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The Professional Era

Wanderers of 1907

Though there had been professional baseball teams in the United States since as early as 1869, the issue of professionalism was a hot topic in Canada, and around much of the sporting world, in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Many people continued to cling to the aristocratic British notion of sports for sport's sake, but the truth was that many hockey players had been paid to play almost for the beginning-though these payments were usually made in secret. As the prestige of winning the Stanley Cup increased, the pressure to ice a championship team grew. Soon it was obvious that teams would have to pay their players openly in order to attract the top talent.

After winning the Stanley Cup in March of 1906, the Montreal Wanderers began to usher in the professional era. At the annual meeting of the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association in November of 1906, the Wanderers pushed through a resolution that would allow professional players to play alongside amateurs. Though the issue remained contentious, the Stanley Cup trustees (now P D. Ross and William Foran) simply decided that if the top hockey league in Canada was going to allow professionals to play, then the Stanley Cup would be open to competition from professional teams. There would be no going back. By 1908, a new trophy, the Allan Cup, was introduced to recognize Canada's amateurs. In 1909, the ECAHA dropped the word `Amateur" from its name and became the Eastern Canada Hockey Association. The amateur era was truly over by the time the Stanley Cup was awarded to the champion of the newly organized, fully professional National Hockey Association in 1910.

Another professional league, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, began play in 1911-12. In 1914, the PCHA champion Victoria Aristocrats played the NHA champion Toronto Blueshirts for the Stanley Cup. They had not even bothered to issue a formal challenge. By 1915, the NHA, the PCHA, and the Stanley Cup trustees agreed that hockey's top prize would no longer be a challenge trophy. The Cup would be awarded on the basis of an annual postseason series between the Eastern and Western champions. All games would be played in one city, to alternate yearly between East and West, but the rules would be switched game by game: the PCHA allowed forward passing, the NHA had eliminated the rover. A new World Series-like era had begun, but still more changes were to come.

When a Portland, Oregon, team joined the PCHA in 1914, the Stanley Cup trustees ruled that the Stanley Cup was to be symbolic of world hockey supremacy. This decision would allow teams from the United States to play for the trophy. In 1917, the Seattle Metropolitans won the PCHA championship and defeated the NHAs Montreal Canadiens to become the first United States-based team to win the Cup.

When the National Hockey League succeeded the NHA before the 1917-18 season, the Stanley Cup relationship with the PCHA continued. A third league, the Western Canada Hockey League, entered the mix in 1921-22. That spring, the PCHA champion Vancouver Millionaires played the WCHL champion Regina Pats for the right to face the Toronto St. Patricks of the NHL. For the next two seasons, the Stanley Cup playoff had a triangular format, with all three league champions involved. The NHL as well as the other two leagues staged their own postseason playoffs in order to determine a champion.

The PCHA folded after the 1924-25 season, and two of its teams, Vancouver and Victoria, joined the WCHL. When the Regina franchise was relocated to Portland the following year, the league became known simply as the Western Hockey League. However, with the larger population base in the East fueling expansion of the National Hockey League, it was soon apparent that major league hockey was no longer viable in the West. The WHL went out of business after the 1925-26 season, leaving the NHL as the only league in contention for the Stanley Cup.

Though the trustees did not relinquish formal control of the Stanley Cup to the NHL until 1947 (the job has since been almost strictly ceremonial), the 1926-27 season marks the year in which the prized Mug first became exclusively an NHL trophy. After the 1925-26 campaign, the western leagues folded and many of their players were sold to NHL teams. There has never been another non-NHL team to win hockey's most treasured prize.


Dawson City

National Hockey League

In January 1905, a hockey club from Dawson City in the Yukon Territory challenged the Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup. To get to Ottawa, the Dawson City team traveled 4,000 miles - by ship, train, and even dogsled. Dawson City lost the Stanley Cup series (in fact, it dropped one game 23-2), but the story just goes to show what men have done in their quest for the Stanley Cup, the Holy Grail of hockey.

The first great team is indeed the Silver Seven, which hoarded Lord Stanley's Mug from 1903 to 1906. Many leagues developed and died during the early years, but one special circuit finally took permanent root. It was the National Hockey League, which dropped its first puck in 1917 and never looked back. Joe Malone blasted 44 goals in 20 games in the inaugural NHL season, setting a pace that no one has ever matched.

