J. Ambrose O’Brien And His $5000 Montreal Canadiens

There’s been some good blog talk lately regarding the origins of the Montreal Canadiens, and the fact that Andy O’Brien’s book, “Fire-Wagon Hockey” later to become “Les Canadiens”, has original Canadiens owner J. Ambrose O’Brien’s own recollections of what happened.


I have both books, and they both print Ambrose’s memories of how it happened.


“On that chill November 25, 1909, J. Ambrose O’Brien was in Montreal buying supplies for a railway contract on the St. Maurice River. He also owned the Cobalt and Haileybury teams in the miners-supported, rip-snorting Temiskaming League. He received a phone call from the owners (George and Jim Barnett) of the Renfrew Millionaires, suggesting he apply for a franchise in the established league, renamed the Canadian Hockey Association.


This is Ambrose O’Brien’s recollection of what happened when he did apply.


“My application was laughed at in Room 135 of the Windsor Hotel where the new CHA was meeting. Out in the hall I ran into General Manager J. Gardner of the Wanderers who said: ‘Why don’t we form a new league – you own Cobalt and Haileybury and represent Renfrew, while I have the Wanderers?” So we held a meeting Room 129.”


At that meeting, Gardner had another idea. He said to O’Brien:

“Why don’t you get together a French team here in Montreal to balance off the Wanderers with a French-English rivalry?”


O’Brien, surprised, replied: “But I don’t know any French players here.”


“So what?” came back Gardiner. “I do. in fact, all you’d have to do is back Jack Laviolette financially and the team will be formed for you.”


So the National Hockey Association came into being in Room 129 – made up of the Wanderers, Renfrew, Cobalt, Haileybury, and a team to be known as Les Canadiens.


J. Ambrose told the author: “My total investment in forming the great Canadiens club was $5000. I paid nothing for the franchise; that amount was for expenses including guaranteeing of player salaries. The understanding was that the Canadiens’ franchise would be turned over to French sportsmen in Montreal as soon as practicable.” (The O’Brien interests withdrew from hockey two years later.)


The Canadiens played their first game on January 5, 1910. They won 7-6 over Cobalt.


It took the Canadiens six years to build from the NHA bottom to the Stanley Cup top.


The author also issues this footnote: “Confusion between J. Ambrose O’Brien and the author often enters because of an interesting coincidence. Both were born in Renfrew, Ont. When Ambrose took over the Millionaires, the author’s late father, Bill O’Brien, was the team trainer. Bill had started a thirty year career as a major league trainer extending through the NHL to baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers. But the two O’Brien families are not related.

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