Hockey Central
Minor Pro Hockey
in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s

With more than 2,500 people playing professional hockey per season in the late 1990s, it is hard to realize that less than 100 years ago there was no pro hockey at all. It was just over 70 years ago that minor pro hockey as we know it swung into action.

The first leagues to start openly paying players began in the United States in 1902-03, though Pittsburgh teams had paid future Hall of Famer Riley Hern to play goal in 1901-02. Over the next few years play-for-pay leagues would spring up across most of Canada and parts of the northern United States. The first fully professional league was the original International (Pro) Hockey league, organized in 1904-05 with franchises in Calumet, Houghton and Sault St. Marie, Michigan as well as Pittsburgh and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Other early pro leagues were the Eastern Canada Hockey Association (Montreal-Ottawa-Quebec), the Ontario Professional Hockey League (Toronto and southwestern Ontario), the Eastern Ontario Professional Hockey League, the Temiskaming league (Cobalt-Haileybury) and the New Ontario league (Thunder Bay), plus leagues in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

By the second decade of the 20th century many of these early pro league had dropped out of hockey, but the Patrick family formed a new major league called the Pacific Coast Hockey Association in 1911, later amalgamating with the Western Canada Hockey League to ice a credible rival to the NHL that would last until 1925-26. The Maritime league continued until 1914-15 but players had to be released to play in that league, although there was some talk of the Maritimes becoming the first development league. Those thoughts perished with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) even talked of folding in 1916-17, but after the war ended there was an influx of players, and the first renewed sign that affiliate teams were needed was when Toronto loaned Ken Randell and Gord Meeking to the semi-pro Sydney Millionaires in 1918-19.

In 1920-21, the Maritime Independant League was formed because players who had performed in the Maritime Pro League couldn't get reinstated to play elsewhere. By 1923-24 there was talk of the new Maritime league becoming the first full minor pro league. A few players like Bill "Red" Stuart, Stan Jackson, Ted Stackhouse, Pat Nolan and Charlie Fraser got NHL trials while playing in the MIHL, and both George Carroll and Jack Ingram of Moncton went to the NHL after the league folded in 1924.

Because of the lack of minor pro leagues to train players for the NHL in the early 1920s the United States Amateur Hockey Association West became a fertile training ground for prospects. It was a thinly veiled senior league that brought in such star players as Herb Lewis, Cecil "Tiny" Thompson, Ivan "Ching" Johnson, Clarence "Taffy" Abel, Roy Worters, Percy Galbraith, Ralph "Cooney" Weiland and Nels Stewart. Stewart was wanted by several NHL teams after leading the USAHA West in scoring in 1922-23, but he had such a lucrative deal with Cleveland that he chose to stay put. He would lead the league in scoring two more times before finally accepting an offer from the Montreal Maroons in 1925-26. Once in the NHL he enjoyed one of the greatest rookie seasons of all-time, topping the league in goals (34) and points (42) while leading the Maroons to the Stanley Cup. Stewart was voted as the NHL's most valuable player and awarded the Hart Trophy. Eight of the top 10 scorers in the USAHA West in 1924-25 went on to play in the NHL, with Stewart, Lionel Conacher and Herb Lewis all later inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Virtually all of the players from the 1924-25 U.S. amateur champion Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, who had played in the USAHA West, joined the NHL as the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925-26.

When Frank and Lester Patrick folded their league after the 1925-26 campaign, the newly expanded NHL couldn't handle all the pro players kicking around. The result was the formation of the very first minor pro leagues in 1926-27, when four new leagues were started. Two of these, the Canadian-American (Can-Am) league, and the Canadian Professional (Can-Pro) loop combined to form one league, the International-American Hockey League, in 1936-37. This league was the forerunner of the American Hockey League.

The Can-Am league was formed in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1926 with franchises awarded to New Haven, Quebec, Boston, Providence and Springfield under the watchful eye of president Gordon Clapp of Boston. Art Ross was running the Boston Bruins and he immediately placed his own team in the Can-Am league called the Boston Tigers. He kept his prospects there until 1935-36, and stars like Dit Clapper, Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart got their start with the Tigers.

