HOCKEY in the United States originated during the summer of 1894. American and Canadian college students participating in a tennis tournament in Niagara Falls, Canada, learned that during the winter months they played different versions of the same game. The Canadians played hockey, the Americans a game they called "ice polo." Boasting of their prowess, the students challenged each other to a competition. In a series of matches staged that next winter in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Kingston, the Canadians won all the hockey games and managed to tie two of the ice polo contests. Within a few years American colleges and amateur clubs along the Eastern Seaboard had forsaken ice polo for hockey.
At approximately the same time, Minnesotans learned about hockey from their neighbors in Manitoba; players from the upper peninsula of Michigan also challenged Canadians in hockey games. The debut of the Western Pennsylvania and Interscholastic Hockey leagues brought hockey also to Pittsburgh and its environs. By the turn of the twentieth century, hockey had become popular in three separate regions of the United States.
In 1904, a northern Michigan dentist named J. L. Gibson found enough eager investors from mining companies to form the first professional hockey league. Although the International Professional Hockey League (IPHL) enjoyed some success, it survived only three seasons, disappearing in 1907.
Two years later, in 1909, mining entrepreneur Michael John O'Brien and his son Ambrose joined forces with P. J. Doran, owner of the Montreal Wanderers whose team had been excluded from the Canadian Hockey Association (CHA), to organize the National Hockey Association (NHA), the immediate predecessor of the National Hockey League (NHL). When the NHA began play on 5 January 1910, it had five teams based in three small Ontario towns, Colbalt, Haileybury, and Renfrew, and two teams in Montreal, the Wanderers and an all French-Canadian squad known as Les Canadiens.
So popular did the NHA become that it competed effectively against the CHA. When representatives of the rival leagues met to discuss a merger, NHA officials agreed to take only two clubs from the CHA, the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Shamrocks, causing the collapse of the CHA. The now seven-team NHA became the top professional hockey league in North America.
Because they could not afford to neglect the family business in British Columbia to play hockey in eastern Canada, Frank and Lester Patrick left the NHA and founded the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) in 1911. The PCHA carried out innovations in the rules and style of play that have been incorporated into the modern game, such as tabulating assists (the NHA did the same in 1913), permitting goaltenders to sprawl to make saves (the NHA required them to remain standing), and adding blue lines to divide the ice into zones (the NHA left the ice surface unmarked). PCHA rules also permitted the players to pass the puck forward while in the neutral zone, whereas the NHA permitted only backward passing and required skaters to carry the puck (that is, to push the puck along the ice with their sticks) toward the opponent's goal. In 1913 the NHA and the PCHA agreed to play an annual five-game series to determine the championship of professional hockey and claim the coveted Stanley Cup, named for Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley, the governor-general of Canada.
The Advent of the National Hockey League
During the World War I the NHA teams lost players to military service, attendance declined, and owners reduced salaries. With so many players in the armed forces, the NHA board of directors voted to dismantle their partnership and, in November 1917, reorganized as the National Hockey League. The National Hockey League inaugurated play on 19 December 1917as a four-team circuit, with the Canadiens and Wanderers based in Montreal, the Senators in Ottawa, and the Arenas in Toronto. (Quebec had received the rights to a franchise, but the owners did not put a team on the ice in 1917). After a fire on 2 January 1918 reduced the Westmount Arena to ashes and left the Wanderers homeless, the team withdrew from the league, having played only four games.
Survival of the fittest was the law for both franchises and players during the early years of the National Hockey League. The teams struggled to fill their arenas and to make profits. The players endured a vicious brand of hockey in which fists and sticks took their toll. They also accepted extraordinarily low salaries, even by the standards of the day. Harry Cameron, the highest paid player on the Stanley Cup champion Toronto Arenas in 1918, earned a paltry $900 per year. The Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators dominated the NHL from 1917 until 1926. Between them, they represented the league in six of the first nine Stanley Cup series played against teams from the Pacific Coast Hockey Association or the Western Canada Hockey League.
