A team of dentists and dental students reached the peak of the hockey world in 1917.
In the early decades of the 20th century, professional ice hockey leagues were still struggling to establish themselves, as many Canadians felt hockey should remain an amateur affair. “Newspapers were accustomed to giving amateur games the major play,” writes Bruce Kidd in his 1996 book The Struggle for Canadian Sport. “The notion lingered in many circles that professional sports were somewhat shady. Anyone who would take money to win might also take it to lose.” In the mid-1900s, the Stanley Cup, initially intended only for amateur teams, became open to professional teams. In response, Sir H. Montagu Allan donated the Allan Cup, which soon became the symbol of amateur hockey supremacy in Canada.
In the 1910s, Toronto hockey journalists tended to give the greatest coverage to the Ontario Hockey Association, the province’s largest amateur hockey organization. At the end of each season, senior teams in the Ontario Hockey Association competed in a playoff for the OHA’s championship trophy, the J Ross Robertson Cup, named for OHA executive and newspaper publisher John Ross Robertson. The J. Ross Robertson Cup winner was then eligible to enter a national-level tournament of other league winners for the prized Allan Cup.
The amateur hockey scene was understandably complicated by the First World War, which saw many of the country’s top players, both professional and amateur, leave for Europe. Many OHA teams disbanded during the war, while new teams were formed by armed forces units. In his 1989 history of the OHA, longtime sportswriter Scott Young notes that the OHA “improvised, season after season, as if it were quite normal to have teams here one week and gone the next, either to a new training area or to board a troopship headed across the Atlantic.” One 1917 Toronto Star article, evidently responding to criticism about the OHA continuing to function during the war, pointed out that “about one-third of the ninety teams in the [OHA] this season are exclusively military and there are very few of the others (except the juniors who have not some soldiers in their line-up)…The military authorities have encouraged the playing of hockey under organized authority, and the battalions that have engaged in the sport have found of it of great benefit to the men and to recruiting.”
In late 1916, a new senior OHA team formed: the Toronto Dentals. The Royal College of Dental Surgeons’ School of Dentistry, then affiliated with the University of Toronto but not yet an official faculty, spent the war years training new dentists for the Royal Canadian Dental Corps. Several RCDS students had experience on outside amateur teams, which made them ineligible to represent the college on intramural teams. The University of Toronto had also suspended intercollegiate athletics during the war years, meaning there was no university team for which these students could play. According to the Hya Yaka, the official monthly publication run by the students of the RCDS, these dental students, “feeling that they did not wish to lose any of the few years which form the career of any athlete, asked permission to participate in the great winter game of hockey under the jurisdiction of the Ontario Hockey Association.” Although most of the players on the team were students or recent graduates of the RCDS, the team had no official affiliation with the school. Nevertheless, the Toronto Dentals were seen as emblematic of the college, and in the December 1916 issue of the Hya Yaka, the editors promised that as “the Dental profession in the city and the students will no doubt be greatly interested in the team throughout the season…we will endeavour to report the games as fully as possible.”
The Dentals management began by securing the playing and coaching services of Dr. Jerry LaFlamme, a 1911 RCDS graduate who had already compiled an impressive hockey resumé. His hockey career began as a member of the St. Michael’s College junior OHA team (later known as the St. Mike’s Majors) in 1908, moving to the St. Michael’s senior team in 1909. With St. Michael’s, LaFlamme played on the Allan Cup–winning team of 1910, before moving to the amateur Eaton Club, which won the OHA championship in 1912. In early 1912, the Hya Yaka reported with pride that LaFlamme “has turned down a lucrative offer for his services with the Canadiens. Jerry is one of the best in the business, and we are pleased to see him stick with amateur hockey.”
During the 1917 OHA season, LaFlamme played some games himself, sharing time on defence with OHA Junior veteran John McMichael “Mac” Sheldon and Willard “Bill” Box, who had been a standout the previous year with Queen’s University. Charlie Stewart played in goal, while his brother Jimmy played left wing and served as team captain. Rounding out the roster were Rupert Millan (often referred to as “Rube” or “Ruby”), Rod Smylie, Frank Doyle, and E.W. Hodgen.
