Puck pi­o­neers cap­ti­vated a city

THE LADIES OF THE EASTERN LEAGUE ad­mirably filled a void for Mon­treal’s hockey-starved fans dur­ing the First World War, but the teams and their play­ers were all but for­got­ten af­ter the soldiers re­turned home from the front lines

Montreal Gazette - - Hockey History - BRUCE YAC­CATO

For­get about lacrosse and hockey. Our real na­tional sport, the one in which we are a true world power, is ig­nor­ing great things Cana­di­ans have done in the past. Some­where around Grade 7, Cana­dian his­tory bores us and we never re­cover from the ado­les­cent trauma. Nor is it a brand that Cana­dian com­pa­nies are much in­ter­ested in fund­ing.

The case in point here is that there should be at least a plaque on Ste. Cather­ine St. E., where the Ju­bilee Arena once stood. The rink where about two dozen or so re­mark­able young women made Mon­treal the cen­tre of women’s hockey in De­cem­ber 1915. Re­ally, they all should be in their own wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But in­stead, you couldn’t fill Schwartz’s Deli with the num­ber of peo­ple who know of their amaz­ing ex­ploits. To say they’re un­sung is a sadly huge un­der­state­ment. Vir­tu­ally un­known and al­most lost to time is more like it.

They be­came so pop­u­lar dur­ing the First World War that even Cana­di­ens gen­eral man­ager Ge­orge Kennedy con­ceded — in the Mon­treal Star on Feb. 2, 1916 — that “These lady hockey play­ers seem to be more in de­mand than any­one else in the city just now. … Half my guys couldn’t play in this league.”

One per­cep­tive re­porter cov­er­ing open­ing night of the Eastern Ladies Hockey League (also known as La ligue du hockey des dames de Mon­tréal) was so taken by the crowd and ex­cite­ment that he urged hockey fans to go to see for them­selves. Which they did in the thou­sands.

“Any­one who wants a new sen­sa­tion … had bet­ter go to the Ju­bilee Arena and see the Eastern Lady hockey play­ers. … This is the real thing and if the play­ers keep im­prov­ing, some amuse­ment in­sti­tu­tion in the United States will whisk the league away in a body if their friends don’t look out and make a lit­tle for­tune with it.”

The ori­gins of the league and the women them­selves re­main murky at best. It seems to have been the brain­child of a Mon­treal pro­moter named Len Por­te­ous. His job was to find a so­lu­tion for the empty seats and many dark nights that threat­ened the prof­itabil­ity of Ju­bilee Arena, and hence the rev­enues of its owner, P.J. Do­ran, as the war ef­fort sac­ri­ficed a gen­er­a­tion of young men to the trenches of Europe.

The co­pi­ous num­ber of am­a­teur leagues they played in and the tick­ets that would have been bought were gone. The early naïve op­ti­mism that the War to End All Wars would be glo­ri­ous and brief was also gone. And the ap­palling ca­su­al­ties at the Bat­tle of Ypres in April 1915 left the coun­try stunned and som­bre.

To add to the murky his­tory of Eastern Ladies Hockey League, Por­te­ous and Do­ran weren’t the types who wrote mem­oirs or do­nated their pa­pers to a univer­sity. Ju­bilee Arena was lo­cated in the heav­ily in­dus­trial and blue col­lar Hochelaga-Maison­neuve neigh­bour­hood, known at the time as the “Pitts­burgh of Canada,” ac­cord­ing to Her­itage Mon­treal.

There was lit­tle ad­vance pub­lic­ity for the women’s league. There were no protests de­mand­ing equal­ity for women’s hockey, no one cov­ered the search for, and recruitment of, play­ers, and train­ing camps — if there were any — went un­cov­ered as well. A week be­fore play be­gan, a few sto­ries ap­peared in English- and French-lan­guage news­pa­pers.

There were four teams at the start. The Maison­neuve Stan­leys, North End Stan­leys, the West­erns and the Tele­graph, the lat­ter be­ing the only clue that many of the young women were found in a Bell Tele­phone in­tra­mu­ral league.

Por­te­ous, the Easter n Ladies Hockey League or­ga­nizer, also man­aged the West­erns and kept most of the best play­ers for him­self.

