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History Of Ice Hockey and the NHL
The Ball-and-Stick on Ice:
Ball-and-stick games are almost as old as civilization itself. Its earliest origins may be from Persia, Egypt or China, while archaeological evidence shows an early ball-and-stick game played in Greece in the 400s BCE. As civilization spread, so did the games. And eventually, as the civilized world went north, ball-and-stick moved onto the ice. Paintings in the Netherlands in the 1600s showed the Dutch playing a version of golf on the ice; Scotland’s Edinburgh Skating Club, formed in 1642, is considered the oldest in the world, and records from Ireland’s Dublin Evening Post have a report of men playing hurling on ice. When the Europeans made their way across the Atlantic to North America, they discovered Native Americans had their own games, the forerunners of lacrosse, and some Native Americans in South Dakota essentially played lacrosse on ice. The modern idea of field hockey sprouted out of these traditions, and the modern sport of ice hockey was relegated primarily to small towns, and in no organized setting, until the late 1800s.
In 1872, a young man from Halifax, Nova Scotia named James Creighton moved to Montreal, bringing the sport of ice hockey (hereafter referred to just as “hockey”) with him – more particularly, bringing with him hockey sticks and skates. The skates, which were patented by a Nova Scotia company in 1866, featured rounded blades held onto boots by metal clamps (the first time that had ever been done and not too different from modern skates). After introducing the game to his friends, Creighton, in 1875, organized a group of players to practice the sport indoors at the Victoria Skating Rink. The sport had never taken hold indoors, forced outdoors by the societal belief that ice hockey only belonged on ponds, due in large part to the danger of a ball flying around inside. Creighton solved the problem by creating a “flat, circular piece of wood,” the first hockey puck. After practicing for about a month, Creighton staged a public exhibition of the sport on March 3, 1875. While some praised the new sport, others decried the violence in the game.
earliest games in the sport were not carbon copies of the current version;
the Halifax Rules , which Creighton played under in the March 3rd
game, said the puck couldn’t leave the ice, no forward passing was
permitted and the goalie couldn’t fall down or kneel to make saves.
As the sport’s popularity skyrocketed in Montreal in the late 1800s,
the official rules of the sport were created, the Montreal Rules, in
1877. Injured players could now be replaced, team sizes were set
at seven a side (down from eight) and the rink’s measurements were
now made standard.
took the country by storm, as hockey teams sprouted up across eastern
Canada, both at universities and at amateur athletic clubs. McGill
University (at which James Creighton studied law) established the first
university hockey team in 1877, and the 1880s saw an explosion of teams.
The first hockey leagues formed in the mid-1880s, while the Amateur
Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC), which began in 1885, was the first
national hockey organization. At the Montreal Winter Carnival
in 1889, at a match between the Montreal Victorias and the Amateur Athletic
Association, Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, Governor General of Canada,
with his wife and two children stopped to watch the game. Stanley
was taken with the game, and helped to form a team, the Rideau Rebels
and a league, the Ontario Hockey Association (which formed in 1890).
Two years after the formation of the OHA, Stanley created the concept
of a regional competition and gave a cup to be awarded to the victor,
the Dominion Challenge Trophy. In 1893, it was decided the cup
would never become the property of any team and was renamed the Stanley
Hockey Championship Cup. While the cup, about the size of an association
football, has undergone several cosmetic changes over the years, the
Stanley Cup is still awarded to the champion of the National Hockey
As the country spread west, so did the sport. The Manitoba Hockey Association was formed in 1892, and first competed for the Stanley Cup four years later. In their first attempt at capturing the Cup, the Winnipeg team defeated their counterparts from Montreal, (the first team the Cup winners didn’t come from Montreal), and the reports of the victory came down in hockey’s first play-by-play, done by telegraph. The Cup continued to be awarded, year after year, to teams mainly from Montreal, the hockey capital of the world. In 1900, a team from Halifax competed for the Stanley Cup, losing to the Montreal Shamrocks 11-0. However, the Halifax team had come west with the practice of putting up fishing nets on the back of the metal posts that served as goals. The tradition stayed, and the first goal nets were born.
the late 1800s and early 1900s, the game spread not only geographically
but also across the classes. While the amateur athletic clubs
who played organized hockey were made up of upper class men, hockey
leagues and teams formed among both the middle and lower classes, often
by banks or mining companies for example. Women also played early
organized hockey, forming their own leagues by the turn of the century.
The first black hockey league began in Nova Scotia, the Colored League
of the Maritimes, in 1900. Its creation was spurred because the
white leagues wouldn’t allow black players. The game had also
spread all the way to the Pacific in Canada and south to the United
States by 1900, in places like Vancouver, the Yukon Territory, New England
and Michigan. Early hockey, however, was also plagued by excessive
violence. In two cases, one in 1905 and another in 1907, hockey
players were put on trial after blows that killed other hockey players.
