Born Champions: Investigating The Success Of Locations That Birth Stanley Cup-Winning Players

Source: Associated Press

The 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs are well underway, granting the members of sixteen teams the opportunity to fulfill their dream of becoming champions and lifting a certain special treasure above their head.

Ask any young aspiring hockey player what their dream is, and more often than not, it’ll involve winning the Stanley Cup. So elegant, so unique, so coveted, so magnificent.

There are so many questions about its convoluted history as well! I’ve stood in the Great Hall of the Hockey Hall of Fame hundreds of times, answering a barrage of questions from curious guests; both the common curiosities and the obscure nitty-gritty.

Ice hockey is a game that has been played for only approximately 145 years. Stick and ball games have existed since the days of Ancient Greece (and maybe even earlier), and ice skating has reportedly been a means of travel for thousands of years. Coupled together, games such as bandy, shinny, and hockey have emerged.

The first officially recognized indoor ‘ice hockey’ game took place in 1875 in Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink. The excitement generated from this fast, physical, finesse game snowballed and 17 years later, the Governor General of Canada sought to purchase a trophy to give to the best club the Dominion of Canada had to offer. Lord Stanley of Preston acquired a silver chalice fabricated in Sheffield, England from a London silversmith for the equivalent of 48 American dollars. It’s worth today? Don’t even try to speculate.

And so began the numerous traditions for which it has become renowned. The ‘Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup’ was originally intended to be just that; a challenge cup that would be given to the best AMATEUR hockey club in the Dominion. Much like a mixed martial arts title belt, any team deemed reputable in their own regional league could request a challenge from the current holders.

Up until 1906, it remained strictly amateur. The Montreal Wanderers were the current recipients, and a lengthy debate surrounding the ethics of paying players as professionals broke the dam which subsequently allowed newly christened ‘pro teams’ to challenge for the Cup.

Once this decision was made, there was no going back. Teams began loading up on the best talent they could find, with numerous players jumping from team to team for their best chance to challenge for Lord Stanley’s chalice. By the mid 1910s, there were only a few leagues that housed teams that could reasonably win the Cup, much like a true ‘World Series’ (teams from the Pacific Coast in the United States were now making this an ‘international affair’).

By 1926, it was clear that the nearly decade-old National Hockey League was the most superior professional league in the world, and the year after, the Stanley Cup became the de facto prize for the league’s playoff victor. By the early 1990s, globalization, the fall of communist regimes, international marketing and the lore of the Cup itself has allowed male hockey players from anywhere in the world to compete for the 34.5lb hunk of silver and nickel which has evolved through various shapes and sizes throughout the past 128 years.

So, when you hear a child meekly claim that their dream is to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup, it’s not far-fetched. Whether they understand that brief history lesson I just outlined or not, it’s a trophy that makes the strongest case for ‘best sports trophy in the world’. Sure, explaining how many Cups exist or have existed gets complicated at times, but as long as they walk away feeling a little bit more well-informed, I can sleep at night.

(For the record, there are three; the original bowl from 1892, the current silver/nickel presentation trophy awarded to the victorious team, and a spelling-corrected version that is housed at the Hall of Fame whenever the presentation model is on the road.)

A new one isn’t made every year, unlike other major North American sports leagues. It was donated by the Governor General without expectations. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the means of celebrating with it is in the discretion of the recipient. The tradition of lifting it above your head when it’s passed along, the tradition of sipping champagne from its bowl, the tradition of allowing each team player and personnel to spend an evening with it in the location of their choosing; that’s all been christened over the years.

It wasn’t until the mid 1920s where it became an annual tradition to engrave the names of the players, coaches, managers, trainers, owners, and in some cases, mascots onto the Cup. The Montreal Wanderers and Kenora Thistles etched their victors on the inside of the bowl in 1907, but to the naked eye, you couldn’t spot it unless you hover up above. Rules have been legislated and doctrines are followed to maintain this sacred tradition, but Holy Moses: When you win the Stanley Cup, your name is etched into its fine silver for as many as 65 years before the band on which it resides must be replaced. Love or hate that custom, you’re featured for the better part of the rest of your life.