Lester Patrick showed similar vision as head of the expansion New York Rangers and ran the Indians club in Springfield. Patrick kept his best farmhands there until 1932-33. The plan worked, as Earl Seibert, Ott Heller, Cecil Dillon, Andy Aikenhead and others all became Rangers regulars. Patrick moved his farmhands to Philadelphia in 1933-34 and kept them there until well into the Second World War. The Montreal Canadiens started a long-lasting relationship with the Providence Reds, but the Reds owned most of their own players. New Haven and Quebec were independent franchises who got their players there they could. The Philadelphia Arrows were added to the Can-Am in 1927-28 and the league operated with five or six teams until the end of the 1935-36 campaign. Judge James Dooley of Providence took over as president in 1929.

The Can-Pro league was started in Windsor, Ontario with Charles King as president, and had teams in the Canadian cities of Stratford, London, Hamilton, Niagara Falls and Windsor for the 1926-27 campaign. The Montreal Maroons established an on-going connection with the Windsor Bulldogs which lasted into the mid-1930s. In 1927-28 the Detroit NHL franchise placed a club known as the Detroit Olympics in the Can-Pro league and kept its farmhands with that club until 1935-36. The Maroons developed star goalies Davey Kerr and Norm Smith in Windsor, along with regular players like Baldy Northcott and Hap Emms, while Detroit produced Turk Broda, Carl Liscombe, Mud Bruneteau and Bill Brydge. Toronto didn't establish a regular minor-league connection during the earliest days. The Maple Leafs had players at London of the Can-Pro league in the late 1920s, but their first lasting relationship was with the Syracuse Stars from 1931-32 until 1938-39. Gordie Drillon, Reg Hamilton, Bob Davidson, Nick Metz, Pete Langelle, Flash Hollett, Bill Thoms and Wally Stanowski all made their pro debuts with the Stars.

The New York Americans were probably the only NHL team who spent significant money on their minor pro system and yet failed to produce a winner. The Amerks had their players in Niagara Falls in 1926-27 and in New Haven from 1928-29 until 1937-38. They also had players with more than one farm team through the early 1930s, but when players developed they persisted in trading them for aging big-name veterans.

Detroit had been the first U.S. city to join the Can-Pro league, but Buffalo came along in 1928-29, and when Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Syracuse were added in 1929-30 it was obvious that a name change was in order for the league, since only Windsor and London remained of the Canadian cities. The league was dubbed the International Hockey League for the 1929-30 season. Creating some confusion that year was the fact that a farm league to the IHL called the Canadian Professional League was organized with teams in Galt, Guelph, Kitchener and Brantford. In 1930-31 the league was called the Ontario Professional Hockey League with teams in Guelph, Kitchener, Niagara Falls, Stratford and Oshawa. After that season Ontario cities dropped out of minor pro hockey until the Eastern Professional league came along in 1959-60.

The Maritime Senior league had been hiring strong imports since the early 1930s, but folded in December of 1934 when branch-to-branch transfers were refused. Many of the Maritimes players congregated in Saint John for a series of semi-pro exhibition games and there was persistent talk that Saint John would join the Can-Am league in 1935-36. This never happened and it was 1971-72 before the Nova Scotia Voyegeurs set up shop in Halifax as the next pro team in the Maritimes.

The first major change in the setup of the minor leagues came in 1936-37 when the Can-Am and IHL combined to form the IAHL (this season is considered to be the first year of the current AHL). Of the 13 teams from these two leagues eight banded together to form the new loop with the number cut to seven when the Buffalo Bisons folded after just 11 games. It was a shame to lose the strong London and Windsor franchises that had been in the International league for all 10 years, but the Depression was having a bad effect on all leagues. John D. Chick was in charge of the Western Division of the IAHL, while Maurice Podoloff of New Haven looked after the east. Podoloff remained as AHL president until 1951-52.

