The First NHL Season

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CraigBaird

Today, the NHL is one of the biggest sports leagues in North America and a part of the collective culture of Canada. Throughout our history, the NHL and its players have influenced Canada in various ways. When CBC did a poll of the greatest Canadians in our history, Don Cherry and Wayne Gretzky ranked in the top 10, while Bobby Orr, Rocket Richard and Mario Lemieux ranked in the top 50. Rounding out the top 100 there was also Gordie Howe, Tim Horton, Patrick Roy, Jean Beliveau, Ed Belfore and Lord Stanley.

All of this, in our history, began in 1917 when the National Hockey League played its first season. Today, I am looking at that first NHL season.

Some leagues are created out of a desire to have the best of the sport compete together. Some leagues are created just by chance formation. Some leagues, like the National Hockey League, are formed out of spite.

Without a man named Eddie Livingston, it is likely we would have never had the National Hockey League. You won’t find him in the Hall of Fame as a Builder though. He never even owned an NHL team, but without him the league would have never formed.

Livingstone had bought the Toronto Blueshirts of the NHA, but the problem was that he also owned the Toronto Shamrocks. The leaders of the NHA did not want one owner owning two clubs. They implemented a rule that prohibited anyone from owning more than one franchise and Livingstone said he would sell the Shamrocks. As he did that, Frank and Lester Patrick of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association then raided the Blueshirts, signing away most of the team’s players. To fill the holes in the lineup now, Livingstone transferred the Shamrock players to the Blueshirts, and now the Shamrocks were just a name, with no real players and he was unable to sell the team. The NHA would seize the franchise and leave it dormant during the 1915-16 season as a result. Livingstone then began arguing with the owners of the Toronto Arena Gardens over the terms to use their facility and he said he would move the team to Boston, which the NHA said it would not allow. Another issue was that Livingstone was known to complain about many things, on and off the ice, including the business practices of the other owners and the refereeing that he saw as questionable.

During the 1916-17 season, the 228th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force formed a team to take the place of the Shamrocks but on Feb. 8, 1917, they received orders to go overseas and the team left the NHA. Three days later, a meeting was held by the NHA owners, without Livingstone present and they decided to suspend the Toronto Blueshirts franchise so there would be an even number of teams. The players on the Blueshirts were then sent to the four remaining clubs, with the promise that the players would return to Livingstone at the end of the season. Livingstone was not happy and said he was through with the NHA and going to sell the franchise, and he then filed a lawsuit against the league and its owners.

In the November 1917 annual meeting of the NHA owners, they voted to suspend the league due to issues with player shortages due to the First World War. A week later, all the owners, except Livingstone, then announced that they had formed a new league, the National Hockey League and that Livingstone would not be a part of it, but that the NHL would retain the contracts of the Toronto players.

As Tommy Gorman, the owner of the Ottawa Senators would say, quote:

“He was always arguing about everything. Without him, we can get down to the business of making money.”

On Nov. 26, representatives with Ottawa, Quebec and Montreal met at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal and the decision to create a new league was finalized. The decision to create a new league, the National Hockey League, was created with the following provisions:

  1. Constitution and rules would be the same as the NHA.
  2. Frank Calder would be the president of the NHL, a post he would hold until 1943 when he passed away.
  3. M.J. Quinn of Quebec would be the honorary president.
  4. Franchises would be given to Ottawa, Canadiens and Wanderers.
  5. The Quebec players would be dispersed to the other teams.

Elmer Ferguson, the sports editor of the Montreal Herald, would ask Frank Calder what happened in the meeting and he was told, nothing much. He asked George Kennedy and was told that the new league was, quote:

“like our old league except that we haven’t invited Eddie Livingstone to be part of it.”

A Toronto franchise was also created to operated out of Arena Gardens and the Blueshirts players would play on that team. Livingstone did agree to a lease of the team, but the NHL owners would not share any revenues from the players. Livingstone would sue for team revenues in 1918. In response, George Kennedy, the owner of the Canadiens, would state, quote:

“The Toronto players belong as a body to the National Hockey League, for they were only loaned to the Toronto Arena Company, though Livingstone tried to make the Arena Company believe that he controlled those players.”

