Skip to Main Content

NHL celebrates 90th anniversary today

by John McGourty

The Montreal Wanderers (above) defeated the Toronto Arenas, 10-9, in the first day of NHL action.
The National Hockey League officially took the ice on Dec. 19, 1917, as the Montreal Canadiens defeated Ottawa, 7–4, and the Montreal Wanderers downed Toronto, 10–9.

Those historic games, however, were preceded by more than a month of meetings and backroom dealings by a group of men that were entrusted with the formation of the National Hockey League (NHL) following the demise of the National Hockey Association (NHA).

These meetings began in early November as the 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 – attempted to keep the league afloat. The numerous franchise problems in the preceding season, however, 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, the predecessor of the NHL, was adopted as the governing document of the new 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.”

Today, the NHL is 90 years old and now boasts 30 teams in Canada and the United States, and a world-wide talent base and audience. But you had to start someplace, and that was 90 years ago.

The NHL's formation was a cunning affair. The NHA had admitted a military unit, the 228th Battalion, during the 1916-17 season, but it was called to active duty in February 1918. A majority of NHL 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 then 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 also were tired of his constant demands regarding scheduling and player redistribution.

The other NHA owners used the 228th's departure 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 league 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 of Livingstone. "Without him, we can get down to the business of making money."

It wasn't until later that NHL officials officially called the Toronto team the "Toronto Arenas." 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 Bulldogs failed to ice a team, reducing the league to four teams. Both the Canadiens and Wanderers started playing in the Westmount Arena, which burned down after the Wanderers' sixth game. That team was disbanded and its players were distributed around the league. 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.

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.

In the opening games Dave Ritchie, a defenseman, scored the first goal in League history, and then got 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. After all, Malone had been the leading scorer for the NHL's predecessor, the National Hockey Association, for the second time the previous season. Malone, who would score seven goals in a 1920 NHL game, led the League in its first season with 44 goals in 20 games, a scoring pace never equaled in NHL history.

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.

Malone and goalie Georges Vezina led the Canadiens to a 10-4 record to win the first half of the season. Toronto won the second half with a 5-3 mark, and then won the two-game series with an edge in total goals, 10-7.

The actual minutes from that historic November 1917 board meeting.

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. Harry "Hap" Holmes was the goaltender, although Arthur Brooks played four games and Sammy Herbert one. Harry Cameron was the standout defenseman. Jack Adams, who later would 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.

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 goalie Clint 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 season and Ottawa won the second. The Toronto team, now called the Arenas, withdrew from the league, citing financial problems, leaving the NHL with just two teams.

Montreal defeated Ottawa in a playoff and met the PCHA champion Seattle Metropolitans. The series was halted when players were stricken with the deadly influenza virus 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!

Quebec fielded a team in 1919-20 and Toronto reorganized, creating a four-team league. Hamilton replaced Quebec for the next four seasons, and then Boston and the Montreal Maroons joined in 1925.

View More