NHL History: Those Who Came Before

Montreal Wanderers NHL History

The NHL is 100 years old, and in that century many teams have come and gone. Some are still about, others have merged or relocated. Some however, are no more, and exist only in record books and Hall of Fame displays. These teams may have fallen by the wayside, but they also paved the way for many of today’s teams and the NHL we all know and love. This article is about them.

Quebec Bulldogs/Hamilton Tigers

The Quebec Bulldogs were one of the four teams involved in founding the NHL, although they would not play in its first two seasons. The team itself dates back to the late 1880s and in 1912 and 1913; won back to back Stanley Cups. With the NHL’s inaugural season looming, in 1917 hockey operations were suspended as financing such an operation in a city of just seventy two people proved difficult. A lesson history would ignore 50 years later.

In 1919 the Bulldogs were allowed to play in the league they helped create, but finished fourth with a dismal 4/20/0 record. The NHL took control of the franchise and sold it to a group from Hamilton, Ontario before the start of the 1920/21 season.

Unfortunately the team, now renamed the Hamilton Tigers, continued their poor form on the ice in their new home. This would stay pretty much the same until the Tigers’ infamous 1924/25 season. That season the team were unstoppable and won 19 of 30 games, finishing first in the NHL. This was the first season in which the schedule increased from 24 to 30 games, and the players, unhappy with having to play extra games for the same pay went on strike.

The NHL threatened to, and then did suspend the players, and that was the end of the Hamilton Tigers’ time in the NHL. The team forfeited its place in the playoffs and the Montreal Canadiens were crowned eventual winners. In September 1925 the NHL revoked Hamilton’s franchise. The Tigers name was resurrected immediately by a Canadian Professional Hockey League expansion team, although the team later moved on.

New York Americans/Brooklyn Americans

With the completion of the third Madison Square Garden in 1925, New York was ready for an NHL team. The New York Rangers would be formed one year later, but owners Thomas Duggan and Bill Dwyer were ready to go as soon as they could find some players. Fortunately there was an entire roster of players in Hamilton looking for a home.

Suspensions were lifted, wages were increased and with a few additions the New York Americans were ready for the 1925/26 NHL season. Despite a solid core group of players, the Amerks (as they were colloquially known) struggled to find success and wouldn’t make the playoffs until 1929.Only to lose in the first round to their housemates; the Rangers.

After another five dismal, playoff-free seasons the future was bleak for New York’s less successful team. A proposed merger with the Ottawa Senators was shot down by the NHL and the team was up for sale. While ownership disputes distracted off the ice, on it the team was experiencing a revival of sorts under player-coach, Red Dutton. Dutton then went behind the bench full time, and the addition of former Maple Leaf player and everything else Hap Day bolstered the roster.

The Amerk’s fortunes changed for the better in the mid 1930s but this was limited. The team couldn’t progress past the semi-finals and the team’s roster was stripped bare by players leaving to fight in World War 2. 1941/42 was the team’s worst season and crippling debts from former owners forced Dutton to sell off his best remaining players.

For the team’s final season, Dutton changed the name to the Brooklyn Americans, with the intention of moving out of Manhattan. This move never materialized and hockey operations were suspended in 1942 due to the war. In 1946 the NHL, which had previously promised to reinstate the franchise, officially cancelled it. With the demise of the Amerks, the NHL’s Original Six era began.

Ottawa Senators/St. Louis Eagles

Like the Quebec Bulldogs, the Senators were one of the founding NHL teams in 1917, although their history stretches much further back. Founded in 1883 the Sens played in seven different leagues en-route to the formation of the NHL, and won seven Stanley Cups in that time.

The First World War took its toll on the Senators and the team was put up for sale, but a potential sale would have put the NHL formation in jeopardy so George Kennedy, who owned the Montreal Canadiens loaned the money to Tommy Gorman, who along with Ted Dey and Martin Rosenthal bought the franchise.

The Sens’ first season was woeful, and the their home opener was marred by a salary dispute not unlike that which cost the Hamilton Tigers their franchise. These disputes were quickly resolved though and by the end of the 1918/19 regular season; the Senators were a playoff team again. 1920 & 1921 brought back to back Stanley Cups back to Ottawa, and 1923 added the team’s third NHL era Cup. Ottawa’s success was on the back of a team of hall of famers, and one of the best talent pools in North America.

The NHL’s expansion in 1925 brought new challengers, but in 1927 the Senators defeated the Boston Bruins to lift their 4th and final Stanley Cup (11th as a franchise).

Unfortunately Cup success does not balance the books, and the Senators’ debts were catching up. The team became a selling team, purely to make ends meet. Relocation options were tabled and declined, and in 1931 the team was placed on hiatus for one season while it got its affairs in order. The Senators played two more seasons but 1934 marked the end of hockey in Ottawa. The debt was too much and no alternatives could be found other than relocation.

The Senators moved to Missouri and were christened the St. Louis Eagles, only the Eagles held on to the Senators’ position in the Canadian Division, and as such had to pay much higher travel expenses. This affected the team’s performance on the ice and this reflected in game attendance. At the end of the 1934/35 season, the Eagles asked the NHL if they could suspend operations for a year. The NHL declined, bought the franchise itself and set up a dispersal draft for the remaining players, most of whom ended up playing in the minors. It would be another three decades before St. Louis would see another NHL team.