Growth and Contraction
In 1924 the NHL expanded into the United States when the Boston Bruins entered the league. Before the 1925–1926 season, the New York Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates came in, and Canadians feared that the Americans were about to steal their national game.
Between 1926 and 1942 the NHL grew from a tiny circuit of Canadian teams into the major North American professional hockey league. The growth of the NHL was not lost on the owners of teams in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association and the Western Canada Hockey League. In 1926 the Patrick brothers concluded they could no longer compete with the NHL and so dissolved their league, selling many of the players' contracts to NHL teams.
With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, teams from smaller markets, such as the Ottawa Senators and the Pittsburgh Pirates, struggled to compete and eventually suspended operations. In 1941, after moving to Brooklyn, the New York Americans also withdrew from the NHL. The six surviving NHL teams were the Boston Bruins, the Chicago Black Hawks, the Detroit Red Wings, the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Rangers, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many regard the twenty-five year period between 1942 and 1967 as the "Golden Age of Hockey." Yet competition among the "Original Six" was uneven. The Bruins, Black Hawks, and Rangers struggled; the Maple Leafs, Red Wings, and Canadiens dominated.
The stability that had characterized the National Hockey League between 1942 and 1967 gave way to the tumult of the years 1968 through 1979. The prospect of substantial profits and the threat of a new professional hockey league combined to induce NHL owners to add six new teams: the Los Angeles Kings, the Minnesota North Stars, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Oakland Seals, and the St. Louis Blues. In 1970 the NHL expanded to fourteen teams, adding the Buffalo Sabers and the Vancouver Canucks, and split into two divisions, with the Original Six clubs playing in the East and the expansion teams in the West. Predictably, the Original Six teams dominated the NHL immediately after expansion. The Montreal Canadiens won Stanley Cups in 1971 and 1973, and then enjoyed a sting of four consecutive championships between 1975–1976 and 1978–1979.
The World Hockey Association, 1972–1979
The invention of Gary Davidson and Dennis Murphy, who had also organized the American Basketball Association, the World Hockey Association (WHA) began play in 1972 and for seven years competed with the NHL. With franchises in Chicago, Cleveland, Edmonton, Houston, Los Angeles, Minnesota, New England (later Hartford, Connecticut), New York, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Quebec, and Winnipeg, the league gained immediate credibility when such established NHL stars as Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Frank Mahovlich, and Jacques Plante signed with association teams. Along with the NHL players who vaulted to the new league, the WHA advertised a host of young talent, including Mike Gartner, Mark Howe, Mark Messier, and Wayne Gretzky, each of whom later made his mark in the NHL.
The WHA operated on a slender budget before going out of existence in 1979, with four franchises, the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers, and Winnipeg Jets, joining the NHL. During its existence, however, the league offered an exciting brand of hockey, only slightly inferior to the quality of play in the NHL, and the inter-league competition for players succeeded in raising the average salaries in both leagues. The principal response of the NHL to the WHA was additional expansion, planting franchises in Atlanta (later Calgary) and Long Island in 1972, and in Kansas City (later Colorado and New Jersey) and Washington in 1974. Such preemptive strikes forestalled the establishment of WHA teams in those markets.
The Europeans Arrive
The American Olympic hockey squad excited new interest in the sport with the celebrated "Miracle on Ice" in 1980, while the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers ruled the NHL throughout the decade. More important, the demographic composition of the NHL began to change. The percentage of Canadian players declined from 82.1 percent in 1980 to 75.5 percent by 1989, while the number of U.S. and European players rose.
The Russians arrived in force during the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially after the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 and the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991. By 1998, 22.5 percent of NHL players came from outside Canada and the United States. Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Slovaks, Latvians, Russians, and a smattering of Germans composed the international roster of the NHL. The influx of Americans, Europeans, and Russians resonated with fans. NHL attendance grew throughout the decade. In 1979 average attendance was 12,747 per game. Ten years later, it had climbed to 14,908.