With no more Canadian franchises in the IAHL, the name was changed to the American Hockey League in 1941-42. A high of 10 franchises was reached that season, but the Second World War soon whittled that number to six teams for the 1943-44 campaign. After the War the complement jumped back to 10 teams in 1946-47. Providence was the only franchise to have a minor pro team through 25 years of minor-league hockey up until 1950-51, with New Haven represented for 23 seasons, while St. Louis (21), Cleveland (21), Buffalo (20) and Springfield (19) were represented most of the time. The AHL (including the Canadian-American and the IHL), was the major provider of star players to the NHL prior to 1951. Graduates of these leagues read like a Who's Who of Hockey with the likes of Johnny Bower, Frank Brimsek, Chuck Rayner, Al Rollins, Tim Horton, Doug Harvey, Tom Johnson, Bob Goldham, Fern Flaman, Jim Thomson, Allan Stanley, Marty Barry, Tod Sloan, Sid Abel, George Armstrong, Toe Blake, Milt Schmidt and Syd Howe.

Perhaps one of the main reasons why the Detroit Red Wings became such a powerhouse in the late 1940s and early 1950s was because they were the first team to establish multiple farm teams. When they folded the Olympics after the 1935-36 campaign, the Red Wings moved their allegiance to the Pittsburgh Hornets (IAHL) franchise from 1936-37 until 1944-45. In 1939-40 they also provided players for the Indianapolis Caps IAHL team in a relationship that lasted into the early 1950s. For those same years they also stocked the Omaha Knights of the American Hockey Association/United States Hockey League – except for the war years of 1942 to 1945.

With so many players in their system it stood to reason that some should excel as the Red Wings produced three of the best goalies of all time in Harry Lumley, Terry Sawchuck and Glenn Hall at Indianapolis. Other good players like Earl Reibel, Johnny Wilson, Marcel Pronovost, Benny Woit, Marty Pavelich, Lee Fogolin, Bill Quackenbush, Al Dewsbury, Gerry Couture, Joe Carveth and Carl Liscombe spent significant time with the Caps.

While the AHL and its forerunners were the main suppliers of NHL talent through the 1940s, they were not the only leagues to showcase talented players. Back in 1926-27, the USAHA had declared itself as fully professional and was renamed the American Hockey Association. Franchises were awarded to Duluth, Minneapolis, Winnipeg, St. Paul, Chicago and Detroit (who folded after only six games).

The AHA operated without any affiliation with the NHL. Its long-range plan was to use as many U.S.-born players as possible and eventually challenge for the Stanley Cup. Because of these aims, there were as many American-born pro players in the 1920s and 1930s as there were at any time until the 1980s. Players like Doc Romnes, Vic Desjardins and Cully Dahlstrom would likely never have played in the NHL without first getting their chance in the AHA.

The first AHA president was A.H. Warren of St. Paul, Minnesota and the secretary-treasurer was William Grant of Duluth. In 1927-28 Grant started a new franchise in Kansas City and he is one of the few people in hockey who were at the same time president, general manager and coach of their team. In 1932-33 his Greyhounds won the AHA title. That season he had also served as AHA president. Grant relinquished all of his other duties to remain on as AHA president in 1933-34.

When former NHA franchise holder Eddie Livingstone got wind of the fact that Chicago would have a team in the NHL in 1926-27, he got the rights to Chicago's main hockey arena and started a team called the Chicago Cardinals in the AHA. His antics caused lawsuits that were several years being settled. St. Louis and Tulsa joined the AHA in 1928-29 and remained through until the entire league withdrew for the war years after the 1941-42 season. St. Paul and Minneapolis had joined the so-called senior Central Hockey League in 1932-33, but by 1934-35 they were back with the AHA as that league and the CHL played an adjoining schedule. When Ottawa transferred its NHL franchise to St. Louis for the 1934-35 season the new Eagles went up against the established AHA St. Louis Flyers and the first-place minor pro team won the battle. The Eagles folded after just one season.

A year after playing their interlocking schedule, the AHA and the CHL merged for the 1935-36 campaign. In all, Kansas City was in for 15 of the 16 AHA seasons, while St. Louis and Tulsa were members for 14. St. Paul and Minneapolis played 11 years in the AHA and three with the CHL. Omaha got its first pro franchise in 1939-40, while Fort Worth and Dallas joined for the final season of 1941-42. During its existence the AHA proved to be a haven for former big leaguers like Red Stuart, Cully Wilson, Red Green, John Gottselig, Butch Keeling, Marty Barry, Harry Cameron and others who extended their playing careers. The AHA did develop their own players as planned, but teams could not resist the big money when NHL clubs came to purchase players. By October of 1932 the AHA had signed an agreement with the NHL resulting in each league respecting the other's contract. Players developed in the AHA who went on to solid NHL careers include: Bill Mosienko, Charlie Gardiner, Tiny Thompson (who had an amazing 0.35 playoff goals-against average with the Minneapolis Millers in 1927-28), Cooney Weiland, Mike Karakas, Vic Ripley, John Gottselig and Lolo Couture.

