Frank Ahearn: Businessman, MP, and Sports Mogul

(Bytown-Ottawa Heritage Trail: The Fabulous Ahearns cont’d)

Thomas Franklin Ahearn, known as Frank, was in Ottawa in 1886.  By then his father Thomas had embarked on a career that would see him successfully establish a business empire with Warren Soper and a reputation as Canada’s leading inventor and moderniser of the city of Ottawa (see blog). Frank showed similar drive and ambition to his father, embracing with gusto a varied career as a military officer, businessman, parliamentarian and sporting mogul.

In his young days, Frank played ice hockey with his pals, using an old street car from his father’s company as a dressing room.  Ice hockey indeed would be a life-long devotion and mark one of his significant contributions to Ottawa and Canada.

In the meantime, World War I intervened and like so many other Irish Canadians, Frank joined the army as a lieutenant with the First Canadian Supply Division, Mechanical Transport in January 1914.  He served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France, saw action, was promoted to captain and was wounded.  He returned home in 1916 and later became orderly officer to the Minister of the Militia, Sir Sam Hughes.[1]

Frank rekindled his love for hockey, managing amateur junior and senior hockey.  “He became interested in professional Hockey because he felt that was the best way to get the city a badly needed new facility. Besides, he’d grown tired of the huge gray area represented by the term amateur during this period.”[2]  Frank became a part-owner of the Ottawa Senators in 1920 and was a key figure in the evolution of the sport from amateur to professional. 

The Ottawa Senators were a storied team since their foundation in 1883, the first club in Ontario and a founding member of the National Hockey League.  They won the first Stanley Cup challenge in 1893 and kept it until 1906. They returned to winning form in 1920 when Frank became a part owner of the team, along with the founder and majority owner Edwin ‘Ted’ Dey.[3] 

Tommy Gorman was another part-owner, one of the greatest managers and talent spotters in ice hockey history, winning seven Stanley Cups during his career. First generation Irish, Tommy was born in Ottawa of an Irish father, Thomas Patrick Gorman who was born in Kilmanagan, Co Kilkenny in 1849. Thomas Patrick was a newspaper editor so it was not surprising that his son Tommy became a writer with the Ottawa Citizen in the years up to 1921, writing about his great passion, sports.[4]

The Senators won the Cup again in 1922 again in 1923.  It was then that Frank bought the Senators from Dey who was retiring. The Senators won the Stanley Cup again in 1924, with Frank demonstrating “his prowess as a handler of player personnel.”[5] Tommy sold his share to Frank in 1925 and went to New York to establish professional hockey there. The Senators were champions again in 1927, the (possibly) eleventh and final time they won the Championship.[6]  The team for the 1926-27 season included some of the greats of ice hockey, Irish Canadians like King Clancy, Alec Connell, Cy Denneny, and the ‘Shawville Express’ Frank Finnigan (so called because he got the train to Ottawa but I’m sure it had something to do with his style of play!)[7]

Frank’s biography in the Hockey Hall of Fame:

“Ahearn was not one to shy away from significant transactions. After winning the Stanley Cup he sent Hooley Smith to the Montreal Maroons for $22, 500 and the immensely talented Punch Broadbent. A few years later sold King Clancy to the Toronto Maple Leafs for two players and $35,000. The latter move was one of desperation as the Depression took its toll on the once proud franchise. Ahearn fought hard and lost a great deal of money trying to keep the Senators afloat. He successfully lobbied for the team to be excused from the 1931-32 season. The next year the club finished last and was forced to relocate to St. Louis, Missouri were it ended for good after one season. Despite the ending, Ottawans enjoyed many years of outstanding hockey as a result of Ahearn’s commitment.”[8]

Along with Gorman and Dey, Frank was part of the consortium that built the Ottawa Auditorium, home to the Senators from 1923, capable of hosting 10,000 spectators. It was located beside what is today the Canadian Museum of Nature on the site of what is now a YMCA. The Auditorium’s fortunes waned along with the team’s decline from greatness.  It went into receivership in 1936, with Gorman returning to take ownership in 1945.

Throughout these years, Frank was a leading businessman, following in the footsteps of his famous father, taking over the Ottawa Electric Railway Company in 1938 when Thomas Ahearn died. Two years later he headed the Ottawa Electric Company and had many business interests in realty, car manufacture and investments.

Frank was certainly a chip off the old block and in addition to his interests in business and hockey, he was elected to Parliament where he served for almost a decade between 1930 and 1940, a Liberal MP first for Ottawa City and then Ottawa West.  

Frank’s family home was at 7 Rideau Gate, a fine detached residence, where he lived with his wife Norah, son Thomas and daughters Joan and Lilias.  Frank died in 1962.  That year he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Four years later he was inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame.

Frank, his wife and children were the last private family to live at 7 Rideau Hall before it became the official guest accommodation of the Canadian Government.  And that is part of Lilias’ story.

Eamonn McKee

Ottawa

17 December 2022


[1] Parliamentary Profile, https://lop.parl.ca/sites/ParlInfo/default/en_CA/People/Profile?personId=507 and his biographical entry in the Hockey Hall of Fame, https://www.hhof.com/HonouredMembers/MemberDetails.html?type=Builder&mem=B196201&list=ByName

[2] https://hockeygods.com/images/14791-Frank_Ahearn_Ottawa_Senators_President_and_Owner

[3] Wikipedia entry, Edwin Dey. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Dey

[4] Thanks to Michael McBane for establishing the Irish birth of Tommy’s father.

[5] Hall of Fame biography: https://www.hhof.com/HonouredMembers/MemberDetails.html?type=Builder&mem=B196201&list=ByName

[6] It is a matter of some dispute whether in fact they won it 9, 10 or 11 times.

[7] Finnigan won the Stanley Cup again, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. After his sporting career ended in 1937, Finnigan had a problem with alcohol and Frank Ahearn got him a job.  Finnigan overcame his drinking problem and managed hotels in the area.  His daughter Joan became a writer and collected many stories of the Irish in the Ottawa Valley.  She wrote the screenplay for the 1968 docudrama, The Best Damn Fiddler Player from Calabogie to Kaladar which won the Canadian Film Award, as did the film itself.  Margot Kidder, famously playing Lois Lane in the Superman movie, made her film debut in the movie.

[8] Op cit.

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3 Comments

Filed under Canada, Irish Heritage of Canada

3 responses to “Frank Ahearn: Businessman, MP, and Sports Mogul

  1. Gabriel McCaffrey

    What an excellent local Ottawa story, linking Irish settlement to the first version of the Ottawa Senators.
    And have a little faith, the Sens will win a Stanley cup again, one day.

  2. coolcom5

    Hi Frank,
    We will be visiting Ottawa in March linking up with Mercury Filmworks, partners with Kilkenny based animation companies Cartoon Saloon & Lighthouse Studios. We might meet up with you on our travels.

    Regards and a Merry Christmas from SETU Waterford
    Michael
    http://www.wit.ie

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