The Flying Frenchmen

The Flying Frenchmen plaque series commemorated a group of three original players for the Montreal Canadiens. A plaque stands in each player's hometown.

On June 23, 2016, the Jean-Baptiste “Jack” Laviolette plaque was unveiled by the Ontario Heritage Trust at the Quinte Sports & Wellness Centre in Belleville. The Edouard “Newsy” Lalonde plaque was unveiled by the Trust at the Cornwall Civic Complex on July 21, 2016. Finally, the plaque commemorating Didier “Cannonball” Pitre was unveiled by the Trust in Renfrew on January 20, 2017, then permanently installed at the Ma-Te-Way Activity Centre.

The bilingual text reads as follows:


    Professional hockey was in its infancy in the autumn of 1909 when the promoters behind the National Hockey Association, forerunner of the National Hockey League, created the Montreal Canadiens team to attract French-Canadian spectators. Belleville-born Jean-Baptiste "Jack" Laviolette was hired as the playing-manager and captain. Laviolette signed Cornwall's Édouard "Newsy" Lalonde to play forward and recruited his friend Didier "Cannonball" Pitre from the Renfrew Creamery Kings ('Renfrew Millionaires') as a defenceman. This trio of francophone players formed the nucleus of the roster for several seasons and led the Canadiens to their first Stanley Cup championship in 1916. They played with such speed and finesse that sportswriters began calling them "The Flying Frenchmen," establishing the Canadiens' trademark playing style for generations. Laviolette retired in 1918, the Canadiens traded Lalonde to the Saskatoon Crescents in 1922 and Pitre retired in 1923. All three were later inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for their part in establishing a legendary hockey franchise.


    Le hockey professionnel en est à ses balbutiements à l’automne 1909, lorsque les promoteurs en charge de l’Association nationale de hockey, qui laissera place par la suite à la Ligue nationale de hockey, créent l’équipe des Canadiens de Montréal pour attirer des spectateurs canadiens-français. Jean-Baptiste « Jack » Laviolette, né à Belleville, est désigné capitaine-joueur et gérant de l’équipe. Laviolette fait signer l’attaquant Édouard « Newsy » Lalonde, originaire de Cornwall, et recrute son ami Didier « Cannonball » Pitre, membre des Creamery Kings (« Millionnaires ») de Renfrew, pour jouer en défense. Le trio de joueurs francophones forme le noyau dur de l’équipe durant plusieurs saisons et permet aux Canadiens de Montréal de remporter leur première Coupe Stanley en 1916. Leur vitesse et la finesse de leur jeu sont telles que les journalistes sportifs commencent à les appeler les « Flying Frenchmen », définissant un style de jeu caractéristique qui sera perpétué par de nombreuses générations de joueurs de l’équipe. Laviolette prend sa retraite en 1918, Lalonde est échangé avec un joueur des Crescents de Saskatoon en 1922 et Pitre met fin à sa carrière de hockeyeur en 1923. Les trois joueurs sont par la suite intronisés au Temple de la renommée du hockey en raison du rôle qu’ils ont joué dans la création d’une franchise mythique de ce sport.

Historical background

Jean-Baptiste Laviolette (1879-1960), Didier Pitre1 (1883-1934) and Édouard Lalonde (1887-1970) were hockey players of French-Canadian descent in the early years of the 20th century. They began their careers when professionals were supplanting amateurs as the game’s best players. Initially, Laviolette, Pitre and Lalonde were well-travelled athletes.

In those days, professional hockey was a precarious business. Teams came and went each season and leagues rarely lasted long. Promoters signed players for a single season only and the players could never be certain where they would be playing from one winter to the next.

In the six years between 1903 and 1909, Laviolette played one season for the Montreal Nationals, three for the Indians of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and two for the Montreal Shamrocks. Pitre put his talents to work for the Nationals, the Indians, the Shamrocks, the Cobalt Silver Kings, the Edmonton Professionals and the Renfrew Creamery Kings. Lalonde was the most itinerant of these hockey nomads, and he sometimes transferred from one team to another in the space of a single winter. During those same six seasons, he played for teams in his hometown of Cornwall, Woodstock, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Cobalt, Portage-la-Prairie, Manitoba, Toronto, Haileybury and Montreal.2

The autumn of 1909 brought no more than the usual level of uncertainty for Laviolette, Pitre and Lalonde and, for that matter, the rest of the tiny fraternity of professional hockey players. As always, their fates and fortunes rested in the hands of the promoters and, that autumn, the leading promoters in Montreal and Ottawa were at serious conflict with one another. Two factions had formed. They agreed on very little during the meetings that preceded the start of the season, and so went their separate ways and formed competing leagues — the Canadian Hockey Association (CHA) and the National Hockey Association (NHA) — each of which began the season with five teams.

This unfortunate turn of events unleashed a fierce bidding war for talent that made one player — Fred “Cyclone” Taylor — the highest-paid athlete in North America3 and briefly enriched several others, including Laviolette, Pitre and Lalonde. It cost the promoters dearly in terms of financial losses and forced the CHA to dissolve by the end of January 1910. The NHA admitted two teams from the rival association and finished the season as a seven-team league.

The NHA and six of its seven clubs — the Montreal Wanderers, the original Ottawa Senators, the Renfrew Millionaires, the Cobalt Silver Kings, the Haileybury Comets and the Montreal Shamrocks — all faded, folded and disappeared with the passage of time. But one team formed at the start of that chaotic and turbulent season — Le Club de Hockey Le Canadien — would become the Montreal Canadiens and, in the ensuing decades, would become the most successful team in the history of hockey.

