Saturday, December 19, 2009
It was on this date in 1917 that the first games of the National Hockey League were played. The league was formed for one basic reason - for the owners to rid themselves of fellow team owner Eddie Livingstone!
Livingstone was the owner of the Toronto Shamrocks of the National Hockey Association (NHA) and had a contentious relationship with his fellow owners, primarily Sam Lichtenhein of the Montreal Wanderers, with whom he often butted heads with. At one point, Lichtenhein even offered Livingstone $3,000 to abandon his team and walk away, but the cheeky Livingstone countered with a $5,000 offer for Lichtenhein to do the same!
Prior to the 1915-16 season, Livingstone purchased the Toronto Blueshirts, giving him both Toronto NHA franchises - and an unwelcome two votes in league matters. When Frank Patrick and Lester Patrick, owners of the Pacific Coast Hockey League (PCHA) Seattle Metropolitans raided the Blueshirts roster, Livingstone transferred Shamrocks players to the Blueshirts. The league seized the Shamrocks franchise from Livingstone, as had been demanded by the league only a week earlier, not wanting one owner with whom they did not get along with having two votes, when there was now nothing left for Livingstone to sell since the club had no players. It also angered the other owners that they were now a five team league, forcing one club to be idle each week and that road trips to Toronto would be for one game instead of the more economical two, as in the past.
In 1916-17, the 228th Battalion of the Canadian Army formed a team in the six team NHA, taking the place of the Shamrocks. Unfortunately, the 228th received their orders to head overseas to join the fighting in World War I and had to withdraw from the league during the season. This gave the other four owners of the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Quebec Bulldogs and Ottawa Senators the opening they needed, and they held a meeting without Livingstone and voted to suspend his remaining Blueshirts franchise with the excuse of wanting to keep the league with an even number of teams.
Livingstone field suit against the league as a result. The Blueshirts home rink, the Arena Gardens, were then given three weeks to separate itself from Livingstone by the NHA or the other owners would operate without a club in Toronto and thus the arena would lose it's tennant. The feisty Livingstone of course refused to sell his club, and therefore, at their annual meeting in November, the NHA announced it was suspending league operations due to the difficulty of running a five team league, also blaming player shortages due to World War I.
A week later, all of the owners, minus Livingstone naturally, announced they had formed a brand new league, the National Hockey League (NHL), which consisted of the Montreal Canadiens, the Montreal Wanderers, the Ottawa Senators and the Quebec Bulldogs. The new league also claimed to have retained the contracts of the suspended Toronto Blueshirts players!
With the Quebec Bulldogs suspending operations due to financial difficulties before the new NHL could even begin the 1917-18 season, the Arena Gardens were awarded a temporary NHL franchise, managed by Charlie Querrie, to make the fledgling NHL a four team league once again and assigned the Blueshirts players on a lease basis to the temporary Toronto franchise. To further complicate matters, many of the players signed contracts with both Livingstone and the Arena.
The season, and the league, would kick off on this date in 1917 when the Ottawa Senators lost to the Montreal Canadiens 7-4 and Toronto lost to the Montreal Wanderers by a score of 10-9. The Canadiens would win the first half of the season to earn a spot in the postseason championship playoff, while the Wanderers would cease operations following the fire that burned down their home, the Montreal Arena.
The Toronto club had no official nickname, but the "Blueshirts" were successful on the ice, winning the second half of the season schedule and earned the right to play Montreal for the championship. Toronto was led by Reg Noble, who scored 30 goals and 10 assists in 20 games for 40 points, third overall in the league behind the prolific Joe Malone of the Canadiens who scored a spectacular 44 goals in just 20 games as part of his league leading point total. Corbett Denneny and Harry Cameron also were standouts for Toronto, with 29 and 27 points respectively, for fifth and sixth in league scoring. Toronto's Harry "Hap" Holmes came in second to Georges Vezina of Montreal in the goaltending department with a goals against average of 4.80 in 16 games.