Now, let’s get to it. I fell down the rabbit hole of researching every single player who has ever had the fortune of being a part of a Stanley Cup-winning team. Notice, I said PLAYER. For the purpose of this little research study, coaches, managers, trainers, owners, mascots, and Basil Pocklington will have no bearing on these statistics. For those who watched the Chicago Bulls’ ‘Last Dance’ documentary, we know that Michael Jordan thinks winning a championship is all about the players, and so it shall be in this article.

A former High School teacher and coach of mine inspired me to investigate the frequency of success that different villages/towns/cities have when it comes to producing Cup-winning players. Which region has produced the most Stanley Cup-winners, and how many Cups have they cumulatively won? Which town has the highest number of Cup-wins-per-player? So many questions!

Another key asterisk on this study is that this solely pertains to a player’s PLACE OF BIRTH. For all we know, a player could have moved frequently in their youth, thus not being able to identify a main region for their emergence onto the scene. While it’s customary for NHL players to identify a specific ‘hometown’ in their bio, that could skew results if multiple locations come into play. Everyone was born somewhere, in only one place. This also leads to some humorous results when we get into the representation of international Cup-winners.

We all know Sidney Crosby calls Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia his hometown. It is clear if you know anything about Sidney Crosby, that Cole Harbour has greatly reaped the rewards of his success. However, Sidney Crosby was in fact born in Halifax, thus Halifax is given the benefit of Crosby’s quantifiable production legacy. While some players were born in the puny hamlets in which they were raised, others were born in major cities before settling back rurally. At any rate, I remind you that this is about their place of birth, not towns they were raised in.

As of 2020, a grand total of 1404 different players have been a part of a Stanley Cup-winning campaign. Unfortunately, it was impossible to determine the place of birth for 52 of these players. These players were simply too far back in the archives to have any credible information on their extremely brief biographies, as their Cup conquests occurred between the first year it was awarded in 1893, to the Toronto St. Pats’ triumph in 1922.

Further convolutions muddy the waters of what constitutes a Cup champion. There is a loose criterion that claims that players must play at least half the regular season matches to qualify to have their name engraved on the Cup, or suit up in at least one of the games in the final series. However, team owners hold enough sway where they could easily deviate from that precedent. Team photos of Cup-winning clubs, and to whom the team give engraved rings upon season’s end also at times contrast who was ‘on the championship team’.

This list bows to the leniency of the owners’ discretion; thus, some lucky souls who didn’t meet the criteria to be engraved on the silver prize, yet managed to earn a ring or feature in the team for a generous amount of time along the way are considered amongst these statistics. Nevertheless, the 52 players who have no birthplace information were nearly all victorious during the amateur, challenge cup days where rosters were never officially formalized, or had an emergency call-up during a two-game total-goals series.

In the case of our beloved ‘W’ Teale from the aforementioned 1922 St. Pats, he was called up during the final series against the Vancouver Millionaires to serve as a spare goaltender. He never played a game in the NHL, but was lucky enough to feature in the team photo, thus, he was ‘sort of’ on the Cup-winning team right when victory was theirs. We don’t even have the luxury of knowing his full first name, but whatever, he won a Cup!

That same misfortune of other ‘no-first-name’-champions-without-birth-listings falls upon a Mr. McDonald of the 1905 Ottawa Silver Seven, and a Mr. Scott from the same club in 1904. While it could be relatively safe to assume many places of birth for the clubs that dominated possession of the Cup were in Montreal, Ottawa, or Winnipeg, I just can’t bring myself to make speculations when it can’t be formally found. Of those 52 winners without listed birth towns, they account for a total of 80 Cup wins.

