The Birth of the National Hockey League

The formation of the National Hockey League was not a big deal in the life of Canada in 1917.

When a group of owners gathered to arrange it in the Windsor Hotel in Montreal November 22, Elmer Ferguson was the lone reporter sitting waiting for news. The first man to emerge from behind closed doors of the meeting was Frank Calder. Ferguson hollered after him, “Hey Frank, what happened in there?” “Not too much Fergie,” replied Calder.

“It’s like our old league except that we haven’t invited Eddie Livingstone to be part of it,” Calder told Ferguson. Five of the six owners of the old National Hockey Association had finally gotten tired of the stubborn and confrontational owner of the Toronto Blueshirts, Eddie Livingstone. So they met without him and made a new league. “Now that we got rid of Livingstone, Ottawa owner Tommy Gorman said, “we can get down to the business of making money.”

Professional hockey was barely a few years old but it had already created a familiar landscape: quarrels among owners, soaring salaries, lawsuits and injunctions, threatened lockouts, salary caps, bankrupt franchises – all the slings and arrows the market is heir to.

The first pro hockey league was actually founded in 1903 by an American dentist, J.L. Gibson, who hired the best players for his team in Portage Lakes, Michigan. The team was so good that others had to buy players to compete and the International Professional Hockey League was born. In 1904 the Eastern Canadian Hockey Association reluctantly admitted professionals. Once players were paid, could free agency be far behind? In 1908 Tom Phillips, the star of the Kenora Thistles, announced that he was available to any team that would pay him $1800 a season. He signed with Ottawa.

Opening-night ceremonies at Maple Leaf Gardens, with the 48th Highlanders. The Mail and Empire, November 11, 1931.

Professional teams popped up in the most unlikely places, such as Cobalt and Haileybury, Ont., where wealthy mine owners purchased the best players that money could buy. The George Steinbrenner of his day, Ambrose O’Brien assembled a team of superstars to play for him in the town of Renfrew, Ontario. It included Fred “Cyclone” Taylor and the Patrick brothers, Frank and Lester, each of whom were paid a lofty $3000.

The costs forced Haileybury and Cobalt to fold. Club owners, who had induced players to sign for high salaries with brave talk of the free market soon discovered “fiscal responsibility” and banded together under the first salary cap, at $5000 for each team. Players who had been earning up to $1800 now had to settle for $500 and there was even talk of a player union.

The first NHL games were played on December 19, 1917, with the kind of high-scoring hockey today’s fans dream about. The Montreal Wanderers beat Toronto 10-9 and the Montreal Canadiens beat Ottawa 7-4. Joe Malone won the scoring title that year with 44 goals in 20 games (he missed two games), a record that even Wayne Gretzky would envy. However, the league lost two teams early in the season. The Quebec franchise folded due to lack of fan support (not for the last time). The Wanderers dropped out after their stadium burned down, leaving only three teams: the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Arenas. “Pro hockey is on its last legs,” predicted the Toronto Globe. Not so.


For better and for worse, the professional leagues changed the game of hockey. Once played for fun and love, for local pride and for the sheer experience of being Canadian, it became part of the culture of business. It was the business class who had the organizational skills and the money to organize the sport, pay the players and get new stadiums built. In return, they wanted ownership of the game. The NHL usurped the Stanley Cup, which Lord Stanley had intended to celebrate the values of amateur sport. These days the NHL even claims to own the “image” of the cup.

The nostalgia generated from the outdoor game recently played in Edmonton purported to celebrate hockey’s origins on the ponds of rural Canada. It is now a very long time ago that sport had more to do with love of the game than with an obsession with money.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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