As NHL hockey fans we often hear of the revered “Original Six” days of Montreal, Toronto, Boston, New York, Chicago and Detroit. It’s always said this was "real hockey", "old-time hockey”, but it’s not that simple.
The NHL first saw light for the 1917-18 season. That first year the league was composed of just four teams, the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Arenas, Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Wanderers. But by season’s end the Wanderers folded due to the fact that their arena had burnt to the ground
The Boston Bruins, Montreal Maroons, Hamilton Tigers, Toronto St. Pats joined in time for the 1924-25 season. Still expanding, the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Americans signed up for 1925-26. One year later the Detroit Cougars (later the Red Wings) and Toronto Maple Leafs joined the circuit. The 1927-28 season saw life from the Chicago Black Hawks and New York Rangers.
The St. Louis Eagles and Philadelphia Quakers lasted a couple of seasons. For some reason the St. Louis club played in the Canadian Division. In 1941-42 the New York Americans moved across the bridge to become the Brooklyn Americans. Teams folded and deals were done. With the start of the 1942-43 season the NHL finally found stability with what would become to be know as the “Original Six”.
For 25 seasons there was no expansion and no franchise moves. It didn’t take long for there to become a clear-cut hierarchy. During that golden era, he Montreal Canadiens won 10 Cups, followed by Toronto with nine, Detroit with five, and Chicago with one. Boston and New York failed to win a cup during this time. Boston made it to the finals five times, yet never won. In 1950 the Rangers made their only finals appearance but were defeated by Gordie Howe’s Red Wings.
Following the 1966-67 season the NHL doubled in size. Their hope was to bring hockey to new American markets which were growing wealthy during this prosperous time. Television too was seen as a way to grow the game, most notably professional football with the NFL and growing AFL.
More teams joined in 1970 (Buffalo/Vancouver), 1972 (NY Islanders, Atlanta Flames), and 1974 (Washington and Kansas City). Meanwhile the upstart WHA had gained steam, as well as prized talent and was a real competitor, especially in Canada. The WHA merged in time for the 1978-79 season and that brought Hartford, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Quebec into the NHL family.
The 1990s saw even more expansion, especially in the West and Southwest of the United States. One of those new teams was the San Jose Sharks who were born in 1991. During a period of just over 40 years the NHL went from 6 teams to 6 times that…30.
It is almost impossible to imagine a 6-team league. Four of the six made the playoffs, and with just 2 series wins, or just 8 game victories decided the Cup. Today 16 of 30 make the post-season and a Cup winner need to capture 4 series and 16 wins to carry home the hardware.
For much of the life of the Original Six the season was composed of 70 games. This meant each team faced the other 5 teams 14 times each, many of the games in the famous home-and-home battles. Virtually all travel was by train back then with teams taking over entire sleeping and dining cars.
During most of this time teams carried 1 coach and just 1 goalie. It was routine that should the netminder become injured the team’s equipment man would don the pads. Perhaps most famous of these was Lefty Wilson who as team staff saw action in 3 games and left the ice with a 0.74 goals against average.
I contend there are several major factors which allowed the game to expand so rapidly....the slapshot tightened the gap between pure talent and a good shot. Important too was the development of players in the US and especially overseas. In many ways the 90's expansion was made possible by the league large numbers of players from the former Soviet Union. Equipment improvements, player training and nutrition provides superior over-all athletes.
Can you imagine the level of play that we would see with a modern version of an Original Six? For all intent each team would be an all-star squad. Think of boiling the NHL down to one team from each present-day division. The ‘Pacific’ team might look like this…
Forwards: Corey Perry, Shane Doan, Dustin Brown, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Bobby Ryan, Logan Couture, Radim Vrbata, Joe Pavelski, Anze Kopitar, Louie Ericksson and Jamie Benn.
Defense: Cam Fowler, Brent Burns, Dan Boyle, Drew Doughty, Derek Morris and Stephane Robidas.
Goal: Jonathan Quick, Mike Smith and Annti Niemi.
Each of the other five ‘divisional’ teams would be equally talent-laden.
Sure it's a pipe dream, but perhaps the best way to imagine how good NHL hockey was in the '40s, 50s and 60s.