How Hamilton lost its chance to win the Stanley Cup

The 1924-25 season saw the Hamilton Tigers go from last place to first in the NHL — but a player walkout put an end to the city’s championship dreams forever
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on April 8, 2019
three Hamilton hockey players
Hamilton Tigers players went on strike at the end of the 1924/25 season after management refused to pay them an extra $200 for the extended schedule and playoffs.

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The 1924-25 season gave long-suffering Hamilton Tigers fans something to get excited about. Having finished in last place every season since entering the National Hockey League, in 1920, the Tigers had gone from worst to first and looked like strong Stanley Cup contenders. But when the players staged a walkout after the playoffs began, Hamilton lost what turned out to be its final chance to hoist the Cup.

The addition of the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Maroons that season had expanded the schedule from 24 to 30 games. The contracts signed by the 10 Tigers specified that their salary covered the period between December 1 and March 31— they weren’t to be reimbursed for expenses incurred for training camp, which began in November, or to receive any additional pay for the extra games. Players also weren’t paid for their work in the playoffs, as the league distributed post-season profits to team owners and arena operators to cover business costs.

The Tigers’ regular season ended with a loss on March 9, 1925, to the Montreal Canadiens. Business manager and part owner Percy Thompson was upset that the team had played hard during that game instead of saving its energy for the league championship series, in which it would face either the second-place Toronto St. Patricks (who became the Maple Leafs in 1927) or the third-place Canadiens. If the Tigers captured the league title, they’d go on to play the champion of the Western Canadian Hockey League for the Stanley Cup.

During the train ride back from Montreal on March 10, the players discussed their growing grievances against Tigers management. Team captain Wilfred “Shorty” Green then went to Thompson’s seat to deliver their ultimatum: unless each player received $200 for the extended schedule and playoffs, they would refuse to play in the championship series. 

Thompson rejected the offer — and the team went on strike.

NHL president Frank Calder threatened to remove the team from the playoffs and contemplated allowing the fourth-place Ottawa Senators to play in the championship series. He contended that the players were fairly compensated and had nothing to complain about. Thompson and other team officials pleaded poverty, claiming they couldn’t afford to pay the players for the playoffs even if they wanted to, given that the league divided playoff profits equally among all teams. (Stanley Cup trustee and Ottawa Journal publisher P.D. Ross questioned the claim, estimating that the Tigers had made $25,000 in profit that year.) 

Players, team management, and Calder met frequently over the next few days. Local MPP Leeming Carr’s attempt to broker a compromise, which would have seen each player paid $100, failed. “If you can see fit to pay us half our demand,” Green told the Hamilton Spectator, “you surely must realize the justice of our case and can go the rest of the way.” Thompson denied that management had been behind Carr’s offer. The players remained united: centre Mickey Roach and defenceman Jess Spring refused the option to be exempted from the walkout even though they had settled in Hamilton with their families and had already lined up summer jobs in the city. 

Green explained his position to Hamilton Herald columnist P.J. Jones: “The players have played the game on the ice all year. They have given of their best … It isn’t a matter of sportsmanship at all. It’s money, and we feel that we have a perfect right to be paid for work done. Professional hockey is a money-making affair. The promoters are in the game for what they can make out of it and the players wouldn’t be in the game if they didn’t look at matters in the same light. If we weren’t producing the kind of hockey to draw the crowds we wouldn’t be paid accordingly. Why, then, should we be asked to play two games merely for the sake of sweetening the league’s finances?”

But Calder was not swayed. “The Hamilton players tried to pull a very shabby trick on their club and the league,” he told the Toronto Daily Star on March 13. He believed that the Tigers were planning to turn up to the first game of the championship series and then refuse to take the ice until they were paid. As management would not want to have to refund tickets, it would have little choice but to pay up. “But fortunately for us,” Calder noted, “the plot leaked out and now we are in a position to deal with it.” 

On March 14, Calder handed the league championship to the Canadiens after they won their playoff series. The striking players were suspended from the league and fined $200 each. The players refused to pay. Sports columnists believed it would be impossible for Hamilton to ice a team the following season. Rumours grew that a franchise recently granted to New York wanted to buy the suspended players.

