Montreal Canadiens, 1910-1921
NHA Playoff Appearances: 1914, 1916-1917
NHL Playoff Appearances: 1918-1919
Stanley Cup Finals Appearances: 1914, 1916-1917, 1919
Stanley Cup Victory: 1916
It’s fitting that we begin the top-fifty countdown with one of the founding fathers of the NHL. The late George Kennedy was literally present at the creation of the NHL on November 26, 1917 at a hotel room in Montreal.
Before that moment came however, Kennedy played a vital role in establishing the Montreal Canadiens as an integral part of the newly founded league by making the Canadiens themselves a viable team in its own right; managing the team into becoming a powerful Stanley Cup contender; while giving the franchise a public identity that still endures today.
George Kennedy’s value of +15 is based solely on his NHL record as a manager. His years of managing the Habs when they played in the National Hockey Association (NHA) were not factored into his total managerial value. (If his NHA years were calculated then his managerial value would be a solid +37).
Kennedy’s background is fascinating because for one reason his real last name was not Kennedy but Kendall. Like his contemporary Pete Muldoon, Kennedy changed his last name for reasons that may seem odd to hockey fans today but was relatively common for his era.
Kennedy was born George Washington Kendall in Montreal in 1881. His lineage was a mixture of Scots-Irish and Quebecer. He came from a well-to-do family but the young George Kendall did not want to pursue a conventional career like his father did. He was a gifted athlete and an excellent wrestler. In their book Deceptions and Doublecross Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth write that, “In 1901, Kendall began boxing and wrestling competitively, a choice that did not sit well with his father. Legend has it that George senior so disapproved of his son’s involvement in wrestling that he kicked him out of his firm and his house.”
Unrepentant George changed his last name from Kendall to Kennedy and never looked back; founding an athletic club that sponsored wrestlers and boxers.
(This may seem odd to readers today but around the turn of the 20th century pursuing a career as a professional athlete or becoming involved in professional athletics was not seen as the respectable, legitimate business as it is today. Back in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries professional sports was frowned on by respectable society. Pro athletes were looked down upon and viewed suspiciously. Back then most parents did not want their children to grow up and become pro athletes like so many do today).
George Kennedy did not found the Montreal Canadiens. The team had already been established in 1909 but Kennedy bought the team in 1910 through a sly feat of litigious legerdemain. Kennedy thought the Montreal Canadiens hockey team were infringing on his legal rights since he was the owner of the name Le Club Athletique Canadien. He made the NHA an offer it couldn’t refuse. He threatened to sue the NHA unless, instead, they allowed him to buy the team. The NHA accepted and the Canadiens were his.
It took time for Kennedy to make the Canadiens winners but during that period he was molding the team that would represent the hopes and aspirations of French Canada for decades to come. It was during Kennedy’s reign as manager that the team’s colors: red, blue, and white were established. It was also during Kennedy’s reign that the team’s most enduring symbol, the team’s logo was developed. Today the Canadiens uniform and team emblem remain sacred symbols in hockey iconography. Today, millions of Canadians, young and old, wear that uniform with pride.
George Kennedy was a hands-on manager of his team. At turns he could be, in the words of the late hockey journalist Elmer Ferguson, “a jovial and friendly man” and he could be feisty, pugnacious; unafraid to defend his team’s interests with his fists. The late Charles L. Coleman quotes a 1914 letter written by referee Leo Dandurand to NHA President T. Emmett Quinn complaining that, “Mr. Kennedy seized me and threatened me with blows, and at the same time speaking to me in terms unworthy of a dignified man…and accused me of not having fulfilled my functions as a paid umpire….”
Still, cosmetics don’t make a team a winner and Stanley Cup champion. It takes players to do that. When Kennedy bought the team future hockey-hall-of-famers Newsy Lalonde, Didier Pitre, and Jack Laviolette were already on the team but it was during his inaugural year as team owner-manager that he made his greatest discovery. Acting on a tip, Kennedy invited a young goalie from Chicoutimi, Quebec for a tryout. Dazzled by the young goaler’s prowess in the nets, Kennedy signed Georges Vezina to a contract.
Vezina spent the next 15 years manning the nets for the Habs; becoming the first in a series of magnificent goaltenders who manned the pipes for the Montreal Canadiens; lending his name (after his death) to the Vezina Trophy awarded to the best goalie in the NHL.
When the NHA morphed into the NHL in 1917, Kennedy shrewdly bolstered his roster by adding veterans Joe Malone and Joe Hall. Both men were future hall-of-famers who brought great strength to the team. Joe Malone was a gunner who set an NHL record 44 goals in the league’s first season (a record that stood for 27 years) while Joe Hall was a crushing hitter on defense.
The Canadiens had their first shot at the Stanley Cup in 1914 but lost to the Toronto Blueshirts. In 1916 they put everything together when they beat the Portland Rosebuds from the PCHA to win the Cup. It was Kennedy’s sole Stanley Cup victory. The following year they fell to Pete Muldoon’s Seattle Metropolitans from the PCHA. In 1918 (during the first NHL playoffs) the Habs lost to the Toronto Arenas but in 1919 the team earned another trip to the Stanley Cup finals where they would face (again) Pete Muldoon’s Seattle team for the Stanley Cup.
Although remember today as the Stanley Cup final that failed to have a winner because the Spanish Influenza, the series itself was a fabulous display of offensive hockey by both teams. Seattle had a chance to win the series outright yet allowed Montreal to rally back to forge a tie when the disease had stricken not only several of the players on both sides but also Kennedy himself. It speaks volumes about Kennedy’s sense of chivalry that while he was recuperating in the hospital he offered to forfeit the Cup to Seattle since the Habs could not continue. It also speaks volumes about Pete Muldoon’s character that he gallantly refused Kennedy’s offer to forfeit the series.
Sadly for Kennedy and the Habs, the epidemic killed stalwart blue-liner Joe Hall and, ultimately, Kennedy himself. He never fully recovered from the illness and in October 19, 1921, George Kennedy died. Weeks later his widow would sell the team to a troika of Montreal businessmen (one of whom will be featured in this column in the weeks and months to come).
George Kennedy ranks among the top fifty GMs today but in the near future he will be eventually supplanted as other future GMs will start passing him. As for his impact on the game itself Montreal Canadiens historian D’Arcy Jenish writes that “Kennedy had acquired the Canadiens when they were a novelty act and had made the team a source of civic pride…Under Kennedy’s prudent management, the Canadiens had survived a tumultuous decade in which the country had fought a war and many other teams had come and gone. They had remained profitable. They had won three league championships and the Stanley Cup. The Canadiens were a valuable property.”
And they remain a valuable property today as well as a sacred image in the cultural fabric of French Canada.
(My next column will feature former Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough.)