Hockey Central

The National Hockey Association

The Swashbuckling Roots of the NHL's
Immediate Predecessor

With skyrocketing salaries fueling fears that Canadian markets are no longer large enough to compete with American cities, it almost seems impossible to believe that the league that became the NHL actually was formed by three small Ontario towns — which had a combined population that would not fill today’s new arenas — plus two Montreal teams that played out of a 3,250-seat rink.

The NHL was formed in November of 1917 after a series of meetings which reorganized the National Hockey Association into the National Hockey League. The forerunner of the NHL had been created eight years before, though its roots can be traced back to 1907. At that time, the Stanley Cup was still a challenge trophy available to top teams all across Canada. In fact, the defending Stanley Cup champions hailed from the tiny town of Kenora, Ontario. Still, a Toronto newspaper chose to mock the Stanley Cup dreams of another small Ontario community:

“And now Renfrew talks of challenging for the Stanley Cup,” the Toronto Telegram informed its readers on March 13, 1907, “and all because they have won a fence corner league [the Ottawa Valley Hockey League] and defeated a broken and discouraged band of Ottawas [Renfrew had defeated the former Silver Seven squad 9-5 in an exhibition game five days after Ottawa had been officially eliminated from Stanley Cup contention]. ... If Renfrew had any real stars on her team, some of the big teams would have gobbled them up long ago.”

Not content to mock the hockey players, the Telegram also took a shot at the townsfolk one day later: “Renfrew have challenged for the Stanley Cup. Now don’t laugh. If you’ve never lived in a country town you don’t know how seriously those people take themselves. Anybody who went into Renfrew and gave voice to an opinion that there was a greater team on earth than Renfrew would be lucky if he escaped with his life.”

But by the hockey season of 1909-10, there was no greater team on earth than Renfrew — or at least no greater collection of high-priced superstars.

Renfrew was denied a challenge for the Stanley Cup in 1907, but the town’s hockey officials pressed on. By 1908-09, the decision was made to enter the professional ranks. To finance the team, Renfrew looked to its most prominent citizens. The tiny town in the Ottawa Valley had a population of just 4,000, yet two men who called Renfrew home were among the richest in Canada — lumber baron Alexander Barnet and railroad builder/mining magnate Michael John O’Brien. M.J. O’Brien and his son Ambrose already were supporting a hockey team in the Northern Ontario silver-mining town of Cobalt and could hardly turn down their hometown. However, Renfrew soon would learn that even victory in the new professional Federal League was not enough to impress the Stanley Cup trustees.

Both Cobalt and Renfrew issued Stanley Cup challenges in 1909. In late November of that year, Ambrose O’Brien traveled to Montreal where the Stanley Cup trustees were to reveal who would have a chance to play off against the defending champion Ottawa Senators. On November 24, 1909 they announced that Galt, Winnipeg and Edmonton had won the right to challenge (though only Galt and Edmonton did). Cobalt and Renfrew were ignored. But there was still one more chance for Renfrew. O’Brien was also in Montreal for the meetings of the Eastern Canada Hockey Association. If he could get his hometown team into the game’s top professional league alongside the champion Senators, a challenge no longer would be necessary, as a league title probably would guarantee the Stanley Cup. O’Brien would state his case to the ECHA owners. He knew he had the support of Jimmy Gardner, who represented Montreal Wanderers owner P.J. Doran.

P.J. Doran had bought the Wanderers a year before and planned to move his team out of their 7,000-seat arena and into his 3,250-seat Jubilee rink. As the smaller capacity would mean a decrease in the gate receipts to be shared by visiting clubs, Doran’s fellow owners were not impressed. With Ottawa leading the way, they voted the ECHA out of existence on November 25, 1909 and created a new league called the Canadian Hockey Association. The teams making up the CHA would be the Ottawa Senators, Quebec Bulldogs, Montreal Shamrocks, Montreal Nationals and All-Montreal. The Wanderers had been frozen out. Renfrew’s application was denied as well.

Shortly after learning their fate, Jimmy Gardner met with Ambrose O’Brien and proposed that they form their own league. One week later, on December 2, 1909, the Wanderers, Renfrew, Cobalt and Haileybury formed the National Hockey Association. A fifth team was added two days later. Gardiner had convinced O’Brien to finance an all-French-Canadian team in Montreal to rival the Nationals of the CHA. The new NHA entry would be known as les Canadiens and share the tiny Jubilee Arena with the Wanderers.

