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Vancouver brothers sculpted game of hockey 100 years before Canucks vied for cup

Frank Patrick is shown in an undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO- BC Sports Hall of Fame

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Frank Patrick is shown in an undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO- BC Sports Hall of Fame

VANCOUVER - When Roberto Luongo drops to his knees to make a game-changing save, overjoyed Vancouver Canucks fans erupt with wild gratitude for the swift move.

What many don't appreciate is that dynamic manoeuvre was invented by a pair of hockey-head brothers 100 years before the superstar goaltender was to compete for the Stanley Cup in the same city where the brothers laced up the new rule.

In fact, the exuberant crowds wouldn't be watching playoffs at all if not for the Vancouver-based Patrick brothers.

"They really were innovations, stuff that wasn't tried anywhere before in the game," said Jason Beck, curator for the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, of the lengthy list of ingenuities introduced by the brothers.

"(They) literally changed the game to what we're seeing today in the Vancouver-Boston series. I mean, there is a direct connection between what happened in 1911 to 2011."

Lester and Frank Patrick are credited with making vital contributions to Canada's favourite sport, earning them and their offspring the moniker of "hockey's royal family."

They invented the playoff series as it now stands, put numbers on jerseys, created the blueline, tightened the number of players teams were allowed to have on the ice and permitted goalies to develop the butterfly stance.

The duo was born in Drummondville, Que. to a wealthy lumber baron who moved his operations and sons to Nelson, B.C. in the early 20th century. They were both skilled professional hockey players who won the Stanley Cup, convincing their father to sell off his land in the Southern Interior to start their own three-team league further West.

It was a huge risk, considering Vancouver rarely got cold enough for local ponds to freeze into ice. Sometimes, the hockey season lasted only a few days.

But with a half-million dollars, the family built artificial ice arenas in Vancouver and in Victoria, creating the Pacific Coast Hockey Association.

"They were really smart businessmen, and they had to be, because it wasn't a money-making operation, especially at first," Beck said, adding that in the beginning, the Patricks made more cold, hard cash selling ice for iceboxes from the refrigeration plant than from the sports sales.

Within their league they played, coached, managed and owned the teams and held the role of commissioner, allowing them to adjust the rules and move players around as they liked, just to keep play exciting. Between 1911 and 1926, they implemented nearly two dozen additions and changes that remain with the game today:

Playoff format: Other than baseball's World Series, neither hockey nor other professional sports featured a "second season" to determine the best of the best. The team that won in its division was simply crowned king. The Patricks wanted to reward teams that played well but might have been lower in the standings. They created a best-of-three or best-of-five series instead of the traditional two-games, total-goals series. Ticket sales shot up.

Jersey numbers: Prior to helmets, players were identified from the head up. By pinning a number on the backs of hockey sweaters, the Patricks surmised they could sell programs listing player names alongside their number.

Blueline: The red centreline was once the only one. Wanting to invigorate the game and add more offence, the Patricks installed blue lines. Unrestricted passing was allowed in the neutral zone, the central zone, which led to the acceptance of forward passing.

Player structure: Hockey was originally played by seven people—three forwards, two defencemen, a goalie, and a rover who could skate all over the ice. The brothers eliminated that final position.

Goaltending: Prior to the Patricks' league, goalies were only permitted to stand to make a save.

Other innovations included introducing the penalty shot, legalizing the kicking of the puck in play, allowing substitution of players during play, having two referees on the ice and tracking assists, as opposed to just goals. The brothers also coined the term "superstar," which they applied to players such as Cyclone Taylor.

Beck said Frank Patrick was the dreamer and the thinker, while his older brother Lester was the promoter and showman. Together they had the insider knowledge of players, as well as the resources to ensure their rule changes would stick.

Most significantly, they were able to cut through the "old, stodgy" rules that prevailed in the East, Beck said.

"The West was uncharted territory for hockey, a blank canvas. I don't think there's any possible way they could have implemented so many of these changes in such a dramatic way in the East because everything was so entrenched there," he said.

"These were crazy, revolutionary things at the time but they're still here with us."

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