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The classic NHL shield logo, used until the end of the 2004 lockout.

The National Hockey League(NHL) professional sports organization has been composed of hockey teams in Canada and the United States from its founding in 1917 to the present day.

Frank Calder Era: Founding to The Original Six

The National Hockey League was founded in 1917 in Montreal after a series of disputes within the (Canadian) National Hockey Association (NHA), which would see the NHA suspend operations and the new NHL start play.

The primary conflict involved Toronto Blueshirts' owner Eddie Livingstone. An ongoing source of controversy among fellow NHA owners, he was often accused of exploiting loopholes in league regulations to create what some viewed as unfair advantages, and had particularly incited the wrath of owners when he merged his two Toronto teams (the Ontarios and the Blueshirts) after the latter had been deprived of its top players. Livingstone sometimes offered contracts to other teams' members not to play hockey, and once campaigned to kick the Montreal Wanderers out of the league after the team tried to lure two of his top Blueshirts players. Throughout his battles with owners, Livingstone repeatedly threatened to start a rival league in the United States.

This article is part of the Evolution of the NHL series.

In its final season (1916-17), the National Hockey Association was comprised of six teams: The Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators, Quebec Bulldogs, Toronto Blueshirts, and an army team from the Toronto-based 228th Battalion. The team owners met in the Windsor Hotel in Montreal to consider the league's future on February 11, 1917, a day after members of the 228th Battalion, the most popular NHA team, were called into World War I action. Livingstone, unable to attend the meeting because of illness, was shocked to learn that owners had all agreed to withdraw from the NHA, to effectively ejecting Livingstone and the Blueshirts.

After the resignation of NHA president and Livingstone ally Frank Robinson, Livingstone stopped attending league meetings and sent a lawyer to represent his interests.

On November 9, 1917, it was reported that the Toronto NHA franchise was sold to Charles Querrie of the Toronto Arena corporation. At this point, NHA president Robertson and secretary Calder denied that the NHA would change, dissolve or adopt other subterfuge.[1] This 'sale' never completed and must be considered a ruse.

The November 10, 1917 annual meeting of the NHA was presided over by Mr. Calder and was adjourned without any public statement. At this time, the Quebec club had not committed to play the season, and had been given deadlines to commit.[2]

On November 17, 1917, it was announced that Quebec had dropped out, but that NHA league play would continue. This would mean that the NHA would be reduced to three teams, an undesirable number for scheduling purposes, if Toronto would not be allowed to continue, and the other owners did not want to continue with Livingstone as an owner.

On November 26, 1917, representatives of the NHA clubs met at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal. The decision was made to start a new league, the NHL:

  • constitution and rules the same as the NHA
  • Frank Calder elected president and secretary
  • M. J. Quinn of Quebec was named honorary president
  • franchises were granted to Ottawa, Canadiens, Wanderers,
  • Quebec players to be disbursed among the other teams
  • Toronto franchise to be operated 'temporarily' by the Toronto Arena Company

Thus Livingstone was frozen out. This tactic of forming new leagues to resolve conflicts was not new. The NHA's oldest clubs, the Bulldogs and Senators, had seen the AHAC, CAHL, FAHL, ECAHA and CHA leagues shut down since organized league play began in 1886.

The Toronto 'temporary' franchise

See Toronto Arenas

A Toronto franchise was to be operated 'temporarily' by the Toronto Arena Company while the Toronto ownership situation was resolved. The franchise used the players of the Blueshirts, including those who had been transferred to other NHA teams for the second half of the 1916-17 NHA season. This was done without the permission of Mr. Livingstone, who would sue for the team's revenues. According to George Kennedy, owner of the Canadiens:

"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"[3]

The Toronto club played without a nickname for the first season. The Toronto Arena Hockey Club was formed before the next season to operate the temporary franchise. A 'permanent' franchise was granted with the forming of the Toronto St. Patricks in 1919.