The NHA would commence play with Cobalt at the Canadiens on January 5, 1910, six days after the scheduled start of the CHA. In the meantime, the two leagues went to war over the best players. The O’Briens controlled four of the five clubs in the NHA, and while their money helped attract stars like Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre to the Canadiens, Ambrose concentrated his efforts on bringing the Stanley Cup to Renfrew. Marty Walsh reportedly was offered $4,000 to leave Ottawa for Renfrew. When the 1909 scoring champion of the ECHA (with 38 goals in 12 games) refused to jump, O’Brien instead signed runner-up Herb Jordan of Quebec (who had scored 29 goals). Fred Whitcroft of the Edmonton Eskimos later jumped to Renfrew for $2,000. Frank Patrick also signed for $2,000. His more experienced brother, Lester Patrick, signed for $3,000. The largest contract to that point in hockey history prompted Toronto newspapers to snicker, “Let us see: What salary does the average school teacher in Renfrew get?” But an even bigger deal was in the works.

Cyclone Taylor had been wooed by the O’Briens for their Cobalt team two years earlier when he returned to Canada from the International (Pro) Hockey League. He had signed with Ottawa instead and while Walsh was the Senators top scorer, Taylor was their biggest star (the Bobby Orr to Walsh’s Phil Esposito). For weeks after the NHA was formed, Ottawa newspapers were filled with headlines documenting the attempts to lure Taylor to Renfrew. On December 28, 1909 he signed a contract said to be worth $5,250 for a 12-game season. The deal was considered the richest in North American team sports. (Ty Cobb was paid $6,500 that year, but had to play a 154-game baseball schedule.) Because Renfrew was famed for the quality of its dairy products, the hockey team was officially known as the Creamery Kings, but the huge contracts signed by its players had everyone calling them the Millionaires.

Taylor’s signing had given the NHA instant credibility at the expense of the CHA. This, plus the fact that there were now five teams playing out of Montreal, saw the CHA draw poor crowds to its early games. A meeting between representatives of the rival organizations was called for January 15, 1910 amid talks the two leagues would amalgamate. Instead, the NHA offered to take in only the Senators and Shamrocks. The two teams jumped at the opportunity, abandoning the CHA which folded amid much bitterness from the teams that had been left out. The seven-team NHA was now hockey’s major league and its schedule was revised to include the new clubs. With the defending champion Senators in the fold, an NHA championship would mean a Stanley Cup victory as well and it was freely predicted that Renfrew was the team to beat.

Despite their many stars, the Millionaires were slow to blend as a team. They did not hit their stride until acquiring Newsy Lalonde from the Canadiens midway through the season. Even then, a long road trip through northern Ontario left the team in poor shape for a key late-season game with the Wanderers. The Montreal team beat Renfrew 5-0 on February 25, then defeated the Senators 3-1 on March 5 to clinch the first NHA title and the Stanley Cup with a record of 11-1. The Wanderers also were presented with the O’Brien Trophy, which had been donated by M.J. O’Brien. Renfrew had to settle for humiliating Ottawa 17-2 in the second-last game of the season. Newsy Lalonde clinched the first NHA scoring title with nine goals in a 15-4 win over Cobalt in the season finale.

The 1909-10 season had been costly for hockey owners. M.J. O’Brien withdrew his financial support of Cobalt and Haileybury, whose franchises were replaced by the Quebec Bulldogs and the new Montreal Canadiens. George Kennedy, also known as “Kendall,” was granted the new Montreal team after he threatened to sue because the name Canadiens was registered and incorporated to his Club Athl├ętique Canadien. (Kennedy was born Georges Kendall. In English-speaking circles he went by the name “Kennedy,” but is identified as “G.W. Kendall, Treasurer” in the Montreal Canadiens team portrait of 1915-16.)

With Kennedy now in charge, the O’Briens no longer would be required to operate the original Canadiens either, though Ambrose would continue to operate the Millionaires. The Montreal Shamrocks would not be back for the 1910-11 season, leaving the NHA with just five teams. In a further effort to recoup their financial losses, NHA owners chose to institute a salary cap of $5,000 per team. Another new wrinkle for the NHA’s second season would be the replacement of two 30-minute halves with three 20-minute periods.