In several respects, hockey in 1917 under OHA rules looked quite different from today’s game. Players were expected to stay on the ice for the duration of the game, as substitutions were generally not allowed, or limited. If one team found itself short-handed mid-game due to an injury, the other team was expected to remove one of their players to keep the game fair. Players would, of course, leave the ice temporarily when serving penalties. This also applied to the goalies, who, in addition to the traditional infractions, could be penalized for dropping to their knees, as the rules required that they remain on their feet when protecting the net.
(Right: Dr. Jerry LaFlamme on the St. Michael’s senior OHA team. From The Globe, March 2, 1915.)
On offence, forward passes were generally considered offside and were therefore illegal, and a rebound rule of 10 feet was in place to cut down on skirmishes in front of the net. Perhaps the most significant difference from the modern game, however, was the number of players on the ice. While six-a-side hockey was gaining popularity in some other leagues by 1917, OHA teams had the six standard positions of today, as well as a seventh position of the “rover,” who was expected to position himself on either offence or defence as the gameplay dictated.
The OHA season was also very short compared with today. Exhibition games began in mid-December and official games started after New Year’s Day, with the playoffs beginning before the end of February. At this time, Toronto’s primary arena on Mutual Street (often referred to simply as “the Arena“), where the Dentals and other Toronto-based OHA teams played most of their games, was the only arena in Ontario with the capacity to make ice artificially. This meant that the standard hockey season was necessarily confined to the months when naturally frozen ice could be guaranteed in all participating communities.
The Dentals got off to a slow start, dropping their first two games of the season to the 227th Battalion, a team based out of Hamilton, but comprised mostly of players from Sudbury and other parts of northern Ontario. After losing the first game 3–2 in Toronto, the Dentals made the trip to Hamilton accompanied by supporters in the form of several RCDS students, graduates, and a mascot referred to in the Hya Yaka only as “Buttons.” Despite reported good play, the Dentals dropped the second game 8–4. It was speculated that the team may have been thrown by the smaller confines of the Hamilton rink, as the Dentals forwards reportedly over skated the goal on numerous occasions. The Hya Yaka also reported that “absolutely no means were used to stop the smoking, and without exaggeration, before the second period was over, players on one team could not be distinguished from the others, for half the length of the rink.”
The team quickly rebounded, defeating the Toronto St. Patricks 9–3 at the Arena the following week. A Globe article with the headline “Irish Defeated by Tooth Tunnellers” attributed the Dentals’ victory to superior work from the defence, in particular from Mac Sheldon who was able to lead several rushes and managed to score twice. The Dentals followed with several more victories over the St. Patricks, the 227th Battalion, and the Toronto Rugby and Athletic Association.
By early February, the Dentals had clearly become favourites with the Toronto sportswriters. When the Dentals shut out the T.R. & A.A., the Globe ran the headline “Dentals Kalsomine the Black and White—Forceps Outfit Scores Six Goals Against Nil.” The Globe also referred to the team as the “Molar Maulers,” while, in the Telegram, the Dentals were the “Cavity Fillers.” The Toronto World called them “the Tooth-pluggers,” and the Star once proclaimed them “the Knights of the Drill.”
After defeating the 227th Battalion to finish the season, the Dentals found themselves atop their division, and thereby qualified for a date with the team from Preston in the OHA semi-finals. OHA playoff rounds consisted of two games, one each at each team’s home arena, with the winner determined by the combined scores of the two games. Captain Jimmy Stewart, nursing a knee injury for much of the season, found himself forced into action in the first game when Rod Smylie missed the train to Preston. Nevertheless, the Dentals easily dominated the play and won the game 12–5, giving them a seven-goal cushion going into the second game. The score could have been even more lopsided, but Dentals goaltender Charlie Stewart dropped to his knees during play, leaving the Dentals’ net open while Stewart served his penalty.
The second game, held at the Mutual Street Arena, was even more of a blowout. With the score 12–1 after the first period, Preston withdrew from the remainder of the match, and the Dentals advanced to the finals, where they met the defending OHA champions, the Toronto Riversides.