Both times the players were found innocent, but the press and many in
the country (including the juries) called on legislation to be enacted
that would curb the violence.
popularity led to serious moneymaking for the owners; the Stanley Cup
in particular was a huge financial success, drawing large crowds who
paid good money to watch the games. Hockey’s success also led
to gambling on the sport. However, despite all the money coming
from the sport, almost none was going to the players. The leagues
in Canada and the U.S. were strictly amateur, and though money often
changed hands under the table, the vast majority of players were never
paid. That all changed in 1904. Jack Gibson, born in Ontario
in 1880 and a hockey star there, moved to Michigan to study dentistry
in Detroit shortly after the turn of the century. After setting
up a practice in Houghton, Michigan, Gibson formed the Portage Lake
hockey team in 1902. Gibson’s team was given a new arena by
local businessman James Dee, who invested a great deal of money in the
team. The Portage Lake squad was exceptionally good, beating most
opponents over the next two years. This was helped by the fact
that Gibson had been recruiting Canadian stars to come play for the
team, offering to pay them. In 1904, Gibson’s Portage Lakers
beat the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Wanderers. The success
of the two game series – called the World Championship – led Dee
and Gibson to form the International Hockey League, the first professional
hockey league. The league’s first teams came from Houghton,
Calumet, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault
Ste. Marie, Canada. Hod Stuart, star of the Portage Lake team,
took advantage of free agency in the new league and signed with Calumet
as player-coach for $1,800 per season (worth $44,700 today). As
the league experienced early success, players from Canada swarmed over
the border, drawn by the prospect of being paid to play hockey.
Canadian hockey finally responded with the creation of the Ontario Professional
Hockey League in 1907, which helped persuade some Canadian stars to
cross back over the border. In the other Canadian hockey leagues,
players were now being paid quietly, drawing even more back to the country,
and between the Canadian hockey leagues now paying their talent and
a recession, the International Hockey League folded in 1907.
New Leagues and New Teams:
Late in 1909, the Eastern Canada Hockey Association had folded because of disputes between new owner J.P. Doran and the rest of the owners. The others owners folded the league only to start a new one, the Canadian Hockey Association, shutting out Doran. As a result, Doran’s Montreal Wanderers formed a new league of their own, the National Hockey Association, with small town teams from Haileybury, Cobalt and Renfrew, while adding a new team by forming the Montreal Canadiens, an all French-Canadian team. This new league was well-financed, with early stars Lester and Frank Patrick making $3,000 and $2,000 per season. The biggest star of the new league (and its wealthiest) was Fred Taylor, who had played in the IHL before going back to Canada to play for the Ottawa Senators. When the Renfrew Millionaires of the NHA came calling, Taylor negotiated a contract of $5,200 per season (which, at the time, was just 12 games). At the time, that salary was more than double that of the Canadian prime minister. The $5,200 salary broke down to just over $433 per game. In today’s money, that comes to $126,000 per season, $10,500 per game. However, the pricey players spelled trouble for the league, and the NHA by 1912 was suffering heavily in financial terms, with small town teams Renfrew, Cobalt and Haileybury all dropping out, and two Toronto teams taking their place.
Meanwhile, as the NHA was suffering, brothers Lester and Frank Patrick had moved to the Pacific coast of Canada, to Vancouver, where they started up the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Hockey had never really caught on on the west coast of Canada, primarily because there was so little natural ice that formed. The Patricks solved this problem by building the Vancouver Arena, the world’s largest artificial ice arena (which had previously been Madison Square Garden in New York). The first pro hockey game ever played west of Ontario and Michigan was in 1912, and the Patrick brothers had made it possible by ensuring they lured players west with plenty of money, poaching many from the NHA. Still, the money wasn’t quite the same – in the PCHA’s second season, Fred Taylor was convinced to come west to play for $1,800 a season, more than he could get elsewhere, but far less than his salary from just three years earlier. In 1915, the Stanley Cup ceased to be a challenge cup, as the NHA and PCHA agreed to compete for the prize at the end of each season, with Vancouver winning the PCHA’s first Stanley Cup that year. A year prior, the New Westminster team of the PCHA had been sold and moved to Portland, Oregon, and in 1915, a new franchise was formed in Seattle. The Patricks had created a truly international league. In 1916, the Portland team became the first American team to play for the Stanley Cup, losing to the Canadiens in a five-game series, and the next year, the Seattle Metropolitans became the first American team to win the Stanley Cup.
Lester and Frank did not merely change the sport through their money;
they also brought new innovations that would revolutionize the game.
In 1912, the Patricks debuted numbered uniforms and allowed goalies
to drop to their feet in order to make saves. The next year, they
came up with the concept of zoned hockey, creating the blue lines, and
allowed forward passing in those zones.
The War and Beyond:
World War I claimed millions of lives, and hockey players were among those lost. As Canada entered the war (it was still under British control, and went to war when the U.K. did), many hockey teams were gutted, losing quite a few players. However, play went on, and new teams started to pop up – soldier teams. Units put together teams made up of their soldiers, and exhibitions were often played, some of them earning nice profits for the soldiers. One soldier team, led by Conn Smythe, who would go on to play a big role in hockey, earned a profit of $6,706 for one game played ($135,000 modern), with the bulk of the profit coming from a wager with the opposing team’s owner. That caught the attention of the NHA, who put together a team from the 228th battalion and made them a member of the NHA during the war.
The war also helped the cause of women’s rights and women in hockey. Before the war, women in Canada could neither vote nor own property; once the war began and women went to work, those things changed. And although women had been playing hockey almost since the sport began, the war gave women’s hockey a far bigger spotlight, and they flourished, with some rumors circulating that the pro men’s leagues were even going to consider signing some of the top female stars. While that never came to fruition, it underlined the quality of the women’s play.
