland 11-2 before 9,500 spectators. Canada went on to win the tournament, ousting Czechoslovakia in the final. (Ottawa would also host two games in the 1981 Canada Cup, and three in the 1996 World Cup.)
The 1990's proved to be a groundbreaking decade. For starters, Ottawa boosted its reputation as a women's hockey stronghold.
Some reports place the first-ever all-female game here in 1889 (although others point to Barrie, Ontario in 1892), and one of the earliest women's hockey photos shows Lady Isobel Stanley, Lord Stanley's daughter, with a puck and stick outside Government House. And a century later, the IIHF organized the first-ever official World Women's Championship in Ottawa in 1990. In this eight-nation showdown, Canada, sporting pink jerseys, beat the USA 5-2 for gold before 10,000 fans at the Civic Centre.
NHL fans, meanwhile, rejoiced over the big league's return to Ottawa in 1992-93. It was a rough start for the new-look Senators, who didn't make the playoffs until 1997. But the leadership of captain Daniel Alfredsson helped turn things around. Despite its recent struggles, the club has frequently emerged as a regular-season powerhouse over the last 10 years, and made it to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals versus Anaheim.
Ex-World Junior stars are big for today's Senators. Dean McCammond (1993) and Chris Phillips (1996-97) both participated in Canada's 1990's five-peat. Scoring leaders Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza medaled multiple times in the early millennium, and D-man Anton Volchenkov captained Russia to gold in 2002. This year, hockey fans look forward to seeing more World Junior history made at Scotiabank Place.
To learn more about Ottawa's hockey history, you can also visit a free special exhibit at the City Hall Art Gallery (Dec. 5-Jan. 18, 9 am-6 pm daily, 110 Laurier Ave. West).