Hockey Central

The Original Six

1942-43 to 1966-67

The era of the NHL's "Original Six," which ran from 1942-43 until 1966-67, has been called the golden age of professional hockey. The six teams – the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens – that battled among themselves for Stanley Cup supremacy for 25 years were "original" in the sense that they preceded the expansion teams of 1967-68. But the Original Six was original in more ways than that. It's easy to view the league in those days before expansion, glowing pucks, multi-million-dollar player contracts and ever-increasing dominance by European and American players as a static, almost prosaic enterprise. But although the league's membership was static, the game would change considerably during this quarter century. With successive waves of new talent entering the NHL during and after the Second World War, playing a faster-breaking game made possible by the introduction of the center red line and the two-line offside in 1943-44, the Original Six was original in many ways. These were the years that ushered in firewagon hockey, the slapshot and the functional goaltender's mask. The NHL was defining itself, creating a modern game and modern heroes.

The league was an exclusive enterprise in those days. Only about 100 players had steady jobs, and it was hardest of all to break in as a goaltender – until 1965-66 teams carried only one. And with the advent of the 70-game schedule in 1949-50, teams faced each other 14 times during the regular season. This familiarity between teams – impossible to imagine today, when a team might face a non-conference rival only once in a season – for the most part bred contempt. Grudges were honed and vengeance regularly sought. Many players enjoyed long careers - 15 or even 20 seasons - so feuds would be carried on over several seasons. Partly in response to gambling scandals that had dogged many sports, hockey included, Clarence Campbell introduced a rule after being named league president in 1946 banning fraternization between players on rival teams. The idea was to eliminate opportunities for game-fixing and to ensuure public confidence that NHL rivalries were legitimate. It's doubtful such a rule would have been necessary. Although NHLers respected each other, and some inevitably were friends through playing for the same team in the past, the law of supply and demand did more than any league edict could to promote antagonism.

Observers who denounce today's game and harken back to a more stylish, gentlemanly era of play forget (or perhaps never noticed) just how vicious the NHL could be in those postwar years. Stick-swinging incidents and bench-clearing brawls were routine. On-ice officals were punched out. On September 28, 1946, the newly arrived Campbell defined hockey as "a game of speed and fierce bodily contact. If these go out, hockey will vanish." However, the game would become so violent at all levels that many fans feared for its survival.

The game was also the center of a number of controversies. Educators were alarmed by the influence the game had on the (lack of) dedication young athletes gave their studies. After the war, the NHL and its affiliated minor pro loops – which were growing in number and size – had a voracious appetite for new talent. Even the British professional ice hockey league was sending scouts into the Canadian hinterlands to find players. With so few jobs available in the NHL, it was felt, with no small amount of justification, that boys were being lured by dreams of professional glory into dead-end playing careers that would leave them with nothing to fall back on. Some officials in the Canadian amateur system also resented the way professional hockey had come to completely dominate their game, sponsoring clubs, paying de facto salaries to junior and senior players, and securing rights to players as young as 16.

The Canadian Amateur Hockey Association was in a sometimes-uneasy alliance with the National Hockey League, becoming its main source of talent in exchange for annual block payments. Before the Second World War, Americans could be found in the league in reasonable numbers. Two of the greatest goaltenders – Frank Brimsek in Boston, Mike Karakas in Chicago – were Minnesotans, and the Black Hawks had eight Americans in the lineup when they won the 1937-38 Stanley Cup. By the 1960s, the only American-born player with an NHL starting job was Tommy Williams of the Bruins. (The most notable American player of the era, Red Berenson, was born in Regina, Saskartchewan, although he was raised in the United States and played hockey at the University of Michigan before joining the Montreal Canadiens.) Americans would return to the game in large numbers beginning in the 1970s, but for many years the league was over 95 percent Canadian.