When Montreal beat Portland to win the Stanley Cup in 1916, it was the first Stanley Cup victory for the Canadiens. They would go on to win more Stanley Cup than any hockey team in history. Yet, that first victory was overshadowed by severely low attendance figures; the war hurt hockey greatly, primarily in the pocketbook. However, when the Canadiens travelled to Seattle to play the Stanley Cup the next year, with the Metros taking the Cup, it helped revive some interest in the sport, and as the world exited from world war, hockey recovered. Ironically, however, the only Stanley Cup series ever cancelled after a full season had been played came just a year after the war ended, when, in 1919, the series was shut down due to the flu epidemic.
also saw hockey at the Olympics for the first time. Though world
hockey had been around for the vast majority of the 20th
century, its quality was not very high. The International Ice
Hockey Federation (IIHF) had been formed in 1908, made up of Belgium,
Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), England, France and Switzerland, with Germany
joining a year later. Canada and the U.S., the true centers of
the hockey world, did not join until 1920, the year of the Olympics.
Though the Olympics that year were not well attended – held in Antwerp,
the majority of the public could not put together enough money to attend
– hockey was a huge draw, with the Canadians winning handily.
During the war years, as pro hockey struggled to stay afloat, numerous disagreements arose among the owners, particularly Toronto Blueshirts owners Eddie Livingstone, who regularly flouted league rules and angered the other owners.
Things got so bad that prior to the 1917-18 season, the other NHA owners began to work on shutting down the league and start a new one, leaving Eddie Livingstone out in the cold. In response, Livingstone transferred ownership of his team to a Toronto arena ownership group; when the Quebec Bulldogs had to shut down, the other owners allowed Toronto into the fold of their new league, the National Hockey League (NHL). The NHL, after its first season, quickly moved to become the premier professional league in hockey, naming itself pro hockey’s governing body.
However, the early NHL was not a massive organization; comprised of four teams initially, it lost one (the Montreal Wanderers) after its first season. Despite adding a team in Hamilton along the way, the NHL only had three real, stable franchises: the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto St. Patricks (Livingstone’s old team) and the Ottawa Senators. When Hamilton’s players went on strike in 1925, NHL president Frank Calder suspended the entire team and fined them. The NHL, wanting to branch out to the U.S., then sold the team to a New York entrepreneur and renamed them the New York Americans. The Americans debuted at the newly built Madison Square Garden (which replaced its predecessor in 1925).
out west, the PCHA had been struggling along in the late 1910s and into
the 1920s, and in 1924, they merged with the Western Canada Hockey League,
which had started up in 1921. After two years, the new league
(the Western Hockey League) finally folded, and the Patrick brothers
sold off their two remaining teams to owners from Detroit and Chicago.
Those two teams joined the NHL, which now had teams in Boston and Pittsburgh
in addition to Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa and New York. That same
year, 1926, New York businessman Tex Rickard (who had spearheaded the
building of Madison Square Garden and the addition of the New York Americans
to the NHL) sought to form his own team, also in New York, having them
named the Rangers (a word play on Texas Rangers). The NHL had
truly taken form, and established itself as the premier pro hockey league
in the world.
With the PCHA/WCHL/WHL now out of the way, the NHL took control of the Stanley Cup, awarding it to the victor of the league. The NHL also added more trophies to its case, awarding them each year. The first trophy was the Prince of Wales trophy, which the Prince of Wales had donated to the NHL in 1924. Initially, it was given to the winner of the NHL (while the Stanley Cup was awarded to the victor of the series between the NHL and WHL). After the WHL folded, the Prince of Wales trophy was presented to the regular season champion, while the Stanley Cup was given to the playoff champs. Years later, in the ‘60s, when the league expanded, the Wales trophy would play a different role.
In that same year, 1924, Dr. David Hart, father of Cecil Hart, who managed the Canadiens to three Stanley Cup wins, donated a trophy to the league to be awarded to the player considered most valuable to his team. The Hart Memorial Trophy is still awarded to the league MVP, as voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA). Its first winner was Frank Nighbor of the Ottawa Senators. Nighbor also received the first Lady Byng Trophy. In 1925, Lady Byng, wife of Canada’s governor general, invited Nighbor to dinner, impressed by his play. After asking Nighbor if he thought the NHL would accept the trophy to be awarded to the most gentlemanly player (and Nighbor answered that he thought the NHL would), Lady Byng awarded the trophy to Nighbor. The award is still given today to the player who shows the most sportsmanship, again as chosen by the PHWA.
the Vezina trophy was first introduced in the 1920s. Georges Vezina,
who had played goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens for years, collapsed
on the ice in the 1925-26 season, suffering from tuberculosis.
He died a year later. At the end of the ’26-’27 season, Leo
Dandurand, Louis Letourneau and Joe Cattarinich, owners of the Montreal
Canadiens, gave the trophy to the league, awarding it to the goalie
of the team with the fewest goals against it. In 1981, the Vezina
was changed, awarded instead to the goaltender considered to be the
best in the league (as determined by the PHWA).
Conn Smythe’s Luck and the ‘30s:
Conn Smythe, after returning from a German P.O.W. camp (which he had spent time in during World War I), got back into hockey first by building the New York Rangers into a Stanley Cup winner. Smythe parlayed a $2,500 amount paid to him by the Rangers for scouting and assembling the team into $10,000 via gambling (on a soccer match between Toronto and McGill University and on a hockey game between Toronto and the Rangers). With that money, and by gathering other investors, Smythe bought the Toronto St. Patricks, renaming them the Toronto Maple Leafs. Smythe also built a new arena in Toronto, vowing to win the Stanley Cup within five years. Though he had some initial success with the fans, he needed a star player as well; he found him in Frank Clancy. Clancy was a huge star in hockey, and when the cash-strapped Ottawa Senators put him up for sale, Smythe put together the money to sign him by putting his race horse, at 106-1 odds, in a single race, winning the money necessary to ink Clancy. Five years almost to the day since Smythe had vowed to win the Stanley Cup, the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the New York Rangers at Maple Leaf Gardens to hoist the Stanley Cup as its 1932 champions.
while Smythe was experiencing success, several other NHL franchises
were not. The Great 30's Depression had hit in both Canada and the U.S.,
and teams struggled to stay in business. The Philadelphia Quakers
(who had been the Pittsburgh franchise) suspended operations for a year
in 1931, but never returned. The Ottawa Senators did the same
that year, returning for the 1932-33 season, but in 1934 moved to St.
