December 15, 2017

100 Years Later

Exactly 100 years ago this weekend the National Hockey League debuted.

The NHL's inaugural games were played on Wednesday, December 19th, 1917. On that night the Montreal Wanderers beat Toronto, then known as the Arenas, by a score of 10-9. Harry Hyland scored five times for the Montrealers. In the other game the Montreal Canadiens beat the Ottawa Senators 7-4. Joe Malone also scored five goals for the other group of Montrealers, en route to 44 goals in just 20 games.

The NHL's season long centennial celebrations culminate this weekend as well, with the big feature being an outdoor game in Ottawa as the Senators host the Montreal Canadiens, a couple of days short of the official centennial. We'll forgive them as hockey is a television event nowadays.

The game was very different back then. In many ways it was a game the modern fan would not recognize. Goalies were forbidden from falling to the ice to make a stop. In fact they would penalized for doing so, and had to serve their own penalties while a skater stood in the net without the primitive goalie protection. Passing the puck forward was illegal. That, combined with the fact that the top players played the entire 60 minutes of the game, made for a much, much slower game.

In so many ways, it was a very different game than today's global main event. Yet in other ways it is ultimately the same. Pucks. Ice. Hits. Goals. Fans. Businessmen in suits. Businessmen on skates.

Birth of the NHL

1917 may have seen World War I reaching climaxing heights on the battlefields in Europe. But 1917 also saw a war of a much different in boards rooms in Montreal and Toronto. The outcome was not nearly as important as WWI but the shape of professional hockey was set and the National Hockey League was born.

The NHL essentially existed since 1909 under the banner National Hockey Association. That league debuted teams in Renfrew, Cobalt, Haileybury (all in Ontario) and two teams in Montreal - the Wanderers and the Canadiens - yes, the same Montreal Canadiens. The Ottawa Senators and Montreal Shamrocks joined soon after.

The NHA had a rocky existence. Not only did they have to survive as a fledgling startup but the Eastern based pro-hockey league had to compete with the Western based Pacific Coast Hockey Association for player rights and Stanley Cup championships.

The NHA also had to deal with significant in-fighting. Clashes over control of the league grew increasingly fierce as several owners of teams feuded with Toronto Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone. He was kind of the George Steinbrenner of his day - the controversial and meddling owner that others would go great lengths to get rid of.

How far did the owners of the NHA go to get rid of Eddie Livingstone? In November 1917, at Montreal's famed Windsor Hotel, they shutdown the entire NHA and reopened a whole new league minus Mr. Livingstone.

The National Hockey League was born.

The NHL's original franchises were the Ottawa Senators, the Toronto Arenas (popularly called the Blueshirts or Torontos, but one day they would evolve into the Maple Leafs) and two teams from Montreal - the Canadiens and the Wanderers. A fifth team was granted admission, but the Quebec Bulldogs did not begin playing until the 1918-19 season.

The NHL's inaugural 22 game schedule opened on December 19th, 1917. Montreal Wanderers defenseman Dave Ritchie scored the first goal in NHL history (one minute into the NHL's first game) then added another goal in the third period, in a 10-9 opening night victory over the visiting Toronto Arenas, before a crowd of 700 fans.

Joe Malone - the former Quebec sniper who joined the Canadiens this season - emerges as the first superstar in NHL history. He scored an unbelievable 44 goals in just 20 games. Three times he scored 5 goals in one game, including on the only other game on opening night.

The Canadiens also boasted Georges Vezina in net. He was the goaltending star in the NHL's earliest days. He led all 'tenders with 12 wins and in Goals Against Average with 3.93 - a very respectable number in those high scoring days. On February 18th, 1918 he recorded the NHL's very first shutout performance as Montreal blanked Toronto 9-0.

Other stars included Newsy Lalonde, and Bad Joe Hall with the Canadiens. Ottawa's Cy Denneny, who netted 36 goals in 22 games, teamed with greats like Jack Darragh and Eddie Gerard. Cy's brother Corb Denneny starred for Toronto along with rugged Reg Noble.

Times were good in Montreal for Les Canadiens but the city's English team, the Wanderers, were doomed to fail. On January 2nd, 1918 the Montreal Arena - home to both the Wanderers and Canadiens - suspiciously burned down. Wanderers' owner Sam Lichtenhein pulls the plug on the franchise after just 6 games (1-5). The Canadiens continue on, moving to the 3250 seat Jubilee Rink. They would move to the Montreal Forum upon its completion.

Frank Calder, the former secretary treasurer of the NHA, was named as the NHL's first president. When he was not dealing with burned down buildings and team foldings he found time to oversee the institution of a ground breaking rule change. The NHL allowed goalies to leave their feet to cover the puck. Can you imagine a goalie nowadays who was never allowed to flop down on to his knees to play? Back then it was against the rules and subject to a $2 fine!

Ottawa goalie Clint Benedict was the real reason for the rule change. They dubbed him "Praying Bennie" because he was often down on his knees, feigning an accidental fall to the ice with regularity. Calder had had enough and reportedly said "As far as I'm concerned they can stand on their heads."

The NHL may have barely survived it's inaugural season, finishing with just three teams and skating on thin financial ice. But they did capture the Stanley Cup. The Toronto Arenas defeated the Montreal Canadiens to win the NHL title in a two game, total goals series 10-7. Toronto, playing out of the Mutual Street Arena, then represented the NHL in the Stanley Cup final, defeating the PCHA's Vancouver Millionaires 3 games to 2 in the best of 5 series.

The players and coaches and managers knew they were making history 100 years ago this weekend when the National Hockey League dropped their first puck. That being said, they probably did not put a lot of thought into it. And none of them could have imagined that the league would be around 100 years later, and how much the game has changed.

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