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Celebrating A Century Of NHL Hockey

The NHL has existed for 100 years, and here’s a rundown of its history and defining moments.

It’s been exactly 100 years since the first-ever NHL games were played. On December 19, 1917, the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators faced off in Canada’s capital. Shortly afterward, the second NHL game began in Montreal, with the Toronto Arenas playing against the hometown Wanderers.

The Canadiens downed Ottawa 7-4 thanks to five goals from Joe Malone, though Cy Denneny scored three of his own. In Montreal, Harry Hyland scored five goals for the Wanderers, and Reg Noble had four for the Arenas, though the former won 10-9 in what would wind up being their only NHL victory.

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(The NHL 100 Classic on December 16 was a rematch of the first NHL game in history; the Senators beat the Canadiens 3-0/Jana Chytilova, Getty Images)

The arena in which the Montreal teams played their home games burnt down less than two weeks into the season, and while the Canadiens relocated, the Wanderers disbanded. The Toronto Globe predicted that professional hockey was “on its last legs.”

Not quite so, anymore. The league has grown exponentially in the last century, becoming the world’s premier ice hockey organization.

From its humble beginnings to international superiority, the NHL has been constantly progressing. It was originally contrived on November 26, 1917 as a way to reform what was then known as the National Hockey Association to exclude Toronto Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone. Livingstone had often been at odds with the owners of the other NHA teams, so they created an entirely new league just to get rid of him.

The NHL added a franchise in Quebec, but they quickly moved to Hamilton, Ontario. The league expanded to America in 1924 when Boston grocery magnate Charles Adams convinced them to add a team in that city. In doing so, the Boston Bruins were born, alongside a fellow expansion team called the Montreal Maroons. In 1925, the NHL expanded to two new markets by introducing the New York Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

A trio of new teams was added the following year: the New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks (later, Blackhawks), and Detroit Cougars, which would later be renamed the Falcons before becoming known as the Red Wing

The Great Depression devastated the NHL. Hamilton, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and the Montreal Maroons either relocated before disbanding or ceased operations altogether. Other professional organizations like the Pacific Coast Hockey League faded away as well, leaving the NHL as the sole challengers for the Stanley Cup.

(Henri Richard played 19 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and captured 11 Stanley Cups as a player, a league record/Montreal Canadiens)

In 1942, the Americans, who had long struggled to compete with their Big Apple counterparts, the Rangers, disbanded, and for the next quarter century, there would be only six NHL teams: the Canadiens, Red Wings, Bruins, Blackhawks, Rangers, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the successor to the Arenas.

By 1963, however, the league was in trouble. Their television broadcasting license had run out, and other hockey associations were threatening their dominance. As such, in 1967, the NHL doubled in size — the largest expansion in terms of new franchises ever attempted by a major North American sports organization.

The St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars and California Seals entered the fray, bringing more than just a western market. Their uniforms were more colorful than the conservative reds, blues, whites, and blacks of the Original Six: yellows, purples, oranges and greens graced their jerseys.

Three years later, a pair of franchises that had almost received expansions in 1967 started play: the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres. Two years after that came another two teams: the New York Islanders and Atlanta (later Calgary) Flames. The Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts would join in 1974, though the Scouts would quickly be relocated to Colorado, and finally to New Jersey as the Devils. However, in 1978, the California Seals disbanded completely.

A rival organization known as the World Hockey Association began in 1972. That particular league was plagued with poor ice conditions, constantly shifting teams, and very low fan attendance, but they were able to poach some NHL stars by offering them enormous contracts, including Blackhawks superstar Bobby Hull and Maple Leafs captain Dave Keon. Red Wings legend Gordie Howe even reversed his retirement to play in the WHA with his sons in 1973. 

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(Gordie Howe, or “Mr. Hockey” as the Detroit faithful took to calling him, was a four-time Cup winner, 21-time All-Star, and had an NHL career spanning five decades/Denis Brodeur, Getty Images)

The WHA eventually floundered in 1979, and four surviving teams joined the NHL: the Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, and Edmonton Oilers. This was at the tail end of a great Montreal Canadiens dynasty, who’d won four Stanley Cups in a row. With the help of Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden and coached by Scotty Bowman, the Canadiens had dominated the league, but the New York Islanders won the next four Stanley Cups.

The Islanders, with Brian Trottier, Mike Bossy, and coach Al Arbour, eventually conceded their reign to a new dynasty: the Edmonton Oilers, with legendary players like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, and Jari Kurri. These Oilers won four Cups in five years and won a fifth in 1990 even after Gretzky was traded in a blockbuster to the Los Angeles Kings.

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(Wayne Gretzky is the all-time NHL leader in points, goals and assists, and his number 99 is retired by every team in the league./Andy Devlin, Getty Images)

The other three WHA expansions fared worse, with the Nordiques, Whalers, and Jets relocating to respectively form the Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes, and Arizona Coyotes in the 1990s. They weren’t the only ones to relocate, as struggling attendance forced North Stars owner Norm Green to move his franchise to become the Dallas Stars. 

Looking to grow the game further, the NHL introduced nine new teams in the 1990s, including six franchises in the Sunbelt, though the Atlanta Thrashers later became the Winnipeg Jets. There was no further expansion until the Vegas Golden Knights were added in 2017.

Thrice in NHL history, bargaining disputes between the Player’s Association and the league have resorted in lockouts, in 1995, 2005 and 2013. The 2005 season was cancelled entirely due to a failure to reach a collective bargaining agreement.

The league has bounced back from these setbacks. Innovations came in the form of the Winter Classic and other outdoor games being introduced, starting regularly in 2008. The NHL also began to play games in other countries, most recently in China and Sweden this year. 

The NHL has triumphed for 100 years; here’s to 100 more!

Edited by Jeremy Losak.

Phil Housley played 1,495 NHL games with eight different teams but never won a Stanley Cup. Which franchise did he have the longest tenure with?
Created 12/13/17
  1. New Jersey Devils
  2. Calgary Flames
  3. St. Louis Blues
  4. Buffalo Sabres

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