Louis. That franchise only lasted one season, then folded.
The Montreal Maroons, who had shared hockey’s capital with the Canadiens
for years, went out of business in 1938. Many hockey players also
left Canada and the U.S. to go play in Europe, where teams were offering
pay (and sometimes better pay) to hockey players. The exodus that
resulted from the Depression helped raise the level of play in international
hockey as many of the players shared their hockey knowledge with the
locals in Europe.
War Again: the 1940s:
As had happened during World War I, World War II saw the creation of several military teams across Canada. However, unlike before, public outcry eventually worked against them. As most of the military teams stayed at home for the early part of the war, the public thought it outrageous that hockey players essentially got deferments. The military responded by almost immediately sending the soldier teams to war. Still, many enlisted players never had to fight overseas; the Montreal Canadiens in particular largely escaped the conflict because of a loophole in the system, which allowed them to stay home if their jobs were considered essential to the war effort. The Toronto Maple Leafs would have mostly done the same had Conn Smythe not been so devoted to the military. With the Canadiens able to stay at home, they dominated the early part of the 1940s in hockey. This domination was helped by the addition of a young player from Montreal named Maurice Richard. The man who eventually earned the nickname “Rocket” was a scoring machine: in the 1944 Stanley Cup Finals, Rocket Richard scored five goals…in one game, including three in the first period alone (known as a natural hat trick). The next year, Richard would become the first player to score 50 goals in 50 games, a record that would stand for over 30 years. Richard would go on to be the first NHL player to record 500 goals in a career.
The ‘40s also saw an innovation in the game that helped significantly increase scoring: the creation of the center red line. The brainchild of NY Rangers coach Frank Boucher and Boston Bruins coach Art Ross, the red line, which divides the rink in half, was put in place so players could now pass the puck out of their own zone (which had previously been illegal). This helped open up scoring: scoring averages went from 2.5 goals per game in the late ‘30s to 4.08 gpg in 1944, the first year of the new line. That same season, six NHLers scored 30 or more goals, the first time in NHL history that happened.
1947, the NHL had another first: their first All-Star game. The
exhibition, played between a team of NHL All-Stars and the defending
Cup champion Maple Leafs, raised money for the newly created NHL Pension
Fund. The All-Stars won 4-3 and the game raised more than $25
thousand ($240 thousand today). In that same season, ‘46-‘47,
the NHL increased the regular season from 50 to 60 games. Just
three years later, in the ’49-’50 season, the number of games would
again go up, this time to 70. That number would not change again
until expansion hit the league. Also in the ’47 season, Boston
Bruins coach Art Ross gave the NHL a new trophy, named for him, to be
awarded to the NHL’s scoring leader at the end of each season.
Mr. Hockey: the ‘50s:
The latter part of the 1940s belonged to the Maple Leafs; since the NHL assumed control of the Stanley Cup in ’26, no team had won it more than twice in a row. That changed in the last three years of the ‘40s, when Toronto won three straight, and four times in five years (winning in ’45 and ’47-’49). Their opponents in the last two Stanley Cup victories were the Detroit Red Wings, a sign of things to come. In the first year of the new decade, the Red Wings took home the Stanley Cup, and would go on to dominate the first half of the 1950s. Of the first six Stanley Cup finals in the ‘50s, the Red Wings would win four of them. The Winged Wheelmen were led by Gordie Howe, a brilliant hockey player who began his career in the NHL in the 1946-47 season, and would go on to play professional hockey for 31 more season, spanning four decades. Nicknamed “Mr. Hockey,” Howe won six Art Ross trophies, six Hart Trophies and when he retired held the records for goals and points, considered by many to be the greatest hockey player of all time (before Gretzky came along, anyway).
Just as the Detroit Red Wings had faced the Maple Leafs twice at the end of the Leaf’s string of Stanley Cup wins in the ‘40s and went on to form their own dynasty, the Montreal Canadiens did the same, facing the Red Wings in ’54 and ’55, losing both times. However, the rest of the decade belonged to the Habs (their nickname, short for “Les Habitants”). Beginning in 1956, the Canadiens went on a string of five straight Stanley Cup victories, unmatched either before or since. The Canadiens even switched coaches twice during their run, but remained unbeatable for that stretch. Just as the Red Wings were led by Gordie Howe, the Canadiens were led by Maurice Richard and a newcomer, the young (and handsome) hockey star Jean Beliveau.
Three innovations that changed the game forever appeared in the 1950s, and two of them actually began in the same year. The first was television. Though televised hockey had actually appeared as far back as 1939, it was an extremely rare occurrence. In 1952, however, as more people began to own televisions, hockey waded into the pool of TV. The first to dip their toes were the Chicago Black Hawks, who decided to broadcast weekend matinee games on Saturdays (not wanting to compete with Saturday night television programs. The Saturday matinees became a staple for the Hawks for years. That same year, a program began in Canada that goes in to this day: Hockey Night in Canada. The first airing was on November 1, 1952, showing a game between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs (beginning in the second period, as Conn Smythe didn’t want to show it all). Smythe had sold the rights to Imperial Oil for $100 per game that first year (just $808 today), but after seeing it was a smash success, Smythe sold three years’ worth of games for $450 thousand dollars beginning that next year (worth $3.6 million today).