On November 23, 1910, rumors began to spread that a players’ union would be formed to fight the salary cap. Bruce Stuart and Art Ross were at the forefront of the movement and began negotiating with their fellow players to establish a league of their own. Teams were to be placed in Montreal, Ottawa and nearby Brockville, but when the Montreal Arena refused to deal with any club but the Wanderers and attempts to secure ice time elsewhere fell through, players reluctantly began re-signing with their teams. Though most teams offered bonuses to get around the $5,000 cap or ignored it completely, salaries dropped considerably this season and the financial cuts cost Renfrew the services of Frank and Lester Patrick (who could not afford to leave the family business in British Columbia for such reduced rates). Ottawa proved the class of the NHA’s scaled-down second season, winning the league title with a 13-3 record and replacing the Wanderers as Stanley Cup champions. After the season, the Senators crushed teams from Galt and Port Arthur by scores of 7-4 and 13-4 respectively in a pair of Stanley Cup challenges.

Further financial losses during the 1910-11 season convinced Ambrose O’Brien that Renfrew’s population of 4,000 was simply too small to support pro hockey at the highest level. The man who had almost single-handedly created the NHA sold both his Renfrew franchise and the rights to the original Canadiens to Toronto interests. However, construction delays to the new Arena Gardens on Mutual Street meant neither the Toronto Blueshirts nor the Toronto Tecumsehs (who would later be known as the Ontarios, then Shamrocks) would actually begin play until 1912-13. The O’Brien Trophy became the official emblem of the NHA championship in 1911-12, and the league made the decision to abandon the rover in favor of six-man hockey (a goalie, two defenseman, a center and two wingers). Led by future NHL star Joe Malone, Quebec finished first in the NHA to win the O’Brien Trophy and unseat Ottawa as Stanley Cup Champions.

The biggest change in hockey for the 1911-12 season was Frank and Lester Patrick’s creation of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Several NHA players helped fill out the rosters of the new PCHA teams in Vancouver, Victoria and New Westminster, including former Renfrew teammates Bert Lindsay, Bobby Rowe and Newsy Lalonde, and the NHA and PCHA would battle both for players and (soon) the Stanley Cup for the rest of the NHA’s existence. Like the NHA, the PCHA would play three 20-minute periods, and though the Patricks chose to keep the position of rover, their new league would do much to modernize the rules of hockey. The PCHA tabulated assists as an official statistic (which the NHA copied in 1913-14), allowed goaltenders to sprawl on the ice to make saves (NHA goalies had to remain standing) and painted blue lines on the ice to divide the rink into zones (the NHA’s ice had no markings). It also allowed forward passing in the neutral zone, while NHA players continued to advance the puck in the same way a rugby team advances the ball.

After winning the Stanley Cup in 1911-12, every member of the Quebec Bulldogs was offered a contract by teams in the PCHA for 1912-13. Goldie Prodgers, Eddie Oatman and Jack McDonald all went west (as did Cyclone Taylor this season), but with Joe Malone scoring 43 goals in 20 games and newcomer Tommy Smith adding 39 more, the Bulldogs still breezed to the NHA championship with a record of 16-4. Malone added nine goals in a 14-3 victory over the Sydney (Nova Scotia) Millionaires in game one of a Stanley Cup challenge series and then sat out the second game as Quebec cruised to a 6-2 victory. Two weeks later (March 24, 1913), the Bulldogs were in Victoria to take on the PCHA champion Aristocrats in a three-game exhibition series. Fortunately for Quebec the Stanley Cup was not on the line as Victoria won two of the three games. One year later, the challenge era in Stanley Cup history ended when the NHA and PCHA reach an agreement on an annual five-game Stanley Cup series to be played in the east and west in alternate years. The different rules from each league would be alternated game by game. Victoria was again the PCHA champions in 1913-14, but lost the Stanley Cup to the Toronto Blueshirts in three straight games.

Toronto’s first Stanley Cup champions were led by Jack Marshall and Allan Davidson. Davidson soon would leave the team and sacrifice his life during World War I, but his 23 goals in 20 games in 1913-14 led the Blueshirts to a 13-7 record and a first-place tie with the Montreal Canadiens. Davidson then added two more goals as the Blueshirts claimed the NHA title with a 6-2 victory over Montreal in a two-game total-goals playoff. The 1914-15 NHA season also ended in a tie, with the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Wanderers both finishing 14-6. Ottawa emerged victorious in a playoff and traveled to the West Coast where they were defeated 6-2, 8-3 and 12-3 in a three-game sweep by the Vancouver Millionaires.

