Early Leagues and the Birth of the NHL
by Brian McFarlane
Professional hockey was in a sorry state when a new league – the National Hockey League – was founded on a chill November day in 1917. Several crises had erupted during the National Hockey Association season of 1916-17 and the six-team circuit – a major league since 1910 – had barely survived.
In an attempt to deal with the NHA’s headaches, officials of teams from Montreal (the Canadiens and the Wanderers), Ottawa and Quebec City held several critical meetings at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal.
One major problem threatening the league’s future was a blazing war taking place thousands of miles away. In 1916, at least two dozen of the NHA’s top shooters (there were fewer than 100 players in the entire league) had traded their hockey sticks for rifles and enlisted in the Canadian armed forces.
Other players, perhaps hoping to avoid front-line service overseas, joined the 228th Battalion of the Northern Fusiliers which had a fine hockey team and, amazingly, a franchise to play in the NHA. No armed forces team had ever been permitted to play in a major professional league. It was comparable to witnessing a crack baseball team from the U.S. Marine Corps playing in the National or American League. The Battalion boys, with home ice in Toronto, created a fashion “first” when they skated out to open the 1916-17 season wearing khaki uniforms.
Because of player shortages caused by the war, Ottawa sought permission to withdraw from pro hockey for a year but the NHA directors refused to grant this request. In Montreal, Canadiens’ management used the war as an excuse to cut player salaries. Sam Lichtenhein, manager of the other Montreal franchise – the Wanderers – patriotically declared that only married men and munitions workers would play for his team. Obviously he had checked the ring fingers of his players beforehand because his team remained basically unchanged from the previous season. If any munitions workers sought tryouts it was never mentioned. In mid-season, team owners snarled their disapproval when a small core of players got together and talked of forming a players’ union. The players demanded more freedom and called for a rule that would allow them to switch teams in the event of a bona fide residence change from city to city, with a transfer fee going to the team losing the player. One of the union advocates, Ottawa star Cy Denneny, was pacified by a deal that sent him from Toronto to Ottawa where he could play for his hometown Senators and maintain a daytime job that appealed to him. One or two other player shuffles followed and the union supporters were stifled.
The 1916-17 season produced a number of on-ice controversies. Howard McNamara, a rugged player with the 228th Battalion, created headlines when he became involved in a fistfight at center ice with referee Cooper Smeaton. A game between Toronto and Quebec was terminated with two minutes to play when a violent brawl broke out and officials, even with the help of police, were unable to restore order. Quebec fans tossed chairs and bottles at the Toronto players – Ken Randall was their chief target – and attacked the Ontarions as they ran for their waiting train after the game. Randall was suspended for a game or two for instigating a punch-out with a fan during the fracas.
In February, the 228th Battalion was forced to suspend operations because it was ordered overseas. Ottawa officials threatened to withdraw the Senators after they were charged with using an ineligible player and in mid-February, a bitter argument between Toronto owner Eddie Livingstone and his league partners had a surprising resolution – Toronto games were cancelled for the remainder of the schedule and the Toronto players were assigned to the surviving teams. This decision, to no one’s surprise, infuriated Livingstone. The league that began with six teams finished with four.
Montreal and Ottawa met in a playoff for NHA honors and the Canadiens captured the two-game total-goal series 7–6. Newsy Lalonde was suspended from the second game for butt-ending Ottawa star Frank Nighbor in the eye.
In the playoffs for the Stanley Cup, the Canadiens were humiliated by the Seattle Metropolitans, Pacific Coast Hockey League champions. Montreal lost three straight games by scores of 6–1, 4–1 and 9–1. Seattle’s Bernie Morris was unstoppable in this final series, scoring 14 goals.
The NHA had survived another season – but just barely. With the war effort demanding more sacrifices – and more recruits – would pro teams be forced to suspend operations before a new season rolled around?
Meanwhile, time failed to soften the bitter feelings that existed between Toronto owner Eddie Livingstone and his NHA partners so it was easy to deduce why Livingstone was conspicuously absent from the November, 1917 hockey meetings at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal. He had not been invited. Hockey scribes of that era say it was George Kennedy, owner of the Canadiens’ franchise, who conceived the clever plan to get rid of Livingstone. During the meetings, Kennedy persuaded the other franchise holders to dissolve the NHA and start a new league. He proposed they form a circuit to be called the National Hockey League.
“Good idea,” said one of the owners. “We’ll push all of last year’s problems aside and begin afresh.”
“We’ll keep the same basic constitution as the old NHA and the same playing rules,” said another. “And we’ll ask Frank Calder, a good hockey man, to be president of the new league.”