The second innovation (and arguably just as significant) was the invention of the Zamboni. The Zamboni, the ice-smoothing tractor used at ice rinks around the world, was created by Frank Zamboni, who opened an outdoor ice rink in southern California in 1940. Zamboni, with backgrounds in both auto repair and refrigeration, wanted a less time-consuming way to resurface the ice, coming up with the machine that drives over the ice, shaving it, smoothing and squeeging it with clean water and recycling the dirty water for reuse. The first Zamboni used in an NHL game was between, again, Montreal and Toronto in 1952.
last innovation occurred at the very end of the decade. Canadien
goaltender Jacques Plante, winner of five Vezina trophies and five Stanley
Cups, had been hit in the face by a puck in 1955, sidelining him for
five weeks, and again in 1956. After the ’56 strike, Plante
mentioned in an interview he’d be interested in a facemask of some
kind. A Quebec fan sent Plante a plastic facemask that Plante
used in practice for the next three years. In ’57, a man named
Bill Burchmore sent Plante a letter, telling him about a facemask made
of fiberglass that could be molded to fit Plante’s face that Burchmore
had been working with. Together, Plante and Burchmore perfect
the design, but it wasn’t until 1959 that it finally made its debut
in the NHL. Plante’s coach, Toe Blake, refused to allow Plante
to wear the mask, worried it would distract him. On November 1,
after Plante was hit in the face with a slapshot, he refused to go back
in unless he could use the facemask. Blake finally agreed, and
after the Canadiens went on a 10-game winning streak with Plante wearing
the facemask, it became a permanent fixture, both in Montreal and across
Canadian (and Canadien) Domination:
The 1950s had been primarily controlled by two teams: the Red Wings and the Canadiens. The ‘60s would be no different, only this time, it was Toronto who shared the decade with Montreal. Of the 10 Stanley Cup series in the decade, all but one were won by a team from Canada. Montreal won five titles, Toronto four and the Chicago Black Hawks won their first Stanley Cup in 23 years when they hoisted the Cup in ’61 – and would not do so again for 49 years. Until 1968, only four teams even played in the Stanley Cup finals: Montreal (who won in ’60 and ’65-’66), Toronto (who won from ’62-’64 and in ’67), Chicago and Detroit (losers in ’61, ’63, ’64 and ’66). Finally, in the last two years of the decade, a new team arrived on the scene, the St. Louis Blues (a new team to the league, as well). However, the Blues could not get past the Canadiens, who finished the decade with back-to-back wins. The Blues were coached by Scotty Bowman, who, when his career was done, would have more Stanley Cup victories than any coach in history with nine (compiled with three different teams, none of them the Blues, who have never won a Stanley Cup).
Maple Leafs, however, enjoyed their success in the ‘60s without a
familiar face at the helm: in 1961, Conn Smythe, now 66 years old, decided
to sell his shares of the team to his son. His son immediately
sold the team and the arena away. Though Smythe stayed on as chairman
of the board until 1964, his days of running the team were over.
In 1964, upon his retirement, the league awarded a new trophy at the
end of the Stanley Cup finals, the Conn Smythe Trophy, to the player
voted most valuable in the playoffs.
The St. Louis Blues were not the only new hockey team to appear in the late 1960s; 1967 saw the first large-scale expansion in league history, with the NHL adding six teams to its existing six. The existing six teams (the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Black Hawks) were nicknamed the Original Six, a moniker that has stuck to this day. The expansion was spurred by a league that had formed in the 1950s, the Western Hockey League. The WHL, which began in 1952, focused its attention on California, and experienced early success there. The WHL even intended to establish itself as a major league, competing for the Stanley Cup. They never reached that status, and in 1974 went under. However, their success on the West Coast (in addition to the NHL’s desire to cash in on the TV market there) led to NHL expansion.
The six new teams were the Los Angeles Kings, California Seals, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. The Seals would, in the span of just ten years, change their name to the Oakland Seals, California Golden Seals, Cleveland Barons (after moving to Cleveland) and then merge with the North Stars. The omission of a Canadian team from the expansion caused considerable ire in Canada, made worse by the addition of St. Louis. Vancouver had been considered a strong candidate for expansion, but Montreal and Toronto reportedly didn’t want to share TV revenues. St. Louis hadn’t even put in a bid, but Chicago Black Hawks owner Bill Wirtz owned a stadium in St. Louis, and therefore supported putting a team there. The Blues were easily the most successful expansion team early on, making three straight Stanley Cup finals.
addition of the six new teams also divided the league for the first
time. Previously, the league had only one division; now that six
more teams were added, the league split into two divisions, the East
and West. With expansion also came an increase in the number of
regular season games, which went up to 74 in the 1967-68 season.
Just one year later, they increased to 76. New to the divisions
were awards for regular-season triumph: the winner of the East Division
received the Prince of Wales Trophy. The winner of the West got
the Clarence Campbell Bowl, named for a former president of the NHL.
