Hockey Central

The Establishment Years

1926-27 to 1941-42

The Stanley Cup became the exclusive property of the NHL for the 1926-27 season. Nothing better symbolized the importance of this era to the future of the NHL. Not only did the years between 1926-27 and 1941-42 see the game populated by some of the most colorful personalities in hockey history, it also introduced new rules and new franchises that would begin to define the modern NHL.

The 1920's have been called The Golden Age of Sports and with good reason. The Great War was over and gone with it was much of the rigid class structure that had existed before. A new generation of North Americans was in the mood to celebrate and the Roaring Twenties would be a time of great excess, with the pursuit of leisure taking on an importance it had not been allowed in the past. Music was jazzier, movies began to talk, and the popularity of sports exploded. Babe Ruth hit home runs farther and more often than anyone had ever seen. Red Grange tore up the gridiron at the University of Illinois, then gave the fledgling National Football League an air of respectability when he signed with the Chicago Bears. Jack Dempsey was boxing's heavyweight champion until losing to Gene Tunney. Golf had Bobby Jones. Tennis had Bill Tilden and Helen Wills Moody. Even swimming had superstars in Johnny Weissmuller and Gertrude Ederle (who became the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926). It was during this period of unprecedented sports popularity that the NHL grew from a tiny all-Canadian circuit into a major North American league.

When the NHL began play in 1917-18, it only had teams in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal and shared the Stanley Cup (and professional hockey supremacy) with the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. By 1921-22, the NHL was also in Hamilton and the Stanley Cup had become a three-league affair with the creation of the Western Canada Hockey League. The NHL had the advantage of the larger population base in the east, but the PCHA and WCHL compensated by banding together to play an interlocking schedule in 1922-23. The two leagues merged into one six-team circuit in 1924-25. The NHL also expanded to six teams that year, adding a second team in Montreal and making its first foray into the United States with the admission of the Boston Bruins.

The NHL had hoped to add teams in Boston and New York for the 1924-25 season, but Tex Rickard, who owned Madison Square Garden, had not yet been convinced to include an ice-making facility in his new building. Rickard apparently changed his mind after an invitation to Montreal to watch the Canadiens play during the 1924-25 season. He is said to have been so impressed by Howie Morenz that he finally agreed to install ice at the Garden provided that Morenz would be on hand for the first game there. Bootlegger "Big Bill" Dwyer purchased New York City's first NHL team for the 1925-26 season and the Americans played out of Rickard's 18,000 seat venue. Morenz led Montreal into Madison Square Garden on December 15, 1925 and scored a goal in the Canadien's 3-1 win over the Americans in a game played before the Who's Who of New York society.

Hockey was a hit in the Big Apple and the New York Americans drew more fans in their first season than any four teams in the Western Canada Hockey League combined. The Pittsburgh Pirates had also been a success in 1925-26, reaching the playoffs in their first season. In just their second season, the Boston Bruins had demonstrated they were an emerging power and the Montreal Maroons were Stanley Cup champions while playing to sellout crowds in the 10,000 seat Montral Forum. (The Canadiens did not become full-time Forum tenants until 1926-27.)

Having survived the instability of its early years, the NHL was now a financial success and potential owners were lining up to obtain teams in Chicago and Detroit for 1926-27. Tex Rickard also wanted his own New York franchise for Madison Square Garden. The sudden prosperity of the NHL was not lost on the owners of the Western Hockey League. With the NHL adding three more franchises, brothers Frank and Lester Patrick decided it was time to close up shop in the west. As Frank Patrick would later recall: "With our top salary range of about $4,000 we were already squeezing our population draw to its limits. [NHL players were now making close to $10,000] and there was no way we could keep good hockey players in the West beyond maybe one more season." Rather than cut their losses and operate as long as possible by selling off stars to the NHL, "which would reduce our league to minor status," Patrick convinced five of the six WHL owners to entrust their players to him. "My plan," he recalled, "was to merge the five rosters into three strong teams and then sell the teams intact for $100,000 each."

