The Birth of the National Hockey League (NHL)
When the National Hockey League formed in late 1917, few could imagine the importance it would have in the fabric of Canadian life.
When the National Hockey League formed in late 1917, few could imagine the importance it would have in the fabric of Canadian life. On 22 November, a group of team owners from the struggling National Hockey Association (NHA) gathered for a meeting in the Windsor Hotel in Montréal. Elmer Ferguson was the lone reporter sitting waiting for news. The first man to emerge from behind closed doors of the meeting was Frank Calder, who would become president of the new league. Ferguson hollered after him, "Hey Frank, what happened?" "Nothing much," replied Calder.
George Kennedy, owner of the Montreal Canadiens, was more forthcoming: "It's like our old league except that we haven't invited Eddie Livingstone to be part of it," he told Ferguson. Five of the six owners of the old National Hockey Association had finally gotten tired of the stubborn and confrontational owner of the Toronto Blueshirts, Eddie Livingstone. So they met without him and made a new league (which officially came into existence on 26 November 1917). Livingstone was "always arguing,” Ottawa manager and co-owner Tommy Gorman said, "Without him we can get down to the business of making money.”
Professional hockey was barely a few years old but it had already created a familiar landscape: quarrels among owners, soaring salaries, lawsuits and injunctions, salary caps, bankrupt franchises — all the slings and arrows the market is heir to.
The first openly professional hockey team was the Portage Lakes hockey club, founded in 1900 by dentist J.L. Gibson, a Canadian who had relocated to Houghton, Michigan. In 1903, “Doc” Gibson decided to pay for talent, and so team management hired the best players from Canada. The Portage Lakes club was so good that other teams in Canada and the United States had to follow its lead and pay players to compete, regardless of concerns about professionalism in sports. The success of the club also led to formation of the International Hockey League in 1904, with three teams in Michigan, another in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and one in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. (The league disbanded in 1907.) It also contributed to the 1906 decision by the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association to officially allow professional players in the league. Teams began openly competing for players. In fall 1907, Tom Phillips, star of the Kenora Thistles, signed with Ottawa for $1,800.
Professional teams popped up in the most unlikely places, such as Cobalt and Haileybury, Ontario, where wealthy mine owners purchased the best players that money could buy. The George Steinbrenner of his day, mine owner John Ambrose O'Brien assembled a team of superstars to play for him in the town of Renfrew, Ontario, including Fred "Cyclone" Taylor and the Patrick brothers, Frank and Lester. Taylor became the highest-paid player, receiving $5,250, more than twice the prime minister’s salary! Renfrew paid Lester and Frank Patrick the lofty sums of $3,000 and $2,000, respectively. In 1909, O’Brien became co-founder of the National Hockey Association, forerunner of the National Hockey League.
However, bidding wars and the escalation of player salaries forced several teams to fold, including Haileybury and Cobalt. For the 1910–11 season, NHA club owners, who had induced players to sign for high salaries (and then all lost money in the 1909-10 season), established the first salary cap, at $5,000 for each team. Players who had been earning up to $1,800 would have to settle for about $500; there was talk of a player union but, in the end, most players accepted the decrease in salary. In practice, though, competition for players within the NHA (and with the Pacific Coast Hockey Association) led club owners to bypass the regulations and negotiate higher salaries and bonuses with top players.
By 1917, some were predicting the end of professional hockey. “’PRO.’ HOCKEY ON LAST LEGS,” announced The Globe on 6 November. The NHA situation was described as “critical” as the “Public Tires of Money-Chasers and Turns to Fast Young Amateur Teams.” Interest was waning as the Association had too many older, slower veteran players — many young men were off to war.
There was no guarantee in 1917 that professional hockey would survive, and no one at the time would have predicted that the NHA’s successor, the National Hockey League, would become the premier professional league in the world.
For better and for worse, the professional leagues changed the game of hockey. Once played primarily for fun, love of the game, and local pride, it became part of the culture of business. It was the business class who had the organizational skills and the money to organize the sport, pay the players and get new stadiums built. In return, they wanted ownership of the game. It would not be long before the professional NHL had control of the Stanley Cup, which Lord Stanley had intended to celebrate the values of amateur sport.