It's All About the SIX

Oct. 05, 2009
Oct. 05, 2009

Table of Contents
Oct. 5, 2009

NHL PREVIEW 2009--10

It's All About the SIX

Four decades after the NHL's landmark expansion, the Original Six teams remain the soul and the economic engine of the league. And for the first time in 30 seasons two of them could meet in the finals

On the day he wastraded from Shawshank (hockeyspeak for Hartford) to Hockeytown (Detroit) in1996, Brendan Shanahan arrived at Joe Louis Arena a few minutes into the RedWings' scheduled warmup. Shanahan guessed his new teammates would already be onthe ice, but the players were still at their stalls waiting for him, a gestureof hospitality that mildly disappointed rather than warmed the ex-Whaler.Shanahan had hoped to tug on his winged-wheel sweater in private and take agood long look in the mirror, but he had no time to pose or preen. "Soduring warmups," recalls Shanahan, now with the Devils, "I kept tryingto get a glance at myself in the [rink-board] glass." He insists this wasmore a case of classicism than narcissism. "That jersey, that logo," hesays. "I'd never played for an Original Six team before."

This is an article from the Oct. 5, 2009 issue

With NHLfranchises sprouting like Florida condo developments in the 1990s—in 10 yearsthe league went from 21 teams to 30—the Original Six are a touchstone in aleague that seems to have overextended itself geographically. "In the bigpicture, what hockey person doesn't want the Blackhawks or the Maple Leafs todo well?" Predators general manager David Poile says. "The Canadiens[who lost 10 unrestricted free agents] ... we're nervous about whether they'llbe good this year. Such feelings don't transpose to newer markets."

"The firstday on the job I put on Maple Leafs workout gear, and I told [assistant coach]Tim Hunter, 'This is different than putting on stuff from Vancouver, Anaheim,Hartford,'" says Brian Burke, who took over as Toronto's G.M. lastNovember. "I've enjoyed every team I've worked for, but there's somethingmagical about the Original Six. Ask a young G.M. what he wants to accomplish,and he'll say he wants to win a championship and he'd like to work for anOriginal Six team before he's done. It's the ghosts. It's the history. It's thenumbers hanging in the rafters. It's cool."

As the 2009--10NHL season begins, the Original Six have rarely been cooler. While the NHLweathers the bankruptcy and the uncertain ownership of the Coyotes, facesadditional ownership issues surrounding the Lightning and the Panthers andfrets over the too-often-empty arenas that dot its landscape from Long Islandto L.A., the teams in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York and Torontoremain the bedrock of the league. These clubs skate in jerseys that not onlymany players but also nearly half of NHL fans want to wear. They luretransplanted faithful to venues throughout the league. And now they are alsogood. For the second straight season, five Original Six teams should make theplayoffs (sorry again, Toronto), a confluence of success not seen since thesprings of 1995 and '96. Original Six teams could well meet in the Stanley Cupfinals for the first time in 30 seasons, with Boston, led by Vezina Trophygoalie Tim Thomas and Norris Trophy defenseman Zdeno Chara, facing Detroit orChicago. The Blackhawks—"perhaps the most talented team in the league"in the words of Red Wings general manager Ken Holland—may end the NHL's longeststreak of Cup futility, dating to 1961.

Chicago hasemerged as a contender after a Gong Show off-season. To recap the madcap: 1) apaperwork error involving qualifying offers nearly enabled eight players tobecome unrestricted free agents; 2) popular G.M. Dale Tallon, who built theteam that last season earned the Hawks' first playoff berth in seven years, was"reassigned" for botching the offers and mismanaging the salary cap; 3)free-agent forward Marian Hossa signed a 12-year, $62.8 million contract eventhough he needed rotator cuff surgery that will likely keep him out until lateNovember; and 4) 20-year-old star winger Patrick Kane was arrested at 4 a.m.after he was involved in an altercation with a Buffalo taxi driver over 20cents of change. Kane pleaded guilty to a noncriminal charge of disorderlyconduct and was ordered to write an apology to the cabbie, an episode thatwiped off the smirk apparent in the mug shot taken by Buffalo police.

