The First NHL Players Strike

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CraigBaird

When the topic of NHL players strikes come up, we tend to look to the 1992 strike, the 2005 strike that wiped out the NHL season completely and the 2012 strike that caused a shortened season. While those strikes had a huge impact on the NHL as we know it today, I am looking at what many consider to be the first strike in NHL history, apart from when two Ottawa Senator players refused to play until they got a raise in 1917. Today, I am talking about the Hamilton Tigers Strike of 1925.

First, we need to look at the Hamilton Tigers.

Originally known as the Quebec Bulldogs from 1878 to 1920, winning two Stanley Cups, that franchise became dormant and the NHL would sell it to the Abso Pure Ice Company of Hamilton. The club officially moved to the city for the 1920-21 season and was renamed as the Hamilton Tigers. Hamilton received the franchise to prevent the appearance of a rival league, which was looking to Hamilton as a possible market for a team. Things started off well for the team, beginning with a shutout in their first game, the first NHL team to ever do so, with a win of 5-0 over the Montreal Canadiens.

Unfortunately, that was a high point and the team quickly fell down the standings until the NHL ordered the other teams in the league to supply the team with players. That did not help the team much and they finished their first season with six wins and 18 losses. The Tigers had acquired legend Joe Malone early in the season and he would be a bright spot with 30 goals in 20 games.

The next three seasons were just as bad with the Tigers finishing last every single years.

Things began to turn around in 1923-24 with a new head coach and the addition of several great players that were picked up from the Sudbury Wolves of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association. The four players, Red Green, Shorty Green, Alex McKinnon and Charlie Langlois, would immediately help the team. Red, Shorty and Alex would finish in the top five of scoring on the team. Shorty Green would serve as team captain, on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

That year, the team had nine wins in 24 games, a record for the team at the time.

In the 1924-25 season, the Tigers took off with a strong start, going 10-4-1 to start the season. Halfway into this season, the team had more wins than at any point in its previous NHL history. While there was somewhat of a slump in the second half of the season, the team still finished first overall with 19 wins, 10 losses and one tie. Many thought that this would be the year the team would win the Stanley Cup, the first for the franchise since 1913 when the team was in Quebec. Billy Burch, who finished the season with 27 points in 27 games, would take home the Hart Trophy.

Team owner and General Manager Percy Thompson was also unhappy that the team played hard during their last game, a loss on March 9 against Montreal, instead of conserving their energy for the league championship series.

Everything changed when the first large player strike occurred in NHL history. During the train ride back to Hamilton after the final game of the season, the players on the Tigers discussed their grievances and captain Wilfrid Shorty Green went to Thompson and demanded for $200 for the six extra games they played that season. They also weren’t reimbursed for expenses during training camp, held in November. They said that if they did not get the money, they would not play in the playoffs. This demand came because the NHL had increased the number of games players played from 24 to 30 that season, but without an increase to the pay of players. For players who made it into the playoffs, they didn’t get anything extra unless the owner dictated it. The league gave post-season profits to team owners and arena operators to cover business costs. Sometimes, the owners would give bonuses for winning the Stanley Cup.

The management of the Tigers stated that the players were under contract from Dec. 1 to March 30, no matter the amount of games. Management would not pay the players the extra money so the issue was pushed upwards to the NHL. Thompson and other team official said the team didn’t have the money, and couldn’t pay the players in the playoffs even if they wanted to. It should be pointed out, according to Ottawa Citizen publisher P.D. Ross, that the Tigers made an extra $25,000 in profit that year, more than enough to compensate the players.

At first, Tigers management did not believe the threat, but when it became clear that the players were going to strike, NHL President Frank Calder was contacted.

Calder warned that if the players sat out, they would be suspended and entire team would be replaced in the playoffs by the fourth-place Ottawa team. Calder also ordered that the back pay of the players be held back. For Calder, he believed that the owner’s finances came before the players, the fans or even the game of hockey. Giving in to the players would jeopardize the owners and their, quote:

“large capital investment in rinks and arenas and this capital must be protected.”

Leeming Carr, the local member of legislature tried to find a compromise that would see each player receiving $100.

Shorty Green, would say of the offer, quote:

“If you can see fit to pay us half our demand, you surely must realize the justice of our case and go the rest of the way.”

