Skip to Main Content

Emerging from the shadows to greatness

by John McGourty
What's that saying about darkest before dawn? The National Hockey League started 91 years ago today, in the shadow of war time and with more than a few late-night meetings. 
The previous season of the National Hockey Association had struggled to completion as dozens of the league's top players enlisted in the Canadian armed forces and owners feuded among themselves. Something had to change -- and fast -- if pro hockey was going to exist for the 1917-18 season.
Cut to the chase: 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 in a 10-9 romp.

But these historic games were only made possible by an agreement signed Nov. 26, 1917, after a month of meetings and backroom dealings by a group of men from Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and Quebec City committed to pro hockey and making it profitable, even during war time and perhaps especially then.

These meetings started in early November as the NHL predecessor National Hockey Association's directors -- S.E. Lichtenhein of the Wanderers, G.W. Kendall of the Canadiens, T.P. Gorman of Ottawa and M.J. Quinn of Quebec, along with NHA secretary-treasurer Frank Calder -- 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.
At the historic first Board of Governors meeting in November 1917 at Montreal's Windsor Hotel, the NHL was formed. The crude 25-page 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.
Today, the NHL is 91 years old and boasts 30 teams in Canada and the United States. The league features both a world-wide talent base and audience. But you had to start someplace.
The NHL's formation was undeniably a colorful affair. During the 1916-17 season, the NHA had admitted a military unit, the 228th Battalion, the first North American sports league to do before or since. But the Northern Fusiliers battalion was called to active duty in February 1918. The team's season highlight might have been the opening game, when the Fusiliers came out clad in khaki uniforms.
In the seasons before the NHL was formed, most owners were upset with Toronto owner Eddie Livingstone for a variety of reasons. Livingstone had owned the Toronto Ontarios, later named the Tecumsehs and then the Shamrocks. He formed another rival team, the Toronto Blueshirts, which also competed in the NHA for a few seasons. Rival owners were angered when Livingstone consolidated both Toronto teams in 1915. They were decidedly tired of his constant demands regarding scheduling and player redistribution.

The other NHA owners used the 228th Battalion's departure during the 1916-17 season to call for an even number of teams and dissolved the Blueshirts, promising to return Livingstone's players later.
They didn't. Instead, they created a new five-team NHL comprised of the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Quebec Bulldogs, Ottawa Senators and a nameless club playing out of and under the control of the Toronto Arena.
"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."
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. Toronto manager Charlie Querrie almost quit at the start of the season, citing Livingstone's meddling, but NHL owners talked him into staying.
Quebec was awarded a spot in the league but elected not ice a team in 1917-18, reducing the league to four teams. Both the Canadiens and Wanderers started playing in the Westmount Arena, which burned 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 -- teams that celebrate 100 years as a franchise do that sort of thing -- but the league was down to three teams.
Livingstone didn't take his exclusion lying down, suing players, teams, arenas and the NHL. A new Toronto NHL club, legally separate from the Toronto Arena, was created in 1919, ending Livingstone's quest to join the NHL. He tried to form a rival league, but was thwarted by moves taken by NHL President Frank Calder, including the creation of the Pittsburgh Hornets franchise in 1925.
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 Joe Malone was the league's opening-night leading scorer, with five goals, 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 mark 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 back then, mostly because Western hockey was played seven-on-seven rather than six-on-six. In the forerunner to the designated hitter in major league baseball's American League but not the National League, 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 sprawling goalie 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.
Vezina led Benedict and Holmes with a 3.93 goals-against average.
The second Stanley Cup involving the National Hockey League 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. 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. Darkest before dawn, remember?
The Quebec Bulldogs franchise iced its first team in 1919-20 and Toronto reorganized, creating a four-team league. Hamilton replaced Quebec during subsequent four seasons and then Boston and the Montreal Maroons joined in 1925. By 1927, only NHL teams competed for the Stanley Cup, after a time in the late 1800s and early 1900s when up to 14 different hockey league champions might qualify for the finals.

The rest, as they say, is NHL history.

View More

The NHL has updated its Privacy Policy effective January 16, 2020. We encourage you to review it carefully.

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.