Many of those players hailed far from the major urban centers – from the Prairie provinces, or the mining towns of Quebec and Northern Ontario. They were scouted and signed as teens and fed into the development system at the junior level. Once their signature was on a C-form – a promise of professional services that allowed a professional club to call them up within one year – they were literally the property of a team for life. Players' rights remained with their teams even after retirement: an ex-player couldn't accept a coaching job with another club unless the arrangement was approved by the last team he played for. An NHL players association had been contemplated in 1946-47 but was abandoned when the league created a pension plan for its players. Another effort to organize, in 1957-58, was crushed by the owners. It would be 1967 before the players organized, and the resulting NHL Players' Association wasn't formally certified as a union until 1976. So, a player's career was subject completely to the whims of the team owners, and he could be promoted, demoted, traded, buried in the minor leagues, and paid whatever salary the owner deemed appropriate – all without recourse. Players lived in constant fear of losing their jobs, whether through injury, fading skills or by running afoul of management.

With a very few notable exceptions – such as Jean Beliveau, whom the Canadiens were desperate to sign and who ended an exended courtship by signing a five-year, $105,000 contract in 1953 – NHLers for the most part earned only modest wages. In 1957, as part of the move to head off the players association, the minimum salary was set at $75,000. A journeyman player in the early 1960s made $10,000 to $15,000 – about the same as a high-school principal or a police chief. And it was sometimes possible to make more money as a star in a minor league than as a marginal player in the NHL. At the close of World War II, former Chicago Black Hawk Bob Carse, who had nearly died as a German prisoner of war, weighed an offer from the American Hockey League's Cleveland Barons against a job selling insurance in Edmonton, Alberta. The Barons lured him back to the game with a two-year, $11,000 contract. At the time Carse was earning more in Cleveland than Gordie Howe was making in his first years as a Detroit Red Wing.

Still, while the structure could not compare to today's multi-million-dollar standards, it paid a far sight better than the vast majority of jobs, perhaps explaining why so many were prepared to abandon their education and a safer white-collar career for a chance to earn their living playing a vicious game. In the late 1940s, the best-paid laborers in Ontario were miners, who could make about $40 a week. For a teenager from one of those mining towns who was being offered $200 a week to play for an NHL club's amateur development team in the US, the math was elementary: five times as much money as his father made in a year, for only six months of work. And even during those six months, he would be "working" no more than a few hours a day.

Compared to hacking away at a vein of nickel or gold deep below the earth's surface, professional hockey seemed like a paid holiday. Of course, the odds against making this "easy" money were extremely long. Even a top-flight junior team could expect to send only a handful of players each season on to the NHL. For instance, the Montreal Royals won Canadian junior hockey's national championship (the Memorial Cup) in 1949. Only one member of that team, Dickie Moore, went on to an NHL career.

Despite the bountiful supply of talent available and the minimal demand for players, competition in the Original Six was frequently lopsided. The New York Rangers, winners of the 1940 Stanley Cup, lost their momentum in wartime and did not recover fully until after the 1967 expansion. They missed the playoffs 18 times in 24 years between 1942 and 1966. Their next Stanley Cup win didn't come until 1993-94. The Chicago Black Hawks turned in nine last place finishes between 1946-47 and 1956-57. The Bruins, like the Rangers, were hobbled by wartime. A top team in the 1930s, and winners of the Cup in 1939 and 1941, the Bruins' limited player development resources prevented them from being consistent. But Boston management made the most of what they had and they built a sometimes competitive club that played in (and lost) the Stanley Cup finals in 1943, 1946, 1953, 1957 and 1958.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were the dominant playoff team of the 1940s, winning the Stanley Cup four times in five seasons between 1946-47 and 1950-51. Coached by former captain Hap Day, these Leafs played a rugged two-way game and enjoyed superb goaltending in the clutch from Walter "Turk" Broda. But the team lost its way for most of the 1950s, bottoming out with a last-place finish in 1957-58. His hockey senses dulling, general manager Conn Smythe – who had fronted the purchase of the Toronto St. Patricks in 1927 and turned them into the Maple Leafs – made a series of debilitating trades, sacrificing scoring power just as the league's best teams were mounting powerful offenses.

The Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens were the class of the league through the 1950s. The Red Wings, under coach/general manager Jack Adams, had come to the fore during the war years, appearing in the finals six times during the decade and winning the Cup in 1943. Adams relinquished the coaching duties to Tommy Ivan in 1947, and together they created one of the most dynamic teams in NHL history. Their goaltender, Terry Sawchuk, who arrived to stay in 1950-51, may have been the greatest the game has ever seen. The defense featured the likes of Red Kelly, Marcel Pronovost and Bob Goldham, while their offensive stars comprised the famed and feared Production Line of Ted Lindsay, Gordie Howe and Sid Abel. The Red Wings defeated the upstart Rangers in double-overtime of the seventh game to win the 1949-50 Cup. Detroit won seven straight regular season titles from 1948-49 to 1954-55, appeared in seven finals between 1948 and 1956, and won the Stanley Cup four times.

At the outset of the Original Six era, Detroit's main rival was Toronto. The Leafs and Red Wings had tangled in seven-game finals in 1942 and 1945, both of which the Leafs won. But as the 1950s dawned, the league's main rivalry involved Detroit and Montreal. The Canadiens appeared in 10 consecutive finals from 1950-51 to 1959-60, and in the first half of the decade their blood feud with the Red Wings was unparalleled. The Red Wings defeated the Canadiens in 1952 in a four-game sweep as Detroit moved through the two playoff rounds without a single loss. After pausing in 1952-53 to give the Bruins a run at Montreal (in a series the Canadiens won in five), the Wings hooked up with the Habs in the next three finals. Detroit won the first two engagements, both of which went the full seven games. When Montreal won the third encounter in five in 1955-56, Detroit's reign was over, while the Canadiens had won the first of five consecutive Stanley Cup titles – a league record – winning 40 of 49 playoff games along the way.

The Canadiens team that came to dominate in the 1950s was a product of remarkable talent spotting. Few of their players had been acquired through trades; the team had signed the vast majority of its players as young amateurs and brought them along in the development system built by Frank Selke, Sr., who had joined the Habs as general manager in 1946 after a lengthy term in the Maple Leafs front offive. Selke's system was not limited to francophone Quebec; it stretched across the country and featured such junior teams as Manitoba's St. Boniface Canadiens and Saskatchewan's Regina Pats. Selke's talent pipeline fed a steady stream of new recruits into the Canadiens lineup, which was coached by Dick Irvin from 1940 until 1955.

Irvin's main star was Maurice "Rocket" Richard, who first played for Montreal in 1942-43. His ferocious temper regularly got him into trouble with officials, and it was his outbrust during a game in Boston on March 13, 1955, that became more famous than any goal he scored. In the midst of a brawl with Bruins defenseman Hal Laycoe, in which he broke a stick over Laycoe's back, Richard landed two punches in the face of a linesman. Clarence Campbell suspended him for the rest of the season and the playoffs. When Campbell appeared at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens – sans Richard – play the Red Wings on March 17, the fans rioted and went on a destructive tear through Montreal.

After the Canadiens lost the 1955 finals to Detroit, Selke replaced Irvin with Toe Blake. The former Canadiens captain had had his career ended by a bad ankle fracture in January 1948; until then, he had been part of the great Punch Line with Richard and Elmer Lach. Selke figured Blake could do a better job of reining in the Rocket's volcanic temperament. The result was the streak of five consecutive Cup wins, and eight in the 13 seasons Blake ran the Canadiens bench.

Montreal had so many wonderful players in the 1950s that it seems remiss not to list them all. But among the standouts were goaltender Jacques Plante, who won six Vezina Trophy titles with the Canadiens and introduced the modern fiberglass mask to the game in November 1959; center Jean Beliveau, a superstar for the ages who assumed the captaincy when Maurice Richard retired after the 1959-60 Cup win; the Rocket's younger brother, Henri "the Pocket Rocket," who came to the team in 1955, succeeded Beliveau as captain, and retired in 1975 with 11 Cup wins, more than any other player in NHL history; scoring stars Dickie Moore and Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, who brought the first fully developed slap shot to the NHL in 1950-51; and defenseman Doug Harvey, a seven-time Norris Trophy winner.