The real stars of the 1920s were the goaltenders - Georges Vezina, George Hainsworth, and Tiny Thompson - as restrictive skating rules crippled offenses. Scoring greats such as Howie Morenz and Charlie Conacher picked up the offensive pace in the 1930s, but their paths to the nets weren't always smooth, as defensemen Eddie Shore and King Clancy made sure enemy attackers paid the price.

NHL teams came and went during the first 25 years of the NHL, as the Great Depression and World War II pushed teams to their financial limits. When wartime ended, six teams were standing: the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and Chicago Black Hawks. Thus began hockey's Golden Era.

Gordie Howe, the longest-lasting legend in hockey history, drove Detroit to seven straight regular-season titles from 1948 to '55. Maurice "Rocket" Richard, the first NHLer to net 50 goals in a season, powered a dynastic Montreal team. With the Rocket, Jean Beliveau, Bernio Geoffrion, and Jacques Plante, the Flying Frenchmen soared to five straiqht Stanley Cups, from 1956 to 1960.

New stars emerged in the 1960s. Big Frank Mahovlich propelled Toronto to four Stanley Cups in the decade, while Chicago's Bobby Hull wowed crowds with his jetlike speed and perennial 50-goal campaigns. The six NHL teams were bulging with talent, and in 1967-68 the league added six more clubs. The Modern Era was born.

In the early 1970s, Phil Esposito banged in more than 60 goals a year and, along with sensational defenseman Bobby Orr, helped the Big, Bad Bruins rule the NHL. The Philadelphia Flyers bullied their way to two Stanley Cups before Montreal ripped off four in a row, with Guy Lafleur leading the attack and goalie Ken Dryden swatting the rubber.

Dynasties ruled in the 1980s. The New York Islanders, featuring the devastating scoring of Mike Bossy, won four straight mugs in the early '80s. The high-octane Edmonton Oilers, led by the record-shattering Wayne Gretzky, followed with four Cups of their own.

Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux reigned as hockey's new king in the 1990s, leading his Penguins to back-to-back titles. Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings won a record 62 games in 1995-96, then copped back-to-back Cups in 1997 and '98. The Colorado Avalanche, spearheaded by scoring ace Joe Sakic and goalie Patrick Roy, hoisted the Cup in 1996 and 2001.

Hockey In North America

The story of hockey in North America is one of athletes striving for excellence, doing what is necessary to succeed, toiling tirelessly to fulfill shared goals, sacrificing health and welfare to capture the holy grail of hockey, the precious Stanley Cup. Many of the stories that make up the fabric of hockey are moving and inspirational - while others are almost too painful to bear. Hall of Fame coach and general manager Emil Francis once said: "Hockey is a slippery game. It's played on ice." Hockey was a virtual "sideshow" a 100 years ago and now has its present position of prestige. (The 2002 Stanley Cup Finals between the Detroit Red Wings and Carolina were a huge ratings hit on network television.)

The history of hockey is replete with the inspiring work of such individuals as Jack Adams. Adams was GM of the NHL's Detroit Falcons (later renamed the Red Wings) during the Great Depression and often had to make ends meet with a very tight budget. One night during the 1932-33 season, Adams allowed a patron into Olympia Stadium in exchange for five bags of potatoes. "If the greatest star was made available to us for a dollar, ninety-eight," said Adams, "we couldn't have afforded him."

That anecdote illustrates the stark contrast between early-century hockey and the blockbuster sport of today. Though the essence of the game remains the same-six men and a puck-the financial state of the sport has changed dramatically. In fact, one could easily draw a line near the middle of the 20th century. The years 1900-45 were tough times, with hockey often limping along, with franchises coming and going, and wars interrupting the careers of superstars. However, from 1946 to the present, the great game has stabilized and steadily grown-beyond even the wildest dreams of its most daring visionaries.

Around 1900, seven years after Lord Stanley donated his famous chalice to the game of hockey, amateur and professional leagues began to pop up all over North America. There was the Eastern Canada Hockey Association (ECHA), the Federal Amateur Hockey League (FAHL), the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), the Western Canadian Hockey League (WCHL), the National Hockey Association (NHA), and even the MPHL - the Maritime Professional Hockey League. Unfortunately, the cost of fielding teams and the difficulty of winter travel often forced teams as well as entire leagues to dissolve like snow in the springtime.