Early Struggles

The league would start with four teams, the Canadiens, Senators, Toronto and Wanderers. The first game was played between the Wanderers and Torontos on December 19, 1917. The Wanderers won, their only victory in the NHL, when, on January 2, 1918, the Westmount Arena in Montreal, home to the Wanderers and Canadiens, was destroyed in a fire. The Wanderers, already a shadow of its former self, folded in the wake of the fire, ending one of the most storied franchises in the early years of Canadian professional hockey. With the Bulldogs and Wanderers out, the NHL operated with just three teams for the remainder of its opening year, and through the second season.

Though Livingstone had been shut out, one of his NHA ideas — a proposal for a split regular season — was adopted by the new league and integrated into its playoff system. The Torontos became the first NHL winner of the Stanley Cup, the annual trophy awarded since 1893 to the Canadian hockey champion. A furious Livingstone, meanwhile, failed in his attempt to collect a share of profits from the Arena Company, then sued the Company and the NHL.

The dispute lingered on through the 1920s, although a new permanent franchise was sold for Toronto, called the Toronto St. Patricks and ultimately the Toronto Maple Leafs. History has looked back on Livingstone and the NHL's formation with a sense of irony: The man whom league owners had worked so hard to exclude was, in the words of Canadiens owner George Kennedy, the same figure that "made [the NHL] a real league".

Quebec to Hamilton to New York

The Quebec Bulldogs would enter play in the NHL in 1919-20 for one season, bringing the number of teams to four. They would only play the one season in Quebec, before moving to Hamilton, Ontario for the 1920-21 season. This transfer was done to counter a possible rival league setting up in Hamilton. The team was renamed the Tigers. At the conclusion of the 1924-25, the Hamilton team had finished first. The team's players went on strike for more pay, and the team was suspended. Montreal and Toronto would play for the championship instead.

The next year, the New York Americans would start play and the Hamilton franchise cancelled. Players of the Tigers were allocated to the Americans, although to be reinstated, they would have to pay a $200 fine apiece.

Stanley Cup Success

Though the league struggled to stay in business during its first decade, NHL teams were quite successful on the ice, winning seven of the eight Stanley Cups awarded during its first nine years. (The 1918-19 competition was cancelled because of the Spanish Flu epidemic that had hit Seattle). By 1926, having increased player salaries to a level that couldn't be matched by other Canadian leagues, the NHL was alone in Stanley Cup competition.

Expansion into United States

The league expanded into the United States, with the Boston Bruins in 1924; the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925 and the New York Rangers, Detroit Cougars (later to become the Red Wings), and Chicago Blackhawks in 1926. In Canada, the league added the Montreal Maroons.

Formation of the Minor League system

When the WHL finally finished in 1926, and its players dispersed to the NHL, other leagues looked to claim "major-league" status, including the American Hockey Association (AHA), forerunner to today's American Hockey League. Most notably, direct competition occurred in Chicago, between the Blackhawks and the Chicago Cardinals. In 1926, the AHA formally filed a Stanley Cup challenge with the Stanley Cup trustees. The trustees ordered the NHL to play the AHL champions, but the NHL, under the direct order of Frank Calder, ignored the order.[4] This would happen again in 1931, when the successor of the AHA, the American Hockey League AHL of the time, would file another challenge, to again be ignored.[5] The NHL would react to both situations by 'blacklisting' the AHL and its players, and trying to freeze it out of common arenas.

During this time, the NHL helped to form the Can-Am Pro League and the International Hockey League, signed up as partners with the NHL, subject to the NHL being allowed to draft their players. This system was expanded to the AHL, when the AHL could not compete with the NHL.

The AHL eventually would make peace with the NHL, as both leagues struggled in the 1930s. The AHL would revert to its previous name, the AHA, renounce its major league status, and not compete with the NHL or the other minor leagues. After peace was made in 1932, the top team of the AHA was transferred to Detroit to become the NHL's Red Wings in 1932. None of the other AHA/AHL teams or players made it to the NHL. The AHA would cease to be a competitor when it would shut down during World War Two.

The Great Depression Hits: Contraction

By the end of the 1930-31 season, the NHL featured a total of 10 teams. However, the Great Depression took a toll on the league; teams folded, went bankrupt or were sold by owners unable to keep up with costs.

