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NHL dropped the puck 91 years ago

by John McGourty
There are five games on the NHL schedule Friday night, including a battle between the Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils in Ottawa. Those five games, and all that will follow, can trace their roots back to Dec. 19, 1917, when the puck was dropped for the first time in NHL history.

Still young at heart at age 91, the NHL looks back with pride and forward with enthusiasm, energized by young stars like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Pat Kane, and led by esteemed veterans like Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Drury. What began as a Canadian-only league has blossomed into a global game, with fans worldwide and players from all over the globe looking to make their mark in the NHL.

The Senators will be hoping for a different result than the 1917-18 counterparts, who lost, 7-4, in their first game. At least current Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson will be on the ice. Jack Darragh, the captain of the original Senators team, was still negotiating his contract in owner Tommy Gorman's office during the first period of the team's first NHL game.

The world was weary of war in the fall of 1917 and the hockey world was weary of the conflict between the team owners in the National Hockey Association, the predecessor to the NHL.

Five of the six NHA team owners met in Montreal on Nov. 26, 1917, to create the NHL, with Frank Calder as its president. The teams in the new league would be the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Toronto Arenas and Quebec Bulldogs. But the Bulldogs had had trouble in preceding seasons in attracting players and announced they would not participate in the NHL's inaugural season. They said they would begin play with the 1918-19 season.

The Canadiens were the favorite team of Quebec's French-speaking hockey fans, while the Wanderers catered to an English-speaking fan base. Both teams played in Montreal's Westmount Arena.

The NHL was created to eliminate Toronto Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone, a litigious individual whose gamesmanship destroyed his relationships with the other team owners. Livingstone's players were distributed around the league and he, as was his nature, filed several lawsuits against the new league, its teams, arenas and players.

"He was always arguing about something," Gorman said. "Without him, we can get down to the business of making money."

Livingstone's continuing litigation would influence NHL decisions into the 1930s, but he was never able to enter the league due to the bitter animosity between him and Calder. He was able to financially undermine the Toronto Arenas within a year. Actually, that first Toronto NHL team had no name, but was referred to as the Arenas by sportswriters. A new franchise was awarded to Toronto interests for the second NHL season.

The first two NHL games were scheduled for Dec. 19, 1917, with the Arenas meeting the Wanderers in Montreal and the Canadiens opposing the Senators in Ottawa.

Wanderers defenseman Dave Ritchie scored the first goal in NHL history one minute into the game against the Arenas, which ended with the Wanderers taking a 10-9 victory in quite the barn-burner. Ritchie would score again in the third period, but the Wanderers star was forward Harry Hyland, who had five goals.

Jack McDonald, Art Ross and Billy Bell also scored for the Wanderers and goalie Bert Lindsay, Ted Lindsay's father, got the win. Reg Noble had four goals for the Arenas.

The game was close until late in the second period. The Wanderers scored the first two goals before Noble got his first goal and Harry Cameron tied it up. Hyland then scored three first-period goals and Cameron had another. The first period ended 5-3. Arenas coach Dick Carroll substituted goalie Arthur Brooks for starter Sammy Hebert.

Toronto's Alf Skinner and Hyland traded goals early in the second period before Toronto's Corbett Denneny scored and Noble tied it at 14:45. Bell, Ross and Hyland then scored to give the Wanderers a 9-6 lead going into the third period.

That was Ross's only NHL goal. The man for whom the scoring championship is named played only three NHL games, but he went on to a long career as a coach and general manager of the Boston Bruins.

Ritchie put the Wanderers up 10-6 and that's when Ross employed the "prevent defense," with typical results. Ross played three defensemen over the last part of the third period, but Noble scored twice and Denneny once to make it close.

There were only 700 spectators, even though admission was free to those wearing military uniforms.

It was a different story in Ottawa where 5,000 fans turned out to watch the Canadiens' Joe Malone score five goals in a 7-4 victory over the hosts.

Ottawa was at a disadvantage, several disadvantages, actually. Livingstone threatened to sue former Blueshirts if they competed, including Cy Denneny and Frank Nighbor. Gorman couldn't come to terms with Hamby Shore and Darragh until just before the first intermission. By that time, the Canadiens were up, 3-0, on three scores by Malone.

Ottawa's Eddie Gerard and Montreal's Newsy Lalonde traded goals early in the second period and Ottawa's Cy Denneny and Montreal's Malone traded late goals to put the Canadiens up, 5-2, going into the third period, which was like the second as Montreal's Didier Pitre and Ottawa's George Boucher traded early goals and Malone and Gerard scored late.

Malone went on to score 44 goals in that 22-game season. His record wasn't broken until Maurice "Rocket" Richard scored 50 goals in 50 games in 1944-45.

The rules were quite different in 1917-18 so fans today might not recognize the earlier game. There was no forward passing beyond the center red line. Pucks had to be skated and stickhandled into the offensive zone. There was no blue line and no icing. Teams were limited to 12 players and penalized players sat for three minutes, not two. The rules provided for one referee, with an assistant if deemed necessary.

Still, it was hockey and the Stanley Cup, which had been awarded since 1893, was the goal then as now.
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