The fourth minor pro league to debut after the 1925-26 collapse of major-league hockey in the west was the Prairie Hockey League. The Prairie league was formed under president W.E. Sanborn with franchises in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw for the 1926-27 season. The bigger cities of Calgary and Edmonton dropped out in 1927-28 and the league folded after that year. The Chicago Black Hawks were short of player reserves, so they bought the Saskatoon franchise to get at players like Earl Miller and Val Hoffinger.

The Patrick family couldn't keep their hands out of western hockey and when a stronger league called the Pacific Coast Hockey League was formed with teams in Seattle, Portland, Victoria and Vancouver for the 1928-29 campaign, the Vancouver franchise was run by Guy Patrick, a brother of Frank and Lester. (With a few breaks, this league operated until 1973-74.) There was no league in the west in 1931-32 and a new loop called the Western Canada Hockey League, with teams in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, started in 1932-33. The league changed its name to the Northwest Hockey League in 1933-34 and added teams from Portland and Seattle. By 1936-37 the Alberta teams were again gone and the name was changed back to the PCHL. There were teams in Vancouver, Oakland, Portland and Seattle, although Oakland moved to Spokane during the season and stayed there for a few more years. In 1939-40 Guy Patrick won his fourth title in seven years in Vancouver, then challenged the Chicago Black Hawks to an unofficial playoff after the season. The PCHL champs swamped the visitors 6-0 in game one and edged the Hawks 4-3 in the second tilt before Chicago regrouped to win 4-2, 7-6 and 7-3.

World War II had a major effect on pro hockey as the Brooklyn (New York) Americans dropped out of the NHL in 1942. The PCHL had folded in 1941, followed by the AHA in 1942. By 1943-44 there was only 12 pro teams in the NHL and AHL combined as most of the best pro players were scattered throughout senior or military leagues all across North America. With the end of World War II, a large hockey revival took place. The NHL did not deviate from its six teams until 1967-68, but by 1946-47 the AHL had jumped to 10 teams, while the new United States Hockey League iced eight more. The USHL was really a revival of the old AHA with teams in Kansas City, Omaha, St. Paul, Tulsa, Fort Worth, Dallas and Minneapolis. It lasted until the 1950-51 season. The PCHL had come back in 1945-46 as what was called a senior league, though a look at the rosters would indicate that they had some pretty high-priced help. During the postwar hockey boom the PCHL turned pro again in 1948-49 with teams in New Westminster, Tacoma, Vancouver, Portland and Seattle. Victoria came in for the 1949-50 campaign and the league flourished for many years using much the same formula as the IHL of the 1990s. Although the PCHL and its various other western leagues were run as independent operations up until 1950, they did manage to develop star players like Clint Smith, Bryan Hextall, Lorne Carr, Norm "Dutch" Gainer, Wally Hergesheimer and Andy Hebenton for the NHL. In addition to the many minor pro circuits, there was also numerous so-called amateur organizations like the Eastern Amateur Hockey League that provided players with a good income and at least six senior leagues in Canada, plus leagues in England and Scotland, were paying outsiders again by 1946-47.

There were far fewer independent minor-league hockey teams after the late 1940s revival. Detroit had players in Indianapolis, St. Louis and Omaha; Montreal had a hand in Buffalo, Dallas, Houston, San Diego and Victoria; the Rangers were in New Haven, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Tacoma; Toronto in Pittsburgh, Tulsa and Los Angeles; Chicago had players in Kansas City and Tulsa while Boston placed most of their players in Hershey. These multiple sponsorships continued until NHL expansion in 1967, when teams gradually started cutting back on the number of pro players in their system until most ended up supplying only one team by the late 1990s.