In the early years of the Stanley Cup, its championships were decided on a challenge basis. The champion of the league in which the previous season's champion played would become the current season's Stanley Cup champion. At the end of the season, the champions of other league could issue challenges to the Stanley Cup champion. The Stanley Cup trustees would then arrange for the challenge series, sometimes a single game, sometimes a two-game total-goals series, and sometimes a best-of-three. This system persisted until 1914, when the Stanley Cup series became an annual series between the eastern and western professional champs.
In the challenge years, the perennial favorites were the champions of the main eastern league, known originally as the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC), then the Canadian Amateur Hockey League (CAHL), and then the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association (ECAHA). Indeed, most often the champions of these leagues would defend their title against the challengers. These leagues were made up of several teams based in Montreal, joined by Ottawa and Quebec City.
The most frequent challengers for the Cup came from the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA), a league dominated by teams in Toronto and Kingston, and the Manitoba leagues, chronologically the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association (MNWHA), Western Canada Hockey Association (WCHA), and finally, the Manitoba Hockey League (MHL). The OHA champions challenged for the Cup five times between 1894 and 1907, while the Manitoba champions challenged almost annually, playing Cup challenges in 10 seasons during those years. Although both the OHA champs and the Winnipegers made frequent appearances in Stanley Cup challenges, there is one very important difference between the two. OHA representatives were zero-for-five on their challenges, being outscored 66-28 in eight games, all losses. On the other hand, the Winnipeg Victorias won the Stanley Cup in 1896 (in their first attempt) and in 1901. They also came very close to winning on other occasions, being outscored by a single goal in both 1897 and 1900.
I thought this disparity was interesting in the context of comparing the development of senior-level hockey in Winnipeg and Toronto. Neither of these cities had organized teams when the AHAC came into being in 1887. Toronto's first organized senior matches were in 1890, when the Victorias, St.George's, and Granites clubs played some exhibition matches. These clubs would join two new Toronto teams (Osgoode Hall and the New Forts, a military side) in the senior section of the newly-formed OHA the following season. This same season, 1891, is when we have the first organized games in Winnipeg being played between the Victorias and Winnipeg HC. The following season, they would form the MNWHA, also joined by a military team known as the Rifles.
So when the Winnipeg Victorias challenged for and won the Stanley Cup over the powerhouse Montreal Victorias in 1896, they had been playing organized hockey for only six years. It took them only that long to become one of the very best hockey teams in the country. Meanwhile, a Toronto team didn't even challenge for the Cup until 1902; the first two OHA challenges were by the Queen's University club, from Kingston. Indeed, in the first nine seasons of OHA senior play, a Toronto team won the championship only twice. Toronto had a one-year headstart on Winnipeg, and had five times the population of the western city in 1901. Here is some approximate population data for a variety of major Canadian cities in the early years of hockey:
Approximate populations during the early years
City 1891 1901 1911 1921
Montreal 308,000 393,000 594,000 774,000
Toronto 181,000 208,000 376,000 521,000
Quebec City 63,000 68,000 78,000 95,000
Ottawa 44,000 101,000 123,000 152,000
Winnipeg 25,000 42,000 136,000 179,000
Vancouver 13,000 26,000 100,000 117,000
One would think that the larger city would have an advantage in developing hockey players and teams, and yet from this time period, names such as Dan Bain, Whitey Merritt, and the Flett brothers of the Winnipeg Vics are pretty well known, while no one's ever heard of John Shanklin, Joseph Walker, or James Smellie, some early OHA stars.
Now, perhaps it's somewhat unfair to these OHA players that we don't know much of them. Smellie and Walker both scored at least 31 goals in 1893, when the OHA played an ambitious (for the time) 12-game schedule with seven senior teams in Toronto. Shanklin scored at least 41 goals that season, by my count. And count them I did, since no one else seems to have done it before. We probably should know more about these players than we do. Specific information from the early OHA is difficult to come by; the league usually only exists as a footnote in history. But still, it's clear that the development of hockey in Winnipeg was substantially faster than in Toronto, despite the latter city's advantage in numbers.
