The Original Ottawa Senators Were Winners, But Their Uniforms Were Not
12:57 PM EDT on May 4, 2021
This week, Defector has chosen to curate a collection of writing inspired by two entities that have had an indelible effect on North America: the upper house of the United States Congress and Eugene Melnyk’s pro hockey team. This is Senators Week.
The history of the Ottawa Senators began with a trip to Montreal. A group of Ottawans saw hockey played at the 1893 Montreal Winter Carnival and had one thought: “I think we could beat those fellows.”
When they returned to Ontario, they formed the Ottawa Hockey Club. “Prior to that time hockey had been played by Ottawans on the Rideau canal,” the Ottawa Citizen wrote in 1935. “The players used sticks cut out of the trunks of small trees and the game resembled shinny more than hockey proper.” The team imported a dozen real hockey sticks from Quebec, and that's how hockey in the province began.
While the team was pretty good, the competition was still in its infancy. In 1898, according to Brian McFarlane’s History of Hockey (yes, he put his name in the title of the book; I am just going to assume he is Canada’s Dave Barry), Ottawa goalie Fred Chittick refused to take part in a playoff game because he hadn’t gotten enough free tickets. A year later, he showed up drunk to officiate a game between two other teams. In 1903, as Ottawa was playing the Rat Portage Westerners, a puck fell through the ice and was never seen again.
Still, Ottawa became a powerhouse in hockey after it picked up the “Senators” nickname in 1901. Ottawa’s famed “Silver Seven” teams (there were just seven players on the roster in those days) held the Stanley Cup between 1903 and 1906; a second dynasty won the Cup in 1920, 1921, 1923, and 1927. The franchise said it was struggling financially, though, and it lost $50,000 in its last Stanley Cup-winning year.
The team suspended operations in 1931, returned for a bit, and moved to St. Louis before folding in 1935. In the 1980s, Ottawa developer Bruce Firestone began a “Bring Back the Senators” campaign that eventually led to a new expansion franchise taking the old name. That team hasn’t won any Stanley Cups, but hey, none of its players has ever refused to play because they didn’t get enough complimentary seats at the game.
The original Ottawa Senators were a success on the ice for large swaths of their history, but what about their success sartorially? Hockey uniforms are, in general, quite good. The players basically wear fancy streetwear sweaters on the ice now. But I’ve gone through some old photos, and the old Ottawa Senators occasionally looked like shit.
This photo, best I can tell, is the first image ever made of the Ottawa Hockey Club. It ran in the Ottawa Citizen in 1935 under the headline “Ottawa’s First Hockey Team.” It’s a little hard to see, but these do appear to be striped jerseys—I am assuming they are red and black, as they began wearing those colors in 1884. Obviously, photography was still primitive, but jeez, these stripes are not well-defined enough. If you’re wearing something for a photograph in the 1880s, please wear something that looks good in black and white.
This photo from 1885 was published in Brian McFarlane’s History of Hockey. I do like the button-front shirts here. Shout out to the dude in the front row, second from left, who's so relaxed that he's unbuttoned his two top buttons and is not paying attention to the camera. I like hockey sweaters, but now I want to see them play in some flannel button-front tops.
Here’s the Ottawa Hockey Club in 1895. I don’t hate it. They have some ornamentation on their jerseys, finally, even if the triskelion logo is a bit sloppy. Per a Fandom website, it was based off Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club’s logo. Say what you will about modern branding, but at least it tries.
Photography got better, as did the Senators’ jerseys. The Stanley Cup was so tiny that it could sit on a little stool! Anyway, these look pretty good in black and white. They are called the “barber pole jerseys,” per Chris Creamer’s Fabric of the Game. They do kind of look like a barber pole! I like them less now.
This is a colorized team photo of the 1905 Ottawa Senators hockey club. Getty Images identifies it as "hand-colored," and the colors match the descriptions of that era's Ottawa jerseys, so it's probably pretty accurate. Honestly, it’s a bit much for me. Not only are they wearing horizontal stripes, but horizontal stripes with matching socks. Additionally, there's some sort of striped ruff or turtleneck situation happening. What the heck were they thinking??
This is a team of Freddy Kruegers. Terrifying.
According to Fabric of the Game, the Senators switched to vertical stripes for one season, in 1909. They went from a nightmare on Elm Street to a popsicle from Mister Softee. Let’s pretend that either of those things existed at the time. Frankly, these jerseys make Bruce Stuart look more like a clown. Sorry, Bruce.
The Ottawa Senators moved back to their preferred stripes, as shown here by goaltender Clint Benedict in 1923. As you can see, by then hockey players had begun to look more in line with what they look like in modern days. (Benedict would even become the first goalie to wear a facemask later in the decade.) , Except for the occasional throwback night, hockey teams don't really wear thick horizontal stripes anymore. After viewing these photos, you can probably see why.