1924 main art

One hundred years later, the Ottawa Senators would not be snowbound on a train between Tampa and Sunrise, Florida, playing back-to-back games against the Lightning and Panthers on Monday and Tuesday.

But a century ago, the Senators’ Canadian National Railways train ground to a halt almost exactly midway between Ottawa and its Montreal destination, the tracks left impassible by the choking snow drifts of a blizzard.

Ottawa’s Feb. 20, 1924, game against the Montreal Canadiens would ultimately be postponed 24 hours, the first of 72 weather-related postponements charted by the NHL.

It’s among the great stories from the League’s early days, the Senators stranded on their train from 5 p.m. ET, almost four hours after it departed Ottawa on the 125-mile trip, until 3 a.m., when it finally was pushed into Hawkesbury, Ontario before continuing on to Montreal.

There was great anticipation in Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena for the Feb. 20 visit of the Senators, the defending Stanley Cup champions and a spirited rival of the Canadiens. Indeed, the arena was jammed to capacity with more than 6,000 fans, the game sold out two days previously. The crowd filled every promenade and box seat with a few daring youngsters having climbed into the building’s rafters for a better view.

1924 arena

Montreal’s Mount Royal Arena was featured in a set of Upper Deck cards for the Canadiens’ 2008-09 centennial season.

Those who didn’t have reserved seats arrived an hour before the scheduled face-off, scrambling for a spot in the “rush” sections.

But as game time came and went, the crowd realized that the Senators were not just not in the building, they weren’t even in the city. With fans realizing that Ottawa’s delayed arrival wasn’t the fault of Canadiens management, the party got underway.

“It was a good-humored fathering, the rooters in the east and west end sections making full use of every possible incident to create entertainment to pass away the time,” read a Montreal Gazette report the following morning. “The band performed valiantly, one selection following another in quick succession as the musicians did their bit to fill the gap.”

As an hour moved toward 90 minutes, no official word coming on the Senators voyage, many fans left the arena, lining up for refunds. At 10 p.m., without any guess on the arrival of the visitors, the game was postponed to the following night, many spectators scrounging beneath their seats for the ticket stubs that would be honored on Feb. 21.

Ottawa’s sister broadsheet daily newspapers, the Ottawa Evening Citizen and Ottawa Evening Journal, each carried a wonderful front-page account of the trip written specially for them by Tommy Gorman, the Senators general manager.

1924 gorman

Ottawa Senators GM Tommy Gorman wrote a stirring account of his team’s remarkable train trip to Montreal, spanning Feb. 20-21, 1924.

Gorman’s report, rich with description published in the next day’s paper thanks to evening deadlines, was as good as any sportswriting of the day. And no wonder, considering that he had previously worked as the Citizen’s sports editor.

“While six thousand people remained in the Mount Royal Arena impatiently awaiting the start of the one of the most important games of the season in the National Hockey League, the champion Ottawa Senators lay helplessly snowbound at Cushing Junction, a flag station, seven miles east of Hawkesbury, marooned in the relentless grip of the fiercest story that has swept the district for years,” he wrote.

“Finally extricated, after many hours of laboring on the parts of the crew and volunteer helpers, the world’s champions were pulled back into Hawkesbury shortly after 3 a.m. They left Hawkesbury on their way to Montreal again about 4 o’clock and arrived in the Metropolis about 8:30 o’clock, immediately after which the Ottawa party, in charge of Manager Gorman, was hustled over to the Windsor Hotel and the players tumbled into their beds with instructions that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances.”

It was at this hotel that the NHL had been founded in 1917.

“After 14 hours on the train,” Gorman wrote, “the Ottawa players and their followers were just about all in when they reached Montreal. The Ottawa club has, of course, consented to the playing of the game tonight (Feb. 21) and the Ottawas, despite their thrilling experiences amidst the storm, are confident that they will defeat Canadiens.”

1924 Clancy Denneny

Frank “King” Clancy (left) and Cy Denneny ventured off the Senators’ snowbound train to find groceries and fetch milk for a Montreal-bound young mother in need.

The game is merely an asterisk next to the Senators’ trip to Montreal.

Looming bad weather on the morning of Feb. 20 prompted team management to hit the rails as early as possible that afternoon. A noon departure would be 90 minutes late when their train was late arriving, then was held up a few times en route awaiting snowplows, switch clearing and the thawing of the locomotive’s water tank.

The train made it just past Hawkesbury, 60 miles from Montreal, when the raging storm and stalled plows froze it in place. Railway crews and passengers did their best without success to clear the tracks, the shovel brigade including Senators players Jack Darragh, Frank “King” Clancy and Cy Denneny.

“Meanwhile,” Gorman wrote, “the Ottawas were completely cut off from all outside communication. The nearest telephone was six or seven miles away and to make matters worse, most of the lines were down so the Senators were unable to get word to Montreal of their plight.”

1924 Windsor train

A steam-engine pulls a passenger train into Montreal’s Windsor Station. NHL teams used this station before the days of air travel, though the Senators’ 1924 train from Ottawa would have arrived at Bonaventure Station about a half-mile away.

The marooned train, packed with the Senators, their fans and regular travelers, was quickly out of food for what should have been a trip of less than three hours. Pulled back into Hawkesbury near 3 a.m., Gorman and his team set into the night to round up refreshments. They discovered every restaurant closed, happy that C.N.R. officials had confiscated a large box of bread that was headed elsewhere.

Clancy’s raid on the town had scored can of soda biscuits, teammate Earl “Spliff” Campbell having found butter and eggs that he turned over to the dining car staff.

There was drama in the situation of a young woman who was bound for Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital with an infant, her supply of fresh milk exhausted during the seemingly endless trip.

Clancy and Denneny joined the train’s conductor hiking through the raging blizzard, trudging nearly a mile through waist-high snow to a farmhouse. An hour later, a farmer having given them all the milk he had, they stepped back onto the train to the cheers of all.

“Denneny fell down a well during his travels and had to be hauled out,” Gorman wrote. “Both he and Clancy were all in when they returned.”

1924 joliat cleghorn

Canadiens’ Aurel Joliat (left) and Sprague Cleghorn ultimately spoiled the fairytale ending for the Ottawa Senators following their ill-fated train ride to Montreal.

The train’s passengers included a wedding party, the newlyweds headed to a honeymoon in Montreal.

“The little bride stood the first part of the journey with smiles,” the Senators GM wrote. “But she finally curled up and passed the night in one corner of the coach with confetti and paper streamers scattered around the car.”

Gorman expressed his regrets that thousands of Canadiens fans had waited in vain for the Senators, saying that the team had done its best to get to Montreal.

“Any arrangement that the Canadiens have made for the playing of the game will be satisfactory to us,” he said. “Our players have been through a nerve-racking trip but they will be at their best for tonight.”

In the end, it wouldn’t be a fairytale ending for the Senators. The Canadiens blanked their weary visitors 3-0 on a goal by Aurel Joliat and two by Sprague Cleghorn, Georges Vezina earning the shutout.

Montreal would sweep the Senators 2-0 in the NHL championship series, then sweep Calgary of the Western Canada Hockey League to win the 1924 Stanley Cup. It was the Canadiens’ second of 24 Cup titles, their first in the NHL following a 1916 win in the pre-NHL National Hockey Association.

On Monday, the Senators chartered one hour by plane from Tampa to their Tuesday game against the Florida Panthers. There wasn’t a snowflake in sight.

Top photo: Front-page headline in the Feb. 21, 1924 Ottawa Citizen, reporting on the Senators’ snowbound trip to Montreal.