Normally thiscarnival of cock-ups would barely have registered in the City of BroadShoulders and Narrow Focus, dwarfed by a Cubs lineup change or a Jay Cutlercomment, but the Blackhawks again sit at the adults' table in Chicago sports."Before, you'd leave a game there and guys would be saying, 'That's notright. There shouldn't be just 6,000 people in the United Center,'" Rangerscaptain Chris Drury says. "Now they're back." In the wake of a104-point season and their first trip to the conference finals since 1995, theHawks sold more than 14,000 season-ticket packages for 2009--10. The resurgencehas been mirrored in Boston, the confessed Hub of Hockey, where the suddenlycontending Bruins have increased their season-ticket base by more than 5,000,to 13,000-plus. Neither Montreal nor Toronto has had an empty seat in the fouryears since the lockout, and in 2008--09 the Rangers filled Madison SquareGarden to 102.3% of official capacity. The Red Wings are the league's top roadattraction, and even in the face of its hometown's backbreaking economicstruggles the team distributed 99% of its tickets last season.

"There wereyears when these weren't prime teams, but players were still excited to [joinone of them]," says Shanahan of Original Six clubs. "'The bad news is,I get to play for a last-place team. The good news is, at least I'm putting onthe sweater.' But [now] these organizations are getting closer to their glorydays, and when the Original Six are going [well], people feel better."

Just as inVoltaire's famous remark—the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman noran empire—the NHL's Original Six is hardly original. When the NHL was formed in1917, only one of the six, the Canadiens, was in the four-team league. (TheToronto Arenas became the St. Patricks before morphing into the Maple Leafs in1926; the two other original franchises were the short-lived Montreal Wanderersand the original Ottawa Senators.) There was no U.S. team until the Bruinsjoined in 1924. Two years later came the Rangers, the Blackhawks (then theBlack Hawks) and Detroit, which was then nicknamed the Cougars and later theFalcons. After some years of franchise roulette—we hardly knew ye, St. LouisEagles—the NHL finally compressed itself into the six familiar franchises in1942--43. The league stayed that way until expansion in 1967 doubled its size:Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Oakland formedthe West Division. The "Original Six" teams were in the East.

When some notableNHL players were quizzed this summer on how long they thought the league hadconsisted of just the Original Six, guesses ranged from 12 years (Nashville'sShea Weber) to 15 (Calgary's Jarome Iginla) to "no clue, maybe 30"(Minnesota's Brent Burns) to 40 or 50 years (Philadelphia's Chris Pronger). Thefog of history covers the Original Six days, from which only towering figuresand teams and moments emerge. There was splendor in the nonpareil play ofGordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Rocket Richard and even Bobby Orr, who debuted withthe Bruins one season before expansion. There were iconic clubs such as thefive straight Cup-winning Canadiens of 1955--56 through 1959--60. There wereindelible moments such as defenseman Bob Baun's helping Toronto win the 1964Cup while playing on a broken foot, the kind of tribal story retold throughgenerations in Leafs Nation.

While that wasthe Original Six, so was this: A corner-store league that was the fiefdom ofJames Norris Sr., who owned the Red Wings and held a considerable stake in boththe Blackhawks and the Rangers. Two miserable clubs, Boston and New York,finished either fifth or sixth in all but two of the Original Six's final eightseasons. Teams played 14 games a year against each other between 1949--50 and'66--67, the tedium a counterweight to the rivalries. The league was also adistinctly closed shop; U.S. players were barely tolerated and Europeans mightas well have been from another galaxy. (As an NHL referee who worked in theOriginal Six and the expansion eras says, "Part of the appeal was everybodyknew all the players—and their names were Smith and Johnson.") And despiteearly attempts to form a union, players were mere chattel. Maple Leafs coachRon Wilson says the Blackhawks sent his father, Larry, to Buffalo of the AHL in1955--56 for what he was told would be two weeks. Two weeks turned into 13years.

So the past isn'tnecessarily better, even if sepia images—Rocket's glare, Hull's banana curve,maskless goalies and coaches in fedoras—sometimes make it seem that way."Romantic," Wilson says. "These teams were an anchor at a time whenwe believed the world was perfect, even when it wasn't."

Wilson thinks theOriginal Six remain meaningful partly because they're also the Organic Six, thebase of the league before what he calls "expansion on steroids." Thejump from six to 30 led hockey fans to bond with what they knew, and it helpedwhen older fans in Original Six cities migrated south and west. "They werelike spores carrying the game," Wilson says. "They passed on theirloyalties. You still see it. When I was coaching in Anaheim and San Jose, andMontreal or Toronto or Detroit came in, it felt like the buildings were 50-50.In Washington in the [1998 Cup] final, everyone in our building was in red andwhite and rooting for Detroit."

"When I wasin Hartford, and Boston or the Rangers came in," says Shanahan, "we'dsay, 'Let's score early to take the crowd out of it.'"

