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
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.
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.
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.
Eva Ault was a star forward for the Ottawa Alerts.