Founded in 1890, the Winnipeg Victorias Hockey Club dominated the early era of hockey in the province. As perennial champions in the Manitoba and North-Western Hockey League, the “Vics”, as they were popularly known, utilized a distinctly aggressive style of play and the club’s reputation became well-known throughout the nation. The dedication of the Stanley Cup in 1893 as the symbol of world hockey supremacy led to the establishment of a competition to determine the best team in the sport. Although the eastern teams had dominated the coveted trophy, Winnipeg issued a challenge to the reigning champion Montreal Victorias and on February 14, 1896, the two teams met in Montreal in the first truly national championship match.
Over 2,000 spectators watched as Winnipeg gained the early advantage on a goal by team captain Jack Armytage and the Montrealers were shocked when C.J. Campbell gave the visitors a 2-0 lead prior to the end of the first half. In the second half, the Winnipeggers played a more defensive game and faced growing pressure from the Montreal squad. An exceptional effort by goaltender George “Whitey” Merritt, who was the first backstop to wear leg protection in the form of cricket pads, led the Winnipeg team to a stunning 2-0 triumph and brought the trophy westward for the first time.
Winnipeggers, who received the first ever play-by-play accounts via CPR Telegraph, were elated by the victory and celebrations lasted until the team’s return on February 24. The locomotive’s cow catcher was adorned with hockey sticks and brooms, emblematic of the clean sweep in Montreal. Following a parade on Main Street, thousands of citizens greeted the team in a mass display of civic pride.
The team that pioneered Manitoba’s reputation as a hockey power consisted of: Jack Armytage (forward), Donald Bain (forward), C.J. “Tote” Campbell (forward), T.A. “Attie” Howard (forward), Fred Higginbotham (cover-point), Rod Flett (point), and George Merritt (goal). Robert Benson was the substitute.