There's no longera team in Hartford, but little else has changed. Along with the Cup championPenguins, who were second to the Canadiens in NHL merchandise sales over thelast fiscal year, Original Six teams continue to lure consumers; sales of thoseclubs' items grew 12% in the past three seasons and accounted for 45% of theleague's overall sales during 2008--09. The Original Six form amultimillion-dollar brand, marketed by the NHL; it is the most recognizedsubgroup of teams to be branded and promoted by a sports league.

There is anotherreason why the Original Six matter, why Shanahan wanted to admire himself inthe Red Wings' sweater: The outfits still look so damn good. "The OriginalSix have the best six jerseys, whatever order you rank them," says Poile,the Nashville G.M. "All the new teams, we've had to change our jerseysumpteen times. The original teams ... their logos are so good, their colors areso good. The Bruins, that spoked B, the Hub ... would they have thought of thattoday?"

"You couldget the best designer in the world," Burke says, "and if that personcould come up with a uniform to beat Montreal's or Toronto's, I'd beamazed."

In an age whengraphic design qualifies as art and computers aid the imagination in runningriot, it is striking that no hockey sweaters have been as aestheticallysuccessful as those of the Original Six, whose primary colors—the reds ofMontreal, Detroit and Chicago; the blues of Toronto and New York; and theyellowish gold of Boston—continue to make classical fashion statements. Historygives these jerseys an obvious advantage, but their appeal comes from somethingdeeper than mere familiarity. To test the theory, SI sought the professionalopinion of Ellen Lupton, curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper-HewittNational Design Museum, in New York City.

"I'm not muchof a football fan," she warned before accepting the assignment.

She was told thatwas O.K. because these are hockey jerseys.

"The[Detroit] wing is very traditional like the [Chicago] Indian," says Lupton."Both have a detailed, traditional illustration style. The [Boston] B andthe [Montreal] C are traditional monogrammed designs. So those all feel likethey're from a past time—not very contemporary—and classic. And the Rangerscrest, that's really traditional, looks almost like a police shield. They allhave sort of a classic, old-fashioned feel to them, like Americana, comparedwith some of these others, like the [Florida] panther thing that's verystylized and hyper looking. [Some of the Original Six logos] were probablydesigned by somebody at the printing company, you know? But why would youchange if the fans know it and love it?"

The Original Sixstill beat as the heart of hockey, no matter where NHL commissioner GaryBettman and his predecessors have force-fed the game. In the Up The Hill shinnyhockey league that plays in Thunder Bay, Ont., on summer Wednesdays—"It'snamed after the bar up the hill where guys have a beer afterward," Penguinscenter Jordan Staal explains—teams borrow Original Six names. "The OriginalSix," Staal adds, "means something in Thunder Bay." When Rangerscoach John Tortorella walks into the den of his off-season home in Wisconsin,he gazes at a picture of former New York coach Emile Francis, foot on thebench, and feels a chill. "It's a little intimidating at times for me,"says Tortorella, who won the 2004 Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay. "[But] it's aprivilege coaching an Original Six team ... to be part of an organization thatbasically has gone through the whole history of the NHL."

This is the prideand the joy of Six.

"There's something magical about the OriginalSix," says Burke. "It's the ghosts. It's the history. It'scool."
When fans of older teams migrated, "they were likespores carrying the game."
Original Six items accounted for 45% of the NHL'ssales last season.


PHOTOPhotograph by DAVID E. KLUTHOHONOR THY FOREFATHERS Blackhawk Brian Campbell's on-the-fly jostling with Red Wing Valtteri Filppula follows in the poke 'em tradition that Detroit's Bill Gadsby applied to Chicago's Stan Mikita in 1966.PHOTOIAMES DRAKE[See caption above]PHOTOBRIAN BABINEAU/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (CHARA)STANDARD BEARING Chara (far left), like Orr (left), won a Norris Trophy in Boston; Madison Square Garden is packed again, for Drury (below) and the Rangers.PHOTOFRANK PRAZAK/HHOF IMAGES (ORR)[See caption above]PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA (DRURY)[See caption above]PHOTOTUROFSKY/HHOF IMAGES (PLANTE)WEIGHT OF HISTORY Looming over Carey Price (right) are Montreal legends like the maskless Jacques Plante.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (PRICE)[See caption above]PHOTOLEE BALTERMAN (BAUN)MADE IN CANADA There were no Europeans, like Alex Ponikarovsky (right), when Baun (21) won the Cup on a broken foot in '64.PHOTOBILL WIPPERT/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (PONIKAROVSKY)[See caption above]SIX PHOTOS