On a black winter night in February 1903, One-Eyed McGee, Rat Westwick and the rest of the rough, sweat-soaked gang were whooping it up as their leader passed out the silver nuggets. These were not Hole-in-the-Wall desperados splitting the loot from a train robbery. McGee had never stolen anything more valuable than a cross-ice pass, and Westwick was a shifty character only to rival defenses. They were members of the Ottawa Silver Seven, the greatest amateur team in hockey history, celebrating their clinching of the Canadian Amateur Hockey League championship.
The silver nuggets they received were an extraordinary gift from the club's chief executive, Martin Rosenthal, a prominent Ottawa jeweler. While appreciative of his generosity, the team had its sights set on a more valuable piece of silver—the Stanley Cup.
In the era before professional hockey, two Stanley Cup trustees selected the challengers for the national championship. The Silver Seven's record earned them a bid in March 1903, and they proceeded to crush the Montreal Victorias for the title. During the next three years, Ottawa successfully defended the cup eight times.
The sport the Silver Seven dominated was a wild brand of hockey. Long, lofted passes wobbled high over colliding bodies, and shots whistled toward intrepid goalies who for protection wore cricket pads on their legs and fur hats stuffed down the front of their pants. And the players were separated from the rambunctious spectators by sideboards only a foot high. No team played this sort of hockey as well as the versatile Silver Seven, who knew more ways to beat you than the Marquis de Sade. However, Ottawa never lacked for challengers, both worthy and wishful.
In their first cup defense, immediately after the Montreal series, Ottawa overcame the precocious Rat Portage Thistles from Ontario, whose oldest player was 21. The Thistles' considerable physical talents were wasted as their defense performed like unnerved children and their fleet forwards were slowed by natural ice so soft that during one game the puck disappeared through a hole in the surface.
The opposition in January 1904 came from a more mature crew, the Winnipeg Rowing Club, led by Bad Joe Hall, who was dirtier than downtown Newark. The Silver Seven had their own designated hitter in Alf Smith, a former football and lacrosse player who had spent time in court defending himself against the ill will he had engendered by his short temper and long stick. After three bruising games, with enough fisticuffs to fill a fight card, Winnipeg returned home in defeat. In succeeding months two other Stanley Cup pretenders met similar fates.
The following year a long-distance challenge was issued by a quixotic Yukon prospector named Colonel Joe Boyle, who financed a 23-day, 4,000-mile journey to Ottawa by the Dawson City Klondikers. The trek began with players traveling by either dogsled, bicycle, stagecoach or foot to Skagway, Alaska. After enduring-54° temperatures for five days, the team caught a boat south, then continued across Canada by train. Limited to an eight-foot-square area in the smoking car for training, the Klondikers arrived in Ottawa in a pitiful state. But the Silver Seven refused to grant them a delay and breezed to a 9-2 victory in the first game.
The challengers were galled by Ottawa's inhospitality. They swore revenge, making a special point of denigrating McGee's ability. McGee, a dazzling blond center who had been trying to impress his fickle girl friend in the first game, skated out for the next one prepared to give a shooting clinic. Ignoring a wrist injury, he set a Stanley Cup record that still stands by pouring in 14 goals, including eight in as many minutes, to lead the Silver Seven in a 23-2 rout.
A stiffer test was presented two months later by the Kenora (né Rat Portage) Thistles, who had developed the revolutionary technique of sliding long passes down ice rather than lofting them. With McGee out of the Ottawa lineup, the Thistles won the first game, but lost on slushy ice in the second.
The Silver Seven were accused of both flooding and salting the playing surface to thwart Kenora's new passing tactic. The Ottawa players, denying that they had turned the ice into soup, much less seasoned it, blamed the slush on warm air flowing through rink windows opened for the spectators' comfort. McGee laid the dispute to rest in the third game by scoring the winning goal 90 seconds before the final bell.
After the battle, the Silver Seven retired to the bar in the Russell Hotel for a celebration. It was reported that Forward Harry Smith, Alf's ebullient brother, had, on a dare, drop-kicked the Stanley Cup into the Rideau Canal, returning with a hangover the next morning to reclaim the trophy from the dry bed of the waterway. "We only took it home to show it to mother," said the Smiths, who also admitted, "We did throw it around a little."
The 1906 season began with the Silver Seven claiming two more victims in Stanley Cup competition before playing their archrivals, the Montreal Wanderers, in a two-game, total-goals series. A newspaper had described a previous Ottawa-Montreal game as a "saturnalia of butchery," but the opening contest of the Stanley Cup series was more like an execution by firing squad—with the Ottawa goalie wearing the blindfold. When the game ended, the Silver Seven was faced with an eight-goal deficit to overcome.
In the second game, Ottawa unveiled Percy LeSueur, the first goalie to flop on the ice to make saves. The acrobatic LeSueur stymied the Montreal forwards as Ottawa made up five goals of its deficit by the middle of the final period. With time running short, an unlikely hero emerged. Harry Smith, the slowest Ottawa skater, unleashed three quick wrist shots to bring the Silver Seven even.
The ecstatic crowd showered the ice with hats, scarves and rubber boots. Earl Grey, the Governor-General of Canada, halted play to congratulate Smith. But the celebration ended a few minutes later when Lester Patrick of the Wanderers scored on two rink-length dashes to clinch the series.
Although the Ottawa team disbanded after the 1906 season, its exploits became a permanent part of hockey lore. Six of the players who contributed to the three-year win streak have been voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and 44 years after its reign ended, the Silver Seven was selected as the outstanding amateur team of the half century.