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Disputes, Fire and Arrests: Tales from a wild, goal-filled inaugural NHL season

There was a whole lot of history in the NHL’s first season in 1917-18, and not all of it happened on the ice.

The NHL had its share of highlights in 1917-18, its first season. Among them, the Toronto Arenas won the Stanley Cup, the Montreal Canadiens’ Joe Malone scored 44 goals in 20 games and his teammate George Vezinas recorded the league’s first shutout. The inaugural season pretty much had it all with standard record book moments, but there was much more to it: Fire. League disputes. Arrests. 

Here’s just a smattering of the lesser-known moments that highlighted the NHL’s opening season. 

Prior to the NHL’s official formation in November of 1917, the the National Hockey Association (NHA) had ruled the day, with a team in Ottawa, Quebec, Toronto and two in Montreal. The Toronto owner, Eddie Livingstone, known for his combativeness, had been a thorn in the side of his colleagues since contracting the second Toronto NHA franchise and when they had the opportunity to rid themselves of him, they took it. When they reached their final impasse with him, they took drastic action. Unable to remove him from the NHA, as per the league’s constitution, they did the next best thing and ceased operations and formed a new league, the NHL. Livingstone was iced out and was forced to watch the Toronto team from the stands. 

When the pucks dropped on the first games on December 19, 1917, the Montreal Canadiens beat the Ottawa Senators 7-4 and the Montreal Wanderers dusted the Toronto Arenas 10-9. High-flying offense proved to be a hallmark that season. Of the thirty-four total regular season games played from December to March, more than half saw teams combine for 10 or more goals. Moreover, in four of those contests, the nets were filled at least fifteen times. Highlighting this offensive tour-de-force was the Canadiens’ Malone. 

Ottawa forward Cy Denneny was no slouch either, he potted 36 goals in the same number of appearances, but what makes Malone’s stat line more impressive was that he only picked up four assists. Ninety-seven years before Brandon Pirri finished the 2014-15 season with 22 goals and 2 assists, ‘Phantom Joe’ doubled up those numbers and was the NHL’s first true Cy Young winner as the player with the highest goal total while piling up the lowest number of assists. 

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While Malone and the Canadiens were catching plenty of breaks, their Montreal brethren were missing them. The Wanderers’ first and only season in the NHL went up in flames, literally. After winning their first game, they lost five straight, only to see their arena catch fire. On January 2, the Westmount Arena burned to the ground, apparently the result of faulty wiring. Both Montreal clubs shared the facility, but following the blaze, the Canadiens relocated to the Jubilee Rink in the city’s east end. But according to historian Andrew Ross, in his book Joining the Clubs, “the Wanderers refused to move unless they got player help as well.” The team had been in dire straits for most of the season and the team’s owner, Sam Lichtenhein, threatened to withdraw the club from play unless the NHL committed additional resources in the wake of the fire.

In response, the league convened an emergency meeting to discuss options moving forward. Hoping that Lichtenhein wouldn’t make good on his word, the league did not discuss his request but did adopt a contingency schedule for the remaining three clubs, just in case. But sure enough, with Westmount Arena still smoldering, the Wanderers did not play and forfeited their next game in Toronto. As a result, the franchise lost its charter and, to pour salt on the wound, was fined $500. 

On the Wanderers roster that season was none other than Art Ross. While he had won several Stanley Cups with teams in other leagues, his three contests with Montreal that year would be his only NHL games. After retiring from hockey, Art Ross returned to the league as a coach and general manager. Working behind the bench and in the front office for the Boston Bruins, he guided the club to three Stanley Cups during his tenure in Beantown. Ross was also the architect of a number of improvements to the game, which included the puck and nets. He also donated the eponymous Art Ross Trophy in 1947, which is awarded each season to the league’s top scorer. He was immortalized into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1949.