Now, let’s get to the fun stuff. Statistics on different Stanley Cup-winning birth countries. Understandably, the game was predominantly Canadian in roster assembly (with a few Americans sneaking in here and there) pretty much up until the onset of the 1980s. Therefore, it should come as absolutely no surprise that of the 1352 different players that have biographical information available, 1027 of them were born in Canada (nearly 76%). The United States have produced 150 players that have a Stanley Cup title to their name (11.1%), and Sweden and Russia are in a heated battle for 3rd place with 40 and 39, respectively.

A total of 27 different countries have birthed Cup champions. Some, of course, are rather obscure or inconceivable. Hall of Fame defenceman Rod Langway has the distinction of being the only player born in Taiwan to have held the Cup above his head when he did so with the Canadiens in 1979. His father was stationed in Taiwan with the American forces when he was born, and he would subsequently feature for the USA when playing in international tournaments.

Similarly, Rick Chartraw is the only South American-born player to win a Stanley Cup, as his father was employed in Caracas, Venezuela as an engineer. Like Langway, Chartraw would feature for the USA in international competition.

Funnily enough, Chartraw’s five Cup titles for the Canadiens and Oilers give his birth country of Venezuela the acclaimed distinction of having the highest average of Cup-Wins-per-Player (CWPP). Being the only player born from Venezuela to win, his five Cups give the country an obvious CWPP score of 5.

The chart below reveals all 27 different countries to produce Cup-winning players, with their CWPP listed from greatest to least. Of course, CWPP pertains only to players from respective towns/cities/countries that won a Stanley Cup, not those who simply featured in the NHL.

Quite a few interesting numbers, huh? Venezuela and Brunei at the top!? Chartraw obviously had the good fortune of playing on all of the late 1970s Canadiens teams, but Brunei-born Craig Adams toiled in the league for fifteen years, winning Cups in 2006 and 2009 with the Hurricanes and Penguins. Other seemingly notable surprises include Robyn Regehr, who was born in Recife, Brazil. He was a beloved staple on the Flames’ blueline before achieving Cup glory in 2014 with Los Angeles.

South Korean-born Jim Paek won back-to-back Cups with the Penguins in 1991/1992, and Slovenian Anze Kopitar was a part of both Kings victories in 2012 and 2014. The reputable ‘Big 6’ of Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic are all represented quite well in terms of CWPP, Canada having the highest amongst the group with 1.92.

Something else worth considering is the status of the state itself. Of the 39 Russians to have won a Cup, 29 of them were born before the collapse of the Sovet Union, but within the borders of what is now known as Russia. The 3 Ukrainian-born Cup-winners were born before the Iron Curtain fell, but identify as Ukrainian, therefore, so they shall be. The same can be said for Latvian Sandis Ozolinsh. Ivan Boldirev was born in the Yugoslav Republic of Serbia. Both Jim McFadden and Sammy McManus were born in Belfast before the Irish War of Independence rendered it part of Northern Ireland, therefore they are territorially inclined to represent Northern Ireland, regardless of their religious beliefs or loyalties to Great Britain.

Amongst the ‘Big 6’, the most successful Czech town at producing Cup-winners is Kladno, with 3 players who have combined for 4 Cups (Michael Frolik, Jaromir Jagr, Frantisek Kaberle). The most successful Russian settlement is unsurprisingly Moscow, with 12 players contributing to 17 Cup wins. In Sweden, that honour also unsurprisingly goes to the capital Stockholm, with 6 players combining for 12 Cups, while Finnish capital Helsinki has also produced 12 total Cups from 4 players.

For the United States, the frigid winters in Minnesota have allowed Minneapolis to produce 6 players who have won 7 Cups. For Canada, it should come as no astonishment that the setting of the first recognized ice hockey game takes the title as the highest-represented city with a total of 79 players born in Montreal (5.8% of all Cup-winning players), combining for a total of 208 championships. Egad!

This next chart encapsulates every town/city that has produced at least 5 Stanley Cup champions, once again ranked by CWPP, along with the total number of titles to the town’s name. Within the list you’ll see the names of big cities that provide little shock in regards to their success and natural haven for producing NHL-bound players. But sitting at the top of the list are smaller towns with quite a high CWPP, due in part to the success rate of dynasties during the heyday of the Original 6.