The games against the Riversides saw much better defence and were much closer. Once again, smoking proved to be an issue, as the smoke was reportedly so thick that it became difficult for the fans in attendance at the first game to distinguish the players after the first period. Prior to the second game, Arena management announced that they had arranged for police to patrol the bleachers, who would eject anyone caught smoking and charge them with disorderly conduct. Taking a 3–1 lead into the second game, the Dentals managed a 2–1 victory to take the championship in front of a crowd of nearly 7,000.
There was little time for celebration. The evening after their OHA championship victory, the team boarded a train bound for Winnipeg to take part in the upcoming Allan Cup tournament. The Toronto Telegram reported that the Dentals’ arrival was highly anticipated by former Toronto residents then living in Winnipeg, and that the team “will be met when they arrive by a band of former Toronto musicians.” “Private advices say the players are all in good shape,” reported the Star, “the stiffness having been eliminated from Jerry LaFlamme’s knee and the discolouration from Mac Sheldon’s eyes.”
The structure of the Allan Cup tournament was the same as the OHA championship: two games, with the victor being decided by the total goals scored across both games. In the first round, the Dentals drew the Saskatoon Pilgrims. As the two teams played in leagues using different rules, it was agreed to use the western rules for the first game and the OHA rules for the second. Western rules divided the game into two halves, rather than three periods. They also had a different offside rule; while both leagues had limitations on forward passes, the western league did not even allow the team with possession to have a player skate ahead of the player with the puck. The Dentals apparently adapted well to this restriction in the first game, and, led by the play of Willard Box, emerged with a 6–4 victory.
The Pilgrims battled back in the second game, played under OHA rules, and beat the Dentals 3–2 in a closely fought contest. According to the Telegram, “the Winnipeg officials often forgot that the game was being played under OHA rules, and Referee Bawlf [incorrectly] called a halt often when a player would skate another on side.” As the Dentals had a two-goal lead going into the game, they nevertheless won the series by eight goals to seven. In so doing, they earned a trip to meet the Winnipeg Victorias at the Allan Cup finals, and an opportunity to bring the trophy back to Ontario for the first time since 1910.
Although the Victorias got out to an early 2–0 lead, the Dentals answered back quickly, and the score was tied at 4 at halftime. The Dentals reportedly played like a “well-oiled machine.” The Telegram noting that, “they had the ‘Vics’ outplayed, particularly in the second half, even when they suffered penalties, and at one time had only four players on the ice to the locals’ six and seven.” Praise was particularly strong for defencemen LaFlamme and Sheldon, and for rover Willard Box, who between them accounted for six of the Dentals’ nine goals in their surprising 9–6 first-game victory. Referee Bawlf had further difficulties keeping the rules straight, reportedly granting two goals to the Dentals and one to Victoria, which came as the result of plays which should have been considered offside according to the western rules.
The Victorias came out firing in the second game, and reporters agreed that only the spectacular goaltending by Charlie Stewart kept the Dentals in the game. By the end of regulation, Winnipeg led 6–3, meaning that the two-game series was deadlocked at 12 goals apiece. Eight minutes into sudden-death overtime, centre Rupert Millan managed to break in and score the winning goal, thereby giving the Toronto Dentals the Allan Cup.
Before returning to Toronto, Dr. Jerry LaFlamme took the Dentals over the border to the United States, where they won exhibition games against local amateur teams in Chicago and Detroit. The Allan Cup trophy, meanwhile, was shipped to Toronto, to be kept in the care of Dr. Wallace Seccombe, superintendent of the RCDS, until the team’s return.
Mayor Tommy Church wrote a letter to Dr. LaFlamme, reprinted in the Toronto World, congratulating the team on its success and excellent representation of the city. “It is needless for me to say that the people of Toronto appreciate the clean amateur sportsmanship of your team,” Church added. “As you understand, the war is on at present and the city is not having any public receptions for that reason, but no one was more worthy of one than your team.”
Although no official civic function was held, Mayor Church did attend the banquet held by the Ontario Hockey Association on April 2, and, after the OHA president presented the team with the J. Ross Robertson Cup, personally presented the Allan Cup. The Star reported that the team was also fêted by the “Toronto Dental Association” with a “complimentary dinner and smoking concert,” featuring speeches from the city’s leading dentists and a promise of special souvenirs for the players in future. The Star added that “there was a splendid program provided by the Dental College orchestra and quartet…The college talent was surprisingly good.”