Toronto defeated the Canadiens for the league championship in a two games, total goals series 10-7, capturing the O'Brien Cup. Toronto then faced off against the Vancouver Millionaires of the PCHA and won the Stanley Cup by 3 games to 2, causing Livingstone to again head to court to file suit for the revenue earned by "his" championship squad of players.
As a result of this lawsuit, the Arena Gardens formed a new company, the Toronto Arena Hockey Club Company, to own and run a hockey team, separate from the Arena Gardens business to protect the Arena business from Livingstone's lawsuits. The NHL then awarded a "new" franchise to the Hockey Club Company. This club was officially named the Toronto Arenas and, not surprisingly, was stocked with the same players from the 1918 championship club. When his players were once again not returned to him for the 1918-19 season, Livingstone sued the Arena Gardens.
Once again, the players were uncertain who would prevail in the courts, and covered their bases by signing contracts with both the Toronto Arena Hockey Club Company and Livingstone.
Livingstone did prevail in the courts sometimes, but not always. Two rulings in his favor of $20,000 and later $100,000 sent the Arena Gardens into bankruptcy. Despite the company's legal wranglings at the time, the arena would continue to operate for 77 years until closing in 1989.
When the Toronto Arenas did take to the ice in the 1918-19 season as Stanley Cup Champions, they did not play like it. Forced to sell most of their star players due to mounting legal bills, the Arenas record for the season was 5 wins and 13 losses, attendance was low and several players left the team. Finally, the team wrote to the league requesting that the season be ended when each of the three clubs had reached 18 games played and then officially withdrew from the league. This left only the Canadiens and Senators to play for the championship of the NHL and the right to meet the Pacific Coast Hockey Association champions for the Stanley Cup, which Montreal won 4 games to 1.
Meanwhile, Livingstone was busy was attempting to overthrow the NHA management, purchased the dormant Quebec Bulldogs franchise, and began an unsuccessful attempt to start a rival league, the Canadian Hockey Association and threatened to file an injunction to stop the NHL from operating. He also made unsuccessful attempts to start new leagues in 1920, 1924 and 1926, none of which ever played a single game.
Finally, the Toronto Arenas franchise was sold to the St. Patricks Hockey Club of Toronto, who ran the successful senior amateur St. Patricks team in the Ontario Hockey League, which included Arenas team manager Querrie in the four-man ownership group, in December of 1919.
The new owners renamed the club the Toronto St. Patricks and the $5,000 sale price was supposed to go to Livingstone to settle the purchase of his NHA club, for which he had once demanded $20,000 for after they had won the 1918 Stanley Cup. However, Livingstone never received the money, which many believe was kept by NHL president Frank Calder.
The Toronto St. Patricks were members of the NHL through the 1926-27 season, when Querrie, having been sued by none other than Livingstone, was forced to sell the St. Patricks. He reached an agreement to sell the club to Conn Smythe, who renamed the club the Toronto Maple Leafs and constructed Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931.
Today's featured jersey is a 1917-18 Toronto Blueshirts Hap Holmes jersey as worn during the inaugural season of the National Hockey League.
Holmes would win the Stanley Cup four different times, and with four different teams. He first joined Eddie Livingstone's Toronto Blueshirts of the NHA in 1912, winning the cup with them in 1914. He joined the Seattle Metropolitans of the PCHA in 1915 and won the cup with Seattle in 1917.
In his only season with the Toronto Blueshirts, he would win his third Stanley Cup before returning to Seattle the following season. After the Metropolitans folded four seasons later, Holmes would join the WCHL's Victoria Cougars in 1924 and go on to win his fourth Stanley Cup, the last cup won by a non-NHL team. After one more season in Victoria, the entire WCHL folded and the Victoria Cougars players were sold to the new Detroit NHL franchise, which took the name the Cougars as a tribute to the Victoria club before eventually becoming the Red Wings. Holmes would play his final two seasons in Detroit and conclude his career with 408 games played, 198 wins, 40 of which were shutouts, 192 losses and 14 ties.
Holmes was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972 and the American Hockey League award for the top goaltender each season is named the Hap Holmes Memorial Award.