The Detroit Cougars, renamed the Falcons, would file for bankruptcy in 1931 before being bought by James E. Norris, who would use the players of the Chicago Shamrocks of the AHL. This solved two problems: it took the top competitor out of Chicago, and brought Mr. Norris into the NHL to guarantee the long-term security of Detroit. As Mr. Norris was an AHL owner and competitor, it was a controversial move. Support for the move came from Toronto, where Conn Smythe saw Detroit as a natural competitive draw for the Maple Leafs.[6]

The Montreal Maroons would suspend play after the 1937-38 season. The franchise remained active, though it was never re-activated. It was finally terminated permanently in 1946.

The New York Americans played in New York until 1942, when they suspended due to the war. The NHL franchise continued in suspension until 1946 when the NHL finally disallowed it to restart and terminated the franchise.

The Ottawa Senators would try playing home games in other cities, suspending operations for a season, and finally relocating to St. Louis to operate as the Eagles. The Eagles would play for only one season before being bought out by the league. The NHL would return to St. Louis in 1967 in the initial wave of expansion.

The Pittsburgh Pirates would play from 1925 until 1930, then operate for the 1930-31 season as the Philadelphia Quakers before folding. The NHL would return to the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in 1967 also.

The Norris House League

The entry of Mr. Norris in 1932 as owner of Detroit Red Wings started the era where Mr. Norris would dominate the ownership of the National Hockey League. The NHL prohibited the ownership by an individual in more than one team. However, the NHL did allow corporations to own teams. Mr. Norris owned the Chicago Black Hawks through a corporation, and a partnership with Arthur Wirtz. Mr. Norris was a major share-holder in New York Rangers' owner Madison Square Garden Corporation. Mr. Norris also underwrote mortgages of the Boston Bruins' owner Charles Adams. During the period of his ownership of the Rangers and Black Hawks, neither developed a farm system and neither had much on-ice success.[7]

Death of Frank Calder

At the NHL general meeting of January 25, 1943 held in Toronto, Mr. Calder suffered a heart attack. He would survive and go home to Montreal to convalesce in Montreal General Hospital. However, he would not leave the hospital and died on February 3, 1943. Red Dutton would take over as NHL president.

'Original Six' Era: 1942-1967

Montreal Canadiens in 1942

see also: Original Six

With these developments and the onset of World War II, the NHL was reduced to six teams during its 25th anniversary year of (1942) – six teams still known today, if inaccurately, as the Original Six: The Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Red Wings, Bruins, Rangers, and Black Hawks. World War II had provided many players their first chance to play professional hockey, but after the war, many found themselves relegated to minor leagues.

During the Original Six period, Montreal and Toronto were the dominant teams, with Montreal winning 10 Cups, Toronto 9, Detroit 5, and Chicago once. Toronto had a dynasty in the late 1940s and the 1960s, while Montreal would dominate the 1950s along with Detroit. Boston, Chicago and New York were the 'other' teams of Mr. Norris' conglomerate and efforts were not made to improve their competitiveness as was done with Detroit.

Mr. Dutton gave up the job of NHL president in 1946, and Clarence Campbell was elected. He had been assistant to Mr. Calder prior to enlisting for World War Two. Mr Campbell's role as president, unlike Mr. Calder, was to follow the orders of the owners. In a famous quote from Maple Leafs' owner Stafford Smythe, commenting on a complaint over a disciplinary decision, said "Where would we find another Rhodes scholar, graduate lawyer, decorated war hero, and former prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, who will do what he's told?"[8]

NHL Takes Over the Stanley Cup

In 1948, original Stanley Cup trustee P. D. Ross, and Cooper Smeaton made an agreement with the NHL to take over possession of the Stanley Cup. While there are still trustees of the Cup today, the NHL provides for its maintenance, and its use is governed by the NHL exclusively. After the lockout of 2005, a Canadian court found the agreement of 1948 broke Lord Stanley's intentions. In an out-of-court settlement, the NHL has promised to allow other teams to play for the Cup if it will not use it.

