Its predecessor, the National Hockey Association, was on its last legs due to players joining the Canadian Forces in World War I, decreased attendance and warring owners. One of the teams, the Toronto 228th Battalion, had been inducted en masse.
A group that included S.E. Lichtenhein of the Montreal Wanderers, G.W. Kendall of the Montreal Canadiens, T.P. Gorman of the Ottawa Senators and M.J. Quinn of the Quebec Bulldogs, along with NHA secretary-treasurer Frank Calder, met at Montreal's Windsor Hotel. The NHA owners had had repeated problems with Eddie Livingstone the owner of the Toronto Blueshirts, and decided to exclude him from the NHL.
"He was always arguing about something," said Ottawa Senators owner Tommy Gorman, referring to Livingstone. "Without him, we can get down to the business of making money."
After the announcement of the new league, the owners were approached by W. E. Northey, representing a group of investors who were awarded the Toronto franchise. Quinn then announced that Quebec would not be able to operate during the 1917-18 season but might be able to join in a year or two. The Quebec players were sold to the league and distributed to the franchises.
The meetings had started in early November as the NHA directors at first attempted to keep their original league afloat. But the numerous franchise problems in the preceding season eventually led the NHA executives to start anew.
The constitution of the National Hockey Association was adopted as the governing document of the new league, the National Hockey League. As president-elect Calder told a sparse gathering of media, the purpose of the new league was "the fostering and furtherance of the game of hockey to be governed by bylaws and rules." Calder's salary that first year was $800, and he was given the power to make irrevocable decisions.
The Toronto team didn't have a name that season, partly because Livingstone owned the rights to the names of several popular Toronto teams of the past. It wasn't until later that the NHL officially called the Toronto team the "Toronto Arenas," which actually won the league championship in that first season. The name wasn't engraved onto the Stanley Cup until 1947, long after the tradition had begun. The NHL didn't control the Stanley Cup in 1918, but it did in 1947.
The National Hockey League officially took the ice on Dec. 19, 1917, as the Montreal Canadiens defeated Ottawa, 7-4, on the strength of five goals by the NHL's first bonafide star, Joe Malone, and the Montreal Wanderers downed Toronto 10-9.
Toronto manager Charlie Querrie almost quit at the start of the season, citing Livingstone's meddling and litigation, but NHL owners talked him into staying.
The problems in Toronto and Quebec, though serious, didn't come close to matching the calamity that befell the Montreal teams. Both the Canadiens and Wanderers started playing in the Westmount Arena, which burned down after the Wanderers' sixth game.
Wanderers owner Lichtenhein, who by some historic accounts was dissatisfied with the players stocked on his team, turned the arena fire into an opportunity to disband. Longtime Boston Bruins coach and general manager Art Ross played his only three NHL games for the Wanderers.
The Canadiens found another arena, but the league was down to three teams.
Back to the on-ice action: In the opening games, defenseman Dave Ritchie scored the first goal in NHL history and then tallied another in the Wanderers' victory.
Ritchie probably wasn't surprised to find that Malone was the league's opening-night leading scorer after his Canadiens downed the Senators. Malone, who would score seven goals in a 1920 NHL game, led the NHL in its first season with 44 goals in 20 games, a scoring pace never equaled in League history. That's a scoring average of 2.2 goals per game.
The first NHL season was a 22-game affair, split in "halves," with the first-half winner to meet the second-half winner for the right to challenge the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champion for the Stanley Cup.
While Malone and goalie Georges Vezina led the Canadiens to a 10-4 record to win the first half of the season, another goalie created enough of a sensation to prompt a rule change that altered how hockey is played even today. Ottawa goalie Clint Benedict was pretty much a sprawler in the net. In the old NHA, when a goaltender fell to the ice to make a save he was assessed a minor penalty. Acknowledging Benedict's style and rather than make a farce of calling a penalty each time the Ottawa goalie flopped, the NHL instituted a rule that goaltenders would be allowed to "fall, sit or even lie on the ice if they were so inclined."
Toronto won the second half with a 5-3 record and then won the two-game series with the Canadiens in total goals, 10-7. Toronto beat the Vancouver Millionaires in a five-game series to win the Stanley Cup. Reg Noble, later an NHL referee, led Toronto with 28 goals and Corbett Denneny had 20. Those series against West Coast teams were always challenging, because Western hockey was played 7-on-7 (six skaters and a goaltender) rather than 6-on-6. In the forerunner to the use of the designated hitter in American League parks but not National League parks in the World Series, the number of men on the ice was dictated by which club was the home team.
Harry "Hap" Holmes was the Toronto goaltender, although Arthur Brooks played four games and Sammy Herbert, one. Harry Cameron was the standout defenseman. Jack Adams, who would later coach and manage the Detroit Red Wings, was a lightly used 22-year-old center. The lineup also included Alf Skinner, Ken Randall, Harry Meeking, Harry Mummery, John Coughlin, Rusty Crawford, Mike Neville and Jack Marks, the latter from the Wanderers. Holmes, Cameron Noble, Adams and Crawford all eventually became members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Combining the two half-seasons, Toronto and the Canadiens both finished 13-9 while Ottawa was 9-13. The Wanders were 1-5.
The Canadiens' lineup included Malone, Vezina, Newsy Lalonde, Didier Pitre, Joe Hall, Billy Coutu, Bert Corbeau, Jack Laviolette, Louis Berlinquette and Evariste Payer. Billy Bell and Jack McDonald came from the Wanderers.
Ottawa was led by Cy Denneny and Benedict. Other Senators of note included Jack Darrah, Eddie Gerard, Frank Nighbor, Buck Boucher, Hamby Shore, Eddie Lowery, Rusty Crawford, Horace Merrill and Morley Bruce. Ritchie and Harry Hyland joined from the Wanderers. Crawford played for Toronto and Ottawa that season.
Vezina led Benedict and Holmes with a 3.93 goals-against average.
The second Stanley Cup involving the NHL was even weirder. The Canadiens won the first half of the 1918-19 season and Ottawa won the second. The Toronto team, now called the Arenas, withdrew from the league, citing financial problems. The NHL was down to two teams.
Montreal defeated Ottawa in a playoff and met the PCHA Seattle Metropolitans -- but the series was halted when players were stricken with the deadly influenza that would kill Joe Hall. The Canadiens could not continue, but the Metropolitans refused to accept the Stanley Cup under the conditions.
The trustees of the Stanley Cup then decided the current holder would retain the Stanley Cup, so it was awarded again to the Toronto team, now known as the Arenas, which did not legally exist.
The Quebec Bulldogs franchise iced its first team in 1919-20 and Toronto re-organized, creating a four-team league. Hamilton replaced Quebec during the next four seasons and then Boston and the Montreal Maroons joined in 1925. Pittsburgh and the New York Americans joined in 1925-26 but Hamilton dropped out. Chicago, Detroit and the New York Rangers joined the NHL in 1926-27, with Ottawa winning its third and final Stanley Cup.
By 1927, an agreement was reached in which only NHL teams competed for the Stanley Cup.
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