Throughout the days of the Original 6 between the 1940s to the 1960s, the means of worming your way up through the youth systems and minor leagues was incredibly different than today. Various players who were scouted and signed to one of the many NHL farm teams received the slimmest of chances to sneak their way into the lineup. Preserving a spot was even tougher. Anyone remember that dreaded ‘C Form’?

But if you managed to stamp your place on the team, your chances of winning the Cup each season were 1 in 6. Depending on the specific point throughout the Original 6, basically only Montreal, Detroit, and Toronto were consistent contenders. Therefore, Kirkland Lake-born players Ralph Backstrom, Dick Duff, Larry Hillman, Wayne Hillman, Bob Murdoch, and Mike Walton were able to reap the rewards of their ascent and sustainment in the lineup. Backstrom, Duff, and Hillman each won 6 Cups, giving Kirkland Lake the deserved right to smile.

Having been born in Timmins, I’m quite proud of my town’s success rate. Everyone remembers the legacy of ‘Bashin’’ Bill Barilko, the tragic hero who scored the 1951 Cup winner for the Leafs, only to perish in a plane crash in the dense boreal forest coming home from a fishing trip (Gord Downie voice). The Mahovlich brothers, Allan Stanley, Bob Nevin, Billy Cameron….. hell, even Hector Marini managed to pull in a couple Cups for the Islanders in the early 1980s! These Northern Ontario towns managed to make some noise back in what is often classified as the ‘Golden Age’ of the NHL.

As for Drummondville’s extremely high CWPP, chalk that up to Yvan Cournoyer. The ‘Roadrunner’ often held Lord Stanley’s grail above his head, doing so 10 times during his 16-year career (though I suppose the last time he won, he couldn’t lift it due to his career-ending back injury). Yvon Lambert from the same 1970s Canadiens was on the roster for their four-peat, and even the old silver fox, Lester Patrick, has Drummondville listed as his birthplace.

His two Cups with the Montreal Wanderers in 1906 and 1907 were then snuggled by a 1928 technicality, as his infamous decision as Head Coach to step into the game for his injured starting netminder (Lorne Chabot) earned him a place on the Cup informally as a player. Other inclusions on the list above are quite ordinary and expected.

Kitchener has the benefit of including the Cups won by players born in what was then known as ‘Berlin, Ontario’ before the 1916 name-change debacle. Players born in Rouyn and Noranda, Quebec were combined (here’s to pumping your legacy, Dave Keon). Notice where the ‘Unknown’-born players stack up on the list? A CWPP of 1.54 is quite extraordinary for this group of forgotten fogeys. But what makes it interesting is that the assumption that they all were born in the greater-Montreal or greater-Ottawa or greater-Winnipeg area (due to the notion that only teams that came from those cities employed these players whose biographies are hazy), is in fact irrelevant to the fact that the players with no birth information won an average of over 1.5 Cups each.

This brings the question; should those inflated CWPPs be discredited when considering the effects by today’s standards of winning? I would personally hope not. Understandably, the bulk of players mentioned above from Kirkland Lake, Drummondville, and Timmins were fortunate to win their collection of Cups when there were only a half-dozen teams in the league (though by the time Cournoyer retired, the league was set to jump from 17 to 21 teams).

My point is, because players such as Duff, Hillman, Barilko, and Cournoyer won their Cups during times when the league was smaller and the talent pool wasn’t as international, should these high CWPPs be as revered and/or justified when considering where players can come from today? The reason I personally would argue against downplaying these successes, is that, hey, they managed to maintain their place in a league where there were only a finite amount of spots available.

Granted, that point is still a factor today, but in the days of the Original 6, it took a lot of drive, effort, skill, and luck to preserve your position on a team that still had to wage war in 70 regular season games, plus two bloody playoff rounds. Downplaying the triumph of winning multiple Cups is unnecessary, and after all, they still were born in these towns that would be irrelevant if they didn’t help win the Cup, let alone make it to the league.