The Toronto team would only operate as the Toronto Hockey Club for the first season and reached an agreement to lease the players from the NHA Toronto team, paying the players in cash. Most of the players did not have a contract and they wore the same uniform as they did in the previous NHA season.

The league was supposed to only be a temporary league as the owners hoped to get Livingstone out from Toronto and then return to the NHA in 1918-19. With the lawsuits from Livingstone, this was not the case and the NHL would begin play only three weeks after it was created.

Before the NHL started, the Quebec players were dispersed through a draft by other teams. The Wanderers would take four players, including Odie and Sprague Cleghorn, while the Canadiens picked Joe Hall and Joe Malone. The Wanderers felt that there was a competitive disadvantage to the other teams and Wanderers owner Sam Lichtenhein demanded three players from each of the other teams.

When the NHL began to operate, it faced stiff competition for players from several other leagues, including the Pacific Coast Hockey League, where some of the best players in the world were playing. Another issue was the First World War, which had taken many players from the talent pool so they could serve overseas. For the top players in the league, their pay was $900 for the season, amounting to about $15,000 today.

The game was also quite different from what it is today. Forward passing was not allowed, and line changes didn’t exist yet. At the start of the season, goalies could not leave their feet to make a save. If a goalie took a penalty, the goalie had to serve the penalty and any player could serve in goal during that time. Equipment at the time was minimum at best. Forward passes were not allowed, and minor penalties lasted three minutes.

The first games in league history were played on Dec. 19, 1917. The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Ottawa Senators 7-4. Joe Malone scored five of the seven goals for Montreal in one game, with 6,000 fans watching. The heat from the fans in the building was so intense that it began to melt the ice, making it mushy. Oddly, Jack Darragh and Hamby Shore of Ottawa both sat on the bench for the first period refusing to play until their contracts were reworked. This happened while the game was played, and they would join the game halfway through the second period. Shore would sadly die in 1918 from the Spanish Flu, while Darragh would go on to win three Stanley Cups with Ottawa in 1920, 1921 and 1923. A ruptured appendix would kill him at the age of 33 in 1924, and he would be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963. 

The Toronto Sun would write of the game quote:

“Between five and six thousand people turned out to attend the local game and though the ice was sticky, preventing the Ottawas from showing their usual speed and helping the heavier Canadiens, the hockey dished up was, under the circumstances, surprisingly good.”

The first goal in NHL history was scored in the other game that night, by Dave Ritchie of the Montreal Wanderers, who were playing the Toronto team. The Wanderers, despite winning 10-9, drew only 700 fans. The Wanderers had attempted to boost the attendance numbers by allowing wounded soldiers to attend but they had to have been injured in battle to qualify and had to be accompanied by an officer. In that game, player-coach Art Ross also drew the first penalty in NHL history.

The Toronto Sun would write of that game between Montreal and Toronto, quote:

“The play was somewhat ragged at times and the visiting team was weak in its goalkeepers. Toronto had the better of the argument most of the game but neither Hebert, who was the Toronto goalkeeper in the earlier part of the game, nor Brookes, in the second session, stopped the Wanderers shots as they might have done.”

The Montreal Gazette stated the game reflected that, quote:

“The scarcity of players, as men who would not have been used as substitutes a year ago were on the benches of both teams.”

As for which game was played first, a French language newspaper ad was found in 2017 that showed the Montreal game started at 8:15 pm., while the Ottawa game started at 8:30 p.m., delayed because of that contract dispute.