Ups and Downs: the 1970s:
The ‘70s were a tumultuous time for hockey in North America. In the ‘70s, seven different professional leagues closed down operations. The Western, Eastern, North American, Pacific, Southern and Northeastern Hockey Leagues all closed up shop, as did the World Hockey Association. Each league was either set up as a rival to the NHL or as a minor pro league. The World Hockey Association, however, had a far greater impact on the league than any other. The WHA, which began operations in 1972, was mostly made up of teams from cities that had been rejected by the NHL for being too small-market: the New England Whalers, Alberta Oilers, Houston Aeros, Calgary Broncos, Ottawa Nationals and Quebec Nordiques. The new league received a boon when they successfully challenged the NHL’s reserve clause, which allowed NHLers to move to the WHA. The most high profile of these defections was that of Bobby Hull, the Black Hawks star who signed with the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA for a then-record ten year, $2.75 million deal (worth $12.8 million today). Another notable name to join the WHA was Gordie Howe. Howe had retired from the NHL in 1971, but returned with the Houston Aeros in 1973 to play on a line with his two sons. Howe tallied 100 points in his first year back (at age 46), and would play six seasons in the WHA. The WHA also began recruiting European players, something the NHL had not yet done, believing European hockey players to be inferior to North American players. In 1979, the WHA folded, but not before agreeing to a merger with the NHL. The Edmonton Oilers (whose name had been changed from Alberta to Edmonton), the Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec Nordiques and Hartford (nee New England) Whalers all joined the NHL. All four teams still play in the NHL, though only one (the Oilers) still play in the city in which they originated. The WHA also helped end the reserve clause, raise player salaries and give credence to Canadian teams (who didn’t happen to be located in Montreal or Toronto).
The four WHA teams were not the only ones to join the NHL in the ‘70s. In 1970, the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks joined the league, in ’72 the Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders joined the fold and in 1974, the Kansas City Scouts and Washington Capitals were added. Each of those franchises still exists, though some have moved/changed their name, including the Scouts, who moved to Denver just two years after they came into the league and became the Rockies.
The increase in the number of teams also altered the landscape of the NHL’s number of games played and divisions. In 1970, the games had increased to 78 in the regular season, and in ’74, they went up further, to 80. They would remain at that number for almost 20 years. Additionally, no longer would teams play in the East and West divisions; now, the NHL was divided into two conferences, with two divisions in each. The Prince of Wales Conference, with the Norris and Adams divisions, and the Campbell Conference, with the Smythe and Patrick divisions made up the new NHL. The conferences got their names from the trophies awarded to their regular-season winners. The divisions were named for significant figures in hockey: James Norris was the former owner of the Red Wings, while Jack Adams was the former coach and manager of the Wings (the Adams trophy was also introduced that year, awarded to the league’s top coach). The Smythe division was named for Conn Smythe, and the Patrick division for Lester.
The ‘70s also saw the first Summit Series played, a matchup of a Canadian national team (made up of NHL stars) and the Soviet Union national squad. Helped along by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the Summit Series was a worldwide event, with all eyes of the hockey world turned on the eight-game series. The Canadian public (and most of the press and players) expected to win easily. Though they won, it was not easy, as the Soviets proved to be an incredibly fierce opponent. However, it would be years before a Soviet hockey player laced up skates in the NHL.
in the ‘70s, Bobby Orr came to the forefront of the sport. Orr,
a young defenseman playing for the Boston Bruins, helped lead the Bruins
to their first Stanley Cup title since 1941 when, in 1970, he won the
Art Ross Trophy, the Hart Trophy, the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Norris
Trophy. No other player in history has even won all those awards
in the same year. The Norris Trophy had been give to the NHL in
1953 to recognize the late James Norris, awarded annually to the player
considered the best defenseman. Orr’s 1970 win was his third,
and he would go on to win five more, winning it an unmatched eight times
(all in a row). No player before or since has accomplished that
feat. Orr also collected three Hart Trophies in his career, the
last defenseman to win the award until Chris Pronger did it almost 30
years later. Orr is credited with revolutionizing the defense
position, making it a more offensive position than it had ever truly
For years, the balance of power in hockey resided in North America. European teams simply did not have the talent to compete. However, as the WHA showed by recruiting European players and as the Soviets showed in the Summit Series, the rest of the international hockey world was finally catching up (with the rest of the hockey world being essentially Europe). The European game developed into a different entity than the North American game, emphasizing speed and skill with less focus on physicality. While North American hockey liked speed and skill just fine, they also loved their bruisers, and Europe didn’t play that style very much.
In international hockey tournaments (both the World Championships and the Olympics), the Soviets ruled, though this was helped greatly by the fact that both the World Championships and Olympics were played by amateurs and not NHLers. Still, no one could deny the Soviet might; almost all of the Soviet stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s could (and should) have played in the NHL, but were barred from doing so by the Iron Curtain. In particular, Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak was considered by most to be the greatest goaltender in the world (and is still thought of that way in many circles). Their international dominance – from 1956 to 1988, the Soviet Union won seven out of a possible nine gold medals – is a major part of what made the 1980 Olympic games such a surprise. The United States, made up of a group of college players, beat the Soviets in one of the greatest upsets in sports history, 4-3, in the semifinal match of the tournament. The U.S. went on to beat Finland in the gold medal game.
In the ‘90s and ‘00s, international teams started using their professionals to play, and in 2002, Canada won its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years, beating the U.S. in the gold medal game. Eight years later, in the Olympic games in Vancouver, Canada succeeded on home ice, winning another gold medal – again, beating the U.S. in the final. In the last fifty years, only five teams have won gold medals: the Soviet Union (and, in 1992, the “Unified Team,” a squad made up of the former Soviet republics and Russia), Canada, the U.S., the Czech Republic and Sweden.