But the fireworks were not only confined to Montreal that season. In a game between the Canadiens and the Arenas on January 28, in Toronto, two players were arrested following an on-ice altercation. While Toronto made short work of their opponents, winning the contest 5-1, the real storyline was between Canadiens’ “Bad” Joe Hall and the Arenas’ Alf Skinner. In the final period, the latter was carrying the puck down the ice when he was leveled by the former. As Skinner crumpled to the ice, he swung his stick around and cracked Hall across the side of his face. It’s unclear whether Skinner’s actions were intentional, but the same could not be said for Hall’s response. Standing over Skinner, bloodied and probably a little dazed, he raised his stick and brought it down on his opponent’s head like he was chopping a piece of wood. He was immediately ejected from the game and the Globe and Mail reported that Skinner was still unconscious when he left the ice. 

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Moments after the incident, police arrived in the dressing room and placed both men under arrest for disorderly conduct. After appearing in court a few days later, both players were fined $15 and received suspended sentences. In commenting on the incident, a Toronto police inspector told the Globe, “We must have clean sport here. Toronto wants clean sport, and the police intend to see that it is kept clean and will back up officials when they strive for this end, and when they fall we will step in.”  

Back on the ice, Canadiens players continued to make headlines, though more for their game performances. Chief among them was netminder Georges Vezina, who managed to pick up 12 wins in 21 games on the season, and more importantly, registered the first shutout in NHL history on February 18, 1918. That game, Montreal put up nine goals on the road against Toronto but the ‘Chicoutimi Cucumber’ remained calm and pushed aside all of the shots he faced. 

Vezina certainly had the edge over his counterparts, but a new rule for the 1917-18 season certainly made life easier for the league’s first goalies. Under NHA regulations, netminders could only protect their crease from a standing position. In fact, the league even went so far as issuing $2 fines to goaltenders who sprawled around on the ice to make a save. The rule was not carried over to the NHL, allowing goalies to defend their net from any position. 

There was certainly no shortage of excitement and that was just the regular season. Under the NHL’s format, the season was divided in two halves. The Canadiens won the first half with a 10-4-0 record and the Arenas locked up the balance of the season with the remaining eight games. As a result, the teams squared off in the playoffs, with the winner earning the right to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Toronto and Montreal split the two-game series, but the former advanced on aggregate, having scored 10 goals to the Canadiens’ seven.

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As part of interleague play, Toronto then took on the winners of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, the Vancouver Millionaires, to determine who would be world champions. The series went the full five games, with Toronto and Vancouver rotating as the home teams. Since the PCHA had different rules than the NHL, the home team’s league regulations would dictate rules. For example, the Pacific League still played with six skaters and a goaltender, with the extra skater known as a “rover.” While the NHA eliminated this position in 1911, the PCHA and other North American hockey leagues maintained the rover well into the 1920s.As a result, when Vancouver was the home team, Toronto had to ice an additional skater to abide by this format. Conversely, when the Millionaires were playing by NHL rules, they were unable to carry out limited forward passing, a hallmark of the PCHA, but a feature that was not added to the NHL until the 1918-19 season. Unsurprisingly, after four games the series was tied, with each squad winning as the home team while playing under their respective rules. The final game ended up being played on a Saturday night no less, with the Arenas reigning supreme and securing Lord Stanley's silverware with a tight 2-1 victory. The Globe and Mail referred to it as the “fastest, most spectacular game of the entire series,” and one that was highlighted by wonderful goaltending. 

So there it is: One hundred seasons ago, the NHL had plenty of banner moments, off the ice as well as on. The next year, the league continued to evolve and more excitement followed. While Vezina became the first goaltender to record an assist and Newsy Lalonde became the first player to score five goals in a playoff game, a black cloud hung over the ‘18-19 season. With the Spanish influenza reaching pandemic proportion, the NHL was not immune to its devastation. Before the season began, Ottawa lost Hamby Shore to the illness and Montreal’s Hall later died from complications after he contracted the flu during the postseason in April 1919. As a result, the NHL was forced to suspend play during the playoffs and the Stanley Cup was not handed out. Other than the 2004-05 lockout season, it was the only time that the trophy was not awarded.