Patrick's sale did not go entirely as planned, but he was more or less able to sell the roster of the Portland Rosebuds to the new owner of the Chicago Black Hawks and stock Detroit's new NHL team with players from the Victoria Cougars. (Detroit would be known as the Cougars for its first four seasons, before becoming the Falcons, and then the Red Wings in 1932-33.) The new team in New York was not willing to buy in bulk. Conn Smythe had already been hired to assemble the team (dubbed Tex's Rangers by the press as a play on words for Rickard and the famed Texas lawmen). The Rangers did purchase such WHL stars as Frank Boucher and Bill and Bun Cook and would later land Lester Patrick to replace Conn Smythe as coach and general manager. (Smythe would soon resurface in the NHL after buying the Toronto St. Pats and changing the name to Maple Leafs.) The Boston Bruins purchased $50,000 worth of WHL talent, including Eddie Shore, while other deals for individual WHL players created rights-of-ownership disputes, which eventually forced the NHL to sort out distribution. That done, the NHL emerged as hockey's only major professional league and the exclusive holder of the Stanley Cup.

The newly expanded 10-team NHL split into two five-team divisions. The Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks and Detroit Cougars played in the American Division, while the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Maroons, Ottawa Senators, Toronto St. Pats/Maple Leafs and New York Americans played in the Canadian Division. Both Detroit and Chicago were expected to have new arenas ready as part of their inclusion in the NHL, but experienced delays. The Red Wings actually played their first season across the border in Windsor, Ontario before moving into the Olympia in 1927-28. The 1927-28 season also saw the Bruins move into Boston Garden. As for the Black Hawks, Chicago Stadium would not be ready until December of 1929.

With the best available players now in one league, competition in the NHL was better than ever. Every man who finished among the top 10 in scoring in 1926-27 would later be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame though the close competition ensured that over-all scoring was lower than ever with an average of only 3.80 goals-per-game. In an effort to increase offense, forward passing, which had been permitted since 1918-19, but only in the neutral zone between the two blue lines, was expanded to include the defensive zone. Still, goal-scoring fell to 3.67 goals-per-game in 1927-28. In 1928-29, scoring reached an all-time low with just 2.80 goals-per-game. This was the year in which George Hainsworth registered 22 shutouts in 44 games while posting a 0.92 goals-against average. Eight of the NHL's top 10 goaltenders had at least 10 shutouts that year and all 10 had averages below 2.00. Netminders like Boston's Tiny Thompson, Chicago's Chuck Gardiner, and Roy Woters of the New York Americans would continue to be among the best in the league for years.

In an eddort to increase offense, the NHL finally authorized forward passing in all three zones in 1929-30. The only restriction was that the puck could not be passed across the blue line. However, there was nothing to prevent a player from parking himself in front of the opposing goal and waiting for a teammate to bring the puck across the blue line before feeding it to him. Players like Nels Stewart and Cooney Weiland employed this tactic to pile up goals, but the NHL soon realized the error of its ways. With scoring up a whopping four goals-per-game (to 6.91) through the first quarter of the season, the passing rules were amended to state that no player would be permitted to cross the blue line ahead of the puck. It was the birth of the modern offside rule and restored a more competitive balance between offense and defense in the NHL.

Forward passing is the greatest legacy to the rules of the game introduced during this time period, but over the next 10 seasons the NHL developed many other rules and innovations that are still part of the game. Though there is no record of a team ever trying to use two goaltenders at once, a rule was instituted for 1931-32 stating that teams could only have one goaltender on the ice at one time. In 1933-34, the NHL ruled that a visible time clock was required in every arena. Penalty shots were instituted in 1934-35. Rules governing icing the puck were put in place in 1937-38. Flooding the ice between periods became mandatory in 1940-41 and the system of one referee and two linesman to officiate games was instituted in 1941-42.