The Great One: The ‘80s:
The 1980s marked the first decade since the ‘50s that the NHL did not add a single franchise, though the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary (where they still reside) in 1980 and the Rockies moved to New Jersey to become the Devils (where they remain to this day) in 1982. 1980 also saw the end of an era: Gordie Howe, who had moved from the Houston Aeros to the New England Whalers two years before the WHA merged into the NHL, played one season with the Whalers (in their new location, Hartford), retiring for the final time after the season. At 52 years old, Howe led the Whalers in scoring for the vast majority of the season, finishing with 41 points and playing in all 80 games.
Early in 1981, after two years with the new WHA teams, the NHL realigned itself. Although they kept the conference and divisional names, the conferences and divisions themselves were reorganized geographically: previously, the Wales and Campbell conferences (which had been, respectively, the East and West Divisions) were a mish-mash of east and west teams. Now, the Wales Conference was made up of teams entirely from the eastern parts of the U.S. and Canada, while the Campbell Conference was made up of teams from the west and Midwest. The playoffs were also redone: teams now competed with teams in their own division in the division semi-finals and finals, then advancing to the conference finals before reaching the Stanley Cup finals. Additionally, the Prince of Wales trophy and Campbell Cup were now awarded to the team who won their conference in the playoffs.
But perhaps the biggest addition of the 1980s was two players who came over from the WHA with the Edmonton Oilers: Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky. Messier, considered one of the all-time great captains of the game, ended his career with six Stanley Cup victories (including five with the Oilers in the ‘80s and ‘90s) and would probably have finished with a large number of NHL records if not for Gretzky. Wayne Gretzky, nicknamed “The Great One,” ended his career considered the greatest hockey player of all time. He won the Art Ross trophy an unmatched ten times, including seven in a row in the ‘80s, won the Conn Smythe twice, won the Hart Trophy nine times, including eight in a row (only one other player won a Hart Trophy in the 1980s: Mario Lemieux) and won the Lady Byng five times. To this day, Gretzky holds or shares 61 different NHL records, from the regular season, playoffs and All-Star game, including career points, goals and assists. Messier is second to Gretzky in many of those records.
However, before Gretzky and Messier’s Oilers could dominate in the later half of the decade, the New York Islanders had something to say first. Following the Canadiens’ four-peat to close out the ‘70s, the Isles opened up the 1980s with four straight Stanley Cup championships, coached by Al Arbour (who, ironically, won his only Adams award the year before the Islanders went on their run). The Islanders streak ended when they lost in the Stanley Cup finals to Edmonton in 1984. The Oilers would win back-to-back titles twice in the decade, their string of four Stanley Cup victories interrupted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1986. The ‘80s also marked the end of long-lasting dynasties in the NHL; in the two decades since, no team has won more than two consecutive Stanley Cups.
Oilers success, however, clearly did not rest solely on Wayne Gretzky;
theirs was a complete team, from Messier to winger Jarri Kuri, from
defenseman Paul Coffey to goaltender Grant Fuhr, all of them Hall-of-Famers.
Still, a shockwave was sent through the hockey world when, on August
9, 1988, Gretzky was traded from the Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings.
Many blamed penny-pinching Oilers owner Peter Pocklington for Gretzky’s
departure, while others also pointed fingers at Gretzky’s wife, the
Los Angeles native Janet Jones. Whatever the reason, Gretzky’s
trade stunned both Oilers fans and hockey followers across the globe.
While the Oilers would go on to win one more Stanley Cup, however (in
1990), Gretzky would never win another.
Labor Unrest and Further Expansion:
The 1990s were yet another decade of great change in the NHL. When the ‘90s began, there were 21 teams in the NHL. When the calendar changed to the year 2000, there were 30. Two sets of expansion created a larger league than ever before; the first set began in 1991, when the San Jose Sharks joined the league. The next year the Tampa Bay Lightning were added along with the Ottawa Senators (with no connection to the old Senators other than the name). The following year, the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks brought the NHL’s total to 26. The Mighty Ducks inclusion was a source of great contention, particularly among hockey purists. The Ducks, owned by the Disney Corporation, were named after a team of children from a 1992 Disney film. Hockey fans thought this embarrassing; despite their objections, the Ducks stayed around, though the team was later sold, and their named changed from the Mighty Ducks to just the Ducks – it was only after this change that the team finally won a Stanley Cup.
The second wave of expansion occurred at the close of the decade. In 1998, hockey came to Nashville in the form of the Predators; a year later, the Thrashers brought hockey back to Atlanta. Finally, the 2000-01 season began with two new teams: the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. Of the nine teams that were added to the NHL lists in the ‘90s, only two have won the Stanley Cup finals: the Ducks and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In addition to adding teams, the NHL moved several teams around in the 1990s. .The Minnesota North Stars packed up and moved to Dallas in 1993, becoming the Dallas Stars. In 1995, the Quebec Nordiques headed southwest, making their home in Denver and calling themselves the Colorado Avalanche. The Winnipeg Jets also left Canada, moving to Phoenix and renaming themselves the Coyotes in 1996, while in ’97, the Whalers abandoned Hartford and relocated to North Carolina, rebranding themselves the Carolina Hurricanes.