Most were an­glo­phone or al­lo­phone. Of the 28 play­ers listed in the first game summaries, only six have dis­tinctly French sur­names.

The rest were a hodge­podge: Doloro, Brown, Black, Har­ri­gan, Richard­son, Mur­phy, Pater­son, Mor­gan, who were only re­ferred to as “Miss.”

Far and away the best player was Agnès Vau­tier, a for­mi­da­ble look­ing woman who, of course, played for Por­te­ous’s West­erns team.

A Mon­treal Star re­porter ob­served “Miss Vau­tier’s shot re­minds spec­ta­tors of the shoot­ing of Di­dier Pitre,” a Cana­di­ens star at the time and fu­ture Hockey Hall of Famer.

What­ever the in­spi­ra­tion or busi­ness plan, the Eastern Ladies Hockey League was a bril­liant suc­cess from the start. Ju­bilee Arena, with 3,200 seats, was packed. The prod­uct was en­ter­tain­ing and ap­par­ently cred­i­ble.

“The clever stick­han­dling and com­bi­na­tion play would al­most make one think we were watch­ing men play,” the Mon­treal Star wrote on Dec. 28, 1915.

The play­ers did all this en­cum­bered in hoop skirts or bloomers. And they went from zero no­to­ri­ety to no­ticed dur­ing the span of six weeks.

On Jan. 18, 1916, a Mon­treal Star story be­gan: “With a racket that would have made any of the big New York Ho­tels on Broad­way on a New Year’s morn green with envy, and amidst a shriek­ing of scores of ex­cited ladies, a ba­bel of voices, a honk­ing of au­to­mo­bile horns sur­rep­ti­tiously smug­gled in, a rau­cous ding-dong­ing of cow­bells, and while a soldier nearly came to blows with a Western sup­porter re­gard­ing the rel­a­tive mer­its of the Maison­neuve Stan­leys and the for­mer team, the West­erns once again up­held their supremacy at ladies hockey at the Ju­bilee Arena last night.”

By Feb. 10, a Corn­wall, Ont., news­pa­per head­line breath­lessly pro­claimed “WOMEN’S HOCKEY ALL THE RAGE. Canada’s Lead­ing Winter Sport.”

They weren’t kid­ding. The league added two ex­pan­sion teams in mid-sea­son, the Min­tos and Cham­pêtres.

And in the wake of the suc­cess in Mon­treal, teams quickly sprung up in Ot­tawa — where the Alerts were led by an­other star for­ward, Eva Ault — and in Pitts­burgh and Bos­ton, while promoters in Cleve­land wanted ex­hi­bi­tion games of the new fad.

It should be noted that there were women’s teams all over Canada by 1915. But few were play­ing the same full-con­tact rules of the Na­tional Hockey As­so­ci­a­tion (fore­run­ner of the Na­tional Hockey League). And only the Mon­treal ladies had that Holy Grail of women’s hockey that has never been re­cap­tured: com­mer­cial suc­cess. Their renown spread across the con­ti­nent.

Even if the story stopped here, they would still have made sports his­tory and de­serve to be bet­ter re­mem­bered, if not hon­oured for their amaz­ing ac­com­plish­ments.

But there is much more and it be­gins in Corn­wall, where the lo­cal liquor-store mag­nate had qui­etly put to­gether what is ar­guably the great­est fe­male hockey team ever, led by a tem­pes­tu­ous and con­tro­ver­sial teenage su­per­star who might be the great­est fe­male player of all time.

The best of the big-city teams, even all-star teams, fell to the “in­vin­ci­ble” Corn­wall Vic­to­rias. They be­came an ob­ses­sion for Por­te­ous, the league ge­nius. Moby Dick to his Cap­tain Ahab.

Al­ber­tine Lapen­sée was a phenom without ques­tion who could pretty much score at will. Only 16 years old, the youngest of thirteen chil­dren, she was the Gret­zky, Orr and Crosby of her time. A half-dozen goals in a game was rou­tine for her. She maxed out at 18.

The English-lan­guage news­pa­pers nick­named her Mir­a­cle Maid. Le Devoir called her “L’étoile des étoiles.” Lapen­sée led the Vics to an un­de­feated cam­paign dur­ing the 1917-18 sea­son and thou­sands of fans flocked to her ev­ery ap­pear­ance.

