If Canada was geographically shaped like a hockey rink, you would likely find the city of Winnipeg at the red line. Maybe not exactly at the faceoff dot at centre, but certainly shading toward the middle of the ice, for sure.
And while finding itself close to the middle of the country, Winnipeg has been anything but halfway in its efforts to contribute to hockey in this country. Its reputation in the game is undeniable, unique, rich and deserved.
Essentially, it all started back in the 1890s, when records indicate the game was introduced into Manitoba. With Winnipeg, at the time, becoming the epicentre of what an eastern Canadian publication, Canadian Magazine, reported had “become the leading winter sport” in the Canadian Northwest.
By the turn of the century, the city was icing several amateur teams in the Manitoba Hockey Association (MHA), including the Winnipeg Victorias, who had clearly become the class of the league with eight different appearances in a Stanley Cup series, winning the trophy three times (1896, 1901 & 1902).
Moreover, the Victorias still stand today as the only Winnipeg team to win Lord Stanley’s mug, a distinction the Winnipeg Jets over their 17-year National Hockey League history could never challenge in earnest.
But in the annals of the game, Winnipeg’s history extends deeper than just teams vying for the Stanley Cup.
In fact, hockey teams from the city have competed for – and won – the Allan Cup and Memorial Cup, while contesting for other national championships along the way such as the Centennial Cup (now the RBC Cup) and TELUS Cup.
Interestingly enough, the Centennial Cup was created to commemorate Manitoba’s centennial birthday into Confederation in 1970 and its full name was actually the Manitoba Centennial Cup.
Ironically however, a Winnipeg Junior A team could never lay claim to the trophy in its 25-year history (1971-1995), although teams from nearby communities in Portage la Prairie (1973) and Selkirk (1974) did win the trophy before its name was changed in 1996 to the RBC Cup.
And while a national Junior A title has escaped Winnipeg to this point, Major Junior titles were quite common over a 40-year stretch when city-based teams won 10 Memorial Cups, including the last in 1959 when the host Winnipeg Braves defeated Peterborough.
The Allan Cup is another trophy that Winnipeg’s fingerprints are all over. Created to essentially recognize the senior amateur men’s hockey champions in the country, Winnipeg teams have won the trophy eight times since its creation in 1908, although none as recently as the 1963-64 Winnipeg Maroons.
However, some would argue that titles won by the Ile-des-Chenes North Stars (Manitoba) in 2003 and three consecutive championships by the Warroad Lakers (Minnesota) from 1994-96 all were aided by a significant contribution from Winnipeg residents as players on those rosters.
In terms of history in the game, Winnipeg’s largesse runs as deep as the main channel of the Red River. And with an impressive background and resume, where does the city really stand among other Canadian centres as a contributor to the game?
“It’s a great question. But obviously, I come from a different generation,” says Craig Heisinger, a native Winnipeger and general manager of the city’s very successful American Hockey League (AHL) franchise, the Manitoba Moose.
“When I think about it, I think about the people that came to the city. That’s for me is what stands out. It’s the people, not so much the teams.”
For as much as Heisinger talks about the people he’s met in the game as a former member of the Jets training staff and now a top administrator of the Vancouver Canucks’ farm team, his Moose have also secured their place in Winnipeg’s hockey history by competing for the Turner Cup in the International Hockey League and the AHL’s Calder Cup, which they lost in the final two years ago in the city’s closest professional championship since the Jets produced back-to-back (1978-79) Avco Cup championships in the long defunct World Hockey Association.
In all, the Jets won three WHA titles, competed in the finals five times and clearly have hockey fans in the city – at least those that were around in the 1970s – fondly remembering the WHA days as probably the most romantic period for the game in terms of professional hockey.
“I mean you’ve named a million different teams here,” adds Heisinger. “But it probably leaves out a lot of good teams that didn’t win.
“I would like to think that Winnipeg has a good reputation as a hockey place and where good hockey people are from.”
From names like Ab McDonald to Jonathan Toews to Carey Wilson to Andy Murray, the city of Winnipeg has produced players, hockey people and teams that rival any in the county, without the benefit of the populations of places like Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal.
“I think if you look back over time and look at the people that have had success as player or administrator here, Winnipeg has done quite well for itself,” says Heisinger. “It’s a great place to try and figure it out if you want to make a go at hockey.”