Richard Riot

see: Richard Riot

In 1955, NHL president Clarence Campbell would suspend Montreal Canadiens star Rocket Richard for the playoffs. After announcing the suspension, Mr. Campbell attended the night's game at the Montreal Forum, where he was accosted and the scene became a riot, spilling over to downtown Montreal.

First Player's Association

Player's conditions were difficult in the 1950s. While arena owners showed large profits, players shared little in the revenues. The average salary in 1957 was $8000, compared to the average of $5500 for teachers. Players had to pay $900 yearly for their pension, which was controlled by the NHL and its finances kept secret. This would lead to legal action decades later by retired players.[9]

Players were banned during the off-season from playing other sports like they had in the early years of hockey. Players were required to take part in off-season promotion without pay. Player's medical coverage expired two months after injury and left players to pay their own medical expenses during the off-season.[10]

In 1957, a star player of the Detroit Red Wings, Ted Lindsay, would attempt to form the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA). Jack Adams, general manager of the Red Wings, would be prominent in breaking the attempted union. Mr. Lindsay's attempt was unsuccessful, and he was traded to the perennial last-place team, the Chicago Black Hawks, before retiring in 1960.

The players' conditions did not improve, and on the second attempt, the NHLPA would be founded in 1967 and be led for many years by Alan Eagleson, a Toronto lawyer.

Expansion: 1967-2000

1960s: Coast-to-Coast Expansion

Main article: 1967 NHL Expansion

By the 1960s, other pro leagues were fielding teams that were arguably competitive with the NHL's teams. The rise of the Western Hockey League, which was rumoured to be planning to transform into a major league and challenge for the Stanley Cup, spurred the NHL in 1967 to undertake its first expansion since the 1920s. Six new teams were added to the NHL roster, and placed in their own newly-created division. They were the Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Oakland Seals, and Pittsburgh Penguins. Each club paid the league $2 million to join.

The six new franchises were placed in a separate division, the West Division. The winner of the East would play the West. This format led to anti-climactic Stanley Cup Finals as the West Division teams were no match for the Original Six clubs.

Three years later, the NHL added the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres as franchises. Vancouver had applied for the initial round of expansion, but were turned down. Expansion fees had increased and were now $6 million.

1970s: NHL vs. WHA competition

In 1972, the World Hockey Association (WHA) was formed. Though the NHL refused its challenge for the Stanley Cup, its status as a viable NHL rival was unquestionable. In response, the NHL accelerated its own expansion plans by adding the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames that year to block WHA franchises from newly constructed arenas in those markets, along with the Kansas City Scouts and Washington Capitals two years later. The dilution of the talent pool, however, caused the overall quality of play to suffer. That, along with continued financial instability that resulted in the relocation of two franchises for the 1976-77 season, caused a planned expansion for 1976 to Denver and Seattle to be cancelled.

The two leagues fought for the services of players until a merger was agreed to following the 1978-79 season. The WHA folded, and four of the its remaining six teams joined the NHL as expansion teams: The Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Edmonton Oilers, and Winnipeg Jets. As of 2006, the Oilers were the last of the WHA teams still playing in the city where they began: the Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, the Jets moved to Phoenix as the Coyotes a year later, and the Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997.

On the ice, the decade was dominated by the Canadiens, who won the Cup six times. Boston would win twice in 1970 and 1972, its first wins in 30 years. The Philadelphia Flyers would be the first of the teams from the 1967 expansion to win the Cup, winning in 1974 and 1975.

Mr. Campbell would retire as NHL president in 1977, to be succeeded by John Ziegler.

1980s: Two Dynasties

The 1980s were dominated by two teams, the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers. The Islanders would win the first four Cups of the decade, the Oilers would win four, leaving one each for Montreal and Calgary. The decade was dominated by offense, as exemplified by the offense-first play of Edmonton, boasting Wayne Gretzky and the goal-scoring prowess of Mike Bossy for the Islanders.