After the Wanderers lost the next three games, their owner stated the team would withdraw if they did not get some players. The Wanderers were then given permission to sign players in the Pacific Coast Hockey League if they could do so. A league meeting was also planned to deal with the situation with the Wanderers but on Jan. 2, 1918, the Montreal Arena burned to the ground. This would result in both the Canadiens and Wanderers being homeless. As I mentioned in the Joe Malone episode, the Canadiens were far more successful on the ice at this time and they would play at the Jubilee Rink. On Jan. 4, the Wanderers were disbanded, and the remaining three teams would compete. The Wanderers were also fined $500 after losing their franchise.

The Toronto Globe would run a headline as the league operated with only three teams saying, quote: “Pro Hockey on Last Legs”

In the dispersal draft of the Wanderers, the Canadiens would also pick-up Billy Belly and Jack McDonald. Both players would stay with the team into the 1920s.

On Jan. 9, 1918, the first rule change would occur when the league decided that goaltenders could drop to the ice surface to make saves. This was done because Clint Benedict, the star goaltender for Ottawa was always falling to make saves. As Benedict, who was known as the praying goaltender because he always fell to his knees, would say:

“You could make it look like an accident”

NHL President Frank Calder would say quote:

“As far as I am concerned, they can stand on their heads.”

On Jan. 28, Alf Skinner of Toronto and Joe Hall of the Canadiens got into a stick swinging incident in a game. Both players received penalties, and $15 in fines each, or $251 in today’s funds. They were also both charged with disorderly conduct and received suspended sentences. It was reported that Hall smashed into Skinner as he was coming down the ice. As Skinner, fell, he swung his stick and hit Hall in the head. It is not known if this was intentional or not but Hall in response brought down his stick on Skinner’s head like an axe, knocking him out. Skinner was taken unconscious off the ice. A Toronto police officer was quoted in the newspaper as saying, quote:

“We must have clean sport here. Toronto wants clean sport, and the police intend to see that it is kept clean and will back up officials when they strive for this end, and when they fall, we will step in.”

In February, Ken Randall of Toronto was suspended from play because of $35 in fines to the league, amounting to $587 in today’s funds. In response, he brought $32 in paper money and 300 pennies. The pennies were refused, so he threw them on the ice prior to the game. An Ottawa player hit a bag with his stick and scattered the pennies around the ice. The game then had to be delayed while the pennies were picked up.

On Feb. 18, Georges Vezina registered the first shutout in NHL history, in a 9-0 win for Montreal against Toronto.

At the end of the season, the Montreal Canadiens were the winners of the First Half, with a record of 10-4-0, while the Wanderers were in last place with one win and five losses. In the second half, Montreal fell to last place with a 3-5 record, while Toronto went to first with 5-3.

At the end of that first season, it was clear that the league was a high scoring affair. Over half the games of the season saw teams combine for 10 or more goals, and in four games that season, there were at least 15 goals.

Toronto and Montreal then played a two-game playoff for the NHL Championship on March 11 and 13, which was won by Toronto with a total goals of 10-7. Instead of winning the Stanley Cup, the team won the O’Brien Cup. This allowed the Toronto Hockey Club to play the Pacific Coast Hockey League champion, the Vancouver Millionaires, for the Stanley Cup.

From March 20 to 30, the two teams would play at the Arena Gardens in Toronto, with the teams alternating between the seven-man system of the PCHA and the six-man system of the NHL. Toronto won the first game 5-3, while Vancouver took the second game 6-4. Toronto won the third game 6-3, and Vancouver dominated 8-1 in the fourth game. Toronto clinched the series win with a 2-1 victory over Vancouver. It is interesting to note that Toronto won all the games played under NHL rules and Vancouver won all the games played under the PCHA rules.

The final game was played on a Saturday night and was described in the newspaper as the, quote: “fastest, most spectacular game of the entire series.”

That win means that the Toronto Hockey Club is the only team of the four major North American sport leagues win a title in their first season as a franchise. Due to the entire dispute over the NHA Toronto franchise, the Toronto Hockey Club did not get its name engraved on the Cup, as was the practice. This would not happen until 1948 when “1918 Toronto Arenas” was engraved on the Stanley Cup.