Thompson declared later that day that the public would not blame ownership for the strike and justified denying playoff pay by noting that neither the Canadiens nor the St. Pats had asked for extra money. Management threatened legal action against the players for breach of contract. Still, on March 14, the Tigers paid the players the amount remaining under their current contracts. 

In an official statement released on March 16, Calder reiterated that the contracts covered a specific time period, not a specific number of games. Yielding to player demands set a bad precedent and, above all, the investments owners made in their teams and arenas must be protected. “The greatest patience was exercised with them in an effort to persuade them of the error of their ways,” Calder noted, “and some of them admitted they had done wrong. Because of an ill-advised compact, entered into with the ringleaders, however, they choose to remain out rather than fulfill their contracts.”

There was a growing sense that NHL hockey was finished in Hamilton. The league demanded that a facility be built to replace the 4,500-seat Barton Street Arena — the Tigers estimated that doing so would cost $200,000. Other teams offered up to $110,000 for the suspended players. 

On March 17, the players issued a statement signed by Green. He expressed appreciation for the support that fans had shown during the season, which had “brought forth a concerted and great effort from each and every man to give at his best,” and noted that such support had been “sadly lacking from the executive end of our club.” After accusing Thompson of conspiring to fix a game with the Senators, Green declared that the players “do not intend to ever play again for the present management.”

As for the Stanley Cup, the Canadiens were defeated by the Victoria Cougars, marking the last time a non-NHL team won the trophy.

Tigers officials insisted that Hamilton would participate in the 1925/26 season even if the suspended players were sold off. The league prepared a schedule that included the Tigers and new franchises in New York and Pittsburgh. Behind the scenes, negotiations were underway between Hamilton and New York, but Thompson wasn’t satisfied with the offers he received. 

Eventually, the league had had enough. On September 26, 1925, it took over the franchise. The rights to the players were sold to New York for $75,000, and the Tigers were declared “inactive.” The new team contemplated calling itself the New York Hamilton Tigers but quickly dropped all references to the players’ old team, instead calling itself the New York Americans.

Calder agreed to lift the suspensions if the players paid their fines and wrote him apology letters. But if he expected grovelling, he was destined for disappointment. “Most of these young players,” he said,  “want to give me an argument.” To ensure that there would be no further trouble, Calder ordered Americans general manager Tommy Gorman to hold back $300 of each player’s salary as a good-conduct bond.

Although the New York Americans roster was nearly identical to that of the 1924-25 Tigers, the team finished the next season in fifth place — a result blamed on the boozy lifestyle of New York and the bad influence of bootlegging owner “Big Bill” Dwyer’s criminal cronies. Over their 17-year history, the Americans never reached the Stanley Cup finals. 

The demise of the Hamilton Tigers signalled the beginning of the end for small-market Canadian teams in major-league hockey. The last league in Western Canada folded in 1926, freeing up players to join new NHL teams in Chicago, Detroit, and New York. The original Ottawa Senators took a leave of absence in 1931, returned for two more seasons, then moved to St. Louis in 1934.

Hamilton has never returned to the NHL — although that hasn’t been for lack of trying. Built in 1985, Copps Coliseum (now FirstOntario Centre) was designed to draw a team. Businessman Jim Balsillie attempted to move three different franchises to the city between 2006 and 2009 but was blocked by the league, which worried that fans might be drawn away from the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs. It may be a long time before Hamilton ever gets to challenge for the trophy it was denied in 1925.

Sources: The NHL: A Centennial History by D’Arcy Jenish (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2013); Deceptions and Doublecross by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth (Toronto: Dundurn, 2002); Joining the Clubs by J. Andrew Ross (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015); Hamilton’s Hockey Tigers by Sam Wesley with David Wesley (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2005); the March 16, 1925, edition of the Globe; the March 13, 1925, March 14, 1925, March 17, 1925, and March 18, 1925, editions of the Hamilton Herald; the March 16, 1925, and March 17, 1925, editions of the Hamilton Spectator; and the March 13, 1925, edition of the Toronto Daily Star.
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