1990s: Expansion to 30 teams

In the late 1980s, the NHL would adopt a plan to expand. The NHL invited in proposals in 1989, for teams to start play in 1992. In December 1989, they announced the terms of the expansion, including $50 million expansion fees, the highest in league history, and higher than the $32 million expansion fees of the NBA, and invited applications to start in May 1990.[11]

While this process was in place, the Minnesota North Stars club was in financial trouble. The owners of the North Stars, the Gund family, wanted to move the franchise to the San Francisco/Oakland area where they were based, but the area was a potential expansion site. This eventually lead to a complicated transaction where the Gunds would become the owners of the new expansion San Jose Sharks, to start play in 1991, with some of the the North Stars' players and draft picks in the entry draft, and the two teams would participate in the 1991 expansion draft. The Gunds would pay $19 million of the expansion fee, and $31 million would be paid by the new North Stars owners. The new owners would operate the North Stars until 1993 when they would relocate the franchise to Dallas, Texas where it became the Dallas Stars.[12]

In December 1990, the governors approved the Ottawa Senators and the Tampa Bay Lightning to begin play in 1992-93. In Tampa, the league moved into the strategic area of the south-eastern United States, an important TV market. In Ottawa, the league returned after a 57 years' absence to what was expected to be a good hockey market, and the Senators were expected to add some marquee value, being Canada's capital.[13]

This expansion, while lucrative as each team paid $50 million to join, did not satisfy the NHL owners' plan. Following the process produced only two satisfactory groups and the NHL was not gaining enough good TV markets in the States. A decision was made, and followed up by new president Gil Stein to identify key markets and place teams in those locations, with local ownership[14], instead of inviting expansion applications.

In 1993, as part of this strategy, the NHL added an additional two teams, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Florida Panthers. In a bit of controversy, these teams were added following a courting of Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner and Blockbuster Video owner Wayne Huizenga by Gary Bettman, the new Commissioner of the NHL and Gil Stein. Special arrangements were made to compensate the Los Angeles Kings for the Anaheim expansion within its area; half of the $50 million expansion fee went to the Kings.

Soon after Mr. Bettman took office, the NHL's traditional conferences and divisions were renamed to reflect geography (like the NBA) rather than the league's history (i.e., the Wales and Campbell Conferences, and the Adams, Patrick, Norris, and Smythe Divisions). In addition, the league adopted a two-referee system; goal lines, blue lines, and defensive-zone circles were moved, and the playoff format was altered so that teams were now bracketed and seeded by conference (also like the NBA), as opposed to the previous bracketing and seeding by division.

In 1993-1994, the NHL entered its greatest period of growth and landed a 5-year contract with FOX/ESPN. The expansions were due in part to Wayne Gretzky's popularity, and Mr. Bettman capitalized on it by reaching out to a broadcast partner which would give the NHL national exposure. This differed significantly from Mr. Bettman's predecessor, John Ziegler, who saw little future in national television, instead having each team rely on regional coverage. Some even predicted that the NHL could overtake Major League Baseball in popularity (which suffered greatly from a strike during that time).

In 1998, with the league having reached an agreement with the IOC, NHL players were finally able to compete in the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. This marked the first time that all NHL players were able to compete in the Olympics. To serve as a tie-in to the Olympics, the All-Star Game altered the format to become a match-up of players from North America against players from everywhere else in the world (effectively Europe). This format was abandoned in 2003 when the All-Star Game returned to the traditional conference vs. conference format.

On June 25, 1997, the NHL officially approved expansion to 30 teams by the year 2000. This added another four teams; the Nashville Predators (1998), Atlanta Thrashers (1999), Minnesota Wild, and Columbus Blue Jackets (both added in 2000). Atlanta and Minnesota both marked a return to areas where clubs had relocated. The Atlanta Flames had relocated to Calgary, and the Minnesota North Stars had relocated to Dallas. Minneapolis-St. Paul was historically a hotbed of hockey interest and the NHL had promised to return after the Stars had relocated, though the franchises are unrelated.

While the NHL has more teams in the United States than in Canada, teams' rosters are still dominated by Canadians, with over half of NHL players on the 2005-06 roster, having been born in Canada, though in the 1970s Canadians had accounted for roughly 95% of all NHL players.

