By James Benesh
Top-level hockey didn’t begin in 1917 when the NHL did.
The Stanley Cup (which the league didn’t have full dominion over until 1926) was first awarded in 1893, and there were highly competitive games going on even before that.
The roots of the NHL can be traced back all the way to the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC) in 1886. Over the course of 31 years, recurring disagreements between team owners led to the dissolution of four leagues and the emergence of replacement leagues (with most or all of the same teams and players as the previous season), and eventually the NHL’s creation in 1917-18.
The NHL wasn’t the beginning of anything, just the continuance of what had been ongoing for decades – and thankfully 1917 was the last time the top hockey circuit was dissolved, restarted and renamed.
In our recent collector’s edition, we counted down the Top 100 Defensemen of All-Time in the NHL, but plenty of great D-men either predated the league’s existence or competed directly against the NHL and its immediate predecessor, the NHA. For at least 10 of them, there’s enough evidence at hand to show their dominance in their time rivalled that of many of the early NHL stars.
1. ERNIE ‘MOOSE’ JOHNSON (CAHL, ECAHA, NHA, PCHA: 1904-1922)
Although not the No. 1 defenseman of his generation, he was surely No. 2 behind Sprague Cleghorn, and he was probably the better defender of the two, lacking only Cleghorn’s offensive creativity and mean disposition. Johnson had great size for his era, excellent speed and played an assertive physical game. He was recognized as a first-team all-star in the NHA/NHL’s rival league, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, nine times in his 11 full seasons there. Although best known as a defenseman in the west, Johnson spent his early 20s in the east as the left winger of the Montreal Wanderers’ dynasty, picking up four Stanley Cups. Even more impressive (and perhaps why he was most successful playing the simpler defense position), was that he accomplished all this without the two fingers he lost from his right hand following a high-voltage electrical shock at the age of 14.
2. HARVEY PULFORD (AHAC, CAHL, ECAHA: 1894-1908)
If there was an early prototype for the meat-and-potatoes defenseman we lionize today, Pulford is that guy. For 14 seasons, the Ottawa Hockey Club (also known as the Silver Seven and Senators) put up outstanding defensive results despite using six different starting goalies over that time. The one constant was Pulford, the big stalwart playing point. Not a particularly skilled skater or stickhandler, his natural athleticism and physical strength were all he needed to dominate in his own end. He contributed almost nothing to the offense, but you could say the same about most defensemen of his vintage. With Pulford manning the zone, the Silver Seven won three straight Cups after the turn of the century.
3. HOD STUART (CAHL, IHL, ECAHA: 1899-1907)
Stuart is the potential winner of the “eye test” measure – and probably the “highest peak” race, too – but his career lacked the fullness of Johnson and Pulford. This is because he died at 28 in a swimming accident, with only eight high-level seasons under his belt. During the two seasons prior to his death, newspapers in multiple cities tossed around the idea he was possibly not only the greatest cover-point in the game but the best player, period. Stuart was a great physical specimen who possessed every skill needed to excel at both ends. In 1925, MacLean’s produced an all-time all-star team, and Stuart was named to the top defense pairing with Cleghorn.
4. LESTER PATRICK (CAHL, ECAHA, NHA, PCHA, WHL, NHL: 1904-1927)
Thanks to the annual trophy awarded in Patrick’s name, ‘The Silver Fox’ is famous enough that many fans today know who he was. In addition to his extensive time as a major builder and innovator, he was a fine defenseman. After winning two Cups as a rover with the Montreal Wanderers, Lester and his brother Frank started the PCHA as a rival league to the NHA in the west. He went on to be a first-team all-star in that league in nearly every full season he played. Including his famous appearance in net in 1928, he competed in nine Stanley Cup challenges/finals, winning three of them.
5. MIKE GRANT (AHAC, CAHL: 1894-1902)
Grant’s career was so long ago that it’s difficult to find substantial information about him – but not impossible. While players such as Patrick are often credited as the pioneers of rushing the puck from the back end, Grant was actually doing it over a decade earlier. He was also the player given the most credit for the Montreal Victorias’ superb defensive record during his prime – always best or second-best in the league. With Grant leading the way, the Vics won four straight Cups from 1895 to 1898.
6. ‘BAD’ JOE HALL (IHL, ECAHA, NHA, NHL: 1903-1919)
Hall’s name is still alive today, since he is often cited as an example of a vicious, tough player from the old days. He’s also the player whose death from the Spanish Flu caused the cancellation of the 1919 Stanley Cup final. But he’s not just in the Hall of Fame for sentimental reasons – Hall was an excellent player. After eight seasons as a forward in multiple leagues, he settled in as a defenseman with the NHA’s Quebec Bulldogs and made a real name for himself. He was always the top defenseman on what was usually an above-average defensive team, and he contributed points as well. He played at a high level right until the end, at which point he was the NHL’s oldest player.
7. WELDON ‘WELDY’ YOUNG (AHAC, CAHL: 1890-1899)
The only player on this list whose career is older than the Stanley Cup, Young was already a seasoned veteran when Pulford joined him on the Ottawa Hockey Club. Young was known for his spectacular rushes, and he actually produced a surprising amount of offense for a defenseman in the 1890s. But with his style of play came risk, and he needed the steadier Pulford to bail him out occasionally. Young and Pulford were the MVPs of an Ottawa team that came painfully close to the first five Stanley Cup championships, but their offensive depth didn’t match their defensive brilliance.
8. LLOYD COOK (PCHA, NHL: 1915-1925)
Cook joined the PCHA in 1914-15 and within a few years was arguably the circuit’s second-best defenseman. On the surface, he was an offense-oriented blueliner who benefitted from Cyclone Taylor’s skills and the Vancouver Millionaires’ high-flying system, but he actually did some solid defensive work himself. With Cook the mainstay at left defense, Vancouver dominated the PCHA regular season most years and represented the league in the Stanley Cup series vs. the NHA/NHL six times (three times without Taylor), winning in 1915.
9. ART DUNCAN (NHA, PCHA, NHL: 1916-1931)
Duncan earned fame as the first defenseman to lead a major league in scoring, pulling this off in the 1923-24 PCHA. But, technically, the PCHA and Western Professional League were like two divisions in one league and played an interlocking schedule. Looking at it that way, he was just fifth in points. Still, it was an impressive highlight in a career that saw him compete in four Cup finals along with his partner Lloyd Cook in Vancouver. They formed the PCHA’s dominant rushing pair of defensemen in the league’s final few seasons.
10. ART ROSS (CAHL, ECAHA, NHA, NHL: 1905-1918)
Yes, that Art Ross. His namesake trophy is still awarded annually to the NHL’s leading scorer, and many of his innovations in hockey are still staples of the game today. In 1907, he was a last-minute addition to the Kenora Thistles, who went on to beat the Montreal Wanderers for the town’s only championship. Ross was credited as being a major reason why, and the Wanderers made sure to sign him for the 1908-09 season to prevent a repeat. The move proved successful, as Ross helped them to a title that season. It was the last he’d win in a career that went on for 10 more seasons, but he did take Ottawa to the 1914-15 final with his “kitty bar the door” defensive strategy.