Before there was the Original Six, there was the First Four.
On Wednesday, Dec. 19, 1917, the brand-new National Hockey League took the ice for the first time. It wasn't exactly "national"; the NHL included two teams from Montreal and one each from Toronto and Ottawa (a franchise from Quebec was an original member but didn't ice a team until 1919). All but the new Toronto team had come from the National Hockey Association. The NHL was less than a month old; the announcement of the League's formation had come on Nov. 26.
Today's fans probably wouldn't recognize the game as it was played then. Forward passing was not allowed, making stickhandling and skating the keys to success (and cutting down on assists). There were no zones, players couldn't kick the puck and what became known as "changing on the fly" wasn't allowed. Minor penalties were three minutes and goaltenders served their own penalties, forcing teams to use a defenseman or forward to try to keep the opposition off the scoreboard. But shooters did have one thing going for them on opening night: The NHL had kept an NHA rule mandating that goaltenders weren't allowed to leave their feet to make a save; it dropped that regulation less than a month later.
The fledgling league's opening night was a Who's Who of hockey history.
Video: The National Hockey League is born in 1917
The visiting Montreal Canadiens defeated the Ottawa Senators 7-4, with Joe Malone scoring five of Montreal's seven goals on his way to finishing with 44 in 20 games. In addition to Malone, Montreal's roster included goaltender Georges Vezina and players such as Newsy Lalonde, Didier Pitre and Jack Laviolette. Ottawa featured its own star goaltender, Clint Benedict, as well as players such as Eddie Gerard, Cy Denneny and Jack Darragh. All later were inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Senators trailed 3-0 after the first period, which saw Darragh and Hamby Shore refuse to play until their contracts were reworked. Each took the ice during the second period after agreements were reached, but, according to the Globe and Mail, "it was too late to repair the damage."
Senators' Cy Denneny; Canadiens' Didier Pitre and Joe Malone
The game, played at Dey's Arena, reportedly drew about 6,000 fans, though the arena's normal seating capacity was listed at 4,500.
"Between five and six thousand people turned out to attend the local game," the Toronto Sun reported, "and though the ice was sticky, preventing the Ottawas from showing their usual speed and helping the heavier Canadiens, the hockey dished up was, under the circumstances, surprisingly good.
"Had the Ottawas started out with their regular team they might have landed the match"
Replica score sheet from the Canadiens' 7-4 victory over the Senators on Dec. 19, 1917
When the Canadiens were on the road, the Montreal Wanderers opened at home with a 10-9 victory against the Toronto Arenas. Wanderers defenseman Dave Ritchie scored the first goal in NHL history (one minute into the game) and Harry Hyland had five for Montreal; Reg Noble scored four goals for Toronto. Art Ross, who earned induction into the Hall of Fame as a builder for his work with the Boston Bruins, was a reserve for the Wanderers and scored his lone NHL goal late in the second period.
Bert Lindsay, father of future Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay, was the goalie for the Wanderers. Sammy Hebert began the game in goal for Toronto but was replaced by Arthur Brooks. The Globe and Mail blamed Toronto's goalies for the loss.
Wanderers' Harry Hyland; the Arenas' Reg Noble (pictured in Falcons jersey) and Harry Cameron
"The play was somewhat ragged at times, and the visiting team was weak in its goalkeepers. Toronto had the better of the argument most of the game, but neither Hebert, who was the Toronto goalkeeper in the earlier part of the game, nor Brookes, in the second session, stopped the Wanderers' shots as they might have done."
Although noting that the "Torontos showed plenty of speed and dash on the attack," the Toronto Star also said that "there was lack of team work at the finish to its efforts, however."
Unlike the packed house in Ottawa, the Wanderers drew 700 people to their opener at Westmount Arena despite offering free admission to military personnel and their families.
Replica score sheet from the Wanderers' 10-9 victor over the Arenas on Dec. 19, 1917
Unfortunately for the Wanderers, their opening-night victory was their last. They lost their next three games before a fire burned Westmount Arena to the ground on Jan. 2, 1918. The Canadiens, who also used Westmount as their home, moved into the 3,250-seat Jubilee Rink in the city's east end; the Wanderers elected to fold.
The NHL made it to the end of the season with three teams, but it did bring home the Stanley Cup. Toronto defeated the Canadiens 10-7 in a two-game, total-goals series, then topped the Vancouver Millionaires, champions of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, in a five-game final, enabling the new league to proclaim itself as the world's best.
Photos courtesy of Hockey Hall of Fame