The scoring champion for the first NHL season was Joe Malone, who had 48 points in 20 games, including 44 goals. As I stated in the episode about Joe Malone, his 44 goals in 20 games amounts to a 2.2. goals per game scoring pace, which is still a record. Cy Denneny of Ottawa would record 46 points in 20 games, followed by Reg Noble with 40 points in 20 games. All but one of the top 10 leading scorers would wind up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Georges Vezina of the Canadiens was the leading goaltender, with 12 wins and 9 losses. Clint Benedict of Ottawa played all 22 games of the season, the only goalie to do so. Vezina was one behind at 21. While Vezina led the league in wins, Clint Benedict led the league in losses with 13 and goals against with 114.

Ken Randall of Toronto led the league in penalty minutes with 116, 16 more than the next closest of Joe Hall of Montreal. Cy Denneny and Joe Malone both led the league with seven hat tricks.

For Montreal, Joe Malone was the leading scorer with his 48 points in 20 games, followed by Newsy Lalonde who had 30 points in only 14 games. In Toronto, the leading scorer was Reg Noble with 40 points in 20 games, followed by Corb Denneny with 29 points in 21 games. In Ottawa, Cy Denneny led the team with 36 points in 22 games, well ahead of Jack Darragh who had 14 points in 18 games for second on the team.

In this season, Jack Adams would play his first NHL game, hitting the ice with the Toronto Arenas. Over the course of his NHL career, he would record 115 points in 173 games and would capture two Stanley Cups. Following his playing career, he became the coach of the Detroit Red Wings, a team he would coach to the Stanley Cup in 1936, 1937 and 1943. As General Manager, he led them to the Stanley Cup in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955. His farm system would bring in players such as Terry Sawchuk, Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, and Alex Delvecchio, along with a guy named Gordie Howe. He would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1959, and the Jack Adams Award was created in 1947, awarded to the most outstanding coach, in his honour.

Some players would play their last professional game in the first season of the NHL, including Jack Laviolette, Harry Hyland and Art Ross. All three would be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Between them, they had four Stanley Cups.

From this first season, a new league would grow and become a defining part of Canada and the premier league in the country. The Pacific Coast Hockey League would last until 1926 when it was folded. By that point, the 10 teams in the NHL were divided into two divisions and would play each other, eastern conference versus western conference, to determine the winner.

As for those original four teams, well they would all have different fates. The Montreal Canadiens would go on to become the most successful franchise in NHL history of course, eventually winning its 24th Stanley Cup in 1993. The Toronto Hockey Club would become the Toronto Arenas in 1918, then the Toronto St. Patrick’s in 1919. In 1927, they became the Toronto Maple Leafs, the second-most successful NHL team in history. The Ottawa Senators would become the first NHL dynasty, winning the Stanley Cup in 1920, 1921, 1923 and 1927 before it faded away and disbanded in 1934. In 1950, the Ottawa Senators were named the greatest hockey team of the first half of the 20th century. Today, the team is back in a new form as the Ottawa Senators, who debuted in the NHL in 1992. The Montreal Wanderers would never return after losing their arena.

As for Livingston, he would remain active in amateur hockey in Toronto and would have franchises in the American Hockey Association and the Ontario Hockey Association. He would outlive those who pushed him out of the National Hockey League, including Frank Calder and Fred McLaughlin. Livingstone died one day before his 61st birthday in 1945. Upon his death, the Globe and Mail columnist J.V. McAree would write, quote:

“All that Eddie Livingstone ever wanted out of a sports deal was fair play and that is what he essentially failed to get for himself.”

From that meeting on Nov. 26, 1917 to establish a new league and through its difficult first season, the league would grow to span 31 teams and be a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

Information from History.com, Hockey Reference.com, Sports Illustrated, Wikipedia, Sporting News, NHL The Official Illustrated History, NHL.com, The Hockey Hall of Fame, TVO.org, CanadaHistory.ca, National Post,

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