After the demise of the NHA in 1917, the new National Hockey League tried to make a go of it, fielding two teams in Montreal and one each in Toronto, Ottawa, and Quebec. But the early years proved to be quite the financial ordeal for some of the charter members. Quebec, afraid it would not survive the season, decided to sit out the year (and the next). An even bigger disaster struck on January 2, 1918, when the Montreal Arena burned to the ground, forcing the Wanderers to wander into oblivion. For that season and the next, the NHL was a paltry three-team league.

Business boomed in the 1920s, with new teams in Hamilton, Montreal, and Boston-followed by clubs in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. But the stock market crash of 1929 brought the league to its knees. During the Depression, the Pittsburgh Pirates relocated and became the Philadelphia Quakers, then became extinct. Ottawa moved to St. Louis, then closed up shop altogether. The Montreal Maroons couldn't make it out of the '30s, and the New York Americans, forced to compete in the same market as the 1928 Stanley Cup champion Rangers, also folded up the tent.

Six teams remained - Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and New York - and they would come to be known as the "Original Six." But World War II took a heavy toll on these franchises as well. A preponderance of stars, such as Bruins ace Milt Schmidt and Toronto's Turk Broda and Syl Apps, went off to battle, leaving managers to scramble to fill their rosters with comparative scrubs. Goalie Steve Buzinski's inability to stop the opposition earned him the nickname "The Puck Goes Inski." Fabled Rangers GM Lester Patrick said: "The situation was so bleak that it appeared the league would not open for the 1942-43 season."

Finally, with the conclusion of World War II in September 1945, hockey's long years of struggle came to an end. Wartime travel restrictions were lifted, old stars returned to their former clubs, and fans flocked to the stadiums with renewed enthusiasm. Rising stars, most notably Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Gordie Howe, thrilled old fans and lured new ones. The advent of television brought heroes to life, while a strengthening economy meant greater advertising revenue for the NHL, owners.

The 1960s brought glory boys Bobby Hull, Jean Beliveau, and Frank Mahovlich. As the six-team NHL grew into a cash cow, cities throughout North America wanted in on the action. In 1967-68, in its single greatest moment of visionary growth, the league not only expanded, it doubled in size, adding the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, and Oakland Seals. The Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks hopped on the bandwagon in 1970-71, while the Atlanta Flames and the New York Islanders hitched on in 1972-73. The Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts debuted in 1974-75.

Around the same time, a rival league - the World Hockey Association - took root in 10 cities, raiding the NHL of some of its biggest names (Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe among them). Though many of its teams eventually relocated or disbanded, the WHA competed for hockey attention for seven years before four of its members - the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, and Quebec Nordiques - were "invited" to join the NHL in a conciliatory merger.

The 1980s and 1990s gave the NHL community its greatest player of all-time as well as the promise of new horizons. But there were also some serious questions about the direction the game was taking as well as the ability of the league's presidential leadership.

Arriving in the NHL in 1979-80 as an 18-year-old phenomenon who didn't even have to shave yet, Wayne Gretzky took the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five years from 1984 to 1988. Moreover, he rewrote the record books in ways that almost certainly will never be equaled. After his stunning trade to Los Angeles in 1988, the Great One built the Kings into a contender and took them to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. His brilliance on the ice transformed California into a hockey mecca, turned Kings home games into the hardest ticket in town, and made the Great Western Forum "the place to be" if you were a sports fan in Tinseltown.

Indeed, Gretzky's influence was so great with youth throughout the West and Southwest that hockey suddenly discovered its long desired foothold in the geographic areas south of the Mason-Dixon line. Many hockey historians believe that without Gretzky, there would be no San Jose Sharks or Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

It was during this period, while Major League Baseball and the NBA boomed, that the NHL became more determined than ever to find its launchpad to the 21st century-and its share of the public sports dollar. Poor leadership from the home office and lackluster marketing strategies were identified as chief problem areas.

Stan Fischler et al. Hockey Chronicle : Year-By-Year History of the National Hockey League . Publications International, Ltd., Lincolnwood, Illinois. 2003.


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