However, as the league enjoyed unprecedented expansion in the ‘90s, it also suffered through its first significant labor disruptions. The first came in 1992, when, after new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) could not be reached, the players announced, on April 1, that they would go on strike, the first league-wide player strike in NHL history. It would last ten days, as an agreement was signed on April 10. Of the 30 remaining regular season games, 11 were played. The playoffs were not interrupted. The second, and more serious disruption, came just two years later. In 1993, the CBA that had been negotiated in ’92 expired, and the entire 1993-94 season was played under the expired CBA. On October 11, after months and months of fruitless negotiating, the owners announced a lockout. This would not last a short time; the lockout lasted over 90 days, with the owners and player’s association finally reaching an agreement on January 11. The season began on January 20, lasting only 48 days.
While the ‘80s belonged to Gretzky, the early ‘90s belonged to Mario Lemieux. Lemieux had been the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first round pick in 1984, and as the ‘80s wound down and the ‘90s started up, “Super Mario” came into his own, winning three Hart Trophies, winning the Art Ross Trophy six times and winning the Conn Smythe trophy in both of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup finals appearances (which they won both times). In the minds of many, Lemieux’s talent was second only to Gretzky’s.
other star of the ‘90s was undoubtedly Patrick Roy. The goaltender
began playing for Montreal in the mid-‘80s, winning the Conn Smythe
Trophy his rookie year, 1986. He would go on to win two more,
though one was not for the Canadiens. In the middle of the 1995-96,
Roy was traded to the Colorado Avalanche, and that spring backstopped
them to a Stanley Cup championship. He would win a second with
the Avs in 2001, winning his third and final Conn Smythe. He also
won three Vezina trophies, all while with Montreal. When he retired,
Roy held almost several major goaltending records and was considered
by many to be the best of all time. Since then, he has lost some
of those records to a new challenger to the throne of greatest goalie
of all time, Martin Brodeur.
Hockey’s Darkest Days:
As the new millennium dawned, hockey’s fortunes appeared bright. They had finally reached a level of stability – no new teams were added or moved in the entire decade, while only one team changed its name (the Mighty Ducks to the Ducks). Parity had reached the NHL as well: only two teams won multiple titles in the 2000s, the Devils and the Red Wings, and those victories were three and six years apart, respectively. Several teams made or won the Finals for the first time, including the Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators, the Ducks and the Lightning. However, the middle of the decade saw a dark cloud descend on the sport.
Leading up to the 2004-05 season, the CBA had expired, and negotiations between the league (led by Commissioner Gary Bettman) and the NHLPA hinged primarily on the issue of a salary cap. Contracts had been going up and up, and with no kind of cap, there was no end in sight. The players stood firm, refusing to back down, and on September 13, 2004, the owners imposed the second lockout in history. This one, however, would be far more damaging than the first. This lockout lasted 310 days, causing the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season and playoffs, the first time the Stanley Cup had been cancelled since 1919, when the flu epidemic shut it down. When the lockout finally ended in July of 2005, severe damage had been done. Only in the last few years has the NHL finally been able to recover somewhat from the lockout, in attendance, TV ratings and revenue.
of the lockout, the NHL got itself a hard salary cap (including significant
pay cuts for its players). The NHL also, in an attempt to win
back fans (and perhaps gain new ones) also changed some of its rules,
opening up the ice (by shrinking the neutral zone), prohibiting contact
in the neutral zone and introducing “touch-up offsides,” all
in an attempt to increase scoring.
As the NHL and professional hockey enters the next decade, it is in a far better place. Its new stars, including Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, are major figures in the sports world. The Detroit Red Wings returned to dominance in the late part of the decade, winning the 2008 Stanley Cup. In fact, the 2008 and 2009 Finals included both the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Red Wings, with the Wings winning the first matchup and the Penguins the second, the first time since ’83-’84 that’s happened, and only the fourth time in history. The next season, the most recent Stanley Cup finals, the Chicago Blackhawks captured their first Cup victory since 1961. Interestingly, winger Marian Hossa, one of the major NHLers of the 2000s, played in all three Stanley Cup finals from 2008 to 2010 – each for a different team, the first time in NHL history that has occurred. Hossa played with the Penguins when they lost in 2008, played for the Red Wings when they lost in 2009, and finally took home the title with the Blackhawks in 2010.
the NHL finally starting to recover, they are starting to see TV ratings
and revenues pick up. However, another CBA expiration is looming,
and if the NHL fails to learn from its mistakes of the mid-2000s, it
could spell doom for the sport. Time will tell.
- Total NHL edited by Dan Diamond (ISBN: 9781572436042)
- Hockey: A People’s History by Michael McKinley (ISBN: 9780771057694)
- Hockey: Professional Sports Team Histories edited by Michael L. LaBlanc (ISBN: 9780810388626)
- Hockey!: The Story of the World’s Fastest Sport by Richard Beddoes, Stan Fischler and Ira Gitler
- Olympic Hockey: http://www.olympic.org/en/content/Sports/All-Sports/Ice-Hockey/
- USA Today Hockey Salaries: http://content.usatoday.com/sports/hockey/nhl/salaries/default.aspx
- NHL Trophies: http://www.nhl.com/ice/page.htm?id=24934
- NHL Stanley Cup Finalists and Winners: http://www.nhl.com/ice/page.htm?id=25426
- Gordie Howe: http://www.mrandmrshockey.com/HistoryStats.php
- ESPN bio of Gordie Howe: http://espn.go.com/classic/biography/s/Howe_Gordie.html
- Hockey Hall of Fame: http://www.hhof.com/
- Wayne Gretzky: http://www.gretzky.com/hockey/nhl_records.php
- 2004-05 Lockout: http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2005/12/art3full.pdf
- Money Updater: http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/