As for major cities such as Montreal, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Ottawa, is this really shocking? Especially when it came to older players, those privileged enough to receive proper medical care for delivering children would seek to have it occur in a popular urban setting, rather than on the farm or in the tub. Pardon that crass opinion, but looking at the numbers of Montreal or Winnipeg-born Cup winners from before 1930, how many actually grew up in the city?

Below are charts on both Canadian provinces as well as American states’ statistical success rates. Let’s observe:

Eddie Shore, one of the greatest defenseman to ever play (4x Hart Trophy winner), and Fred Lake are the two Northwest Territory-born players to win Cups, the former winning 2 and the latter with 3. Thus, Northwest Territories have the honour of possessing the highest CWPP of any Canadian province/territory. That accomplishment shouldn’t go in vain, or be discredited when you compare it to a province like Newfoundland, who have 2 Cup-winning players (Dan Cleary and Michael Ryder) winning 1 Cup apiece. Can’t fault Shore and Lake for their success.

Montreal, being the highest representative of Cup-winning players, helps propel Quebec to nearly 2.5 Cups for any player from the Fleur-de-lis region to win a championship. Even from smaller towns within the province, the regional monopoly the Canadiens organization had on the up-and-coming Quebec talents would often give any player who played for the Habs between the 1950s to the 1970s the chance to sip champagne from the Cup on multiple occasions.

Notable examples include Mario Tremblay from Alma (5 Cups), JC Tremblay from Bagotville (5 Cups), Jean-Guy Talbot from Cap-de-la-Madeleine (7 Cups), Jacques Lemaire of Lasalle (8 Cups), and Jean Beliveau of Trois-Rivieres (10 Cups). These guys weren’t messing around. Residents from those towns probably didn’t even bat an eye when the Cup was once again propped up on the lawn each summer.

As for the USA, states that produced at least 5 Cup-winning players are all fairly clumped together when it comes to CWPP. Minnesota has produced the most players who have gone onto lift Lord Stanley’s chalice, though the bulk of those players have only had the chance to lift the trophy once (Neal Broten, Ryan McDonagh, Matt Nishkanen, Dustin Byfuglien). Michigan and Massachusetts also have the propensity to produce players, two-dozen of which have gone on to be champions from both states.

Players that were born in states that we don’t deem ‘natural hockey-producing environments’, such as Florida (Dan Hinote), Virginia (Scott Darling), Wyoming (Johnny Matz), or North Carolina (Ben Smith), could signify that either the game is growing and players from any part of the map are capable of achieving success, or they are a flash in the pan.

Ultimately, there is no underlying argument to any of this. It was strictly research-based in discovering where each of the 1400+ players who have ever won the most blessed trophy in sports was born, and the rates and frequencies in which these towns are represented when it comes to success. Each year, these figures, ratios, and statistics will change and require updating; I look forward to keeping tabs on the alterations.

This research also provided me the chance to stumble upon some neat quirks, one of which still baffles me: Of the 1404 players to have won the Stanley Cup, only one has a last name that begins with the letter ‘I’: Alex Irving won 2 Cups in 1893 and 1894 with the Montreal AAA (the first two years it was awarded), and not one player since has managed to replicate this…. In 127 years.

Is there a curse on the letter I? Jonathan Quick is the only player to have won the Cup with a last name beginning with Q, but that’s not nearly as cool. Nobody with a last name beginning with U or X has managed to win; how long will that last?

Below is a final chart that pays respects to every town or city that was the birthplace of between 2 to 4 Cup-winning players with a CWPP figure higher than 2.00. The CWPP is off the charts for some towns; it made for some eye-opening statistics. When players from those towns win Cups, they win many.

At the end of it all, it’s not so much about where you come from, but about the bonds shared between teammates from all corners of the globe en route to a common dream: that being to one day hoist that silver and nickel token of success above their head. The game will continue to spread and blossom in regions that have yet to make the claim “_____: Home of Stanley Cup-winning player, _____.” Dream on, kids.

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