The Kenora Thistles, officially the Thistles Hockey Club, were a Canadian ice hockey team based in Kenora, Ontario. Founded in 1894, they were originally known as the Rat Portage Thistles. The team competed for the Stanley Cup, the ice hockey championship of Canada, five times between 1903 and 1907. The Thistles won the Cup in January 1907 and defended it once before losing it that March in a challenge series. Composed almost entirely of local players, the team comes from the least populated city to have won the Stanley Cup. Nine players—four of them homegrown—have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the Stanley Cup champion team was inducted into the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame.
Though Kenora is in Ontario, the Thistles competed in Manitoba-based leagues throughout their existence, owing to the city's proximity to that province. The team joined the Manitoba Hockey Association (MHA) in 1902, winning the league championship in three of their six seasons. They were idealized "as a team of hometown boys who used to play shinny together on the streets of Rat Portage". The Thistles were unable to cope with the advent of professionalism in ice hockey during the early 1900s. This combined with an economic downturn in 1907, and being unable to sustain their success, the team disbanded in 1908. The name "Thistles" has been used since for several senior, minor, and junior Kenora teams.
The first recorded ice hockey game played in Rat Portage was on February 17, 1893, organized by the Hardisty brothers, who had recently moved from Winnipeg to take part in a minor gold rush in the region. A club was formed in 1894, with a contest held to name it; the winning entry, "Thistles", was chosen by Bill Dunsmore, a carpenter with Scottish heritage. George Dewey, one of the wealthiest people in the town, donated the initial funds for the team. In recognition he was named the club's honorary president. Most of the players were from wealthy families or independently wealthy. They had the means both to take time off work and to cover the considerable expenses associated with ice hockey.
The club had no owner or financial backer and, apart from Dewey's initial donation, local businesses never supported it financially. It was a community effort, with officers elected to make decisions for the club. As a result, the club was strained financially and would be throughout their existence. In March 1894 they successfully hosted a benefit concert to raise funds. Though a similar attempt the following year did not bring in as much money, concerts were held yearly until 1903.
Initially, the games were played within the club, but the players quickly grew tired of this. In 1894 the team was admitted to the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association, and entered the second-tier intermediate level. Though based in Ontario, the Thistles joined the Manitoba league because they were geographically closer to its teams. In their first season they won twelve games, showing they could easily compete at that level.
In January 1896 a game was held in Kenora between the senior team and a junior-aged team, with players aged 12–16. The junior players, many of whom were related to players on the senior team, felt they could compete with the older team, and subsequently won, easily defeating their opponents. In a 1953 newspaper article on the match Lowry Johnston, who was on the senior team, explained, "They were just too fast for us." A legend developed that the senior team quit hockey after that match, letting the junior players take their place in the Manitoba league. While this may not have happened as quickly as suggested, many of the players from the junior team soon joined the senior team and would hold major roles on the Thistles.
Bolstered by the younger players, the Thistles finished second in the Manitoba intermediate league in 1899–00. They won the league title in 1900–01, greatly outscoring their opponents. When the team started the 1901–02 season with a lopsided 12–0 victory, the club's executives became concerned. They felt if the games were not competitive people would not come to watch them, resulting in less revenue. Believing the team was strong enough to move up, they applied to join the senior Manitoba Hockey Association, which had two teams that season, both in Winnipeg: the Victorias and the Winnipeg Rowing Club. To prove they could compete, the Thistles played an exhibition match against the Victorias, one of the best teams in Canada, and a previous winner of the Stanley Cup, the championship trophy of ice hockey in Canada. The Thistles fared well in the match, but the two Winnipeg teams decided against allowing them to join the league, arguing the Thistles applied too late in the season. Returning to the intermediate league, the Thistles, weakened by injuries to several players, finished in a tie for second overall. After the season ended Tommy Phillips, one of the best players on the Thistles, moved to Montreal to attend McGill University.