Each Thanksgiving, we step back, gain perspective and express gratitude for what we take for granted. In the United States this year, Thanksgiving falls three days before the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NHL.
It's time to look back at how we got here and appreciate all we have: 31 teams across North America with players from around the world, when once there were three teams in eastern Canada and no Europeans, let alone an Australian like Nathan Walker of the Washington Capitals; a game that pushes the pace up ice, when once passes were backward only; players dressed in high-tech fabrics whipping synthetic sticks with curved blades, when once they itched in wool sweaters lugging wood sticks with flat blades; stats, highlights and broadcasts accessible with a click, when once you had to listen to the crackle of the radio and wait for the printing of the newspaper.
What would the founders think of the NHL today?
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A few of the many things for which to be thankful:
If not for the combative Toronto owner, his counterparts in the National Hockey Association wouldn't have formed the NHL at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal on Nov. 26, 1917. Long story short, they created a new league to cut him out. "We ought to pass Eddie Livingstone a vote of thanks for solidifying our league," said George Kennedy, then owner of the Montreal Canadiens, according to the book "Total Hockey." The NHL began with five franchises: the Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, Quebec Bulldogs and a new Toronto team that would be known as the Arenas, the St. Pats and eventually the Maple Leafs. But the Bulldogs didn't play at first, and after the Westmount Arena in Montreal burned down, the Wanderers folded.
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The forward pass
Nothing changed the game more. Not until 1927-28 were players allowed to make a forward pass in the defending and neutral zones. In 1928-29, a forward pass was allowed into the offensive zone if the player receiving it was in the neutral zone when it was made. To start the 1929-30 season, forward passing was allowed in all zones but not across either blue line. Scoring jumped, and midway through the season, the NHL went to essentially the same offside rule we have now. Hockey went from a game of rushes and retreats to a game of passing and playmaking.
The Stanley Cup
Lord Stanley of Preston, the governor general of Canada, donated it. Different leagues competed for it from 1893 until 1926, when the Cup came under the control of the NHL. It's become the most recognizable trophy in sports, the prize awarded after more than five months of regular-season games and two months of Stanley Cup Playoffs, a test of will and skill. Its beauty, its history, its names stamped in silver, its passing from champion to champion and hand to hand, set it apart.
Teams have come, gone and moved since the beginning. The NHL had three teams for most of the 1917-18 season and all of 1918-19, then as many as 10 before the "Original Six" era from 1942-67. Now it has 31 with the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights, and has had one move since 1997 (the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets in 2011). The NHL is in many places and in a much better place, continuing to grow and evolve. Auston Matthews grew up rooting for the Phoenix Coyotes, became the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and now leads the team from Toronto that was formed in that meeting 100 years ago.
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The NHL eliminated regular-season overtime on Nov. 21, 1942, because of wartime restrictions on train schedules. The League didn't reinstate it for four decades, with 5-on-5 sudden death for up to five minutes in 1983-84. It went to 4-on-4 in 1999-2000 and 3-on-3 in 2015-16. The action now hardly leaves time to blink, let alone think.
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The League unveiled the 100 Greatest NHL Players presented by Molson Canadian in January. How can you not be thankful for Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Maurice Richard, Bobby Orr and all the others who set the highest standard on and off the ice?
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At the same time, how can you not be thankful for the other 7,500-plus players who have appeared in the NHL? Each is great relative to the rest of us, and sometimes your favorite player isn't the best. He's the guy you admire for his grit, his guts, his goatee, whatever.
If that's sappy, well, it's Thanksgiving. Just as it's special to share the holiday with family and friends, even with those with whom you have differences, it's fun to enjoy the game with others, even with those rooting for the other team. Without fans, there is no NHL. The first two games in NHL history were played Dec. 19, 1917; one drew 700 fans. The NHL's average attendance last season, including the playoffs, was 17,579. Total attendance: 23,151,388.