In the autumn of 1917, the OHA voted to switch to six-man hockey, with one substitution allowed. The National Hockey League was founded that autumn, and would gradually bring a sense of legitimacy to professional hockey. The Toronto Dentals remained in the OHA during the next two seasons, with a few lineup changes. In 1918, every member of the Dentals was also in the Royal Canadian Dental Corps, which assumed administration of the team. Although there was some interest in keeping the team together after the end of the war, it appears it officially disbanded shortly thereafter, and the players soon went their separate ways. Some of the younger players from the 1917 team still had to complete their studies and, with restrictions on play lifted after the war, were able to play for their school.
Goalie Charlie Stewart turned professional and played for the Boston Bruins in the 1920s, practicing dentistry in the off-season. Winger Rod Smylie, who rarely made the headlines during the Dentals’ Allan Cup run, emerged as a top athlete, and later played in the NHL with the Toronto St. Patricks, winning the Stanley Cup with them in 1922. Following his hockey career, Smylie served for many years on the medical staff at St. Michael’s Hospital.
Willard Box was offered a professional contract after graduating from the RCDS in 1920, but, according to an article in the Toronto Telegram, had to turn it down as his father would not let him play hockey professionally. Rupert Millan became a dentist in Kingston, while Jimmy Stewart practiced in Hamilton. Mac Sheldon remained in Toronto, and became a highly esteemed clinician and instructor at the Faculty of Dentistry.
Jerry LaFlamme remained in organized hockey for most of his life. Although near the end of his playing career in 1917, he enjoyed several more years of success in the OHA as a coach. He turned to professional hockey for a time, serving briefly as the coach of the NHL’s Montreal Maroons, and working as an NHL referee. LaFlamme might be best known today for refereeing a 1927 game in which he was violently attacked by Boston’s Billy Coutu, resulting in Coutu becoming the only player to be banned from the NHL for life.
Rupert Millan’s stick and puck from the Allan Cup final were placed on exhibit at the Royal College of Dental Surgeons. They were lost in the years after the war, but in 1933 the Globe reported that the Faculty had written to Dr. Millan in Kingston to tell him that the stick had been located. “Elated, Dr. Millan went to Toronto, recovered the long lost stick, and it now forms the most prized of his collection of hockey trophies, collected in years of splendid service to the game.”
Additional material from: Dominion Dental Journal (Vol. 29, No. 5; May 15, 1917); The Globe (March 2, 1915; December 4, December 6, December 21, December 29, 1916; January 4, January 6, January 13, January 20, January 26, February 2, February 10, February 17, February 20, February 23, February 26, March 1, March 7, March 8, March 10, March 15, March 17, March 20, March 23, March 24, March 27, March 28, April 3, June 8, 1917; February 27, November 26, 1919; December 15, 1927; November 4, 1933; March 18, 1954); C. Michael Hiam, Eddie Shore and That Old Time Hockey (McClelland & Stewart, 2010: Toronto); The Hya Yaka (January 1912; December 1916; January, February, March, April, May 1917; February, April, May, December, 1919; January, 1920); Bruce Kidd, The Struggle for Canadian Sport (University of Toronto Press, 1996); Montreal Gazette (February 20, 1909; March 18, 1954); Oral Health (Vol. 7, No. 6; June 1917); The Toronto Star (January 13, January 20, January 26, February 2, February 3, February 7, February 23, February 26, March 1, March 6, March 8, March 9, March 12, March 14, March 15, March 17, March 20, March 21, March 24, March 29, April 2, April 3, 1917); The Toronto Telegram (March 1, March 7, March 9, March 10, March 12, March 13, March 15, March 17, March 20, April 3, 1917; February 23, 1920); The Toronto World (January 26, March 8, March 13, March 17, March 20, March 22, March 30, March 31, April 3, 1917); Scott Young, 100 Years of Dropping the Puck: A History of the OHA (McClelland & Stewart, 1989: Toronto).
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