Gold Rush: The Story of the Dawson City Nuggets

They say that Canada is hockey. It’s the nation’s most popular sport and has been played by generations of Canadians all across the country. Perhaps no better story encapsulates Canada’s love of the game than the 1905 Stanley Cup challenge series, between the nation’s capital, and a small northwestern City in the Yukon Territory. This is the story of the Dawson City Nuggets. A story of endeavour and a love for the game.

The hockey landscape was a much different place in 1905. Professional Hockey was still in its early days and the National Hockey League wouldn’t be established for another twelve years. But there was still the Stanley Cup to contend for. Rather than have a formal playoff system, a team would be chosen by the Stanley Cup trustees to formally challenge for the Stanley Cup against the team who were the current champions.

In 1903, Canadian Amateur Hockey League champions, the Ottawa Hockey Club (who would later be better known as the original Ottawa Senators) would play the Rat Portage Thistles for the right to win the Stanley Cup. Ottawa swept the series 2-0 and would go on to win the Cup again the following season.

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It was regarded as the first two Stanley Cups ever won by the Senators, and a large reason for this was the star power they possessed in the early twentieth century. Players such as Rat Westwick, Alf Smith and Frank McGee were key components of a team that went to be called the “Silver Seven” (back then teams had seven players on the ice), and they were among Hockey’s first-ever dynasties, with many Ottawa players of the time now enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

After their Stanley Cup win against Brandon Wheat City in the spring of 1904, the next team to challenge Ottawa made their claim that summer, which Ottawa had accepted by the following October. Set to take place in January 1905, Ottawa’s next challengers would be the Dawson City Nuggets.

Just ten years prior in 1895, the area in which Dawson City lies today was an unincorporated wilderness, with the nearby Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin First Nation being the people who primarily occupied the area, within the Klondike region of The Yukon Territory. But everything would soon dramatically change when a First Nation man called Keish and his brother-in-law George Carmack found gold in Bonanza Creek.

Soon, over 100,000 people made the journey up to the Klondike in what is considered one of North America’s last great Gold Rushes. The area was suddenly populated with thousands upon thousands of new settlers, looking to seek their fortune. ”Boomtowns” were quickly built up all around the area, and this is how Dawson City came to be in 1896.

Ice Hockey in Dawson City, Yukon 1900

Home to just 500 people in 1896, Dawson City’s population had skyrocketed to as high as 30,000 by 1898, becoming the biggest settlement in the Yukon and its capital city. It was a place for people to enjoy themselves through shows, gambling, and alcohol. Many people made a fortune in Dawson City, but the settlement at this time was marred with problems. With such a population boom, housing and infrastructure had to be built hastily out of wood, and a scarce water supply (especially in the frozen winters) made fires especially devastating.

From 1897 to 1899, Dawson City suffered three major fires, causing over $1.5 million USD in Damage, roughly over $42 million USD in today’s money. Its remote location and scarce space made basic supplies such as butter, fresh groceries, and housing so expensive that many people who did find gold would find themselves not making much money from their efforts. As the Gold Rush came to an end in 1899, the population boom went with it, and by 1901, Dawson City had a population of only 9,142.

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One of those who did stay and live in Dawson City at the time was entrepreneur businessman Joseph W. Boyle. Boyle was able to make his money by mining the Klondike region for gold, and as an avid hockey fan, he would often organize games for the benefit of the miners who worked in Dawson City. Amongst those who played hockey were former high-profile stars Randy McLennan and former Ottawa player Weldy Young.

By 1904, Boyle had put together an all-star Dawson City hockey team that included the two former stars, and in December 1904, the Dawson City Nuggets set out on their 6,400 kilometres (4,000 miles) journey to Ottawa to compete for hockeys biggest prize. The journey was a mammoth task logistically, with many stops being needed along the way, and even more methods of transport. But before the team even left Dawson City, they were already shorthanded.

Dawson City Nuggets, 1904

Weldy Young worked as a civil servant, and because the timing of the journey coincided with a federal election, he was unable to make the trip to Ottawa. Team captain, Lionel Bennett was also unavailable, as he declined the chance to play in order to stay with his wife who had been hurt in a sleigh accident.

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On December 18th, in negative 20-degree weather, the team departed Dawson City to Whitehorse. Some made the journey on bicycle, but most made their way to Whitehorse by Dogsled. The harsh Yukon weather proved challenging. When the team made it to Whitehorse, the harsh conditions delayed the train to Skagway Alaska by three days, and when they finally made it to Skagway, they missed their connecting boat to Vancouver by just two hours, grounding the team in Alaska for five days.