“Livingstone can beef about it all he wants,” laughed Kennedy, who had been feuding with the Toronto owner for years. “And believe me, he will. We’re not turfing Eddie out of our group. We’re simply starting a new league – one that doesn’t include him. He still has his franchise in the NHA and I say good luck to him. How he’ll operate in a one-team league is his problem.”
Livingstone screamed loud and long about the treatment he’d received and he didn’t give up without a battle. One day he posted a couple of retainers in the Montreal rink, home of the Canadiens. Apparently he had hopes of taking over the arena and preventing the Canadiens from playing there. But Canadiens’ owner Kennedy, an ex-wrestler, welcomed this kind of challenge. He hired a gang of thugs and dispatched them to the arena to chase Livingstone’s men off the premises. When Livingstone’s hired hands saw the muscular group advancing on them they fled for their lives. Livingstone then took his case to court but the judge sided with Kennedy. The judge found nothing illegal in the decision to form a new league, even if it left Livingstone on the sidelines twiddling his thumbs.
That’s how the National Hockey League was born. While most historians cite November 22, 1917 as the birth date of the NHL, it wasn’t until four days later, November 26, that five clubs officially joined the new circuit. The charter member teams were the Ottawa Senators, the Quebec Bulldogs, the Montreal Canadiens, the Montreal Wanderers and a new Toronto team to be called the Arenas.
Frank Calder, who had served as secretary-treasurer of the NHA, was elected president and secretary of the NHL and he agreed to serve for the princely sum of $800 per season. The Quebec entry sought and was granted a place on the directorate even though Quebec officials decided not to ice a team during the initial season. The Quebec players were drafted by the remaining clubs. If Quebec received any compensation for these players – one of whom was the legendary Joe Malone – it was a meagre amount. Quebec management had been asking $200 per player.
Wanderers, last-place finishers in the NHA the previous season, were bolstered by Quebec players McDonald, Ritchie, Carey and Marks. The fact they failed to land Joe Malone – the leading goal scorer in the NHA with 41 in 19 games – is truly astonishing. In 1916-17, Malone scored more goals than all four Wanderer draftees put together. Snapped up by the Canadiens, the elegant Malone went on to enjoy a sensational first season in the NHL, scoring 44 goals in 20 games for a 2.20 average. It’s a mark that has survived 75 years of NHL play.
The netminding style of Ottawa’s Clint Benedict – he was a sprawler – prompted the league to make a rule change prior to the first game. In the NHA, goalies who fell to the ice to make saves were assessed minor penalties. Rather than make a farce of the game by penalizing Benedict every time he tumbled to the ice, it was decided that all goalies would be permitted to fall, sit or even lie on the ice if they so desired without being penalized.
The opening games of the NHL must have caused the league operators to wonder about the future of their new circuit. Only 700 fans turned out for the Wanderers’ opening game with Toronto, even though soldiers in uniform were invited to attend free of charge. Wanderers upset Toronto 10–9 in the opener. On the same night, the Ottawa Senators visited the Canadiens and were unable to stop Joe Malone who scored five goals against them in a 7–4 Montreal victory.
Eddie Livingstone continued to be a nuisance to the NHL even though Toronto was awarded a franchise with the understanding he would play no role in the affairs of the new entry. Toronto manager Charlie Querrie resigned shortly before the season began, citing interference from Livingstone as the reason for his departure. League moguls pleaded with Querrie to reconsider and he did, returning with full power to make all management decisions.
On January 2, 1918, the new league almost came to pieces when a fire (which began in the Wanderers’ dressing room) destroyed the Montreal Arena. Wanderer owner Sam Lichtenhein, who had been threatening to withdraw from the league because of the scarcity of good players, used the arena fire as an excuse to get out of hockey, even though the city of Hamilton offered to give his team a home for the rest of the season. The Canadiens, who shared the Arena with Wanderers, moved into a smaller facility, the Jubilee rink, which had a seating capacity of about 3,000. The NHL struggled along with just three teams – the Canadiens, the Senators and the Arenas.
The Canadiens, with a 10-4 record, won the first half of the schedule and the Toronto Arenas (5-3) captured the second half.
The playoff series between the Canadiens and the Arenas – a two game, total goals series – opened in Toronto before 4,000 fans. Harry Meeking scored three times to lead the Arenas to a 7-3 triumph in a game marred by several fights. The second game in Montreal was equally violent and resulted in a 4–3 win for Canadiens. Thus, Toronto captured the first NHL championship ten goals to seven and won the right to meet Vancouver, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champions, for the Stanley Cup.
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