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Guest commentary: From Canaries to Red Wings: Spokane’s tie to NHL history

With the NBA and NHL playoffs upon us, local sports fans might wonder which teams should be our favorites. Besides clubs with players and coaches we saw here in the past, there are some teams with past and present connections with Spokane and the Northwest, one that even briefly called the Lilac City home.

Portland is out of the playoff picture in the NBA and many of us have a hard time getting behind the former Seattle SuperSonics team that bolted to Oklahoma City. Vancouver in the NHL has a pretty good team, but it isn’t nearly as good as the club that made it to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals two years ago.

Two former Zags, Ronny Turiaf and Robert Sacre, are playing minor supporting roles for the contending Clippers and Lakers in the NBA playoffs, though former WSU Cougar Klay Thompson is having a great year with the Golden State Warriors and expects to play a lot. Justin Falk and Jared Spurgeon of Minnesota , Jared Cowen of Ottawa and Mike Grabner of the N.Y. Islanders also are expected to be spending much more bench time than ice time. Unlike these former Spokane Chiefs, another ex-Chief has a significant bench role as head coach, the Detroit Red Wings’ Mike Babcock, who previously had the same job for six seasons in Spokane.

But there’s another reason you might want to be a Red Wings fan during the NHL playoffs. The franchise that has won 11 Stanley Cups in Detroit (only the Montreal and Toronto franchises have more) had its origin in the Pacific Northwest and even, believe it or not, played one whole season in Spokane. Few people know that a team based in Spokane played in what was once a major league in contention for the oldest major sports trophy in North America, the Stanley Cup.     

In 1911, Lester and Frank Patrick, using the resources of their father Joe’s lumber business in Nelson, B.C., organized the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, with three B.C. clubs; Portland and Seattle joined within the next few years. As the PCHA gained prestige, its teams became annual contenders for the Stanley Cup, as the Cup’s unwieldy challenge format was replaced by a World Series-type structure, with the established Eastern leagues meeting the West’s PCHA representatives beginning in 1914.  

Before the 1916-17 season began, the Victoria club lost its arena when the Canadian military took it over to aid in the nation’s World War I effort. Looking for a new rink in another city, Lester Patrick decided to move his team to Spokane and, lacking a suitable rink there, he helped fund the construction of one on the west side of Spokane about a mile from where today’s Chiefs and Shock play. The Elm Street Barn was an open-air arena, with artificial ice. They were called the Canaries, after a young fan remarked their uniforms made them look like those birds. Spokane got out of the gate well. It won three of its first four games. By the fifth week of the season, Spokane led Seattle and Vancouver by a half game, after beating Seattle in Spokane by a 5-1 score. But after that, the two teams headed in opposite directions: The Mets went 11-3, from 5-5 to 16-8 and eventual Stanley Cup victory, while the Canaries, 5-4 on Jan. 5, were 3-11 the rest of the way, finishing in last place with an 8-15 record.

Despite the big new arena, attendance was too poor to keep the club in Spokane and it moved back to Canada with the return of its old home ice.

Twenty years would pass before the Pacific Coast League, a minor league, would bring professional hockey back to Spokane for good.

As for the old Elm Street Barn, it eventually became part of the Ugly Duck Warehouse until it was destroyed by fire in 2008.

In 1926, the Victoria team and its league folded and the players were sold to a new NHL franchise in Detroit, which eventually was called the Red Wings, a fitting choice for a franchise named for a yellow bird while in Spokane.

Spokane resident Dale Roloff is a history writer with particular interest in American history, sports and movies.


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