In addition to creating more offense, forward passing changed hockey from a game of individual rushes to one that focused on combination play. As a result, the 1930's became a time of great lines. Boston's Dynamite Line of Cooney Weiland, Dit Clapper and Dutch Gainor helped the Bruins follow up their first Stanley Cup victory in 1928-29 with a record of 38-5-1 in 1929-30 for an .875 winning percentage that remains the best in NHL history. Weiland led the NHL with 43 goals and 73 points in 44 games in 1929-30, but the Hart Trophy went to the Maroon's Nels Stewart. Stewart was triggerman for the powerful S-Line with Babe Seibert and Hooley Smith. The Toronto Maple Leafs unveiled the Kid Line of Busher Jackson, Joe Primeau, and Charlie Conacher in 1929-30. In 1931-32, they finished first, second, and fourth in the NHL scoring race and led the Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup. Later, the Bruins featured the Kraut Line of Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart and won the Stanley Cup in 1939 and 1941.

The first of the NHL's great lines was the New York Rangers' trio of Bill Cook, Frank Boucher, and Bun Cook. Teamed up for the Rangers' first season, the elegant Boucher became the game's best passer and winner of the Lady Byng Trophy seven times in eight years between 1927-28 and 1934-35. Bill Cook was rivaled only by Charlie Conacher as the NHL's most dangerous scorer. Together with Bill Cook, they devised passing patterns that revolutionized offensive play and helped the Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1928 and 1933. Boucher coached the team to a third Stanley Cup triumph in 1940. But even in an era that emphasized teamwork, two individuals stand out from the others: Eddie Shore and Howie Morenz.

Known as "the Stratford Streak," Morenz brought a combination of speed and skill to the NHL that was unsurpassed. He led the league in scoring in 1927-28 and in 1930-31, adding the Hart Trophy in both of those years and winning it again in 1931-32. Morenz also led the Canadiens to back-to-back Stanley Cup victories in 1930 and 1931 (after having won it previously in 1924). Above all, Morenz was the player fans of his era wanted to see. His appearance in the NHL's new American cities virtually guaranteed a sellout and bacame known as "the Babe Ruth of Hockey" for his box-office appeal. The funeral following his unexpected death on March 8, 1937 attracted more than 10,000 people to the Montreal Forum, while thousands more lined the route of the funeral cortege.

Like Morenz, Eddie Shore put fans in the stands. In a rough-and-tumble era, he took a backseat to no one, with a combination of skill and bravado that was matched by an explosive temper. When he took off on a rush, he would literally knock down opponents who got in his way. Shore was left scarred and toothless from his many on-ice battles, and nearly saw his career terminated after his hit from behind fractured Ace Baileys' skull in December of 1933, but he was no mere goon. Shore was named an All-Star eight years in a row (including seven selections to the NHL First All-Star Team) between 1930-31 and 1938-39 and is still the only defenseman to win the Hart Trophy four times. He was a key contributor to Boston's first Stanley Cup victory on 1929 and was still going strong when the Bruins won again 10 years later.

While Morenz, Shore, and others kept fans entertained with their on-ice exploits, the time period of 1926-27 to 1941-42 was also graced with larger-than-life personalities behind the scenes. Black Hawks owner Major Frederic McLaughlin fired coaches like a 1930's George Steinbrenner and watched his Chicago team win the Stanley Cup in 1934 and 1938. Jack Adams was hired to head up Detroit's hockey operations in 1927-28 and built the club into back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in 1936 and 1937. (He later built the Red Wings' great dynasty of 1949 to 1955.) However, it was Art Ross of the Bruins and Lester Patrick of the Rangers who were probably more responsible than anyone else for the success of NHL hockey in the United States.