2000s: Finances and Labour Dominate

The new millennia brought economic issues to the fore. Several economic factors brought a squeeze on revenues to member clubs. Ottawa and Buffalo would go bankrupt, and most clubs lost money on a yearly basis. Canadian clubs felt squeezed by the low Canadian dollar. The NHL TV revenues declined. On top of this, the NHL's agreement with its players was due to be renegotiated. This led to the lockout of the 2004-2005 season.

Labour issues

There have been three work stoppages in NHL history, all happening between 1992 and 2005.

The first was a strike by the National Hockey League Players Association in April 1992 which lasted for 10 days, but the strike was settled quickly and all affected games were rescheduled.

A lockout at the start of the 1994-95 forced the league to reduce the schedule from 84 games to just 48, with the teams playing only intra-conference games during the reduced season. The resulting collective bargaining agreement was set for renegotiation in 1998 and extended to September 15, 2004.

Negotiations to replace the contract that expired in 2004 turned into one of the most contentious collective bargaining sessions in the history of professional sports. The league vowed to install what it dubbed "cost certainty" for its teams, but the National Hockey League Players Association countered that the move was little more than a euphemism for a salary cap, which the union initially said it would not accept. With no new agreement in hand when the existing contract expired on September 15, 2004, league commissioner Gary Bettman announced a lockout of the players union and cessation of operations by the NHL head office, causing the NHL to lose an entire season.

A new collective bargaining agreement was ratified in July 2005 with a term of six years with an option of extending the collective bargaining agreement for an additional year at the end of the term, allowing the NHL to resume as of the 2005-06 season.

Post 2005 lockout

On the ice, the New Jersey style of play was considered to be a major factor in declining interest. The league, to relaunch itself after the lockout, made several changes to limit defensive play, and also limit goaltender equipment in size. The league also adopted an unbalanced schedule, where inter-conference play was decreased, to reduce expenses and travel.

On October 5, 2005, the first post-lockout NHL season got under way with 15 games. This was the first time in league history that all teams played on the same day. Of those 15 games, 11 were in front of sell out crowds. In the 2005-06 season, the NHL as a whole saw its attendance rise from the totals of 2004, as most teams were able to retain the majority of season ticket holders. In particular, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, and Buffalo Sabres all saw large gains. However, the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders, St. Louis Blues, and Washington Capitals all had flat attendance. But other teams had either rises or a depletion in attendance from the previous NHL season.

Today's Challenges

The NHL is broadcast nationally on weekends, and has partial coverage of the playoffs nationally. In Canada, the television audiences are still strong, with a nationally televised games on weekends all season long.

On the ice, the rule changes lead to increased scoring for the 2005-2006 season, but a small decline occurred for 2006-2007 season. A permanent competition committee now exists, composed of management and players to oversee play.


  1. [Coleman], pg. 328
  2. [Holzman]
  3. from "Trying Hard to Wreck Pro Hockey", Montreal Star: pg. 6, October 1, 1918 as quoted in Holzman, page 371.
  4. [Holzman], pg. 286.
  5. [Holzman], pg. 315.
  6. [Holzman], pg. 326.
  7. Cruise, David (1991). Net Worth: exploding the myths of pro hockey. Viking. ISBN 0670831174. 
  8. [Cruise], pg. 41
  9. [Cruise], pgs. 84-88
  10. [Cruise], pgs. 84-88
  11. [Stein], pg. 129.
  12. [Stein], pgs. 136–137.
  13. [Stein]
  14. [Stein], pg. 182
  • Coleman, Charles (1966-1969). The Trail of the Stanley Cup, vols. 1-3, 1893-1967. 
  • Holzman, Morey (2002). Deceptions and Doublecross:How the NHL Conquered Hockey. Dundurn Press. 
  • McFarlane, Brian (1997). Brian McFarlane's History of Hockey. Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing Inc.. ISBN 1-57167-145-5. 
  • Stein, Gil (1997). Power Plays: an inside look at the big business of the National Hockey League. Birch Lane Press. ISBN 1559724226. 

See also