Hockey Central

Setting the Foundation

1917-18 to 1925-26

Rapid growth in league size. Major expansion into the United States and grave Canadian fears that the Americans were "stealing our game." Contract holdouts. Soaring salaries. A players' strike that disrupts the Stanley Cup playoffs. Anti-defense rules designed to increase scoring. The first decade of the National Hockey League really wasn't all that different from the modern era.

Professional hockey was in dire straits as the governors of the National Hockey Association were set to gather in November 1917. The Great War raged in Europe and many of the game's top stars had traded in their skates and sticks for boots and rifles. "Pro Hockey on Last Legs" screamed the headline in the Toronto Globe on November 6, 1917 as the dearth of available hockey talent seemed ready to bring about the demise of the NHA, a league that had been in existence since 1909.

"The public want first-class hockey and unless we can furnish it for them, we will reserve the ice for skating purposes only," said E.D. Sheppard, president of the Montreal Arena Company, suggesting that pro hockey might not be part of the winter scenery that year.

With so many good young men heading off to war, the ranks of the NHA had dwindled to the old and infirm and the professional game had lost much of its fan support. "Futile attempts have been made to get amateur stars to become professionals to replace the worn-out oldtimes who have been playing on the NHA teams for years." noted the Globe. "Fast, young amateur stars have stolen the patronage from the pros."

On November 10, the governors of the NHA held a brief meeting in Montreal and afterwards announced that the league would suspend operations for the upcoming season, citing it as "unfeasible" with the scarcity of pro players. What people didn't know was that shortly after the NHA meeting adjoured, the owners of the Ottawa and Quebec franchise and the two Montreal Clubs - the Canadiens and Wanderers - gathered to hold a second meeting, welcoming a group representing the Toronto Arena Company.

Soon, the real reason for the suspension of the NHA would become public knowledge. It had less to do with a player shortage and more to do with getting rid of bombastic Toronto owner Eddie Livingstone. An earlier report in a Toronto newspaper has suggested there was "renewed determination on the part of the Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec clubs not to tolerate the Toronto club any longer."

A story in the November 12, 1917 edition of the Toronto Globe suggested that there was "something doing in pro hockey," amidst rumors of a new league being founded with Frank Calder, who had been secretary of the NHA, serving as president. "In a day or so, possibly later, developments may be looked for," hinted Quebec manager Mike Quinn.

It actually took two weeks until the new organization, the National Hockey League, was officially announced on November 26. As expected, Calder was named president. The loop consisted of five teams - Quebec, Ottawa, the two Montreal clubs and a new Toronto franchise. "A syndicate of Toronto sportsmen purchased the team," Calder stated, adding that "the new owners were thoroughly acceptable" to the other clubs of the league.

Team owners weren't as polite about the move as their league's new president. "He was always arguing about everything," Ottawa's Tommy Gorman said of Livingstone. "Without him, we can get down to the business of making money."

Not that the infant league didn't have other concerns. Immediately, the Quebec franchise took a leave of absence, reducing the NHL to a four-team outfit. The NHL's first season opened on December 19 and it was apparent that the name change wasn't fooling anyone as far as the quality of the product was concerned. Only 700 watched at Montreal's Westmount Arena as the Wanders outscored Toronto 10-9.

It would be the only victory of their brief NHL History. The Westmount Arena burnt to the ground January 2, 1918. Both Montreal teams lost everything. The Canadiens scrounged up some new gear and moved into the tiny, 3,250-seat Jubilee Arena, but the Wanderers, citing operating losses of $30,000, elected to fold their franchise.

While teams were going down, NHL goaltenders couldn't - but that didn't stop them. League rules prohibited goalies from leaving their feet to make a save, but, as Ottawa's Clint Benedict pointed out "you could make it look like an accident" and get away with it. "The Praying Goaltender," as Benedict was known because he spent so much time on his knees, led to the league's first rule change. On January 9, 1918 Calder announced that goaltenders would be allowed to leave their feet to make a stop.

Announcing the rule change, Calder said of NHL netminders: "As far as I'm concerned, they can stand on their head if they choose to," coining a phrase still used by hockey people today.

Modern-day hockey fans wouldn't have recognized the NHL game in its infancy. Forward passing was not allowed, making stickhandling and skating required elements for success. There were no zones on the ice, players were not allowed to kick the puck and immediate substituation was allowed in the event of a penalty, no matter how severe. Minor penalties were three minutes in length and goaltenders would serve their own penalties, meaning a forward or defenceman would have to take over in net for the duration of the sentence.