Problems and Prospects
Fundamental changes also took place off the ice during the 1980s and 1990s, especially in the reorganization of the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA). By the end of the 1980s, many players feared that Alan Eagleson, the executive director of the NHLPA since its inception in 1967, had grown too close to management to represent the players effectively. Eagleson survived two attempts to oust him in 1989. Only after his resignation in 1991, however, did players learn that he had embezzled from the pension fund and committed fraud in the process of arranging international hockey tournaments. Convicted of these charges in January 1998, Eagleson was fined and imprisoned, becoming the first Honored Member to have his plaque removed from the Hockey Hall of Fame.
On 1 January 1992, lawyer and agent Bob Goode-now assumed control of the NHLPA. In April 1992, after only four months in office, Goodenow called the first players' strike in league history. The strike cost NHL president John Ziegler his job, and the NHL Board of Governors elected Gary Bettman, the former senior vice president of the National Basketball Association, as the first commissioner.
Even before Bettman assumed control of the NHL, team owners determined to increase its exposure. That aspiration was, in part, the rationale for expanding the league again during the 1990s. Two new franchises, the Tampa Bay Lightning and a second version of the Ottawa Senators, began play in 1992, and the Board of Governors also awarded franchises to Anaheim and Florida.
Despite its growing popularity, the NHL suffered through a series of crises during the 1990s, including franchise relocations, the financial and legal problems of various NHL owners, and a damaging lockout in 1994–1995 that shortened the regular season to 48 games. The lockout temporarily halted the momentum that Bettman had kindled, but during the late 1990s the league still managed to expand into new markets and attract new fans. The Nashville Predators began play in 1998; Atlanta also received an expansion franchise, the Thrashers, in 1999. For the 2000–2001 season, Minneapolis-St. Paul, which had lost its team when the North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, got the Minnesota Wild, while the Blue Jackets began play in Columbus, Ohio. Although continuing to prosper, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the NHL was threatened by the financial instability of small-market Canadian teams, dramatically escalating player salaries, and the prospect of another protracted labor dispute.
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North American hockey is a fast and violent game, played on ice, which began in Canada in the mid-nineteenth century. The six-member teams, wearing skates and heavy pads, use sticks with which to propel a flat rubber disk known as the puck. It is thought that hockey derives its name from the French word for a shepherd's crook, in reference to the shape of the sticks with their curved playing end. The origins of ice hockey are much debated, and have been sought in several other sports such as hurly, shinty, bandy, field hockey (played with a small, hard ball) or the Native American Mic Mac game; but there seems to be general agreement that the earliest match that can be identified with any certainty as hockey was played in 1855 on a frozen harbor by soldiers of the Royal Canadian Regiment in Kingston, Ontario. It remained an outdoor game for the next 20 years, played by nine-man teams, and—influenced by the rules of rugby—no forward passing.
Students at Montreal's McGill University played the first indoor game in 1875, and developed the first hockey league in 1877. In 1883, the McGill team won the first game to be termed a "world championship" and, ten years later, teams were competing for the Stanley Cup, donated by Canada's governor-general, Lord Stanley, in a national championship. By then, the game had spread across the border to Yale and Johns Hopkins universities in the United States, and to Europe.
In the spirit of most sport during the Victorian era, when competing for financial gain was considered ungentlemanly and socially unacceptable, hockey flowered as an amateur game. This changed in the first decade of the twentieth century, which saw the advent of professional hockey. The world's first professional team, the Portage Lakers of Houghton, Michigan, was American, albeit using imported Canadian players. It was organized in 1903 by J. L. Gibson, a dentist, who, in 1904, established the first professional circuit, the International Pro Hockey League. Other leagues soon sprang up in Canada: the Ontario Professional League, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, and the National Hockey Association. By this time most teams were using only seven players a side, but the NHA, for reasons of economy, dropped yet another man from the ice, and six a side eventually became the standard team composition.
The most innovative of the leagues was the PCHA formed by the wealthy Patrick family. They led the way in building arenas for indoor hockey played on artificial ice. They also pioneered rules that allowed the goalie to move about, permitted forward passing, and credited with an "assist" those players setting up a goal-scorer. The league expanded to the American northwest and in 1917 the Seattle Metropolitans became the first U.S. team to win the Stanley Cup.