Lifelong friends who had grown up together in Montreal and been star players themselves, Ross and Patrick did more than just build championship teams in Boston and New York - they made the Canadian game a part of the American sporting scene. Patrick was particularly adept at handling the influential New York press, "the Silver Fox," as he became known, would speak to the writers one-on-one or summon them in groups for seminars in which he would skillfully explain the intricacies of the game. By successfully courting the press, Patrick and his players were soon Manhatten celebrities while famous fans such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, mayor Jimmy Walker, movie stars Humphrey Bogart and George Raft, bandleader Cab Calloway, and a parade of Broadway's best and most recognizable faces made Madison Square Garden the place to be and be seen throughout the era.

In Canada, hockey did not require the hype it needed to survive in the United States and yet strong leadership certainly didn't hurt. When Conn Smythe put together a group to purchase the Toronto St. Pats on February 14, 1927 the Stanley Cup champions of 1922 were clearly a team in decline. The newly named Maple Leafs finished last in the Canadian Division in 1926-27 and would miss the playoffs again in 1927-28.

Though many on the team's board of directors disagreed, Smythe believed putting the team's games on the radio would help attract fans and Foster Hewitt's broadcasts did exactly that. Soon, all 8,000 seats at the Mutual Street Arena were being filled. In Montreal, Maroons and Canadiens games began to be broadcast as well, while in Toronto, Smythe dreamed of a bigger and better home for his hockey team. Maple Leafs Garden was built in five months during the height of the Great Depression and opened on November 12, 1931. Though the Maple Leafs would lose 2-1 to Chicago that night, they would finish the 1931-32 season as Stanley Cup champions. By January of 1933, Hewitt's broadcasts from Maple Leafs Gardens were being carried on 20 radio stations across Canada. The nation's population was less than 10 million atthe time. Audiences were estimated at almost one million per game.

While the Maple Leafs flourished despite the Depression, the same could not be said for all of the NHL's 10 teams. In 1927, the Senators won their fourth Stanley Cup title in six years, but US expansion had left Ottawa with the league's smallest market, just 150,000 people. Unable to compete financially, the team began trading and selling stars, including King Clancy to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a record $35,000 on October 11, 1930.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's steel industry had been hit hard by the stock market crash in 1929 and the Pirates were also forced to peddle their star players. In 1930-31, the team relocated to become the Philadelphia Quakers. Both Ottawa and the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia franchise suspended operations prior to the 1931-32 season. The Senators returned to the NHL in 1932-33, but further poor performances both on the ice and at the box office doomed the club. The Senators moved south and became the St. Louis Eagles in 1934-35, but folded at year-end.

The 1934-35 season saw the Montreal Maroons win the Stanley Cup, but as in Ottawa, success did not mean financial stability. Both the Canadiens and the Maroons were struggling to attract fans during the Great Depression and with the prospects of war in Europe on the horizon, the Maroons' management withdrew its team from the league following a dismal 1937-38 season. With three teams gone, the NHL ended its divisional format and operated as one seven-team league in 1938-39. However, there was still one more problem franchise.

The New York Americans had preceded the Rangers into the NHL by one season, but as mere tenants at Madison Square Garden they never had the same economic advantages of the Rangers. Neither did they enjoy similar on-ice success, nor the same starry fan base. Years of financial instability and bailouts by the league turned the Americans into a virtual farm club, providing young talent to other NHL clubs and a rest home for veterans past their prime. The franchise hit bottom in 1940-41 with a last-place record of 8-29-11. Hoping to forge a new identity, the club became the Brooklyn Americans in 1941-42. After missing the playoffs again, operations were suspended for the duration of World War II. The franchise was never reactivated.

From the heady optimism of the Roaring Twenties, through the bleak years of the Great Depression, to the uncertainty of World War II, the NHL had gone through more changes in 16 seasons than it would again until 1967 and the years beyond. But the 'Original Six' teams that survived this era would carry the NHL into a new period of unprecedented stability and pave the way for the expansion that would follow.