The winner of the NHL would meet the champions of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, a loop run on the West Coast by the Patrick brothers, Frank and Lester, for the Stanley Cup. A third major league, the Western Canada Hockey League, formed on the Canadian prairies in 1921, also joined the competition for Lord Stanley's mug.

Rules varied from league to league. The Pacific league still played seven-player hockey, employing a rover, a position the NHA had dropped in 1911. Rules would be enforced on an alternating basis in Stanley Cup play, with the league having home-ice advantage playing the extra game under its rules.

Many PCHA rules were eventually adopted by the NHL, such as forward passing, dividing the rink into zones, playing short-handed while penalized and allowing players to kick the puck. The PCHA brought in the penalty shot in 1921, something the NHL did not do until the mid-1930's. The first time NHL fans got a look at the so-called free shot was in game two of the 1922 Stanley Cup finals when Toronto's Babe Dye fired his penalty shot over the net.

The PCHA was also considered more of a finesse and skating league than the NHL, which was known for its vicious brand of hockey. Seattle's Cully Wilson, banned from the PCHA in 1919 after a violent stick attack on Vancouver's Mickey Mackay, immediately signed with Hamilton of the NHL and proceeded to lead the league in penalty minutes in 1919-20.

Survival of the fittest was the name of the game in the early NHL and even the league's best players - stars like Newsy Lalonde, Punch Broadbent, Nels Stewart and Reg Noble - were as adept at applying the hickory as they were at using their sticks to direct the puck towards the goal.

Early NHL hockey wasn't the glamour game it is today. Harry Cameron, the highest-paid player on Toronto's 1918 Stanley Cup winner, earned $900. Joe Malone, who scored an amazing 44 goals in 20 games in 1917-18 (a league mark which would stand until 1944-45) became a part-time player in the 1918-19 season, playing just nine games for the Canadiens. "I had hooked on to a good job in Quebec City which promised a secure future, something hockey in those days couldn't," said Malone, who played only in Montreal's home games that season.

Paul Jacobs, a promising amateur defenseman signed by Toronto in 1918, quit the team after one game when he received a job offer in Montreal. Out west, PCHA stars Frank Foyston and Frank Fredrickson both left hockey briefly to enter private business - Foyston was a butcher and Fredrickson ran a music shop.

Low salaries meant convincing top amateurs to turn pro was nearly impossible, since the majority of them were well-educated and knew the real world offered the better future prospects than the ice rink. Besides, the best amateurs, or "Simon Pures", as they were called, were being paid quite handsomely - under the table, naturally - to remain with their teams.

The Canadiens and Senators were the dominant franchises in the league's first decade. Between them, they were the NHL representatives in six of the first nine Stanley Cup series. The Habs had won the Stanley Cup in 1916 and reached the finals in 1917, prior to the formation on the NHL. In 1919 they played in the ill-fated series in which no decision was reached.

The Spanish influenza epidemic worked its way through North America and it had already touched the NHL before Montreal headed west to play Seattle, the Pacific Coast champions.

The virus claimed the life of Ottawa defenseman Hamby Shore prior to the start of the season. By early 1919, the majority of the roster of Victoria's PCHA franchise was laid up with flu.

As the 1919 final wore on, five Montreal players became stricken with the illness. After five games, with the series deadlocked at 2-2-1 (including a 100-minute scoreless draw in game four), the Canadians were so ill they couldn't ice a team. The Stanley Cup trustees offered the title to Seattle by default, but they refused to accept and the series was halted without a winner being declared. Canadians defenseman Joe Hall never recovered from his illness and died April 5 in a Seattle hospital. Canadians owner George Kennedy also never fully regained his health and died in the autumn of 1920.

Montreal had vanquished Ottawa in the league finals en route to Seattle, but the Senators were about to go to the top of the class. Goalie Benedict, defenseman Eddie Gerard, center Frank Nighbor and left winger Cy Denneny were already in place when the NHL was formed.

Rigged defenseman Sprague Claghorn, considered the toughest NHLer of the era, was signed prior to the 1918-19 campaign. Completing the lineup of six starters was right winger Punch Broadbent, who returned to NHL play early in 1919 after serving in combat in World War I, where he was decorated for bravery.

Commencing the 1919-20 season, Ottawa would take home the Stanley Cup three times in four seasons. So deep in talent were the Senators that during the 1921-22 season, rookie King Clancy and Frank Boucher, both future Hall of Famers, rarely got off the bench. The Senators swept both halves of the NHL's split season in 1919-20 and whipped Seattle in the Stanley Cup finals. When Ottawa opened up with five straight wins to start the 1920-21 campaign, the rest of the NHL screamed foul.