In 1917 the NHA gave way to the National Hockey League, which was to become the dominant professional league in the world. The NHL had teams in Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton and Ottawa, and after 1926, when it shrewdly bought out the Pacific Coast League and acquired all its players for $250,000, it had no rival. It began to admit American franchises, of which the first was the Boston Bruins in 1924, followed by short-lived teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Quakers, St. Louis Eagles, and the New York (later Brooklyn) Americans. American teams that endured included three that entered in 1926: the New York Rangers, the Detroit Cougars (later the Falcons, later the Red Wings), and the Chicago Blackhawks. Canadian franchises that flourished for a time, only to disappear, included the Ottawa Senators (which had won four cups during the 1920s), Hamilton Tigers, Montreal Wanderers, Montreal Maroons, and Quebec Bulldogs.
When World War II ended, only six teams remained in the NHL but many consider the period between 1945 and 1967 to have been the golden age of hockey. It was certainly the era of elegant skaters and scorers such as Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens, Frank Mahovlich of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Andy Bathgate of the Rangers; and of powerful forwards such as Johnny "The Beast" Bucyk of the Bruins, and Gordie Howe and "Terrible" Ted Lindsay of the Red Wings. There has never been a trio of goaltenders to match Chicago's Glen Hall, Montreal's Jacques Plante (inventor of the goalie mask), and Detroit's Terry Sawchuk. Rock-hard defensemen like Doug Harvey and Elmer "Moose" Vasko contended with players who had perfected the slap-shot which could propel the puck over 100 mph—shooters such as "The Golden Jet" Bobby Hull and Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion.
The expansion of the NHL to six more American cities in 1968 and the appearance in 1971 of 12 more teams in the rival World Hockey Association diluted the quality of the sport. Players of exceptional talent, however, such as the magical Bobby Orr, could still shine. Orr revolutionized his position when he became the first defenseman to win the scoring trophy. The bidding wars for players that ensued during the 1970s drove up salaries and costs, thus causing many franchises to go under during the decade, and the frenzy stopped only in 1979 when the WHA folded and its four remaining teams were accepted into the NHL. One of the players who came in to the NHL from the WHA was Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers, who went on to set innumerable scoring records in the 1980s and 1990s before retiring amid fanfare in 1999.
Up until the 1980s the overwhelming majority of professional players were Canadian, but developments in world hockey soon began to change that. An amateur team from the United States had caused an upset in the 1960 Winter Olympics when they returned with the gold medal, but that victory did not have nearly the impact of the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" when an under-dog American squad, amid Cold War tensions, defeated the seemingly unstoppable Soviets to reach the Olympic finals where they beat Finland for the gold. A number of players on this team went on to the NHL and their example encouraged many more young Americans to take up the game and do well at it. These new recruits to the big league were joined by a flood of highly skilled players from newly democratized countries in Eastern Europe seeking employment in North America.
There was plenty of work for the newcomers. The NHL was committed to a relentless policy of expansion, targeted particularly in the American west and sun belts, with the expectation that, by 2001, there would be 30 teams in the league, 24 of them in the United States. The aim was to penetrate large media markets that would provide the kind of giant television contracts that American networks were handing to professional baseball, basketball, and football leagues. The NHL had not yet hit television paydirt by 1999 (largely because Americans still preferred watching televised bowling and stock car races to seeing hockey on the small screen), while spiraling costs had caused the demise of small-market clubs in Canada and stretched the resources of many franchises in America.
As the millennium approached, the fate of hockey looked uncertain. College hockey in the United States, and women's hockey throughout the world, seemed set for more success; in Russia, however, once mighty teams were in a state of poverty-stricken post-communist collapse. Canada seemed destined to breed great players, while being unable to afford to watch them play in person. In the United States, the question was whether the National Hockey League could afford to continue relying largely on gate revenues, with so little financial assistance from television. Faster than football, more violent than pro wrestling, at once graceful and crude, hockey had yet to completely win over the American sports fan.
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