In 1958-59, Montreal encountered a relatively new Stanley Cup opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who hadn't been in a final since defeating the Habs in 1951. George "Punch" Imlach had just taken over as coach and general manager, and the Leafs squeaked into the final playoff spot by a single point over the Rangers, then took seven games to upset the Bruins and make the finals. Though they lost to the Canadiens in five games, Toronto was back again to face Montreal in the 1959-60 finals. This time the Canadiens swept the Leafs, but a changing of the guard was taking place within the NHL: Montreal would be shut out of the next four finals, while Toronto and Chicago were ascendant.

In the early 1950s, player transactions were initiated by the league's other teams to keep the Hawks viable. Suddenly, in the late 1950s, Chicago emerged as a contender. The Black Hawks had benefited from the union-busting tactics of owners in Detroit and Toronto, who in 1957-58 shipped their principal players' association organizers to Chicago – where there was little chance of earning playoff bonus money – as punishment. Collecting Tod Sloan and Jim Thomson from the Maple Leafs, and Ted Lindsay and Glenn Hall from the Wings, Chicago had a foundation on which to build a champion. Its junior operations contributed stars like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, and a team that had missed the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 seasons in 1957-58 recovered so rapidly that it won the Stanley Cup in 1961.

Thus began the NHL's most competitive era. Every season from 1962-63 to 1966-67, the four playoff qualifiers had winning records, a circumstance not seen since 1953-54. In 1962-63, the most closely contested season in league history, only five points separated first-place Toronto from fourth-place Detroit. In these years, the playoffs were a toss-up between four evenly matched teams: Montreal, Detroit, Chicago and Toronto. Unfortunately, some of the success of these teams was built on the misery of the Bruins and the Rangers, both of whom had faded badly in the late 1950s.

The Maple Leafs prevailed in the playoff battles of the early 1960s, winning three straight Cup championships from 1962 to 1964 before giving way to a resurgent Canadiens team that emerged victorious four times over the next five seasons, a streak interrupted only by an aging Toronto teams last golden hurrah in 1967.

The Maple Leafs teams of the 1960s were the first truly engineered dynasty. Manager Punch Imlach retained established team veterans like Tim Horton, Ron Stewart and George Armstrong, and added such new talents from the farm system as Carl Brewer, Bob Baun, Dick Duff, Bob Nevin, Bob Pulford, Billy Harris and Ron Ellis. Then he stirred in veterans from other teams – Bert Olmstrad from Montreal; Allan Stanley from Boston; Red Kelly, Al Arbour, Terry Sawchuk, Larry Hillman and Marcel Pronovost from Detroit; Ed Litzenberger from Chicago; and Andy Bathgate and Don McKenny from New York. It was a concoction that bore no resemblance to the carefully scouted and nurtured lineups of Detroit and Montreal in the 1950s, but it brought results.

The Black Hawks, despite a lineup chock full of all-stars, could not convert their regular season accomplishments into playoff success. They won in 1960-61 – before the team's top players had fully developed into mature NHL stars – but would only return to the finals once, in 1965, losing to Montreal in seven games. Meanwhile, the Red Wings, a relentless checking outfit in the 1960s, reached the finals three times in four years and lost on every occasion.

The last Stanley Cup of the Original Six era was contested by the Leafs and Canadiens. Chicago had run away with the regular season, winning their first league title, and claimed five of the six berths on the First All-Star Team. But Imlach's aging Leafs ground them down in six before doing the same to Montreal in the finals.

The league doubled in size for the 1967-68 season, and many good players who had been languishing in the minors surfaced for air. In 1969, the league's old recruitment and development system went by the wayside as the expanded league held its first universal Amateur Draft. Three years later, the NHL had a full-blown rival in the World Hockey Association, and the NHL's Canadian stars battled to maintain their country's global bragging rights in the sport as they tangled with the Soviet Union in an eight-game exhibition. A scant five years after its passing, the Original Six seemed like something out of ancient history.

To this day the players who had excelled during the NHL's second quarter century from 1942 to 1967 are remembered with a particular reverence and affection.