At issue was the Senators' defensive system. Simply explained, the Senators, once they secured a lead, would keep a forward and two defensemen in their own zone of the rink at all times. On the surface, other NHL clubs insisted this style of hockey would be the ruination of the game, but they also realized the effectiveness of Ottawa's system and began employing it. As scoring dwindled, the NHL decided to act and in 1924 adopted the anti-defense rule, which made it illegal for more than two defending players, other then the goaltender, to be in the defensive zone when the puck was not. "I think the fans want to see more scoring," Calder said in introducing the new regualation.

While some teams were thriving, the NHL was still seeking over-all stabilty. The Toronto Arenas folded in February 1919 and a new ownership group renamed the team the St. Patricks in 1919-20. Toronto entrepreneur Percy Quinn acquired an option on the dormant Quebec franshise in 1917-18, but when the league told him he couldn't move the club to Toronto, he tried to form his own league, the Canadian Hockey Association. He worked closely with Eddie Livingstone, but the new circuit never got off the ground.

Quebec finally rejoined the NHL in 1919. Its lone high-light came January 31, 1920 when Joe Malone potted seven goals against Toronto, an NHL record still on the books today. Malone had an eighth goal disallowed. After the season, the Quebec franchise was sold to Hamilton interests.

Calder felt it was necessary for the other clubs to ensure Hamilton could ice a competitive club. Toronto has loaned Dye to the Tigers prior to the season, but when he sniped two goals in Hamilton's 5-0 opening-night win over the Canadians, they quickly recalled him. Citing a need to bring more balance to the league, on December 30, 1920, the NHL announced that both Broadbent and Cleghorn had been taken from the Senators and awarded to Hamilton. Senators' management felt that they were being unfairly singled out and the issue became further muddled when both Broadbent and Cleghorn refused to report. By the end of the season, both players were back in Canada's capital city, helping Ottawa win the Cup again.

Meanwhile the Canadians were floundering. Manager Leo Dandurand, who was part of a group that purchased the club for $11,000 from Kennedy's estate, sought reasons for the decline and early in the 1920-21 season, banned his players from driving their motor cars, feeling that it was causing their arm and leg muscles to cramp. The actual concern was dental in nature - Montreal's lineup was long in the tooth. While veteran Grorges Vezina was still spectacular in goal, the forward unit of Lalonde, Didier Pitre and Louis Berlinquette had seen its best days.

The fans began to turn on Lalonde, who lost his job as the starting center to Odie Cleghorn in 1921 and quit the team in disgust. Lalonde returned to finish the 1921-22 campaign, but after the season Dandurand traded him to Saskatoon of the WCHL for $35,000 and the rights to an amateur named Aurel Joliat.

Sprague Cleghorn had been acquired and teamed with Billy Coutu to give the Habs the toughest defense pair in the NHL. Two other speedy amateurs, Howie Morenz and Billy Boucher, joined Joliat up front and the rebuilt Canadiens were Stanley Cup champions in 1924 and finalists in 1925 - the season Victoria became the last team from outside the NHL to win the Stanley Cup. On-ice success was buoyed by the opening of two new facilities that served as home to the Montreal Canadiens - the Mount Royal Arena in January, 1920 and the $1 million Forum in November, 1924. The Forum was actually built to house a new Montreal franchise, the Maroons, who entered the NHL in 1924.

Maroons owner James Strachan paid $15,000 for his franchise - $11,000 of which was paid to the Canadiens for infringing on their territorial rights. Dandurand saw a natural intra-city rivalry quickly developing and he was right. The Maroons helped heat things up by icing a roster of English-speaking players from Ontario - the perfect foil to the Canadiens French-Canadian base. Strachan quickly assembled an outstanding team, purchasing veterans Benedict, Broadbent and Noble, while signing talented amateurs Stewart, Dunc Munro and Babe Siebert. It didn't hurt the rivalty when the Maroons won the Cup in 1925-26, their second season in the league.

The Hamilton Tigers, after four straight seasons out of the playoffs, finished first in 1924-25, but all was not joyous in Canada's Steel City. The NHL schedule has expanded from 24 to 30 games and while many teams had increased their salary structure, Hamilton was not one of them. Led by captain Shorty Green and goalie Jake Foebes - who sat out the entire 1921-22 season in a contract dispute with Toronto -the club staged a walkout proir to the NHL final against the Canadiens, refusing to play unless each player was paid a $200 bonus. When the striking players refused to budge, Calder suspended the entire team, awarding the title to the Habs.