They were only able to practice once during that time, but the sandy conditions of the rink they used in Skagway did more harm than good, dulling the players’ skates. Eventually, the boat arrived and after a long journey in which many players suffered seasickness, the weather once again interfered. Heavy fog had set in over Vancouver, so the boat was forced to dock in Seattle, adding another leg to the journey as they now needed to take a train from Seattle to Vancouver. Finally, the team was able to board a train from Vancouver on January 6th, 1905 going to Ottawa, and on January 11th, they finally reached Ottawa, just two days before the first Stanley Cup game.

Group photo of the Dawson City Nuggets on January 14, 1905, posed outside Dey’s Arena

Tired and unable to properly train ahead of the match, the Nuggets requested to have the series pushed back by a day to help them adequately prepare, but the Senator’s declined the request, meaning that the most unusual Stanley Cup challenge ever would go ahead.

The game took place at a sold out Dey’s Arena, and the visitors made a respectable start to the proceedings. With Ottawa holding a slim 3-1 lead halfway through the game. But Ottawa was the best hockey team in the world, and soon their quality showed as they went on to win the first game comfortably 9-2, much to the dismay of the Nuggets, who claimed many of the goals were offside.

Despite being fatigued, the Nuggets played a physical hockey game with Nuggets winger Norman Watt getting involved in many altercations with Ottawa players. Watt would continue to make headlines, as he proclaimed Ottawa star Frank McGee “doesn’t look like too much” after the centreman only managed one goal in the first game. Overall Dawson City was feeling optimistic going into game two, with Boyle believing that now that his team had stretched their legs, the second game would be a different story.

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Boyle was right, but unfortunately, it coincided with Watt being very wrong. McGee scored fourteen goals in an utterly unrelenting 23-2 Stanley Cup-clinching win for Ottawa. The game remains by far the largest margin of victory in a Stanley Cup game, and McGee’s fourteen goals are the most scored by a player ever in a major professional Hockey game.

The scoreline could have been much worse if not for the efforts of Dawson City goalkeeper Albert Forres, who at just seventeen years old, still holds the record for youngest ever player to play in a Stanley Cup game. While they never won the Stanley Cup, the Nuggets played twenty-three exhibition games on their way back West and went 13-9-1 against teams in the East. Although they were no match for Ottawa, the Nuggets could return to Dawson City with pride as they showed they could compete with teams across Quebec, the Maritimes, Pennsylvania, and Manitoba, showing the world what a hockey team from the Yukon was capable of. The Dawson City Nuggets were immortalized on the Stanley Cup, as their name was engraved on the trophy as part of the marking of Ottawa’s 1905 win.

Group picture of the 1905 Ottawa “Silver Seven”, Stanley Cup champions

As the Gold Rush era continue to become part of Dawson City’s past rather than its present, the population continued to sharply decline. By 1911 its population was 3,013 and by 1951, it had plummeted to just 783. Whitehorse, with its population of 2,594 was designated as the Yukon’s new Capital City in 1953, replacing Dawson City, and despite its name, Dawson City officially lost its city status in the 1980s. The town has never had a professional sports team with the 1905 series remaining the only time a team from Dawson City or a Canadian territory played for the Stanley Cup.

Ottawa went on to win a further eight Stanley Cups before the Senators folded in 1935 (after a year in St. Louis). The team name was later revived however as a new NHL expansion team began to play in Ottawa in 1992, and despite no further Cup success, the new Ottawa Senators continue to play on hockey’s biggest stage. Today, Ottawa has a metro population of 1,488,307, the fourth largest in Canada. Dawson City’s population has steadily increased since the 1980s, with a 2021 population of 1,577.

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In 1997, Ottawa Senators Alumni faced off against a team from Dawson City in a reenactment of the 1905 series. The Dawson City team was once again the away team and the players symbolically recreated the journey their predecessors did as best they could. The game finished 18-0 to Ottawa in front of a crowd of over 6,000, at the Corel Centre (better known today as Canadian Tire Centre), with money generated from gate recipes donated to multiple sports programmes such as Yukon Minor Hockey and Yukon Special Olympics.

If Canada is hockey, then perhaps there is no better story that exemplifies how unifying the sport is, and the dedication Canadians will go to for the love of the game. A twenty-three day, 6,400 KM journey over snow, rail, and ocean on a sled, boat, and train for the chance to play for hockey’s biggest prize is an incredible effort, and for as long as teams in the NHL compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup, the name Dawson City Nuggets will live on in hockey history.


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