Montreal Wanderers

The Wanderers only managed one season in the NHL, but prior to joining the league in 1917 the Redbands as they were known, already had four Stanley Cups. Formed in 1903, the Wanderers played in amateur leagues before joining the NHA in in 1910. Despite winning four cups in five seasons, the team’s performances dropped off while part of the NHA.

In January 1918; Four games into the Wanderers’ first NHL season, the Montreal Arena burned down. This, accompanied with the loss of key players marked the end of the team, games were defaulted on and the team disbanded shortly after. The Montreal Canadiens, who also played at the Arena relocated to the Jubilee Arena but the Wanderers ceased operations. This reduced the NHL to just three teams: the Habs were still going, as were the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Arenas. The return of the Bulldogs (see above) in 1919 returned the NHL to a four-team league.

Montreal Maroons

In November 1924 the Montreal Forum opened, and its first tenant was the Montreal Maroons. The team, founded in the same year, was created to take advantage of the city’s English population. The team struggled in its inaugural season and failed to make the playoffs. The off-season addition of Babe Seibert and Nelson Stewart bolstered the roster and in 1926 the Maroons reached, and won their first playoffs.  

The Maroons were able, initially, to pick up where the Wanderers had left off, and gave a solid account of themselves, winning the Stanley Cup in just their second season. Between winning their first cup in 1926, and their second in 1935, the team missed the playoffs just once. In 1936 the Maroons and the Detroit Red Wings played the longest game in NHL history at 176 and a half minutes. The Wings won the game and their first Stanley Cup that same season.

While the Great Depression took its toll across the whole of the NHL, the Maroons and Habs were fighting for more than just points. The fanbase in Montreal was mostly French-Canadian, and the Anglo-centric Maroons struggled much more to sell tickets.

Despite Cup success, financial issues led to rumours that the team would relocate, and in 1936 captain Hooley Smith was traded and the team fell down the rankings. In 1938 the NHL was asked by the Maroons for permission to suspend operations, this was granted. The idea of moving the franchise to St. Louis was shot down, and no other suitable arena could be found, despite interest from new ownership. The team was officially cancelled in 1947.

Pittsburgh Pirates/Quakers

40 years before the Pittsburgh Penguins joined the league, the City of Bridges had the Pittsburgh Pirates, named in honour of the World Series winning baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Because there was no way that wouldn’t get confusing. The Pirates started out as the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, and played amateur hockey until 1925 when the team joined the NHL. The team’s time was short and free of any cup success but in their five seasons in Pittsburgh, the Pirates made the playoffs twice.

Although silverware was lacking, the Pirates contributed something to hockey that’s pivotal to the way the game is played today. They changed lines on the fly. This is something we take for granted nowadays but was pioneered by Pirates’ coach Odie Cleghorn.

Unfortunately, as is often the way, financial woes crippled the team. Hall of Famer Lionel Conacher’s record $7,500 contract (the highest in the NHL) didn’t help and the blueliner was sold. In 1928 the team was sold to Bill Dwyer (see New York Americans above) and a group of his equally shady friends. By the end of the 1929/30 season the writing was on the wall. The team was massively in debt and their house, Duquesne Gardens was crumbling and star players were being sold.

In 1930 the team was relocated to Philadelphia and renamed the Quakers. The team had changed colours a season earlier to orange and black. The move was supposed to be temporary while a new arena was built. But this didn’t happen. With a dismal 4/36/4 record in that final season the team missed the playoffs. The team applied to suspend operations while a new house could be found, but the franchise was quickly surrendered. A combination of the above factors and the Great Depression called time on the Quakers. Syd Howe, who would go on to win three Stanley Cups played his rookie season with the team.

The Pirates/Quakers left an impression on the NHL and in particular hockey in Philadelphia. Line changes on the fly are a core part of gameplay now. In 1980 the Pittsburgh Penguins ditched their blue colour scheme for the Black and Gold of the Pirates (and the other Pirates), and the Philadelphia Flyers Black and Orange colour scheme references the colours worn by the Quakers.

Final words

The NHL as we know it today, warts and all, is built on not only the successes of the teams that play in it now, but also the teams above. In 1952 Montreal Canadiens General Manager Frank Selke Sr. had the words “To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high” painted above the stalls in the team’s locker room. It is of course an excerpt from the beautifully moving poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. Selke’s choice of words couldn’t have been more poignant in 1952 than they are today.

Whatever your take on the standard of the game being played today, it’s only here because of the sacrifice of those who came before. It’s easy to dismiss the loss of afranchise, especially when said demise has been brought about by financial mismanagement or worse. But the loss of a team is the loss of an employer. It’s the loss of that uniting factor that brings strangers together to cheer for the same reason. It’s the loss of that intangible thread that binds communities in ways that other entertainment forms can’t.

The NHL is 100 years old, and the journey from 1917 to 2017 has been anything but smooth. The teams we’ve talked about above were all founded with the same intention: To entertain and excel. It wasn’t always fun, and it wasn’t always honourable. Player strikes killed off one franchise, and promises reneged on by the NHL at least one other. But these franchises had more than just each other to fight. They battled through wars, arenas burning down and the Great Depression. The NHL today is not without its challenges, but it’s built on the foundations laid down by the teams that have come before. 2017 is about looking ahead to the next century but it’s also important to look at the successes and failings of the last.

As fans of hockey; to those who came before, we salute you.

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