Try ashe did, Por­te­ous never found a way to stop Lapen­sée. More than once he an­nounced he’d found an equal who would bring her down to earth. But the men were em­bar­rass­ingly re­vealed.

Lapen­sée was so good, other teams were con­vinced she was a man, de­spite her small stature. But tes­ti­mo­ni­als from her team, re­porters and her fa­ther con­firmed her fem­i­nin­ity.

“Miss Lapen­sée’s shots were so hard and she was such a su­pe­rior player the Western­ers thought she re­ally was a boy in girls’ cloth­ing,” the Mon­treal Star said on Feb. 7, 1916.

She so ter­ror­ized op­pos­ing goal­tenders that Miss Hard­man of the West­erns prac­tised with a base­ball catcher’s mask on.

“LADY I N THE IRON MASK FOR NEXT CORN­WALL GAME,” a head­line blared 43 years be­fore Cana­di­ens great Jac­ques Plante would make his­tory by be­ing the first man to wear a mask in a game.

By late winter 1916, the women had at­tracted the at­ten­tion of U.S. en­trepreneurs. They bid for the women. Five thou­sand dol­lars, then ten thou­sand. The equiv­a­lent of nearly $250,000 in today’s money. They planned an “Ara­bian Nights” tour from New York to Los An­ge­les.

In­stead the ever-re­source­ful, Por­te­ous put his bevy of hockey stars into a sum­mer bowl­ing league and such was their celebrity, even that sold out. But it wouldn’t es­tab­lish women’s hockey as a main­stay of North Amer­i­can sports. The women’s leagues wound down as the war came to an end.

As the men re­turned from the front and the NHA trans­formed into the NHL, the Eastern Ladies Hockey League grad­u­ally dis­ap­peared f rom the sports pages they once dom­i­nated.

The last men­tion of Por­te­ous came in 1920, when he was ar­rested for try­ing to steal a type­writer f rom a pawn­shop.

As for Lapen­sée, she must have had an idea of how much money the women were mak­ing for the promoters and arena own­ers be­cause she de­manded to be paid. When they re­fused, she quit at the ripe old age of 18.

But the le­gend of her al­legedly am­bigu­ous sex­u­al­ity lin­gered on. The of­fi­cial his­tory of the city of Corn­wall as­serts that she went to New York City for a sex-change op­er­a­tion, re­turn­ing to Corn­wall to live “as a man” named Al­bert Smythe. There is not a shred of ev­i­dence to sup­port that as­ser­tion.

One re­port sug­gested she died in the Span­ish Flu epi­demic of 1918. More cred­i­ble re­search shows she mar­ried and lived out her days as a house­wife in Con­necti­cut.

The star-stud­ded Hol­ly­wood movie A League of Their Own de­picted a women’s base­ball league that achieved some suc­cess dur­ing the Se­cond World War. The Cana­dian hockey ver­sion has never been cel­e­brated and is barely re­mem­bered.

But what they did far out­shines their U.S. coun­ter­parts. The base­ball league thrived in small-town midAmer­ica. The Rock­ford Peaches and Kenosha Comets thrived in re­mote towns a hun­dred miles from the near­est pro team.

In con­trast, the Eastern Ladies Hockey League com­peted with male pro­fes­sion­als for fans and me­dia at­ten­tion in the in­dus­trial and com­mer­cial cap­i­tal of Canada. And, for a short time, pre­vailed.

If any­one should be classed in a league of their own, surely it should be the trail-blaz­ing young women of Mon­treal.

COUR­TESY OF LE CLUB DE HOCKEY CANA­DI­ENS

The Eastern Ladies Hockey League be­gan play in 1915 at Ju­bilee Arena and was a suc­cess from the start, reg­u­larly fill­ing the 3,200-seat arena on Ste. Cather­ine St. E.

COUR­TESY OF THE CORN­WALL SPORTS HALL OF FAME

The “in­vin­ci­ble” Corn­wall Vic­to­rias, wear­ing their All Star jer­seys for a U.S. barn­storm­ing tour, were led by Al­ber­tine (Mir­a­cle Maid) Lapen­sée, front row cen­tre, who guided the Vics to an un­de­feated 1917-18 sea­son.

COUR­TESY OF LI­BRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

Eva Ault was a star for­ward for the Ot­tawa Alerts.

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