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NHL celebrates its birth in return to Montreal's Windsor Hotel

Original meeting location commemorated with historical plaque

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- This was hardly the modest room in which the NHL was founded a century ago.

On Nov. 26, 1917, at the Windsor Hotel here, a group of businessmen emerged from "a plain and simple room, rented for the occasion," according to Elmer Ferguson, the sole reporter who was in the building, having just established a new four-team hockey league.

It is now an office building; its hotel days gone since 1981. But inside these walls Friday, in a grand, sweeping ballroom of Le Windsor, dramatically lit by spotlights and sparkling chandeliers, the NHL celebrated its first 100 years with the unveiling of an impressive bronze plaque produced by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

The ceremony was an appreciative nod to the enormous role Montreal has played in the history, development and nurturing of hockey.

The unveiling featured NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile, representing the 30 other GMs, six Hall of Fame players, two representatives of the federal government and dozens more reporters than the one present in 1917.

Video: NHL, Canada gov't honor League's birth at Le Windsor

"The 'plain and simple room' would lead us to remarkable, transformational venues in places like Vancouver and Florida -- here in Montreal and Los Angeles and even Las Vegas (and) to places like Stockholm, and Shanghai, London and Beijing," Commissioner Bettman said. "As we celebrate our first 100 years and look forward to launching our second century, we will never forget that it all began right here. This is the heartland of our history."

The Commissioner spoke of how hockey is ingrained in Montreal. He mentioned the Victoria Skating Rink, which stood a few blocks from Le Windsor, the site of the first indoor game played under organized rules on March 3, 1875; that Lord Stanley of Preston saw his first hockey game at the Montreal Winter Carnival on Feb. 4, 1889, a few years before he donated his priceless Cup to Canada.

There was a reference to McGill University, where hockey's first rules were written, and the legendary Montreal Forum, former home of the Canadiens, the most successful team in professional hockey history with 24 Stanley Cup titles.

Then Commissioner Bettman introduced the six Hall of Fame icons who are in the city for a weekend of Centennial celebrations, bringing them onto the stage, listing one of countless career highlights for each. In order: Dave Keon, Rod Gilbert, Ray Bourque, Frank Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer and Denis Savard, a collection of men who have won the Stanley Cup a combined total of 22 times.

Their day began with a casual breakfast at their downtown hotel, a group interview with reporters from the city's two major French-language daily newspapers, then another round of interviews at the plaque unveiling up the street.

NHL and team brass put their heads together at Christmas 1948. From left: Boston Bruins' Art Ross, New York Rangers' Lester Patrick, Montreal Canadiens' Frank Selke Sr., NHL president Clarence Campbell, and Leo Dandurand, the Canadiens boss from 1920-35.

From there, it was off to a nearby hotel for a Montreal Chamber of Commerce luncheon, attended by about 500 from the business community. The interviews continued there, as well as afternoon hits with Montreal radio stations. Still left on the agenda, an evening appearance at a private event staged at Bell Centre by the Canadiens for its season ticket-holders, at which they would spin stories for nearly an hour, and finally a wind-down dinner. All in all, a projected 12-hour day.

At every stop, the six were met by autograph seekers, by wide-eyed stares, by pointed fingers and whispers of "isn't that…?"

Le Windsor is steeped in even more history than the century-old NHL, whose birth meeting was presided over by Frank Calder, the League's first president, who held the reins until his death in 1943. It existed as a hotel for 103 years from its quiet opening in 1878, 11 years after Canadian Confederation, and is regarded by historians as the country's first "grand hotel."

The stately building was the ideal setting for the meetings that would bring the NHL to life, constructed to serve the rail passengers of nearby Windsor Station and serving as the residence of the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk railways. From the NHL's founding in 1917 well into the 1960s, the Canadiens and visiting NHL teams arrived in Montreal and departed the city from the majestic train station.

The hotel was badly damaged by fire several times during its life, fading in popularity among the others that appeared on the landscape until it finally closed in 1981. Six years later, its north annex opened as an office building, much of its grand architecture restored.

A few rink-lengths directly across Dorchester Square stands the 24-story Sun Life Building, which from 1934-35 until roughly 1977 served as the NHL's headquarters.

An early 1900s portrait of Frank Calder (left), who in 1917 would become the first president of the newly formed NHL, and a 1934 photo of New York Americans' Mervyn "Red" Dutton, who in 1943 would succeed the late Calder as NHL president for three years.

A shuttle was provided for the retired players on this cold, blustery Friday, a few blocks separating Le Windsor, the hotel luncheon and the evening event at Bell Centre. They never stopped ribbing each other, sharing stories, reliving moments that had brought them here and delivered the NHL to its Centennial weekend.

The six will spend Saturday together and at the end of a much less hectic day, they'll gather in a Bell Centre suite to watch the Canadiens play the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Video: GMs gather at historic Windsor to celebrate 100 years

It is fitting that these two crabby rivals, Toronto and Montreal, face each other on this momentous weekend, and that Montreal is the host city for the Centennial celebrations. After all, this is the cradle of the NHL, a fact noted by Commissioner Bettman before, during and after his remarks delivered for the plaque unveiling.

"When you come to this historic hockey city, you feel the heartbeat of our League, the pulse of our game," he said. "You see the sweaters, you hear the debates in two languages. And at every Canadiens home game, you hear the whistles of more than 20,000 referees. …

"The NHL was born here and it will live here forever."

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