The NHA began feeling the effects of World War I during the 1914-15 season, as teams began losing players to military service and attendance dropped. As a result, salaries were slashed. The Montreal Wanderers advised their players they would be paid no more than $600 for the season (though that later was raised to $800 for the top stars). As in 1910-11, the players began to talk of forming their own league. Art Ross was again at the forefront of the movement and on November 30, 1914, he was banned from organized hockey for negotiating to sign players for the new league. But to ban Ross, the NHA also would have to ban the players he had negotiated with, which would have destroyed the rosters of the Wanderers and the Montreal Canadiens. Therefore, Ross was reinstated on December 18, but was suspended until January 7, 1915. On January 9, he signed with the Ottawa Senators.

The NHA was hit by troubles of a different sort in 1915-16. Toronto Shamrocks owner Eddie Livingstone bought the Toronto Blueshirts, which angered fellow owners who did not like the idea of Livingstone controlling both Toronto teams. He was ordered to sell the Shamrocks by November 20, 1915. However, virtually the entire Blueshirts rosters was signed away by a new PCHA team in Seattle. Livingstone then rebuilt his new team around the players under contract to his old club and simply folded the Shamrocks. The NHA was down to five clubs once again. The best of these five proved to be the Montreal Canadiens. With Newsy Lalonde leading the league with 28 goals in 24 games and Georges Vezina battling Clint Benedict as the top goaltender, the Canadiens posted a 16-7-1 record. They then defeated the PCHA’s Portland Rosebuds for the first Stanley Cup victory in franchise history. The Canadiens were NHA champions again the following year but lost the Stanley Cup to the Seattle Metropolitans. However, there was much more to the story of 1916-17 than the first Stanley Cup victory by an American-based team.

The season of 1916-17 would be the last for the NHA and the league’s end would prove no less tumultuous than its beginning. Emmett Quinn, who had been president of the NHA since the merger with the CHA in 1910, resigned on October 28, 1916. (Frank Patrick had said there could be no peace between the two leagues while Quinn ran the NHA.) He was replaced by Major Frank Robinson of Montreal. One month earlier (September 30), the NHA had admitted a military team when the 228th Battalion was granted a franchise in Toronto. (Many hockey players had enlisted during the summer of 1916 and some of the best — including George and Howard McNamara, Goldie Prodgers, and Art Duncan — had joined the 228th.) With so many players in the army, the Ottawa Senators wanted to suspend operations for the season, but the idea was rejected and the team instead was placed under new management.

A decision was made to employ a split schedule for the 1916-17 NHA season, with the winner of the first half to meet the second-half winner to determine the league champion. The Canadiens and Ottawa finished the opening 10-game segment on January 27, 1917 with identical 7-3 records, but Montreal was awarded first place based on a better goal differential. The second half saw an equally tight battle between Ottawa and Quebec with the Bulldogs taking an 8-1 record into the season finale against the 7-2 Senators on March 3. Ottawa needed to win the game by seven goals to claim the second-half title and crushed Quebec 16-1. Frank Nighbor scored five times for Ottawa, while Quebec’s Joe Malone was held scoreless, which meant the two players tied for the league scoring title with 41 goals apiece. Despite Ottawa’s strong finish, the Senators lost the NHA playoff to the Canadiens.

As interesting as the season had been on the ice, greater drama occurred behind the scenes. One day before the first half had concluded, there were indications that the 228th Battalion was about to be sent overseas. Captain L.W. Reade assured the NHA that the team would be able to complete the second half, but on February 10, 1917, the regiment was shipped to Europe. A special meeting of the NHA was held the next day to determine how to salvage the season. Eddie Livingstone insisted that the league should organize a five-club, round-robin schedule, but the unpopular owner could not convince his fellow NHA directors. A decision was made instead to drop Livingstone’s Blueshirts and the schedule was completed with just four teams. Toronto’s players were divided among the rest of the remaining teams. Any compensation Livingstone received never was made public, though he was promised that his players would be returned at the end of the season. The players did indeed come back, but not to Livingstone’s club. In an effort to be rid of him once and for all, the NHA’s other owners reorganized as the National Hockey League in November of 1917. The NHL’s Toronto franchise was granted to the owners of the Mutual Street Arena.

Not surprisingly, Eddie Livingstone did not go down without a fight. He did his best to interfere with the operation of the NHL and its Toronto team throughout the 1917-18 season, and his threats of lawsuits against the former NHA owners lasted into the 1918-19 campaign. Claiming that he had a majority of former NHA stockholders on his side, Livingstone forced a final meeting of the association on December 11, 1919, but he could not revive the old league. The NHA was dead, yet its eight-year existence had changed the course of hockey history.