Part of the disparity is surely due to social factors. There was an extremely strong sporting ethic in Winnipeg at that time. Newspapers were filled with reports of skating, snowshoeing and curling results, and the "manliness" of sport (as they called it at the time) was held in high regard in this cold frontier, the last bastion of civilization going west until the distant shores of British Columbia. Canada's prairie provinces at this time were not yet organized and fully populated; until 1905, Alberta and Saskatchewan did not exist as such, both still being part of the Northwest Territories.
But I think there was more than attitude and social mores at play. Notice that I referred to Winnipeg as the "cold" frontier. In the winter months, Winnipeg is bitterly cold. Indeed, according to Environment Canada, it is the coldest city (with a population in excess of 600,000) in the entire world. Due to its humid continental climate, Winnipeg sees very large swings in its temperature through the year: it's quite warm in summer, and extremely cold in winter. The reasons for this are quite fascinating, but it's not really on-topic. Here is a good place to start looking, if you're interested.
Why does this matter? It's quite simple: at the time, ice hockey in Canada was completely dependent on Mother Nature for its playing surfaces. There were no artificial ice rinks at all in Canada until 1911, when the Patrick brothers built several to allow their British Columbia-based Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) to begin play. The first such rink appeared in the east in Toronto in 1912, and they were still rare by 1920.
Clearly, players from areas with colder winters had the advantage of more time on the ice each winter. Toronto is one of the southernmost cities in Canada, and its proximity to Lake Ontario serves to moderate its climate. Have a gander at some temperature numbers, adapted from Environment Canada historical data. This table shows the average temperature in the main hockey months, from 1971 to the present, for a selection of locales important to early Canadian hockey, ranked from coldest to warmest. These are, of course, in Celsius. Also included is approximate latitude and longitude, in case you're not familiar with the location of some of these cities.
Varying climates of Canadian cities
City Province Lat (N) Long (W) Dec Jan Feb Mar
Winnipeg Manitoba 49 97 -14 -18 -13 -6
Kenora Ontario 49 94 -14 -17 -13 -6
Saskatoon Saskatchewan 52 106 -14 -16 -12 -5
Regina Saskatchewan 50 104 -13 -16 -12 -5
Thunder Bay Ontario 48 89 -11 -15 -12 -5
Quebec City Quebec 46 71 -9 -12 -11 -4
Edmonton Alberta 53 113 -9 -12 -8 -2
Sault Ste Marie Ontario 46 84 -6 -10 -9 -4
Montreal Quebec 45 73 -7 -10 -9 -2
Ottawa Ontario 45 75 -7 -10 -9 -2
Calgary Alberta 51 114 -7 -9 -6 -2
Moncton New Brunswick 46 64 -5 -8 -7 -2
Kingston Ontario 44 76 -4 -8 -7 -2
Rossland British Columbia 49 117 -5 -6 -3 1
Halifax Nova Scotia 44 63 -1 -4 -4 0
Toronto Ontario 43 79 -1 -4 -3 1
Vancouver British Columbia 49 123 4 4 5 6
Brrr. I live in Fredericton, New Brunswick, which is a degree or two colder than nearby Moncton, and let me tell you it's plenty cold here in the winter. And Winnipeg is eight degrees colder on average. No wonder there was so much sport going on in Canada's Gateway to the West; they had to keep warm somehow. For you Farenheities, -18 Celsius translates to zero of your strange degrees.
It seems to me that the great disparity in winter temperature between Winnipeg and Toronto (up to 14 degrees Celsius) provided a large advantage to players in the former city in the early days of hockey. Toronto teams were restricted by frequently soft ice, while in Manitoba, such a problem was almost unheard of. There was solid ice all winter, allowing the players much more time to develop their game.
The number two locale on the list is interesting. Kenora (formerly Rat Portage) remains the smallest community to have ever won the Stanley Cup, in 1907. The champion Thistles relied on a core of players who grew up playing the game together, largely on the Lake of the Woods, one presumes. They too benefitted from the consistent cold temperatures; Kenora is only marginally warmer than Winnipeg in the winter.
Further analysis of the early development of hockey using demographic and environmental data can be done, and surely will be done, if anyone out there is actually interested.