By Danny Gallagher – Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
When you see those players wearing the bleu, blanc and rouge on your television screen in the Stanley Cup final, think of Ambrose O’Brien.
He was the founding owner of the Montreal Canadiens, the most storied hockey franchise in the world. And where was he born? If you guessed Renfrew, you are right. Bet many people don’t know that.
O’Brien was a hockey magnate before his time. He juggled four professional teams on his mantle in the early years of the 20th century, thanks to his father M.J., who had money stashed away from his multi-faceted career as a miner, railway contractor, farmer and woollen-mills owner.
The Canadiens are playing in the Stanley Cup championship series for the first time since 1993 so it’s a convenient time to tell you that the team’s origins were with a Renfrew native.
Ambrose O’Brien, in collaboration with Jimmy Gardner of the Montreal Wanderers, formed the National Hockey Association, the forerunner of the National Hockey League, in 1909.
This united front included a team headed by O’Brien to be called the Canadiens, which would stimulate a francophone rivalry with the Wanderers. Other teams included O’Brien-backed teams in Renfrew and the Northern Ontario towns of Haileybury and Cobalt.
O’Brien’s involvement with the Canadiens lasted only one season because of a disagreement he had with George Kendall, who sued O’Brien over the use of the Canadiens’ name. Kendall had patented the name Club Athétique Canadien and claimed legal rights to the Canadiens name.
O’Brien settled the rhubarb by selling the Canadiens to Kendall, also known on occasion as Kennedy, for $7,500 on November 12, 1910.
More than 110 years later, the Canadiens remain a vibrant part of the NHL. They have won 24 Stanley Cup titles and are pursuing another one in the best-of-seven final but it doesn’t look good. Tampa Bay Lightning lead the series 3-1 with the fifth game taking place July 8.
A year prior to the formation of the Canadiens, the Renfrew Rivers wanted to square off against the Wanderers for the Dominion Challenge Cup, the equivalent of today’s Stanley Cup.
The Rivers had captured the prestigious Citizen Shield but the Wanderers rejected the offer, saying Renfrew was too miniscule with a population of less than 2,000 people at the time.
O’Brien was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder in 1962 and was an inaugural inductee in the Canadiens’ Builders’ Row at the Bell Centre in Montreal in 2006. O’Brien died in 1968.
Renfrew hasn’t forgotten O’Brien or its reputation as the birthplace of the NHA/NHL. The Renfrew Millionaires vied for the Stanley Cup in 1909-10 and the NHA gave way to the NHL in 1917.
For close to 10 years, the NHA/NHL Birthplace Museum has operated in Renfrew, including a long run on the second floor of the old Canada Post building on Raglan St. Several years ago, the museum was relocated to Ma-Te-Way Park. As the promotional slogan of the museum suggests: “Where the game of hockey originated is hotly disputed. Where the National Hockey League was born isn’t in question.’’
With the easing of pandemic restrictions, the museum tentatively plans a soft opening and perhaps a grand opening of the museum in September, said museum executive member Doug Miller.
Off and on over the years, museum officials have attempted to lure NHL commissioner Gary Bettman or another league official to come to Renfrew and acknowledge the town’s contributions to the NHL.
What better time than September or later in the fall for Bettman to come and honour the town and O’Brien.