By Roderick Sergiades
Born a century ago amidst much turmoil both at home and abroad, the National Hockey League very nearly succumbed to its own instability and an apathetic public.
Hockey was an even tougher and rougher game then, with fisticuffs common not only on-ice, but almost off-ice as well, as the fighting threatened to go over the boards and into the boardroom.
It was 1917 and many professional hockey players were engaged in a different fight — overseas in The Great War – while at home four of the six National Hockey Association (NHA) teams (the NHL’s predecessor) were fighting with Eddie Livingstone, the Toronto Blueshirts team owner.
Complicating matters was the withdrawal of the Northern Fusiliers from play, while the Quebec Bulldogs struggled to find enough qualified players for the upcoming 1917-18 season.
Montreal Canadiens owner George Kendall, a former wrestler better known by his wrestling alias, George Kennedy, had many heated arguments with the combative Blueshirts owner, while Sam Lichtenhein, the Montreal Wanderers proprietor, had almost come to blows with Livingstone more than once.
In February 1917, the NHA teams met at the grand Windsor Hotel in Montreal to kick the Blueshirts out, despite their two remaining home games. After an October NHA meeting the Ottawa Citizen wrote, “The National Hockey Association is verging on a state of chaos.”
Using the same hotel, the NHA’s Canadiens, Wanderers, Bulldogs and Ottawa Senators met again in November to form the National Hockey League, which was only meant to last one season to teach Livingstone a lesson.
Well-known reporter and Montreal Herald sports editor Elmer Ferguson was told by the Canadiens’ owner, “We formed a new hockey league. It’s called the National League and it’s just about the same as the NHA, with one exception.” Ferguson replied, “You haven’t invited Eddie Livingstone into the new group.” Kennedy replied, “No, we haven’t.” Lichtenhein, who had accompanied them, added, “It’s strictly legal. We didn’t throw Eddie Livingstone out. Perish the thought. That would have been illegal and unfair. It wouldn’t have been sporting.”
Four days later on November 26, 1917, the NHL became official.
The Quebec Bulldogs couldn’t muster enough fan support and suspended operations. As a three-team league presented scheduling problems, a ‘temporary’ team, named the Toronto Arenas, was added to make a foursome.
Not until 1924 would the upstart league become international, when the Boston Bruins joined.
The NHL adopted the NHA constitution and rules, including the somewhat unusual six men to a side game. The western professional leagues employed seven men a side, with the extra player called a ‘rover.’
Instead of going from strength to strength, the upstart NHL went from bad to worse. On opening night, December 19, the upstart Arenas were beaten 10-9 by the Wanderers before a paltry 700 fans. Denoting the game’s rough status, the Arenas’ manager Charlie Querrie said that season, “It does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight go over to France.”
Six games into that inaugural 22-game 1917-18 season, the Canadiens and Wanderers mutually shared arena burned to the ground. With a weak team on and off the ice, the latter’s losses were over $30,000 since 1914, causing the once mighty ‘Redbands’ – holders of four Stanley Cup titles – to immediately suspend operations.
The Arenas and the NHL as a whole kept fighting Livingstone well into the 1920s, including court challenges as late as 1927. Tommy Gorman, Citizen sports editor and part owner of the Senators (later a seven-time Stanley Cup winning manager with the Senators, Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Maroons), said, “Livingstone was always arguing. No place for arguing in hockey. Let’s make money instead.”
Despite winning the NHL championship and the Stanley Cup (prior to 1926, the NHL champion faced off against either the Pacific Coast Hockey Association – PCHA – or Western Canada Hockey League winner for the Stanley Cup), the Arenas lost their first game of the 1918-19 season before a small hometown crowd of just 2,500. As they continued shedding fans through their losing season (sound familiar?) and with just two weeks left in the schedule, the Arenas withdrew from the league. The NHL now had just two teams, the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens, who for the first time played a best-of-seven series to determine league champion.
The 1918-19 NHL champion Canadiens along with their opponents, the Seattle Metropolitans of the PCHA, had to suspend their Stanley Cup competition after five games, as players from both teams fell ill to the Spanish Flu pandemic then sweeping the globe. The Canadiens’ Joe Hall died a few weeks later. This was the only time during the 20th century that hockey’s most cherished prize went unwon.
Subsequently, the NHL’s fortunes began to improve. The NHA was permanently suspended in 1918, ceasing to exist two years later, and adding insult to injury its championship trophy, the O’Brien Cup, was adopted as the NHL’s top trophy in 1921. The Arenas rejoined the fledgling league later in 1919 and were renamed the St. Patricks after new owners paid $5,000 for the club. After a sold-out game between the Senators and Canadiens in January 1920, the Citizen reported, “Montreal, like Ottawa and Toronto, is hockey mad.” On February 21, the St. Pats and the Senators played a tight game before a record NHL crowd of 8,500.
While the drama off-ice had subsided, the rough and tumble on-ice play continued. Down one game in the 1923 league finals, Canadiens owner Leo Dandurand personally suspended two of his players for viciously attacking two Ottawa opponents.
The NHL and hockey in general rapidly evolved during the high-flying Gatsby era. With the addition of the New York Rangers, Detroit Cougars (later Red Wings) and Blackhawks in 1926, the NHL now had a record ten teams. The Montreal Maroons had joined in 1924, the New York Americans and Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925.
As a result of the U.S. influx in the mid 1920s, American reporters inadvertently affected change north of the border by nicknaming the Canadiens the “Habs.” They assumed the “H” in the Canadiens’ crest stood for “Habitant” but it actually stands for “Hockey.”
In 1927 the St. Pats became the Maple Leafs when Conn Smythe purchased the team for $160,000. The NHL had arrived.
Through the ravages of the Great Depression, the league was reduced to the now infamous Original Six, beginning in 1942. Today, the NHL has a record 31 teams, has a wildly enthusiastic Canadian base, a somewhat indifferent U.S. following, and less reckless players who spend almost as much time battling the league’s head office as they do each other on the frozen battlefront.