The promoters of the NHA formed the Canadiens on December 4, 1909; they acted for commercial reasons. Montreal, at the time, was a city of some 465,000 people, two-thirds of them French. The men behind the NHA reasoned that a team representing the French-Canadian majority in Canada’s largest city would be a box office draw.4

They promptly signed Laviolette to a contract as playing manager of the Canadiens and it was a smart decision. Laviolette was one of the best athletes of his day and he was well known and widely admired in Montreal sporting circles. His given name was Jean-Baptiste, which reflected his French-Canadian origins, but he was known universally as “Jack,” a nickname he picked up as a youth in Belleville, Ontario where he was born.

The name stuck after his family moved to Valleyfield, a small town in Southwestern Quebec near the Ontario border; that is where his athletic career began in earnest. Laviolette played lacrosse in the summer and hockey in the winter and excelled at both. But he was better known for his hockey prowess. He moved to Montreal in 1902, at the age of 23, and quickly advanced from commercial league play to senior hockey and then the professional game and he supplemented his income by running a downtown tavern known as Jack’s Cage.

Laviolette wore several hats as playing manager of the Canadiens. He was the coach, the on-ice captain and the point man — one of two defensive positions. Initially, however, he had to assemble a seven-man roster and he started by signing Pitre and Lalonde, who were equally talented, well-known athletes of French-Canadian descent.

Pitre was originally from Valleyfield, Quebec and was working at his brother-in-law’s automobile repair shop when Laviolette sent a telegram offering him a contract. He was a big man by the standards of the day. His weight usually approached, and sometimes exceeded, 200 pounds, but he was a fast skater and had such a hard shot that sportswriters and fans nicknamed him "Cannonball." Then, as now, hockey was a rough, often violent sport, but Pitre was never one to elbow, spear or carve up an opponent. “Many played brutally,” the sportswriter Elmer Ferguson once wrote in the Montreal Herald. “It is doubtful if the big, good-natured Frenchman ever did a mean or unsportsmanlike thing in his whole career.” A French-Canadian journalist described him this way: “The fans liked his lively character, his engaging repartee, his extraordinary drive and the unbelievable speed of his rushes.”

Lalonde, on the other hand, was one of those players who gave as good as he got. A Montreal Star story from the 1909-10 season provides an illuminating glimpse of the man and his running feud with Renfrew’s Lester Patrick: “Patrick cut Lalonde’s head open with a swing of his stick and as soon as the Renfrew leader got back in play Lalonde got him with a wicked crosscheck that sent the famous rover into the air as though shot from a cannon.”5

Lalonde learned early that he had to be tough. A native of Cornwall, he apprenticed briefly in the pressroom of the Cornwall Freeholder and, as a result, was known forever after as Newsy. In the 1904-05 season, when he was 17, he started with the local junior team, but quickly joined the town’s senior club, which put the teenager up against men several years his senior. He proved he could handle himself and, for the remainder of his career, opponents thought twice before tangling with him.

Laviolette, Pitre and Lalonde formed the nucleus of the Canadiens during the team’s first decade. They earned the respect and loyalty of French-speaking Montrealers, who embraced the Canadiens, and as early as 1914 began to call them “l’équipe des habitants,” or the team of the habitants.6 The expression found its way into the French-language newspapers and from there it migrated to the English papers, which began referring to the Canadiens as the “Habitants” and later the “Habs.”

The three original Canadiens formed the forward line when the team captured its first Stanley Cup championship in 1916 by beating the Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, a professional league formed by Lester Patrick and his brother Frank. They established the Canadiens' trademark style of play — a high-tempo game distinguished by speed and finesse — and so impressed the English-language sportswriters that they began calling the Canadiens the “Flying Frenchmen.”

By the time they hung up their skates, Laviolette, Pitre and Lalonde were sporting heroes in Montreal and much of Quebec, and it did not matter to the fans that two of the three were originally from Ontario. In fact, despite his French-Canadian heritage, Lalonde hardly spoke a word of French, but Montrealers overlooked that shortcoming because he was one of the most prolific scorers in the game.

Laviolette retired after the 1917-18 season, but not by choice. He was involved in a serious automobile accident and had to have his badly injured right foot amputated. Lalonde played until the 1921-22 season, by which time his skills had eroded. During the off season, the club traded him to the Saskatoon Sheiks of the Western Canada Hockey League for a diminutive but dynamic forward named Aurele Joliat. Pitre remained until the end of the 1922-23 campaign and, by then, was a substitute who spent most of his time on the bench but nevertheless remained good-natured and retained the respect of the fans. Finally, long after their playing days were over, Laviolette, Pitre and Lalonde were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame for their pivotal roles in establishing the Canadiens as the sport’s most fabled franchise.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of D'Arcy Jenish in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust 2016

1 Surname also appears as "Petrie" and "Pietre" in references to Didier and his family.

2 Website

3 Taylor joined the Renfrew Hockey Club for a reported $5,250 for one season. This made him the highest-paid Canadian athlete. He made more money than the Canadian Prime Minister at the time. Because of the high salaries that the players received, the fans called them the Renfrew Millionaires. There is also a provincial plaque to the Renfrew Millionaires, located at the entrance to the Ma-te-way Park Sports Complex in Renfrew.

4 D. Jenish. The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory. (Toronto, 2008), pp. 7-20.

5 Montreal Star, January 20, 1910.

6 La Patrie, February 1914.