The NHL readied for its ninth season in the fall of 1925. Through it all, there had been one constant - Canadiens goaltender Georges Vezna. The ironman of the league, Vezina had never missed a game, he was the only original NHLerwho could make this boast. In fact, he'd never missed a game in 16 years with the Habs. "His history in hockey is the history of the pro end of the sport since its inception," Dandurand said of Vezina.

At the Canadiens training camp, Vezina was bedridden with a severe cold. Despite a temperature of 102, he took to the ice for Montreal's season opener. He was unable to continue after the first period and gave way to backup Alphonse Lacroix. A few days later it was revealed that Vezina was suffering from tuberculosis. He had lost 35 pounds in six weeks.

The Canadiens had a game the day that Vezina found out about his illness and he didn't want to upset them, so he asked that no one be told until he had returned to his home in Chicoutimi, Quebec. When Vezina arrived at the Forum that morning, trainer Eddie Dufour assumed he was there to play goal and laid out Vezina's gear in his stall. Vezina sat quietly with his equipment, tears rolling down his cheeks. Then he took the jersey he had worn in the 1924 Stanley Cup finals and left, never to return. Vezina died March 26, 1925. A testament to his talent was evidenced by the fact that the Canadiens, who had reached the Stanley Cup finals the two previous seasons, finished last in the NHL in 1925-26.

"He was as loveable as he was athletic and I cannot say any more than that," Dandurand stated, paying tribute to his long-time goalie.

Perhaps it was fitting that Lacriox, the goaltender for the 1924 US Olympic team, replaced Vezina, since many Canadiens were convinced that their game was being taken over by Americans. NHL growth also extended south of the 39th parallel for the first time in 1924, when the Boston Bruins joined the league. The New York Americans, playing out of the 18,000-seat Madison Square Garden, and the Pittsburgh Pirates came aboard in 1925.

The Americans purchased the roster of the striking Tigers for $75,000 and Hamilton lost its NHL team. Each of the players had to pay a $200 fine and write a letter of apology to Calder before they could resume their careers.

The Pirates, with Odie Cleghorn as player-manager, made the playoffs in their first season. Claghorn helped revolutionize the way the game was played by alternating three set forward lines.

Boston, which had struggled to draw fans in its first season, saw such a turnaround in 1925-26 that it announced plansto expand the size of its arena. New rinks were being built in Chicago, Newark and Jersey City. Ottawa president Frank Ahearn rejected a $100,000 bid for his franchise from the Jersey City group. Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo and a second New York group were also pursuring NHL franchises. Hockey was so popular at Madison Square Gardens that Tex Rickard, a man who gained a worldwide reputation as a fight promoter, found the new game to be a gold mine.

"I can make bigger money with less worry and fewer risks out of hockey than I have been getting out of boxing," Rickard said, pointing to the large throngs attending Americans games, which often filled the rink.

There were rumours that a separate US pro league was being organized, which would have two teams in New York, as well as franchises in Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon. Eddie Livingstone, spurned by the NHL in 1917, was also trying to put together a rival pro league based in the US. "Hockey will sweep the United States from coast to coast within five years," predicted the Toronto Globe in a 1925 editorial.

Tom Duggan, managing director of the Americans franchise, scoffed at suggustions that America was usurping the Canadian game. "Stories in Canadian papers about the alleged Americanization of hockey are absurd," Duggan said. "The Canadian clubs are essential drawing cards and the New York club has no intention of ever cutting away from them."

The NHL was now attracting the top amateurs and players in major centers. Salaries had grown with the league. Pittsburgh signed a defenceman Lionel Conacher to a three-year deal at $7,500 s year. Other top earners included Dunc Munro ($7,000), Joe Simpson ($6,000) and Billy Burch ($6,500) of the Amerks and Toronto's Hap Day($6,000). The NHL installed $35,000 salary cups on each club. Dandurand, who had purchased the Canadiens for $11,000 in 1921, insured the franchise for $150,000 in 1925.

Out west, things were headed in the other direction. The PCHA and WCHL had merged in 1924 and the owners of small-market teams situated on the Canadian prairies could see the handwriting on the wall. "It is a regrettable situation so far as the smaller Candian centers are concerned," Calgary Tigers owner Lloyd Turner said. "In the larger American cities, they are prepared to pay higher prices. It is a situation that I felt would arise as soon as the United States cities took up hockey."

Big changes had already been undertaken and more were just around the corner. The NHL has opened on Broadway and it was a hit.