All the players on the team remained united, including Mickey Roach and Jess Spring, who refused to the be exempted from the walkout even though they had settled in Hamilton and had lined up summer jobs.

Green would speak with the Hamilton Herald, stating quote:

“The players have played the game on the ice all year. They have given of their best. It isn’t a matter of sportsmanship at all. It is money and we feel that we have a perfect right to be paid for work done. Professional hockey is a money making affair. The promoters are in the game for what they can make out of it and the players wouldn’t be in the game if they didn’t look at matters in the same light. If we weren’t producing the kind of hockey to draw the crowds we wouldn’t be paid accordingly. Why then, would we be asked to play two games merely for the sake of sweetening the league’s finances?”

Calder, a tough man when it came to these matters, was not going to be swayed to the opinion of the players. He believed the players had planned to show up for the first game of the championship series and then refuse to take the ice until they were paid. He would say to the Toronto Daily Star, quote:

“The Hamilton players tried to pull a very shabby trick on their club and the league. But fortunately for us, the plot leaked out and now we are in a position to deal with it.”

While this was happening, Toronto and Montreal played their semi-final game, with Montreal winning on March 13. On March 14, after speaking with the management of the Tigers, Calder declared that the Canadiens would be the NHL champions. On top of that, the Tigers players did not receive the $200 they demanded, and were instead fined $200 in the process.

Calder would release a statement, saying quote:

“The greatest patience was exercised with them in an effort to persuade them of the error of their ways and some of them admitted they had done wrong. Because of an ill-advised compact, entered into with the ringleaders, however, they choose to remain out rather than fulfill their contracts.”

The Canadiens would go on to play the Victoria Cougars of the Pacific Coast Hockey League, losing in the final. This marked the last time that a rival league other than the NHL won the Stanley Cup.

Many in the hockey world were sure this was the end of the Tigers in Hamilton. The league demanded that a facility be built in the city to replace the 4,500 seat arena. The Tiger owners estimated that it would cost $200,000, or $3 million today. Other teams came into the mix offering to buy the suspended players for $110,000.

The players would issue a statement, signed by Shorty Green, stating that they appreciated the support of the fans that had, as the statement said, quote:

“Brought forth a concerted and great effort from each and every man to give at his best, support sadly lacking from the executive end of the club.”

The statement also said that the players would never play again for the present management.

This marked the end of the Hamilton Tigers, and the rights to the players were bought by Bill Dwyer. The team was then moved to New York and were known briefly as the New York Hamilton Tigers at training camp, before they were renamed as the New York Americans. The rights to the players were sold to the new team for $75,000.

Calder also said that if the players paid their fine and wrote him apology letters, their suspensions would be lifted. According to some sources, he did get some apology letters, but he did not feel they were sorry enough, and he made them write another. Other sources say the players did not write any letters.  Calder would say, quote:

“Most of these young players want to give me an argument.”

Calder then ordered the Americans to hold back $300 of each player’s salary as a good-conduct bond.

As for the players, they were never given their money, and the issue of their fine was eventually dropped.

Many consider the 1924-25 Hamilton team to be the best NHL team to never win the Stanley Cup. Not only did they finish first that last season, but 20 per cent of the roster would make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Tommy Gorman, who managed the Ottawa Senators said of that team that it was, quote “a magnificent hockey machine.”

The team, which was the exact same one that nearly won the Stanley Cup the year before, finished fifth in New York’s first season. This was blamed on the boozy-lifestyle of New York and the influence of the criminal underworld who worked for bootlegging owner Dwyer. One bright spot was the fact that the players that went to New York all ended up getting pay raises from their bootlegging boss.

With the players from the Tigers, the New York Americans would last until 1942, never winning the Stanley Cup. When the New York Americans folded, it officially began the era of the Original Six, which lasted until 1967.

The last player from the Tigers to play in the NHL was Billy Burch, who retired in 1933. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974.

The 1924-25 version of the Hamilton Tigers would be inducted into the Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.

Hamilton has never seen an NHL team since but there have been attempts to bring on in. Copps Coliseum was built in 1985 in an attempt to draw a team and Jim Balsillie attempted to move three different franchises to the city between 2006 and 2009 but this was blocked as it was felt they would draw fans away from the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Information comes from the Toronto Star, Wikipedia, TVO.org, Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame

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