Ottawa Senators, 1925-1931
Canadian Division Title: 1926-1927
Playoff Appearances: 1926-1928, 1930
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1927
Stanley Cup Victory: 1927
The late David Gill is an obscure figure from the NHL’s ancient past. During his brief managerial career he led what had been one of the greatest hockey teams in NHL history through its transitional years from an NHL powerhouse to a playoff contender to a team that was doomed to eventually collapse during the Great Depression.
According to my rating system Gill is tied with Jay Feaster and Jim Devellano in career value (+24) but outranks both men because his Average Seasonal Rating (ASR) is higher than Feaster’s or Devellano’s. (Gill’s ASR is 4.000 compared to Feaster’s 3.000 or Devellano’s 2.182).
David Gill was born in 1888 and came to Ottawa in 1904 looking for work when he was a teenager. Like many of the NHL’s Founding Father, Gill balanced a love of hockey (and sports in general) with his regular day job. He worked for the Ottawa Electric Railway (later to be called the Ottawa Transport Commission) for all of his adult life. He began as a lowly clerk and worked his way up the ladder until he became general manager of the OER in 1940—a post he kept until the day he died.
Gill, again, like so many of the NHL’s Founding Fathers, had diverse athletic skills. He was adept at rowing, canoeing, and playing Canadian Football. He became a part of Ottawa’s amateur hockey scene; serving as secretary of the Ottawa and District Hockey Association. Back in the early years of the NHL teams had no minor league affiliates like they do today. There was no amateur draft. Teams subsidized and nurtured local amateur hockey associations and cultivated contacts with its officers in the hopes of finding and signing any potential prospects that came their way.
Some of the original Ottawa Senators’ star players like King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, and Alec Connell were local heroes recruited from the city’s amateur leagues.
In 1925 the Senators were under new ownership. Frank Ahearn (the founder of the Ottawa Electric Railway) needed someone to manage the club and looked no further than his loyal subordinate, David Gill.
The team was essentially set. The Sens balanced venerable greybeards Cy Denneny and Frank Nighbor alongside youngsters Frank Finnigan, King Clancy, and Alec Connell. The Senators finished first in the league during the regular season but lost the NHL finals to the Montreal Maroons who won the Stanley Cup that year.
The only change Gill made was in replacing head coach Alex Curry with himself. For the next three seasons Gill did double duty as head coach and manager of the team. Actually Gill didn’t do too badly as a head coach. If you applied my rating system to his NHL coaching record his value would be a respectable +21. Even though he coached only three seasons in the NHL his +21 value was good enough to rank him as the seventh best head coach in NHL history at his peak. Gill would rank among the top fifty head coaches in hockey history until the end of the 2001/02 NHL season. (Today David Gill ranks 62nd as a hockey coach in career value according to my rating system).
His debut season as head coach remains one of the greatest debut performances in NHL history. The Senators won the Canadian Division title with a winning percentage of .727 The Sens beat the Montreal Canadians and the Boston Bruins to win the 1927 Stanley Cup. Hockey historian Paul Kitchen writes in his history of the Senators Win, Tie, or Wrangle that “Dave Gill was one of hockey’s early strategists. He was a shrewd observer of the game’s nuances and liked to throw opposing teams off guard through unexpected on-ice player combinations.”
In the 1927 finals Gill stymied the Bruins’ high-powered offense by starting his checking line against Boston’s first line then go with his scoring line once Boston put it substitutes on the ice. The tactics worked and Ottawa won the Stanley Cup. It was David Gill’s peak moment in his hockey career.
The rot began to set in. By 1929 the Senators had their first losing season in eleven years. By 1931 the Senators finished last in the Canadian Division (thus earning Gill ten of his 13 minus points). The team was hemorrhaging money and was selling its great stars to pay the bills. The Great Depression made it hard for fans to attend games.
David Gill stopped coaching in 1929 and yielded the managerial reins in 1931—never to return to NHL hockey ever again.
He continued to work at the Ottawa Electric Railway until he retired in 1956. Gill died in 1959.
(My next column will feature former Rangers, Blues, and Hartford Whalers GM Emile Francis.)